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

The trip to Xlephier Prime aboard the Function over Form was reassuringly uneventful. The ship left on time with Seich and Olivero as the only passengers - and with a minimum of luggage - and a crew of twenty, all natives of Tursen. Once clear of the Rotisiv system, they rapidly hit the ship's optimum cruise speed of 75 lights, leaving the travellers to spend a few weeks in comfortable if slightly cramped accommodation on board. The captain and crew were friendly enough, by Tursen expectations - meaning they were casually informal verging on startlingly forward judged by Seich's rather more formal standards - although slightly in awe of Seich herself and her role in the Hegemony attack - something she had not expected, having spent the last three subjective years in the company of the same twenty thousand people.

Apart from mealtimes and the occasional crew social event - the crew were rarely busy, as the ship more-or-less ran itself - Seich and Olivero kept to their cabin, studying everything they could find on Xlephier Prime, the history of the Xlephians themselves, their discovery of the Onlooker's book, the long-established and respected University of Boustrago and the surrounding city of the same name, and the even more ancient battle which had taken place just outside the old city walls.

Asku Trashaw spent most of the time in a state of low-power suspension - sleeping, basically - actually resting physically on the floor in the corner of their cabin like a grossly over-specified room-service refrigerator. It claimed it had already received extensive briefings from Phage and had completed all the analysis it considered appropriate. It woke only occasionally - basically to be sociable, it had told them - to enquire about the health of the humans - always perfect - and to engage in energetic and, often, illuminating debates on the research they had carried out and the conclusions reached.

The Function over Form arrived exactly on schedule at Xlephier Prime and docked at one of several orbiting habitats designated for the influx of aliens. Seich and Olivero had donned long flowing robes which were supposed to help them blend in with the locals, although their height would mean that they would tower over almost everybody anyway. Xlephians tended to be compact individuals, much shorter than the average on either Tursen or Rotisiv.

The two lovers stood arm-in-arm in front of the still-sealed airlock which would allow them to enter the habitat; Asku Trashaw hovered silently just behind them. There were a long series of hissing, clanking, creaking noises which, they had been assured, were entirely a normal part of the proceedings. Finally, the airlock door swung open, hitting them in the face with a gust of hot wet air.

"Phew! This place is cooking!" Olivero exclaimed.

"I did warn you," Asku said dryly, "Are you sure you don't want that portable chiller?"

"No, I'll manage," he grumbled, stepping over the threshold and into the arrival lounge.

Seich said nothing. To her, it felt like noon on a tropical island - great for a holiday, but a bit oppressive if you wanted to get some work done.

Xlephier Prime was indeed very warm, orbiting as it did on the inner edge of the comfort zone. The tropics were basically uninhabitable, even for the natives; one hemisphere was essentially all ocean except for a few volcanic islands sufficiently unstable to be not worth colonising. There were a couple of decent-sized land masses, surrounded by liberal clusters of islands, encircling the opposite pole where, very occasionally, snow would be seen to fall, only to melt immediately on contact with the Inner Sea.

Immigration was a mere formality - their arrival was preceded by an entire dossier of information as required for all visitors, including a full bio-compatibility analysis and a detailed genetic description - and they had been given semi-diplomatic status anyway. They were welcomed with a mixture of official reserve and a certain amount of media interest, unsurprising given Seich's pivotal role - even as a near-dead figurehead - in what had already been dubbed The Battle of Phage Rock.

Local travel and accommodation had been arranged for them. They took the shuttle to the planet surface and then a sub-orbital flight to Boustrago, leaving just enough time for a very touristy guided tour of the ancient city and its University before dinner and bed.

The interview with Professor Lek-Henga Ngohan went far less smoothly. The Department of Xeno-linguistics was clearly marked on maps and guides but, when they got there, the place seemed to be deserted. They entered by climbing worn stone steps, through massive wooden doors which looked as if they hadn't been closed in decades, into an echoing hall. Nobody challenged them, despite their obviously alien appearance - not to mention the floating bulk of the drone - as they climbed the stairs - the building was too old for elevators, apparently - and traversed the corridors in search of room 4.13, which they eventually found, unmarked, at the end of a dark, dead-end corridor on the top floor.

"At least its cooler in here," Olivero muttered, bending to inspect the worn wood of the door and frame. There was no bell, knocker or communication device visible and he was poised to knock when the door was flung open by a wizened figure wearing, as it turned out, nothing at all.

~What do you want?

The man - he was definitely, unequivocally male - spoke in an angry bellow, although neither Olivero nor Seich understood a single word. Seich's smart translation devices, embedded just under her skin, chose to render his words with formal disapproval; she suspected Olivero's version was rather more earthy. These machines, now commonplace, allowed near-idiomatic communication in numerous languages, although they tended to suppress or modify highly emotional context.

~And what the hell is that thing? the naked man added, gesturing at the silently floating form of the drone.

It was Asku who replied first.

~We are the visitors we understood you were expecting, it said formally in the same language, Allow me to present Ms. Vaila Margaroso Seich.

Seich, recognising her own name, took her hands from her mouth - she had been startled by the man's sudden appearance and shocked, despite herself, by his nakedness - and bowed formally.

"It is an honour to meet you," she said with appropriate correctness in her own language, "Am I addressing Professor Lek-Henga Ngohan?"

The naked man scowled in her direction. She got the strong impression that this was his default facial expression.

"From Rotisiv, then," he said, in clear and unaccented Rotisivian, then turned to Olivero, switching without apparent effort to Kurtursen, "And you're from Tursen, I'll wager."

"Olivero d'Athus dam Fusch, at your service," he answered, stepping forward and extending both hands. The naked man paused for a moment, then returned the gesture in a fashion which seemed entirely normal to Olivero.

"And I am Asku Trashaw," the drone went on, also switching to Kurtursen. The machine dipped in the air in what Seich could only interpret as a bow.

The Professor's scowl deepened, his eyebrows looking as if they were preparing for a wrestling match.

"So you're one of the famous Tursen machines, are you?" he said, "The ones that are supposed to be able to think for themselves?"

"Well, I think that I can think for myself," the drone said, managing to project some humour in its voice, "Although I'm not from Tursen, really. Phage Rock made me."

"Huh," the naked man snorted, "Machines making other machines, indeed. Where will it all end?"

"Ah, Professor," Seich said, soothingly, "Can I take it that we are, in fact, expected?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said grumpily, "You'd better come in, then."

He pushed the ancient door open further and stepped aside, taking an elaborately embroidered robe from a peg by the door and drawing it casually around himself. Olivero stepped inside jauntily, Seich and the drone followed.

It was like stepping back half a thousand years. The room - suite of rooms, they could now see - was high-beamed and airy but lit only by sunlight streaming through the windows and skylights. There was no artificial lighting at all, save for a profusion of tallow lamps and candles - not presently lit, but showing signs of recent and heavy use. The stone walls were lined - in the main room, at least - with bookshelves in heavy dark wood and filled to overflowing with the kind of bound volumes that Olivero, at least, only really knew from historical fiction.

"Your request for an interview was delayed, inevitably, and I never bothered to respond," the Professor said, in a tone which might just have been apologetic.

"Delayed? How so?" Seich demanded, slightly astonished by her own forwardness, as she sometimes was when speaking Kurtursen.

"This part of this ancient building has no modern communications, no data stores, no consoles or projectors or terminals," Ngohan said, "All remote communications have to be transcribed elsewhere, which takes time and, it seems, those entrusted with this responsibility seem to take their time in completing their duty."

Seich and Olivero looked around. This statement appeared to be entirely true.

"So, everything here is on paper," the Professor went on, waving one hand languidly to take in the floor-to-ceiling library of books.

Seich stalked over to inspect the bookshelves. There were indeed many printed copies of the Onlookers' book, in multiple languages and, in most cases, in multiple editions, together with a vast collection of commentaries, analyses, criticisms, comparisons, translations, observations, investigations, assessments, annotations and a selection of notebooks large and small.

"But why?" Olivero asked.

"I think," Ngohan said slowly, "the Onlookers watch us still. I think they intercept and interpret every piece of data communication that we - we all, all of the Culture - send and receive, and they would like to watch individuals of special interest - like me - all the time."

This sounded to Seich to be the paranoid ravings of a lunatic, but she held her council for the moment. Olivero's response was, for him, quite diplomatic.

"Well, so they might," he said smoothly, "But what has that to do with avoiding modern library kit?"

Ngohan glared sourly at the drone who was still hovering quietly by the door. His gaze returned to Seich and Olivero, who were staring bemusedly at the apparently-delusional Professor.

"The Onlookers are still trying to influence us, guide us," he said conspiratorially, "To what ends, I don't know. And, if I avoid advanced technologies, I think I can fly below the radar, so to speak. Stay out of view."

"Unfortunately," the voice of Asku Trashaw came from behind them, "It turns out to be true, that the Onlookers are watching us. And the professor's countermeasures are not, in fact, working."

All three humans turn to stare at the drone.

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