Q'aantar Orbital, the only one in the Hakanth system, was a perfectly ordinary and homely Orbital, like a million others in the Galaxy that the Culture had constructed over the eleven millennia of its existence. Long since fully formed, all of the individual Plates completed and weathered, it was populated in various conventional ways, mostly townships, villages and isolated settlements, with a few individual buildings for those anti-social enough to want to live apart from other people. There was nothing big enough to be called a city, the prevailing Culture view being that, if you wanted to live on top of a million other folks, then you should take up residence on a GSV.
There were a few things that made Q'aantar anything other than statistically average; for one, more animals - pets rather than livestock, of course, the Culture having long since moved from a society that needed to rear living creatures merely for food. In that eclectic and dispersed society, the keeping of pets - either real animals or biomechanical constructions - was widespread and popular; on Q'aantar, a disinterested observer might have concluded that it was mandatory.
For reasons which were unclear, if not entirely random, Q'aantar had for a long time been the spiritual centre of the Vegetablists; a fashion once widespread for a short period but now adhered to, more-or-less as a hobby interest, by a smallish number of diehard individuals who declared that naturally-grown food was tastier, more nutritious and generally all-round better than that created by synthesisers. They were not deterred by the fact that any amount of the most detailed analysis could not confirm this assertion; in any case, on an orbital, every molecule or water or gram of earth had itself been created by the prodigious matter converters required for the stupendous undertaking of building such an artefact in the first place.
Q'aantar orbital was also, entirely not by chance, the original home of Kitzean Mso.
Aneme stood transfixed to one side of the accommodation section of the Friendly Feature Set. The GCU was making a slow approach to Q'aantar orbital while she watched - entirely awestruck and verging on speechlessness - the proceedings on a viewscreen which filled the forward-facing wall.
The screen showed an impossibly slender bracelet illuminated by the nearby sun and rotating slowly and majestically against a field of stars. The vast ring was featureless and as black as space on the outside surface. The inside was sunlit and sparkling with what could so easily be taken as fanatically detailed and infinitely intricate models of planetary landscapes: the blue of oceans improbably dotted with the swirl of white clouds driven by jet streams and cyclones; the ochre of deserts and savannahs, verdant green of jungles and rainforest, greys and whites of tundra and polar icecaps - if that term could be applied to an environment where the idea of a pole was entirely alien, a physical impossibility.
Some regions, as vast as the surface of a whole planet peeled off like the skin of an orange and nailed on to the inner surface, showed little detail: just blurred cloudscapes of sultry oranges, browns and dull yellows, all occasionally lit by flashes of lightning which must, if they were visible at this distance, represent some unimaginably titanic thunderbolt of the gods.
Aneme turned to Kitzean Mso, who had entered quietly and moved to stand by the other woman's side; a wry smile flitted over her lips as she watched Aneme's reactions to the glorious spectacle displayed in front of her eyes.
"People live on that?" Aneme demanded, gesturing at the screen.
"How does it work?"
Mso's smile broadened.
"Have you ever danced the Polka?" she asked.
"Why, yes. In my youth, I was considered quite the gay dancer," Aneme replied, frowning and looking down at her own strong slender body, "I had thought that my dancing days were over long since, but I dare say I would remember. But why do you ask?"
Mso turned her head slightly in a way that Aneme had learned was politely typical when a Culture person addressed an unseen presence: a ship, a Mind.
"Ship, may we have some music, please?"
A very good facsimile of energetic accordion music accompanied by pipes and a strung bass instantly filled the accommodation section.
Mso turned again to face Aneme.
"Would you care to dance with me?" she said formally, as the introductory stanzas drew to a close.
Aneme smiled, curtseyed and took the other woman's proffered hand.
Mso adopted the traditionally - at least in Aneme's culture - male lead role, not by some unguided instinct but on the basis of a rational decision intended to keep the other woman as relaxed as possible. Together they stepped into the centre of the accommodation section floor and, with arms crossed at the wrists, gripped each other’s hands firmly.
Mso had, once, been a man, although she had been born female and had returned to her original configuration after less than twenty years of being male. Changing gender and genitals was an innate ability possessed by the vast majority of Culture citizens, a trick achieved simply by thinking about it; a certain amount of concentration and dedication was needed, just to avoid accidental sex changes invoked when intoxicated with drink or drugs. Even for those without the genofixed ability, a sex change was a simple thing, easily undertaken by the medical facilities available pretty much anywhere the Culture had a presence. Most people changed their gender at least once during their lifetimes, if only just to experience sex from the other side, as it were; a minority maintained the orientation they were born with, while smaller numbers flip-flopped between states, or variously adopted androgynous, sexless, neuter, epicene, multi-sexual or hermaphrodite attributes, or adopted replicated or subtly or grossly exaggerated sexual features.
Aneme caught the other woman's eyes, who grinned impishly; she could feel her own smile widening in response. They launched themselves into the gyrations of the dance, spinning around and around like dervishes, swept up in the need for movement and motion, their feet twirling and skipping in response to the relentless oompha of the music so effortlessly transcribed by the ship.
Thinking back, Aneme was not sure what surprised her more: that she could remember the steps and motions of this dance after forty or more years, or that Kitzean Mso could perform them as well as she could. But somehow it did not seem to matter, not right at this very moment. She felt free and alive, in a way she had not for many long decades. She was young again, in body certainly, but somehow the rush of the flesh and the sensation of uninhibited movement lend a feeling of energy and purpose, a feeling that dug to the very core of her being, that permeated her soul and somehow transmitted to her mind the vivacity her body was already awakened to.
Aneme's long dark hair - now regrown and rejuvenated by whatever arcane processes the Culture's devices and machines had wrought on her rebirth - she had bound in a braid, as she had done in her own youth so many years ago. She had danced like this before, she remembered, but this time, adopting the conventions of her society now left far behind, she had worn a ribbon of rich red satin tied in a complicated bow at the end of her braid.
As she danced, she could feel the braid, weighted by the heavy bow, streaming out behind her, the hair almost horizontal. She tore her eyes away from Mso, who was still grinning like a maniac and glimpsed herself in the mirrors, or screens, or whatever they were, which surfaced many of the walls of the accommodation section. The braid did indeed stick out nearly horizontally, spinning surprisingly smoothly, its weight partially compensating for the jerky hops and steps she was making.
The music of the Polka drew to a close and the two dancers spun to a halt, both breathing heavily. Mso stepped back, bowed formally, as a man would have done, Aneme noticed, while she herself flawlessly executed a curtsey which seemed to have been dragged out of her body without conscious intervention. Then, in response to each other’s infectious grins, both collapsed into a fit of giggles, helped by a slight dizziness; even Mso, who had been born with genes to make her resistant to motion sickness, felt a momentary stagger in her legs.
"That was fun!" Aneme almost shrieked, girlishly caught up in the moment. Then she sobered, again looking at the walls.
Some of the mirrors had stopped showing reflections and had become once again screens, one of which showed the slender band of light and dark which was Q'aantar orbital, now noticeably larger than before.
"It's the spin," she said cautiously, pointing at the screen, "The spinning of the wheel which keeps the people on the inside."
"That's right," Mso said, nodding gravely, "So let's go and have a look close-up, shall we?"
Mso and Aneme had left the GSV Imagine a Swift Exit a few days before, aboard the GCU Friendly Feature Set. The GSV's course schedule did not include Q'aantar Orbital; the course schedule for a vessel as big as a large state or small world did not allow for ad-hoc variances - except in the event of serious emergencies - and was generally planned months if not years in advance. The GCU had been asked, and had immediately agreed, to take a minor detour from its own divergent route to deposit the two women at Q'aantar, on its way to a destination it managed to never quite fully specify.
Travelling on a General Contact Unit was quite a different experience from life on a GSV, Aneme considered. The human accommodation levels on the General Service Vehicle was far, far bigger than any city she had visited, or even heard about, and it teemed with activities, social events of every kind and scale that could be imagined went on continually; every moment of every day and night might easily be filled with performances, recitals, concerts, shows, enactments and gatherings which came and went regularly and were instantly replaced by something quite different.
A GCU, on the other hand, typically carried a crew of no more than sixteen - sometimes much less - in an accommodation section so small that, while not exactly cramped, the crew could hardly avoid each other for very long and therefore got to know one another very well indeed, whether they wanted to or not. It meant rubbing along with characters that one might not ordinarily have bothered with; since a typical Contact mission might be measured in months, it was the kind of environment which might have led to friction and unpleasantness and discord, at least among people not quite as well-balanced as the average Culture citizen. It was one of the principal reasons, she had been told, that a stint in Contact was regarded as character-forming, the other being the opportunity to experience other societies and compare them with one's own.
The Friendly Feature Set docked at the underside of the orbital without incident, as politely announced by the Ship's remote drone. The drone was a beautifully articulated collection of shiny metal armatures bound by wire-edged sheets and shells of what appeared to be iridescent semi-precious minerals. It looked like a finely-wrought piece by some master jeweller, somehow enlarged to the size of a person's head. It hung in mid-air, currently motionless, although what agency held it so effortlessly in place was unknown, even unimaginable to Aneme.
"Can I help with your baggage?" the drone added, its mellifluous voice complementing the artistry of its appearance.
Aneme had found that the Culture's disinterest in possessions and money one of the more refreshing facets of the society. In her previous life, she had never been rich - indeed, never very interested in becoming so - and husbanded what little income she did make - most of it in the form of gifts of clothes and food, a few copper coins and, rarely, a silver one - to preserve her own very modest lifestyle and to add to her varied stock of ingredients for potions and poultices which might ease pain, reduce fever and prolong life.
She looked down at the small bag which contained everything she thought she might want to take with her. Even this little package was not essential, she realised; she only had to ask and she would instantly be presented with whatever necessity she had overlooked or luxury she might desire. Perversely, she thought, the ability to gain the use of whatever item she wanted tended to reduce her desire for material goods - not that it was very strong in the first place - and she wondered if this was the effect on human acquisitiveness in the Culture in general.
"I can manage just fine, thank you," she answered politely, picking up the little bag and hitching it over her shoulder.
Aneme and Mso had been joined in the departure area by a couple of crew members who were also leaving the ship here. People were forever joining and leaving the crew of a General Contact Unit - the turnover in human company was one of the things which maintained the social equilibrium on board such vessels - and the departing members were to be immediately replaced by lucky volunteers selected - completely at random, Aneme had been reliably informed - from the pool of those who wished to join up.
The two women trailed the other crew members into one of the orbital's reception area. Aneme could by now spot the Culture's characteristic style of interior design: low-key, muted tones, deceptively spacious, artfully lit and furnished with rather a lot of plants - or at least structures which looked as if they had probably grown organically, rather than being merely some outlandish, even bizarre form of sculpture.
Mso looked around expectantly. Across the reception area, she could see an avatar, a slender silver-skinned humanoid on indeterminate gender. The avatar was almost certainly a representative of the Hub Mind that ran the orbital, one of millions likely scattered across the band of matter and force fields that made up this enormous world.
The avatar turned and made a show of spotting their arrival. It waved in their direction, then strode across the intervening space to intercept their path.
"Ms. Mso, Ms. Crossmaddows," the avatar said, its voice unexpectedly deep, "Welcome to Q'aantar Orbital."
Aneme had decided to retain her married name, as part of her yet-to-be completed Full Name following the conventions of the Culture. She had been the widow Crossmaddows for almost her entire life, and it marked her distressingly short but otherwise happy marriage to Jeremias, the man she had loved with all her heart. Even so, it was something of a shock to be called by that name, here in this place, even after all this time.
"Thank you," Mso and Aneme chimed in unison.
Aneme felt only slightly uncertain by the avatar’s inhuman appearance. She had already encountered a wide variety of bizarre forms that people had been born with, or chosen to take on, during her sojourn in the Culture; many of them were rather more outlandish than a silver-skinned man.
There was a sudden rustling from some monumental fern-like tree, then some winged creature - more like a bat than a bird, to Aneme's eyes - emerged from the lush foliage and flitted about the arrival area. It whirled and fluttered wildly over their heads, weaving and side-slipping in a manner which seemed somehow to be always just ahead of where her eyes were focussed.
"What's that?" Aneme gasped, stepping back involuntarily.
"It's a N'Thakkian Chirlip," Mso responded calmly, "It's a" - she hesitated for a moment, apparently uncertain of the correct classification - "a flying animal. Very popular, very friendly. Lots of orbitals have them. It's probably somebody's pet."
"In fact, it would be my pet," said a grave voice from behind them.
Aneme swung around, startled for the second time in a few seconds. Mso, who had recognised the voice immediately, smiled to herself, then turned more slowly.
"Sorry to have alarmed you," the grave voice continued calmly.
Aneme had been immersed in the Culture's society for long enough to be unsurprised by the sight. The creature - person, she corrected herself - hanging in the air in front of them was formed from a pair of circular cones perhaps as high as her arm from elbow to fingertips, and the same in diameter. It seemed to be made - or at least clad - in the kind of tarnished metal she had seen used for statues of ancient kings and generals in the old square in the city she had once visited.
Mso stepped forward, waving in a friendly way in the direction of the ancient drone.
"This is Quenlily Sikralis," she said to Aneme, "He is an old friend of mine."
Aneme had set herself - some time ago now - the task of learning Marain, the language of the Culture, and thus the morals and dispositions of the society itself. She knew how to address the drone, the polite form of words to use, how to avoid giving offense - or to be offensive, if she felt it was warranted. Still she hesitated, knowing as a certainty that she was on the verge, the very knife-edge of an important decision, something that would change the future of her new life, move it in directions hitherto unimagined.
Learning about Culture society - and seeing something of it for herself - had been a bewildering experience, one full of fabulous sights and exotic experiences, sounds and scents entirely beyond her doggedly established understanding from her previous life. But she had a newly-found enthusiasm for enquiry, a taste for adventure and novelty. Perhaps it was all really a side-effect of a new body, with hot blood and puissant hormones coursing through young veins. But she doubted this was the full explanation. The vigour and insight of her new understanding was tempered by the wisdom of a whole lifetime of years, hard years, in harsh weather and worse conditions; lean years, when food was short and people tightened their belts against a real risk of starvation; storms and natural disasters, war and plague, all the vicissitudes of life and death in a minor backwater on a primitive planet.
She could, she knew, live out the rest of a long life merely taking in all the pleasures and distractions the Culture’s resolutely hedonistic society could provide. But it was not enough: she wanted some way of contributing, to work towards a common good, even though any such improvements would surely not be noticeable in such a richly-provided society.
"What am I to do?" she had asked plaintively.
Back then, Mso had just smiled enigmatically.
"Don't be shy," Mso chided, spotting Aneme’s hesitancy, "Dn Sikralis is the Contact contact I told you about."
Aneme hesitated for only a moment longer. It was the right choice; her chance to be an Angel for the relief of the suffering of others, an agent for harmony and improvement, rather than a pampered demi-goddess in a cultured Valhalla where all needs and wants and desires were effortlessly provided.
She stepped forward, smiling widely and raised one hand in greeting.
"Pleased to meet you," she said calmly, "If it's not too presumptuous of me, I'd like to join Contact."
The old drone briefly flashed an aura field of bright red, indicating humorous pleasure, surrounding its casing entirely, if momentarily. Mso looked startled, her eyes wide; later, she would confess to Aneme that Quenlily Sikralis never displayed an aura, that she was convinced that the drone was not even fitted with the necessary components.
"My dear woman," the drone said gently, dipping towards her in the drone equivalent of a nod, "Joining Contact is not something to be considered lightly. A considerable amount of training is required; you will be expected to dedicate yourself to this course for quite some time."
"How long?" Aneme asked.
"Well, at least ten years," Quenlily Sikralis replied, sounding slightly dubious, "Perhaps more for somebody, like yourself, from outside the Culture."
She shrugged, seemingly unfazed.
"In any case, even your entry - or anybody else's, for that matter - into the training programme is not just a matter for me to decide. There are committees, panels, selection boards - Minds as well as humans and drones - all of which will have to approve your induction."
Aneme glanced at Mso, who smiled widely in encouragement.
"And even then you are not guaranteed to be accepted," the old drone went on, "There are exercises, tests, evaluations - not to mention a long waiting list for a space aboard a CGU."
"I understand all this," Aneme replied, speaking formally, "Nevertheless, I would ask to be considered for selection at the earliest opportunity."
There was an almost infinitesimal pause, the old drone suddenly becoming totally motionless in mid-air.
"Duly done," it announced, "I've added your name to those wishing to be considered for Contact training in the next round of admissions."
"Thank you," Aneme said humbly.
"I should say that it might take some time," Quenlily Sikralis went on, "For the selection board to form a view. Sometimes it can be weeks, even months before an answer is forthcoming. And it may not be the answer you might wish, in any case. So I would not hold your breath waiting a response."
"I understand," she said, "I have plenty to learn about life in the Culture itself, Contact notwithstanding."
The old drone again briefly showed an aura field; this time, it was the rainbow of surprise rippling around its casing.
"Ah, Ms Crossmaddows," the avatar said, sounding as if it had just politely cleared its throat.
Both women turned in its direction, Mso frowning at the unexpected interruption. As she turned, Aneme's terminal, a plainly-fashioned bronze broach pinned to the simple white blouse she wore, pinged softly to announce the arrival of a message.
"You've just received a communication," the avatar went on, nodding in the direction of Aneme's broach, "Ms. Mso, Dn Sikralis and I have all been included. And congratulations are in order, it seems."
Quenlily Sikralis had returned to its normal aura-less appearance, although it still remained entirely motionless.
"Well, I am surprised," it said, with a very good impression of astonishment and even awe in its voice, "I've never heard of getting a response from a Board that quickly."
"They've acknowledged my application?" Aneme said, frowning.
"No, not at all, my dear woman," the drone said, with a dip rather deeper than the previous one, "They've accepted you, unconditionally, with immediate effect."
Aneme's mouth opened in a round "O" of surprise.
"But how could they respond so fast?" Mso demanded, suddenly regretting the absence of a neural lace which would have allowed her near-instant comprehension of the message, "Surely these Board deliberations take weeks?"
"There was a trigger, a trip-wire," the avatar of the orbital's hub Mind said calmly, "Lodged with all local Contact contact points. Specifically aimed at you, to accept your application the moment you made it."
Mso turned to her friend, taking Aneme's hands in her own.
"Congratulations," she said, hugging the other woman warmly, then adding more soberly, "I hope you don't come to regret this decision; I might just have an important mission for you one of these days."