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

The author was sitting in his study staring despondently at a blank computer screen - as he had been all day - when the front door bell rang.

He stirred, stroking his grizzled beard and pushing his glasses back up his nose. The house was empty save for him. His secretary, who would normally be fussing over appointments and draft proofs, had left early. The housekeeper, usually engaged with washing and cleaning and all the paraphernalia of cooking, had taken a few days off to visit a sick relative. His partner of many years had not yet returned, her own occupation keeping her late again.

The bell rang again. I'd better answer it, he thought, I'm not getting anywhere here anyway.

He opened the door and came face to face with a tall slender strong-looking person whose gender was perhaps not immediately apparent but which he took to be female. She had black hair cut short and spikey, translucently pale skin and startingly azure eyes which regarding him levelly, perceptively. Apart from her head, she was entirely covered: a heavy black jacket with a high collar over a close-fitting turtleneck, tight-fitting black jeans with a complex-looking belt and hefty black boots which, as he looked closer, seemed to be wider around the toes than he might have expected. Her hands were gloved and seemed to have abnormally long and slender fingers.

"Who..?" he began.

Then he stopped himself and looked more closely at the figure standing under the porch in the gathering gloom of a damp November evening. There was no car on the drive or parked on the street; no taxi drawing away. But there were no raindrops flecking the shoulders of the jacket, no dampness on her boots. The clothing all seemed curiously uniform, almost as if it had been painted on, or made in one single piece.

"You'd better come in, then."

The stranger nodded in acknowledgement and stepped forward. As he held the door wide, he glanced again at the worn button of the doorbell. Funny, he thought, that bell hasn't worked for years.

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