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

"Now that I've got your undivided attention," the voice of the asteroid went on, "There's a particular task I would like to invite you to undertake on my behalf."

"A task?" Seich demanded, "What kind of task?"

"I've been thinking about this new grouping of ours, the one we're calling the Culture," Phage said, "It's all so very improbable, the Turseners and the Rotisivians and all the rest, all these human species at around the same level of technical development, all emerging at the same time and all in a sphere no more than two hundred lightyears in diameter. A tiny speck in the great mass of stars which is the galaxy."

"That's hardly an original thought," Olivero drawled, "People have been speculating about the unlikely coincidence of so many humanoids for decades."

"Indeed, I'm sure we're all interested in this," Phage responded, "And, yes, of course, it is not an original speculation that the Onlookers - whoever or whatever they turn out to be - had a hand in helping us all appear together."

"But we've never discovered anything definitive about the Onlookers," Seich said reasonably, "Who they are - or perhaps were - or what their objectives might be; nothing in any of the research I've been able to find."

The materials provided by the mysterious Onlookers were as opaque in their origin as they were of their purpose. They were just the equivalent of a book perfectly translated into several tens of languages and standard mathematical notations, discovered almost simultaneously in the libraries, archives and information repositories of a dozen species, with multiple copies with no consistent title, no known publisher and no record of them ever being created, and the author only identified by words or phrases which all meant, in the dazzling variety of languages used, something close to 'The Onlookers'.

The technical content has been analysed extensively by the best brains in the systems and, increasingly, by the best AIs, and continued to be the focus of a huge amount of intellectual effort. There had already been a vast number of genuinely useful results: faster-than-light spacedrives, high-efficiency artificial gravity and inertia nullification - essentially the same thing - were perhaps the most visible to people in the nascent culture calling themselves The Culture. Continued scrutiny of the trove promised even more powerful capabilities: already, the engineers, mathematicians and physicists were finding tell-tale hints of the possibility of remotely-induced wormholes, the implementation of force fields over planetary distances - as opposed to the few metres currently possible - and super-strong materials based on exotic matter.

"That may have been true, until recently," the machine mind answered, "But I think I've unearthed a clue - or at least where a clue might be found."

Seich and Olivero shared a glance.

"So, where's this clue, then?" Olivero demanded.

"There's a Professor of Xeno-linguistics, name of Lek-Henga Ngohan, who has been undertaking a comparative linguistic analysis of the books dumped by the Onlookers, in all of the languages used. I want you to go and investigate on my behalf," Phage continued, "I want you - both of you - to go and talk to this guy."

"So where do we have to go?" Seich asked, "And what do we ask him when we get there?"

"The University of Boustrago, on Xlephier Prime," said Phage flatly, "I've got a list of questions to ask. To be honest, this guy's a bit of a recluse, even by the local standards. He's not been responding to any of my messages. I think a more human approach may be more successful."

"Ah," Olivero said, "Not much fun at parties, then."

Xlephier Prime was the original planet of the Xlephiens, a species which had already become a fully-paid-up member of The Culture. For some reason, they had formed a single effective world government at a very early stage in their steady, even slow technological and societal development. Their steady political environment was naturally able to take a long-term view; they were entirely happy tackling huge projects which ran over generations. As individuals, though, they tended to be rather staid, even boring characters, unwilling to make decisions quickly and preferring to cogitate deeply and at great length before committing with slightly pious certainty to the verdict.

It seemed that each of the species which had considered becoming part of the new mongrel society had developed certain technologies to levels beyond any of the others. Tursen - the planet on which Olivero's people had evolved - was leading the development of what were still, rather quaintly, called Artificial Intelligences: fully sentient machines, like the mind of Phage Rock, already smarter than any human and capable of thinking much faster, too.

Seich's society from Rotisiv were particularly advanced in biological engineering, especially anti-geriatric treatments and body regeneration technologies. She herself had already benefitted from these capabilities, in prototypical form, although it seemed that new developments, spurred by the revelations in the book provided by the Onlookers, were being extracted every week.

The Xlephiens had been living and working in space for generations, much longer than any of the other species forming the Culture. Unusually, the Xlephier system had several similarly-sized planets in the habitable zone. Early spacefarers had explored these planets; fairly soon afterwards more people had arrived and started on the long-term tasks of colonising and adapting these planets to their own requirements. Fortunately, there was nothing even remotely sentient, and in most cases, even alive - for most definitions of "alive", anyway - on these worlds before their arrival.

Their general approval of extreme long-term projects meant that they found the idea of interstellar travel at sub-light speeds entirely acceptable and had set about building long-term self-sufficient environments - generation ships, most people called them - and set out to explore their immediate stellar neighbours. They found more planets and colonised those, too, as well as mining asteroid belts and Oort clouds for material to build hundreds of space-based living spaces, in an eclectic mixture of designs.

So, the Xlephiens had become skilled in planoforming and in the construction of space habitats, and there were now more people living in space than on any of the dozen or so planets they had shaped to their preferences. There were those who were initially concerned that the number of planets and habitats would mean that the Xlephiens outnumbered the rest of the species forming the Culture; fortunately, it turned out that they very much liked a large amount of living space and physical separation from their fellows so, despite the proliferation of populated systems, there were not really very many more Xlephiens than anyone else.

"Just so," Phage agreed, "But a personal call may just work. So, I'd like you to set off very soon, discreetly, before we arrive in the inner system."

"So, it's like a secret mission?" Seich asked, suppressing the urge to giggle childishly.

"Oh, it's not a secret," Phage said offhandedly, "If anybody asks, I'll tell them immediately where you've gone and what you're doing. I just wasn't proposing to broadcast your departure to the entire planet."

"How are we going to get there?" Olivero asked.

"I've requested that the Buhdren Federality provide a ship and crew to take you to Xlephier Prime. The Function over Form docked earlier today," Phage said, "There's some refitting and refuelling to complete, but they should be in a position to depart sometime tomorrow afternoon."

"Just enough time to finish packing," Olivero said, glancing at Seich, who stuck out her tongue at him.

"And, I want you to take somebody with you," Phage went on, "I've asked it to join you here in a few moments."

"Ah. Do you think we should get dressed?" Olivero asked.

Olivero was wearing a light robe in a flamboyant shade of electric blue, patterned with black shapes which might have represented mythical flying amphibians - or perhaps it was just an abstract pattern. Seich was wearing quilted pyjamas and fluffy slippers covering her completely except for head and hands. Tursen was a much cooler and drier planet than Rotisiv, and the couple had long agreed to keep the temperature at a level comfortable for Olivero, giving Seich the opportunity to amass a considerable collection of warm bedwear.

"No need. Informality is fine," Phage responded, just as a soft chime sounded from the door of their accommodation.

"Well, let it in," Olivero said, taking care to use the same personal pronoun as the AI had used earlier. Seich looked at him strangely.

The door slid opened with the softest of buzzes. The strangest object floated there. It was formed of a pair of glossy-white cubes with rounded edges about three-quarters of a metre on a side, stacked one over the other and joined face-to-face by a narrow cylindrical section. It looked, Olivero thought, like a truly antique piece of kitchen equipment that had somehow risen into the air and floated along the corridors.

"What the hell is that?" he exclaimed.

"People, I'd like you to meet a new creation of my own," Phage said calmly, "This is Asku Trashaw."

"Hi," said the floating machine, its voice deep and rounded and, surprisingly, reassuringly, just a little like that of Phage Rock, "Pleased to meet you."

"You've built a robot?" Seich asked, "It's a bit big, isn't it?"

"I think the term 'Drone' might be more appropriate," Phage responded, managing to project suppressed humour in its voice, "I've been following various R&D projects, on AI, and field technology, and AG. Asku here is the result of my analysis."

Seich stood gracefully and bowed elegantly, formally, to the floating machine. "Drone Asku, pleased to make your acquaintance."

The drone dipped forward in a fashion which Seich could not interpret as anything other than a bow in response.

Olivero waved casually from the couch. "Hi, Asku. Say, why do you sound so much like Phage?"

"Ah," the drone responded, "Actually, much of my personality is derived from that of the mind of Phage Rock. And that’s why I need to be so large: to pack in AG units, field projectors, power supplies and all sorts of essential machinery, and of course the extensive computational substrates required to support my intellect."

Olivero and Seich exchanged another glance.

"Wow," she said, "So you're a person, too?"

"I would very much appreciate it," the drone said formally, "If you would extend to me the same courtesies you do to Phage itself."

Olivero grinned widely. "Oh, yes," he exclaimed, "This is all going to get so complicated!"

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