A short story set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Dinner was a huge success. The meal consisted, in Ngok's view, mainly of unlikely pieces of unusual animals, miniature versions of familiar vegetables and fruits ripened on the opposite side of the world. They were all elaborately prepared and beautifully cooked, of course, and washed down with a bottle of wine which had apparently been residing in a deep cellar for the last fifty years. Not that Ngok was consuming much of that, and he was bypassing that which he did drink, making do with elegantly-bottled water from a mountain spring on a volcanic island five thousand kilometres away.

The conversation over dinner was as eclectic as the meal. Ngok stuck closely to the agreed cover story - one where significant effort had been put into his background being provably correct from numerous sources, adding a few anecdotes - based on his own real experience for verisimilitude, amended appropriately. Sharah was intensely curious about the source of his luck, of course, and seemed not-quite-satisfied with him having discovered an intuition - "like a little voice in my head" - when he was going to lose.

Ngok listened with genuine interest and a real attempt at understanding Sharah’s description of her career as an advertising executive – which was difficult for him to fully understand, since the Culture did not really have "executives" or, for that matter, "advertising". Together they laughed and sighed at news stories of all kinds: celebrity mishaps, political shenanigans, soap opera denouements, crime busts, fashions and fads, cute furry animals being rescued from improbable locations. Anything and everything, in fact, other than the extensively related Contact presence on the planet and the equally widely reported denials of the existence of the Culture.

They had dined in the most exclusive - and ludicrously expensive - restaurant in the large and luxurious hotel attached to the casino. After eating, they strolled together by the pools and gardens in the warm dusk, mostly away from other people, flirting, holding each other with increasing intimacy until, gently, inevitably, Sharah accepted Ngok's invitation to share his bed.

Ngok was still awake, having glanded a little gain earlier. He now stood by the window, watching the sunrise over the glass towers which formed the city.

~Yoma Xantana?

~Here. Good morning.

The disguised drone had been mostly quiet during the dinner and politely entirely absent afterwards.

~Anything to report?

~Well, you know she's a spy, don't you?

Ngok turned to look at the sleeping woman, moving silently so not to wake her.

~I had my suspicions. But quite fun company, don't you think?

~No doubt. She'll want to go off and report this morning.

~I'm sure she will. But we can feed her breakfast first, surely?

~I'll impersonate you and order room service immediately.

*

Ngok waited patiently in the foyer, a cavernous and extravagantly decorated space which served as the entrance to both the hotel and the casino. As the drone had predicted, Sharah had said that she had - carefully unspecified - "things to do" this morning but had coyly agreed to meet again around noon.

He looked around. In one direction lay the bank of desks which formed the hotel reception. In the opposite lay the large and inviting entrance to the casino proper, rows of jackpot machines and clusters of gaming tables clearly visible from where he stood. The whole area was busy, people coming and going or just waiting around to meet others.

As almost every other part of this rambling building, even the foyer sported gaming machines, most of the standard design with the impressive "play" button dead-centre. But against the back wall was a special version, a giant gambling machine, a monstrous phallus towering overhead with flashing lights and coloured panels everywhere. Unsubtly labelled The Big One, it advertised a jackpot of staggering proportions which, he considered, nobody really expected to win, but many people could persuade themselves to have a go, just for fun.

Ngok turned from his appraisal of the gargantuan gaming contraption and saw Sharah approaching from the direction of the main entrance. He projected his most engaging smile which was, strangely, not returned quite as warmly as the previous day. Still, she took his arm and pecked him on the cheek.

"You know, I think I've played pretty much every machine, table and booth in this place," he said, indicating the monstrosity behind him, "But not this one. Why don't you have a go?"

He pulled a casino token from his pocket and handed it to her.

"Please, take this. With my compliments."

She looked at him strangely but took the chip and pushed it into the slot provided, then used both hands to push the oversized "play" button. The machine hummed and clanked and whirred, all sound effects designed to give the impression that something exciting was happening, rather than the actual operation of the device. As they watched, various panels and screens lit up as the high-scoring emblem appeared in every one of them.

As the last symbol clicked into place, the machine lit up like a rocket and sounded a banshee's chorus of sirens and hooters. Every eye in the foyer swivelled in astonishment and casino staff converged from innumerable directions. A transparent reinforced panel which previously protected vast bales of high-denomination banknotes tipped forward, a few of the bundles falling to the floor. Sharah ignored them and turned to Ngok, clearly disbelieving her own luck.

"You did this?" she screamed.

"You won. Congratulations, you're now independently wealthy. I hope you enjoy your new life," he said, not unkindly, adding, "Oh, and perhaps you'd ask your boss - shortly to be ex-boss, I suspect - to talk to me. Right away."

Behind them, in the casino, every gambling machine in the place erupted into a frenzy of activity, jackpot after jackpot dropping into the laps of incredulous players.

"Unless he wants to be out of business, of course."

Sharah glared at him, then stalked off heading, Ngok was pleased to note, in the direction of the discreet doorway which marked the entrance to the private offices.

*

"Ambassador, it appears that Ngok has procured an interview with Du Barrinat," the ship's voice said, "Reports from him and Dn Yoma Xantana suggest things will be moving to a head very shortly."

"This is good news. Do we know where this meeting will take place?"

"In Du Barrinat's private offices. It may be appropriate for you to appear in person."

"Yes, well, I'd better prepare myself." She stood up, slipping her pen terminal into a pocket.

"Are you happy to be Displaced again, if necessary?"

Displaces used a remotely induced singularity via hyperspace, widely regarded as a mature technology as far as the Culture was concerned. Nevertheless, there was an unfinesseable risk, a one-in-many-millions chance of catastrophic failure to the process, and Culture Minds tended to shy away even from that admittedly miniscule possibility.

"Oh, I think somebody of my age could probably risk it."

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