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

It did not take Nlissa very long to fully recover from the effects of being Stored; in less than a day, she was up and about, and ready to start indulging in all the pleasures and privileges of a Cultured existence. She very quickly rediscovered various old friends, interesting acquaintances, intermittent lovers, as well as many carefree pastimes and indulgent passions, and found her eagerness for life's pleasures and excitements rekindled.

Over the next few weeks, as the Kainotophilist made its increasingly rapid way towards the Antlia galaxy, it awoke lots more people; unsurprisingly, almost everybody had asked to be unStored more-or-less as the ship arrived. The growing crowd's energy and excitement was palpable, driven by the proximity of the new galaxy and the prospect of exploring it, even with the dampening effect of what appeared to be a moderately destructive war in some parts.

In between all the partying, though, almost everybody found much time to make a study of some aspect of their new galaxy - it was something that humans liked to do, even though the Mind of the Kainotophilist, or indeed any of the GCUs, could complete in the blink of an eye - and naturally led to much healthy discussion and spirited debate.

It was almost, the Kainotophilist thought to itself, as if the Culture was coming back to life aboard this vessel.

*

"Keraki, may I interrupt you?"

The voice of the Kainotophilist came from nowhere in particular.

Keraki Nlissa leaned back from the screens and holos she had been studying, blinking rapidly. She was in the little room she had been using as a study and she had, perhaps, spent too much time huddled in front of the displays, which was probably why the ship had chosen this specific time to interrupt her.

"Yes, of course, ship," she replied politely, "Is there something specific you wanted."

"Actually, there is," the ship replied, "I want to deliver a message to you."

"A message? Who from?"

"It is from Rahanna Owhanic," the ship said gently, "She asked me to deliver it to you only when you, and I, finally reached the Antlia galaxy."

"From Rahanna? How lovely," she said, smiling broadly, "Can you show it to me?"

"Of course."

The screens that Nlissa had been studying earlier warped and twisted for a moment, then formed themselves into a single large display in front of her. The new screen lit up, showing a moving image of a tall matronly woman with long black plaited hair standing in front of an oil-painting on an easel in a sun-lit studio. Both woman and studio were entirely familiar to Nlissa; she breathed a long sigh, feeling the tension in her neck and shoulders diminish; she had not appreciated the calming influence of the other woman quite so much before, even at this distance.

"My dear Keraki," the image of Rahanna Owhanic began, "When you see this, I will be long gone; dead, my body Displaced into the core of the local star; my physical remains reduced to hot plasma which will take thousands of years to even reach to the photosphere where they might be seen. About the same amount of time which it seems it will take you to emerge from your hibernation. So we are both speaking from one another's past, as it were."

"Dearest Keraki, I have always both admired and respected your decision to travel with the Kainotophilist. I doubt I ever had the moral conviction to do what you have done, to immerse yourself in a vision of the future, a path, a mission, an environment from which there is, ultimately, no return in either a figurative or literal sense."

Nlissa froze, something in the other woman's words biting deep within her.

"I sincerely hope that you, and all the wonderful companions you have described to me in your letters, have the time of your lives in your new home galaxy, that you find fascinating and awe-inspiring artifacts, Contact interesting and unique civilizations, and grow and prosper as a new version of the Culture. But, most of all, I hope you find yourself fulfilled, that you personally find what you have long been seeking in your life - even if you don't know what that is right now."

"Still, I have a premonition, a presentiment - no matter how silly that sounds. Nonetheless, I feel certain that you, and all those aboard the Kainotophilist will be forced to make an important moral choice. A choice between doing what is best for others and what is safest for yourselves. If I am right, I urge you to consider carefully the implications of the choice you make and to listen to your heart above all."

"I will always love and respect you, even at this great gulf of space and time. Fare well, my dear."

The screen flickered off and disappeared. Nlissa was silent, thoughtful for a long moment.

"Ship," she said eventually, "Is there a moral choice to be made? Something you haven't yet made public knowledge?"

The ship made a sound like a cough.

"Well, actually, there might be," the voice of the Kainotophilist said, sounding hesitant, "All this weapons-blink I mentioned, it is occurring all over the place. The weapons systems have very different signatures, none of which look exceptionally sophisticated - certainly, even a GCU would be capable of more destruction with much less visible splash. And, there’s only ever one kind of weapon system in use in any particular volume, judging from the signatures, so different groups aren’t shooting at each other."

"So what?" she demanded.

"So, I don't think this is a war," the ship replied, sounding even more uneasy, "I think the inhabitants of this galaxy are struggling with a very widespread and particularly aggressive Hegemonising Swarm."

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