Du Barrinat sat behind his desk, sneering slightly, as Ngok was escorted in surrounded by a handful of goons and bodyguards, including the large unsmiling man he knew as Tobius Karr, head of security. Sharah trailed in behind, looking very unhappy and stood in a corner with her arms crossed. Ngok was searched efficiently but politely; all the components that formed Yoma Xantana were removed from his pockets, inspected cursorily, and placed on a side table.
"Wincen Du Barrinat, at last," Ngok said, strolling affably over to the desk and sitting down casually, "You're a difficult man to get to meet. Since you've declined several previous invitations, we've had to go to some extraordinary lengths to get your attention."
"What do you mean, we? What invitations?" Du Barrinat demanded, scowling, "Exactly who are you? And what have you done to my casino?"
"Allow me to introduce myself properly," Ngok responded, holding up a hand in formal greeting, "I'm Kuboul Rabaransa Losat Anget Ngok dam J'salf, and I am from the Culture's Contact section."
"Really?" Du Barrinat snorted, "I don't believe you."
"I'd also like to introduce my colleague," Ngok went on, ignoring Du Barrinat’s protestations.
Karr spun around and glared at Sharah, who held up her hands.
"Not me," she said defensively, "I was born right here in the City of Glass."
"No, it's not her," Ngok agreed.
The shiny collection of portable metalwork that had been removed from Ngok's pockets suddenly sprang into the air, zoomed to a point just in front of De Barrinat's desk, and formed into a grotesque, lop-sided, cartoon-animated version of a human face.
"This is Drone Yoma Xantana, also from Contact."
"How do you do?" the drone said, lips moving in synchronisation.
Du Barrinet jumped to his feet, the chair rolling backwards. Karr and the bodyguards pulled large and ugly handguns from inside their jackets and waved them around menacingly.
"Really?" the drone drawled, "You think those pop-guns are a threat?"
Karr stepped forward, the barrel of his pistol tracking the centre of the floating face.
"Oh, just put them down, will you," the drone said testily, "And back off."
There were several yelps followed by thuds, as if every gun had suddenly become too hot to hold. The bodyguards retreated to the walls, while Karr loyally moved closer to his boss.
"Look, just sit down and we can talk," Ngok said calmly, "We don't want to hurt anybody."
Du Barrinet looked understandably shocked. The collection of items that formed Yoma Xantana arranged themselves neatly on the desktop.
"Okay, okay," he said, pulling his chair back and subsiding into it, "How did you do it?"
"Simple nanotechnology embedded in casino chips and gaming machines," the drone said promptly.
"Some short-range effectors," Ngok added, "It's all cheating, of course."
"So what do you want with my money?"
"The money? Nothing. You can have it back if you like," Ngok explained affably, "Like I said, we were just getting your attention."
"So you're here to force me to change my mind? About the Culture?" Du Barrinet asked.
"You should make up your own mind," he said, "But I am asking you to meet the Ambassador."
"The Culture Ambassador? Okay," Du Barrinet said, "Who is he?"
An elongated silvery ellipsoid appeared, rapidly growing from a point about a metre above the floor, and then disappeared with a soft pop, revealing a tall slender figure.
"Mister Du Barrinet, may I present Gailloff-Mersoitsa Yaybool Foklane Vilbeda dam Leflotha," Ngok said formally, "She is the Ambassador."
Prompted by some archaic notion of courtesy, Du Barrinet stood up and bowed formally.
"Honoured to meet you, madam," he said stiffly, "So it is all true, then?"
Vilbeda smiled widely, nodded in response and slid into a chair next to Ngok.
"It is. You might want to consider publicly re-stating your opinion."
Du Barrinet nodded, his earlier air of bravado entirely dissipated.
"But I would really like to understand," the Ambassador went on, smiling warmly, "Is exactly why you denied the existence of the Culture for so long?"
Du Barrinet sighed and sat down heavily.
"All the power, the capabilities that they say you have - actually have, I guess," he corrected, "I couldn't believe that somebody - anybody - could have that in their hands and not misuse it."
"But you like to be in control of your own business? Your casino?" Vilbeda asked.
"I do. But I can see it is a weakness, too," he said sadly, "You have to be ruthless in business, because there are others out there at least as ruthless as you."
The Ambassador leaned forward, suddenly serious.
"This is, indeed, a serious problem. In the Culture, resources are managed by machines, artificial intelligences. We call them Minds. People give input, ask questions, vote on important topics - but it is the Minds that run everything."
"AIs? Like your strange machine here?" he asked, indicating the recumbent parts of the drone still lying on the desk.
The Ambassador laughed.
"Goodness, no. Minds are millions of times smarter and more capable than any drone. Or human."
"So what do people do? In the Culture?"
"Mainly, enjoy themselves," she answered, "Without having to worry about having enough to eat, or being threatened by others."
"I think I want to learn more about the Culture," he said softly, "It sounds like utopia."
Vilbeda smiled again.
"We like to think so, yes."