"Ah, Losat Ngok, thank you so much for joining us at such short notice."
The voice emerged from nowhere in particular. The GCU Elegant Sufficiency preferred to communicate indirectly with the human crew, sending messages to terminals or neural lace, or just speaking aloud. Other ships deployed an avatar, often humanoid - at least very approximately - or in the disguise of a furry pet or cuddly toy. It was one of those character traits typical of a Culture General Contact Unit, which tended towards idiosyncrasy polished to a form of high art and which, together with a certain tame paranoia, tended to rub off on the human crew.
"My pleasure, ship," the young man replied, "It was no problem at all."
In truth, he had been playing an archaic game of cards and dice with a handful of the crew and had barely suppressed his annoyance when his concentration was broken by a polite summons pinged into his awareness via his neural lace. Ngok was the only crew member with a lace - rather less than the statistical norms for the Culture as a whole. A neural lace was an intricate web of impossibly fine fibres which wrapped and enfolded a sizeable percentage of the neurons of the biological brain, and giving the user immediate and immersive access to all the richness and wonder of the information networks.
"Indeed. And can I introduce our Ambassador to Thrawl, Gailloff-Mersoitsa Yaybool Foklane Vilbeda dam Leflotha?"
The Ambassador was a woman who both looked and was old. She had a lot of lines in her face which looked like she had laughed a lot over several centuries. She had short-clipped grey hair and was dressed simply in a long grey shift and plain sandals. Even so, she was still tall and straight and slender, for all her years. She was the formal Contact Ambassador who had been Displaced aboard for this conference, and now regarded Ngok with cool intelligent eyes and a knowing smile.
"Pleased to meet you, Ambassador Vilbeda. I trust you are as well as your magnificent appearance suggests."
Vilbeda's smile widened by a notch or two.
"You know, ship, I do think Mister Ngok might do very well, very well indeed."
Ngok was a young man, barely into his forties, and was very much an inexperienced Contact operative - but one, it had been judged, who had a lot of potential for the future. He was short, slender and slightly gangly, frequently giving the impression that he was only marginally aware of what was going on around him, but also possessed of a preternaturally agreeable and ineffably charming disposition. He had only a couple of missions under his belt on just one GCU before joining the crew of the GCU Elegant Sufficiency shortly before the ship had agreed to a turn supporting the mission to the recently Contacted planet of Thrawl.
"I agree," the ship replied urbanely, "So, we - that is, Ms. Vilbeda and I - have a task for you. And this has to do with a problem which we - that is, the Contact section - have with the inhabitants of Thrawl."
"Is this something which is in the most recent briefings?" he asked.
"It is alluded to," the ship replied, sounding slightly defensive, "But it was not really explored in detail."
Ngok was immediately intrigued.
"This has to do with the Deniers?" he demanded, looking directly into Vilbeda's eyes.
"It does, indeed."
The voice came from an eclectic collection of silvery metallic objects which had suddenly appeared around a corner from another part of the GCU common area, floating together in apparent defiance of gravity.
"Ah," the Ambassador said, "I believe you already know Dn Yoma Xantana."
Ngok viewed the floating objects dubiously.
"Well, I thought I did."
"I've had my personality transcribed, temporarily," the drone said testily, "Into this collection of flying cutlery. Much against my better judgement, I might add. And just to support your mission to this miserable and insanely misguided planet."
The Culture's first envoys to Thrawl had encountered a phenomenon which, while not quite unique, was - in the Contact section's very considerable experience - rather unusual: Contact Deniers. It was not that these groups were objecting to Contact with aliens - this was very familiar; almost every Stage 3 or 4 planet contacted had some group, schism or faction which hated the fact that there were hugely more advanced civilizations Out There. Against all evidence and reason, some small but extremely vocal fraction of the population of this planet were actually denying that Contact was happening at all. They contended that aliens didn't really exist but were instead elaborate frauds perpetrated by some secretive international organisation, some cabal of governments and corporations operating in some shadowy underground. For all the technological miracles the Culture Contact section could display, conspiracy theorists in the press and the information networks offered a mundane explanation which would be, at least, superficially plausible, even if it did require an extraordinary amount of careful pre-planning, precision timing and improbable amounts of dumb luck.
Ngok inspected the collection of oddly shaped boxes now motionless in front of him, many faced with complex-looking dials, pierced with knurled knobs and protruding buttons, and set about with chains and straps.
"What are these things?"
"They're a collection of knife missiles, of course, closely resembling the objects that a reasonably affluent Thrawlian might expect to carry about his person," Xantana said, the object so named flashing green and bobbing in the air as the machine spoke, "Currency wallet, cigarillo case, credit chip holder, penknife, electric lighter, writing instrument, mobile communicator, coin-holder, pocket-watch, narcotics dispenser."
"So you'll be in disguise? And we will be on a mission?"
"Yes, and yes," the drone said, still sounding grumpy, "And I'll be living in your pockets."
"We are finally going to do something about the Deniers?" he said, turning around to address Ambassador Vilbeda.
"We are," the ship cut in urbanely, "Specifically, we're going to arrange a meeting with one Wincen Du Barrinat, an outspoken Contact Denier and owner of the largest casino in the adult vacation destination known as the City of Glass."
"City of Glass," Ngok mused, "That's a strange name."
"Hmm, perhaps. The etymology is unclear." the ship responded smoothly, "Perhaps 'Glittering City' might be a better translation. I'll send you a complete briefing, of course."
"Thank you. And this Barrinat character?"
"It’s Du Barrinat.. Let me show you."
The screen behind Vilbeda lit up, showing a low-resolution image of du Barrinat apparently speaking to a clutch of media reporters.
"... all tricks, sleight of hand, to give the impression of overwhelmingly sophisticated alien technology. Clearly a political manoeuvre by a socialist, anarchist conspiracy to turn those of us who've worked hard for our money into cowards, quivering in shock, to make lazy people think they can get something for nothing. No more questions."
The screen image showed Du Barrinat turning on his heel and striding in the direction of his casino, while several bulky bodyguards dissuaded the press corps from following.
"So we need to talk to him?"
"We do. He won't agree to meet with anyone who just asks. We’ve tried, several times, formally and informally," the ambassador said, sounding amused, "He's far too important for that - at least, in his own opinion."
"OK, so what am I - we," he corrected, gesturing at the components of Xantana still floating nearby, "supposed to do to gain an interview?"
"We're going to hit him where it really hurts," the ship said, sounding smug.
Ngok looked confused.
"In the wallet."
Ngok looked even more confused.
Vilbeda leaned over and patted his hand in a friendly fashion.
"This has to do with exchange collateral."
Ngok's face brightened.
"Money, to use the technical term," he replied.
"Well, yes, of course. Otherwise, how could anybody gamble at all?"