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

The arrival of Phage Rock in the Rotisivian system was never going to be a secret. Even if all of the communications traffic - currently measured at quadrillions of bits per second - where to cease immediately, or the continuous arrival and departure of craft capable of superluminal speeds had been entirely absent - if anything, the number of spacecraft rendezvousing with Phage seemed to have increased at the asteroid approached its destination - the brilliant glare of Phage's plasma engines decelerating the relativistic asteroid had been visible to the naked eye in the night sky for more than a decade. Now, as the Rock approached the outer edges of the system, the blue-white light was clearly visible even during the day.

The exact arrival time, however, was more problematic, with estimates bouncing around like the metaphorical pea on a drum. If Phage had decelerated at the maximum rate its announced performance profiles allowed, it would have arrived in the vicinity of the inner planets weeks ago. Instead it seemed to be loitering on the outskirts of the system for reasons not immediately apparent from the surface of the planet.

"So, Phage, exactly why are we hanging about out here?"

Vaila Seich was a tall and striking woman who appeared to be on the cusp of entering middle age. In fact, she was much older than her appearance implied, having been both the recipient of still-experimental whole-body regeneration techniques as well as the benefit of time dilation having been on a craft travelling at relativistic speeds. As far as the rest of the universe was concerned, she was of an age where she should have expected to be extremely infirm, if not already dead.

She spoke to the empty air, addressing the mind of Phage Rock; the intelligence which was in control of every aspect of this asteroid turned habitat-cum-spaceship which she, and thousands of others, now called home.

"I'm eating comets," the voice of Phage Rock emerged from equally empty space, "Well, potential comet nuclei, at least. Icy fragments in loose orbits."

"Yes, you said before," Seich responded, "But why have you suddenly taken to this particular diet?"

"And why ice, of all things?"

Olivero d'Athus dam Fusch was a well-muscled man apparently of similar age to Seich. He had a wide flat face, an entirely hairless head and his skin was the shade of eggshell blue typical of natives of Tursen, the system from which Phage Rock had left three subjective years ago.

"I lost a significant fraction of my mass on the way here," Phage explained calmly, "Used as propellant, of course. Those plasma drives have to chuck some matter out, even at near-C velocities. So I need to re-fuel, and there's an essentially infinite supply of material out here."

Both Siech and Olivero nodded in understanding. They were settled together in a comfortable couch in the centre of the modest accommodation section the two lovers shared - a couch which would, at a single spoken command, convert itself instantly into a large and very comfortable bed.

"Besides, these things are only mostly ice," the voice of Phage Rock continued, "There's plenty of other useful minerals and ores mixed in with the water, so I'm stocking up on all sorts of handy resources."

Phage was speaking the Kurtursen tongue, the language most widely spoken on Olivero's home planet. These days, however, most people on the Rock were fluent in numerous languages from both Tursen and Rotisiv - so crew parties tended to become a noisy babble in a dozen dialects - and of course Phage could speak and understand every one of them effortlessly.

"I'm stockpiling semi-processed materials, in case I need to make repairs, and," Phage added, almost as an afterthought, "I might want to make a few improvements, here and there."

As one, Seich and Olivero swivelled in their seats to stare at the screen and camera combination which was the closest thing available to a centre of attention when addressing Phage.

"Improvements?" Olivero demanded, "What kind of improvements?"

"My accommodation section is pretty crowded already," Phage explained, in a reasonable tone of voice, "I'm predicting that there will many requests from Rotisiv, once we get there, to join my crew. I think it’s time to make myself a little bigger."

"How much bigger?" said Seich, sounding almost amused.

"Well, actually," Phage responded, with a - quite possibly entirely fake - note of contrition in its voice, "Quite a lot bigger."

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