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

Prologue

The three strangers stood, stationary and unthreatening, in the jungle clearing, the luxuriant olive-brown of the foliage overhead dappling the sandy earth under their feet. Through the few gaps in the leafy canopy, the brilliant yellow of an equatorial sun beat down. The sound of surf on the beach was softened by the wall of thick foliage which hedged the sands.

The strangers waited. The surfaces of their suits - mottled in the virulent yellow-and-black wasp stripes that did indeed mimic the appearance of a large swarming stinging insect native to this tiny enclosed world - stood out against the sand and leaves.

They did not have to wait long.

The blue-skinned creature - humanoid in general shape but definitely not human - appeared suddenly through a narrow gap in the undergrowth and bounded towards them, skidding to a stop perhaps ten metres away. The strangers did not flinch, although this was as the result of conscious control of their own nervous systems rather than a true absence of fear. There had been accidents, temporary and even permanent fatalities, during some of the earlier encounters.

The coloration of the suits was deliberate, even essential. It was the result of long and painful conditioning, to persuade the humanoids of this world to resist their never-ending, ravening hunger; a hunger which translated into an instinctive and almost uncontrollable desire to pounce on anything which might be edible, including any of their own kind either too weak to defend themselves or unprotected by the bonds of motherhood.

The alien was a female. Her hairless, elongated, faintly reptilian head swung back and forth from one to another of the strangers. Her bright eyes - unblinking but alive with true sentience - regarded the strangers levelly while her jaws, filled with authentically reptilian and viciously sharp teeth, champed in barely-suppressed cravings.

She was, inevitably, pregnant and the food-buds on her chest were well-developed ahead of the appearance of her daughter. A second-time mother, it could be seen, judging by the brutal scars on her belly and the pockmarks on her chest. She was also, and equally inevitably, ravenously hungry.

She fidgeted, shifting her weight from leg to leg, uncertain and torn by conflicting drives and needs. Suddenly, she broke forward, lunging at the strangers with a bounding leap and a howl which had no place coming from anything human.

Unnoticed until now, a tiny machine the precise size and colour of a pair of fine porcelain bowls, leapt skywards from behind the three figures, still standing frozen in the face of the feral rush approaching them. Before the drone moved further, a second lizard-headed humanoid burst from the bushes and leapt at the attacking female, bowling her over in a tangle of limbs and teeth and claws.

It was over in an instant. The female lay dead on the sand, her throat ripped out, the newcomer tearing at her flesh and, especially, the blood-filled food-bags on her chest with no less viciousness and ravening hunger.

The strangers watched as, temporarily sated, their saviour looked up and then loped over to face them. He was an old male, the scars on his chest and belly nearly obscured by wrinkles, his eyes, bright and alert, surrounded by a dense network of fine lines.

A voice sounded in the visitors' heads, placed there by a mechanism which, worryingly, was still not fully understood and against which there appeared to be no effective defence or protection, at least at this close range.

"You again, Strangers?" said the voice in strangely soft and delicate tones, "Have you come to torment us once more?"

One of the strangers, a woman named Kitzean Mso, sighed and shook her head then spoke aloud as if addressing only herself rather than any of her companions or the alien being himself.

"What are we going to do with you?"

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