From nowhere in particular came the observation that as she got older, she slept less well. There were many different levels of sleeping, of unconsciousness, and therefore of awakening. In the midst of this pleasant woozy calm - warm, pleasantly swaddled, a sort of ruddy darkness behind the eyelids - it was an easy and comforting thing to contemplate the many ways she might be away, and then come back.
She could fall asleep for an instant sometimes; that sudden nod and jerk awake again, lasting a moment. Often, when she felt more tired, there was the option of a nap in the afternoon; falling asleep in an easy chair in front of the fire for an hour.
When she was younger, much younger, she knew the classic Good Night's Sleep, sleeping like a baby; less often these days: the aches in her body, the stiffness of her limbs and the soreness in her joints would awaken her more than once most nights, as well as the pressing need to pass water or to take a drink.
Then there was the deeper unconsciousness of being knocked out, randomly banging your head and briefly not even knowing her own name. Also, people lapsed into comas, and those who came out did so very gradually; it must be an odd feeling. Waking up from something like that must be quite a strange thing, she thought.
She felt an urge to turn over, as though she was nestled in a fabulously comfortable bed but now had spent enough time on this side and needed to shift to lie the other way. She left very light, she realised, though even as she thought this she seemed to feel very slightly, reassuringly heavier.
She felt herself take a deep satisfying breath, and duly turned over, eyes still tightly closed. She had a vague feeling that she didn't entirely know where she was, but it didn't bother her. Usually that was a slightly disturbing sensation, occasionally even a very disturbing, frightening experience, but not this time. Somehow she knew that wherever she was she was safe, cared for, and in no danger.
She felt good. Really good, in fact.
When she thought about it, she realised that she couldn't remember ever having felt so good, so secure, so happy. She felt a tiny frown form on her face. Oh, come on, she told herself. She must have felt like this before. To her slight but undeniable irritation, she had only a vague memory of when she had last felt anything like this untroubled and happy. In her mother's arms, as a little girl, or perhaps in the arms of her late husband, after their wedding.
She knew that if she woke up fully she would remember properly, but - much as a part of her wanted to be completely awake, to answer this question and sort all this out - another part of her was too happy just lying here, wherever she was, drowsy, secure and happy.
She knew this feeling. This was often the best bit of any day, before she had to wake and fully face the realities of the world and the responsibilities she had fallen heir to. If you were lucky, you really did sleep like a baby; completely, soundly and without care. Then it would be only as you awoke that you were reminded of all the things you had to worry about, all the resentments you harboured, all the injustices and cruelties you were subject to. Still, even the thought of that grim process somehow couldn't destroy her mood of ease and happiness.
She sighed; a long, deep, satisfying sigh, though with still an element of regret as she felt her sleepiness drift away like mist under a gentle breeze.
The sheets covering her felt outrageously fine, almost liquidly soft. They moved about her naked body as she completed the sigh and stirred a little under the warm material. She felt herself spasm and jerk. A terrifying image of herself shamefully naked and not in her own bed, started to form before her, then - as though some other part of her mind came to soothe her fears - the fear subsided and the anxiety seemed to be brushed away, like dust. Whatever it was, she didn't need to feel ashamed about it now.
She supposed that she really ought to wake up.
She opened her eyes. She could see she was in a wide bed with crisp white sheets, in a large high-ceilinged room with tall open windows from which gauzy, softly billowing cream curtains waved out. A warm pleasantly-scented breeze flowed around her. Sunlight fell in golden shafts against the window frames.
She noticed that there was some sort of fuzzy glow at the foot of the bed. It swam into focus and spelled out in a fine copperplate hand she could only aspire to: This is Not Real.
Not real? she thought, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The room swam properly into focus when she re-opened them. The place looked perfectly, entirely real although she thought that rooms like this only really existed in fairytales. Suddenly she was no longer really paying attention to the room. Her jaw had dropped and her mouth hung open as she took in what she had glimpsed as she had casually raised her arms and hands to her eyes a moment earlier.
She dropped her head very slowly and brought her hands up in front of her face again, staring at the backs, then at the palms of her hands, then down at what she could see of her chest and breasts. She leaned back, towards the headboard of the bed, throwing the sheet off her as she did so, and stared down at her naked body.
She brought her hands up yet again, stared hard at them, inspecting her fingers, peering at them as though trying to see something that was almost but not quite too small to see. Finally, she looked up, her gaze darting around the bedroom; she threw herself out of bed - the words This is Not Real stayed where they were, just visible in the bottom of her field of vision - and walked swiftly to a full-length mirror which stood in a carved wooden frame between two of the tall windows with their softly billowing curtains.
Nothing on her face, either. She stared at herself. There was not a single mark, wrinkle or blemish anywhere on her skin.
This is Not Real, said the words now hovering around her feet as she took in the view of an attractive young woman standing naked in front of her. It looked something like her, she supposed, in bone structure and general bodily proportions, but it was young, so young! Had she ever been that young? Perhaps she had, once, but the memory was almost burned away, or buried under the weight of the decades that had passed.
This is Not Real, the words still said. She slapped one hand against the side frame of the mirror, felt a slight pain in her hand and sucked warm, fragrant air through her teeth (her teeth were whole and fully present, uniformly white, as were the whites of her eyes). When she had hit it, the mirror frame had wobbled and the whole mirror and its base had shifted a few millimetres along the polished wooden floor, slightly altering the angle it presented to her.
Shaking her tingling hand, she pulled on a plain white dressing gown which had been hanging on the mirror and now lay pooled on the floor as a result of her violence. She stepped to the nearest window and, ducking a little, armed away the delicate translucence of a curtain. She looked out from a bowed, balustrated stone balcony a floor above ground, gazing across a sunny landscape of elegantly sculpted green and blue trees, pale yellow-green grass and some mist foregrounding a soft tumult of wooded hills, the furthest ridges distance-blued against high, far-away mountains, summits glitteringly white. A river sparkled in the yellow-white sunlight off to one side, beyond a meadow where a herd of small dark-coated animals were grazing.
She stared hard at the view. She stepped back, snatched at the floating expanse of the wispy curtain, bringing a section of it up to her nose, frowning at it as she inspected the precision of its weave. A set of shutters and mullioned glass windows lay open behind; she caught another glimpse of herself in the tiny panes. She shook her head - how strange the long hair on her head made the movement feel! - then went down on one knee by the stone balcony rail, rubbing two fingers along its ruddy broad top, feeling the slight graininess of sandstone under her fingertips, a little of which remained when she lifted her fingers away and rubbed them against each other. She put her nose to it; she could smell the stone.
Still, This is Not Real, the words said. She let out another sigh, of exasperation this time, and inspected the sky with its many little puffy white clouds. The sky was too blue, the sunlight too golden, the hills and especially the mountains were too clear, and while she still felt entirely like she herself within herself - as it were - she was inside a body which perfectly, flawlessly unmarked. No wrinkles, no aches in her bones and muscles. That was the biggest clue of all that this could not be real.
Well, the second biggest; there were those words, floating in red, always at the lower limit of her vision. This is Not Real. That was about as unambiguous as you got, she supposed.
From the balcony, she took a look around at what she could see of the building. A big, rather ornate red sandstone castle with lots of tall windows; some sticky-out bits, a few turrets, rows of crenulations around the top. A fairy-tale castle, not a real one. Real castles - and she had seen a few - were much more menacing, more obviously defensible, far fewer windows. Listening carefully she could hear what might be the breeze in the nearest treetops, some high, plaintive calls of birdsong and a faint lowing from the herd of four-legged grazing animals in the meadow.
She walked back into the bedroom and stood in its silence. She cleared her throat.
"All right, it's not real. Anybody here I can talk to?"
No answer. She drew in the breath to say something else, but then there came a polite knocking from one of the room's two broad wooden doors.
"Who's there?" she called.
"My name is Kitzean Mso," a soft and familiar voice said, "May I come in?"
She ran to the door, moving lightly in bare feet, pulled it open. A young-looking woman with bobbed blonde hair stood in the doorway. She wore black leather trews and black boots, topped by an oversize flowing blouse which fell to her thighs. She looked altogether entirely familiar; it was, Aneme realised, exactly what Mso was wearing when she stood at the foot of her bed, although in truth she had not been able to make out many details in the gloom and, she realised belatedly, the dimness of age in her eyes.
"My Angel! So I am in heaven then?" she blurted.
Mso stepped lightly into the bedroom, turned to close the door behind her, then took the other woman in both hands and silently drew her across the room to stand in front of the mirror that Aneme had assaulted earlier. Mso reached out and re-positioned the wooden frame to best present a full-length image.
"This is not heaven," Mso said softly, "Although you might be forgiven for thinking it so. This is not even the real world, just an image, a memory of a real place which was chosen to be passably familiar and comfortable to you as you awoke, but different from any place you have experienced before in life."
"It's a fairytale," Aneme said, "A princess's castle, in a fair and pleasant land. Right out of one of those old books I used to read as a child."
Mso smiled gently.
"Exactly," she said softly, "And I'm here to offer you a re-birth, a new life in that fair and pleasant land. Although I suspect" - she added impishly - "that you might find the full extent of the lands hereabouts much more interesting. Certainly more various, and sometimes more challenging."
Aneme spun on her heel to face Mso.
"Alive, truly alive?" she gasped.
"Yes," Mso replied, gently turned the other woman to face the mirror again, "But first I need to understand something. I need to know what do you want to look like? To feel like? Do you want to be youthful? Or more mature? Matronly? Even venerable?"
As Mso spoke, the image in the mirror changed to show a representation of what Aneme looked like in each of the ages of her life. More miraculously, how she felt altered in synchronisation with the image, her body changing, aging, thickening and bending, her face wrinkling, her hair turning thin and grey as she watched.
"I want to be young, again, in life!" she cried out, shocked by the changes she both saw and felt, "Who would not wish it so?"
The image in the mirror changed again, back to the appearance Aneme had first awakened with. As it changed, the weight of age unwound, rolling back the years and restoring her long hair, straight and dark and flowing nearly to her waist. It was a style she had abandoned when she married, all those years ago, but now it seemed appropriate, appealing to that sense of rightness which, it seemed, accompanied her to this strange place.
"Of course," Mso replied, "We just wanted to be sure."
"So what happens now?" Aneme asked, suddenly anxious that the promise of life would be snatched away as quickly as it had been offered.
"You must sleep again," Mso explained, leading the other woman back to the bed, "Rest but briefly. When you awake, you be in the real world, in a real and unchanging body of your own. I will be there waiting for you. But, be warned, the real world will be even more startling than anything you have seen here."
Aneme sat on the bed, suddenly overcome with a sense of tiredness so strong that she could barely keep her eyes open.
"Sleep," soothed Mso, helping her lie back against the pillows and lifting her legs onto the mattress, "And be born again."
To build on such a scale would have been spectacular enough, she thought. That this thing was not unique, that it was not that special, that it was one of a "class" was moderately astounding. That it was some way from being one of the largest class was completely astounding. That it could move - bewilderingly, unreally quickly in a realm hidden at right-angles to everything she had every known or experienced - was beyond belief.
She sat with her legs dangling over the edge of a thousand-metre cliff and watched the various craft at play. Fliers of too many shapes and types to be sure they were not each unique - the smallest carrying only one man, woman or child - buzzed and fussed above, below, before and on each side. Larger craft floated with a stately grace, their appearance varied, motley and near chaotic with masts, pennants, exposed decks and bulbously glittering excrescences but their general structure approaching a sort of bloated uniformity the greater in size they were; they drifted on the unhurried breezes the vast craft internal meteorology created. True ships, spacecraft, generally more sober in form if not in decoration, moved with still greater deliberation.
The canyon in front of her was fifteen kilometres long, its laser-straight edges softened by the multi-coloured mass of climbing, hanging and floating foliage draped spilling like gaudy ice-falls from the tops of the two great strakes on either side.
The sheer walls were diced with a breathtaking complexity of variously sized, mostly brightly lit apertures from or into a few of which, on occasion, the various air and spacecraft issued or disappeared, the whole staggering, intricate network of docks and hangers graphed onto each colossal escarpment representing a mere detail on the surface of this truly gigantic vessel.
The floor of the great canyon was near table-flat grassland, strung all about with meandering streams making their way to a hazy plain, kilometres ahead. Above, beyond filmy layers of pale cloud, a single bright, yellow-white line provided light and warmth, looping day-slow across the sky in place of a sun. It disappeared into the misty distance of the view in front of her. It was almost noon by the ship's own time and so the sunline stood almost directly overhead. At her back, behind a low wall, in the parkland that covered the vessel's top-most surface, people passed, tumbling waters could be heard and tall, distant trees stood on gentle rolling hills.
Aneme and Mso were sitting on the natural-looking cliff edge of dark red rock, their backs to a low wall of undressed stone. Looking straight down, Aneme could just make out a filaments of a sort of gauzy net five or six metres down that would catch you if you fell. She though it did not really look up to the job, but she had been prepared to trust Mso when she had suggested sitting here.
This was the Culture General Systems Vehicle Imagine a Swift Exit, the ship she had been on when she had first woken up within its near infinite substrate of thinking material. Mso, it seemed, had been temporarily transliterated into the same realm to welcome her, but now had returned to the world of the Real to guide her through its many intricacies and strangenesses, its innumerable wonders and delights.
Aneme dragged her gaze away from the sight and stared down at her own hand and arm. She had been reborn - "revented", it was termed in the language called Marain that Mso spoke as a native and she was slowly learning - in a new body which had be created from the image of her old one. A body newly formed especially for her, by arcane processes she could not hope to understand, but she understood to be a near-perfect copy of what her body would have been like when she was aged twenty, and if she had not suffered from those childhood illnesses and minor injuries. She was now fractionally taller, quite a lot stronger and more flexible and, even here in the Real, she still did not have a single mark, blemish or scar anywhere on her skin.
Her soul - whatever emergent patterns of activity which had previously circulated in her own skull - had been seamlessly transferred to this new head by some impossible mechanism which was here commonplace. She could not sense anything missing; her memories seemed entirely complete and wholly consistent, although even the oldest of them seemed clearer and more easily recalled than before. She had been set exercises, by Mso and a few others who had concerned themselves with her welfare, and they had seemed satisfied with the depth and clarity of her recollection.
Aneme let her arm fall, then stretched luxuriously in the sunshine, with only a slight additional risk of sliding off the cliff edge. She felt energised, elated; with the energy of physical youth and perfect health and the wisdom of a whole lifetime of experience, she felt she could do anything, achieve any goal, and still have a wonderful time doing it.
She turned to Mso, relaxing at her side.
"I need to do something," she said directly, "A new purpose, a reason to exist: something useful, something good. Otherwise I'm going to explode from restlessness, I think. So what's to become of me here?"
Mso smiled broadly.
"I was coming to that," she said.
Aneme's orientation to life in the Culture had been going on for some months. It had been a carefully planned programme based on deep physiological understanding and considerable similar experience, she could now see, designed to ease her into an acceptance - if not an understanding - of the way the Culture worked, as a society of people of many kinds and shapes, and the intricate mechanisms - "technology" was the word she now knew - which supported, permeated and enabled their universe. She had started learning the language called Marain, meeting the people - some of whom were the kind of people known as drones and Minds, and tended to be quite a lot smarter than anybody who looked even slightly human to Aneme's eyes - and gaining some understanding the mores and morals of the Culture as a whole.
At first, she had been horrified by some of the revelations. It had not taken her long to discover that, in the Culture, sex was just something one did, with a person one liked - any person, even any number of persons! - who felt likewise about you; it was just something one did to provide a momentary release, or a period of pleasure, an evening and night of fun and frolics.
Her whole upbringing had conditioned her to consider sex as something bound in a rigid moral framework of marriage and vows of exclusivity, a structure sanctified by a church and state intent on encouraging procreation and the raising of families and, more importantly, cementing their own positions of power and authority over a populace who were more readily controlled if they were maintained in a state of fear and guilt of any transgression.
Still, she considered, she had in her past life encountered many situations where the constraints of society had conflicted with the passions of the heart; where desire, or lust, or the urges of the flesh had driven otherwise reasonable, rational people to the point of despair, and beyond: to rash acts and murderous intentions, to violence and cruelty and undeserved beatings, to bitter recriminations and the suffering of spouses and children.
So, while it was true that, even here, passionate feelings could evolve into deep friendships and long-lasting relationships, they didn't have to, and the freedom that this engendered was astonishing; a freedom to do and say and feel what one wanted without the constant threat of disapproval and opprobrium and condemnation from one's neighbours and acquaintances.
"Where are all the children?" had been one of Aneme's first questions.
In the Culture, people still had children, live births - even though, as her own rebirth had so clearly demonstrated, this was not absolutely necessary - and almost everybody would, at some point in their lives, bear a child - changing gender as they wished to make it possible - and would almost as frequently father another child. Some people had more children, a few had none; it was all an individual choice, not driven by the dictates of society or a lack of effective contraception.
But the children were not often seen. Since, on average, a Culture person would give birth just once in a lifetime of several hundred years, they were a relatively small proportion of the total population, made more intense by the fact that the children tended to associate with others of similar age, and with those who dedicated themselves to their upbringing.
And people still died, mostly, but - ultimately - out of choice, in an acceptance that they had lived a long and full life and that they had seen and done and achieved everything they could hope to. They aged, more slowly that Aneme herself had done but nevertheless inexorably, and died peacefully and painlessly, usually surrounded by friends and family. Their lifeless bodies were usually Displaced into the heart of the local star; people often looked up at the sky at times like this, even though they knew it would take millions of years for any particle from the body to reach the surface of the sun.
As her shock had receded, Aneme had become deeply interested in the Culture's approach to births, deaths and relationships. She had discussed this profound separation of procreation and sexual fulfilment in great depth with Mso - now properly introduced by her Full Name: Q'aantar Forlarkis Losaet Kitzean Mso dam T'salis - and she had listened carefully to the explanations and justifications. Walking amongst the teeming crowds on the GSV, she had watched the people around her - all perfectly ordinary examples, she was assured - in their everyday lives; she had visited numerous performances, parties, clubs, entertainments and orgies, as well as many homes, kindergartens, schools, parks and colleges where children and young people were to be found in large numbers.
Later, Mso had asked her directly, while they were watching a group of adolescents competing in some kind of team sport which required them all to don float harnesses and chase a flying ball which seemed, at least partially, to have a mind of its own.
"Do we do the right thing, with our lives and loves, our friends and sexual partners, our parents and children?" she demanded softly, as the kids screamed and fluttered over their heads, "Do we correctly balance the rights and pleasures of the individual, on the one hand, with the welfare of others, friends and acquaintances and strangers alike?"
Aneme had thought hard about this, bringing to bear all the insights and wisdom she had gleaned the hard way, over a - it had seemed - long and eventful life. She reached deep inside herself and found her own sense of rightness somehow reaching back, as if it was already prepared to give her an answer. That strange sense, what she would once have called a magical ability to determine the correct course of action, or inaction, had somehow travelled with her through whatever unimaginable processes had revented her body and reimplanted her mind.
"You protect your children," she said slowly, carefully, "By making sure they understand the implications of their actions, and yet allow them to make their own choices about what to do. Nothing is denied them, nothing is prejudged, every care is taken to prevent them coming to harm. The children are perfect. So, it does not matter what the adults do, to satisfy their own desires and pleasures; nobody is harmed, except for the most transient of disappointments and jealousy; all can do what they will. It is a freedom I could never have imagined."
Back on the sunlit cliff, Mso turned to the other woman and smiled, that knowing and rakish smile which had always struck Aneme as entirely at odds with her angelic appearance.
"So let me tell you about an organisation known as Contact," said Mso.