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

The author directed the stranger into the smaller of the two reception rooms on the ground floor.

"Please take a seat," he said with formal politeness.

Again, she said nothing but nodded in acknowledgement. The movement of her body as she nodded looked very slightly strange, as if she had only recently learned the motions.

She folded herself elegantly into the corner of one sofa, her long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. She really did have very wide feet, he thought.

"Can I offer you a drink?" he asked, indicating the modest array of spirit bottles on a side table.

"Just water, please." She spoke in a husky whisper, the words more than clear enough but with a trace of an accent he found impossible to identify. Definitely foreign, he thought, I wonder just how alien she actually is?

He opened a bottle of Scottish mineral water he found nestling in between the single malt bottles and poured half the contents into a cut-glass tumbler, then poured a generous measure of a fine scotch whisky into another glass, adding a tiny splash of water from the same bottle.

"Do you have a name?" he asked.

"Call me Janus," she suggested, a smile brightening her face momentarily. Appropriate, he mused, the two-faced Roman god of doors and beginnings.

"And I’m…" he started.

"I know who you are," she interrupted firmly.

The author handed the water to the stranger, then slouched on the other sofa and took a swallow from his own glass. The stranger regarded him coolly.

"So, am I in some kind of trouble?" he asked finally.

"Not at all," she replied, taking the tiniest sip from the heavy tumbler in her hand. She held the glass delicately, even daintily, but somehow, he got the impression that she could grind it into dust if she put her mind to it.

"My writing not giving offence in certain quarters?"

"Not at all," she repeated with a wry smile, "Quite the opposite, indeed."

He exhaled heavily, somehow obscurely relieved.

"Of course, what you write is all a complete fiction and, in many ways, very different from the truth," she went on, apparently inspecting closely the water in the glass, "But your idea of an advanced civilisation, a culture profoundly peaceful in its nature but with the option of using force in, shall we say, special circumstances, and which makes a point of managing contact with less-developed species - it all has a certain, ah, appeal to us."

The author smiled widely.

"So you do approve?"

"We do. We want you to continue."

"I'm suffering a bit of a block at the moment," he admitted, "I can't seem to get anything written down."

"We know," she said with an impish look on her face, "but we feel that this condition will soon change."

"We?" he demanded.

She said nothing, just smiled enigmatically. The author got the strong impression that this was all the answer he was going to get. He looked over at the collection of rare malts and cask-strength spirits. Funny, he thought, I don't remember leaving that water bottle there.

"Now I must go," she announced, putting down the glass and standing smoothly.

The author swallowed the rest of his scotch and water, then stood only slightly unsteadily. He showed her out wordlessly; he politely held the door open and watched the slender figure retreating down the driveway.

There was a loud crash from the kitchen, as if somebody had carelessly dropped a whole stack of dinner plates on the granite worktop. He spun around instinctively, startled by the sound. When he looked again through the door, the stranger had completely disappeared, as if vanished into thin air.

The author shook his head, some part of his awareness still refusing to accept the reality of what he had just experienced. But the rest of his mind was suddenly spinning with new ideas, new concepts for stories, new characters, all battling for his attention. He needed to get back to his computer, and soon.

As he made to close the door, his gaze alighted on the Verdigris-covered doorbell. He pressed it firmly; nothing happened. Nothing at all.

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