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

The source of the music and laughter was a large yacht, moored alongside an extensive floating platform some fifty metres from the shore and flexing gently with the waves. The jetty was topped with fluttering flags and pennants, and adorned with colourful awnings and canopies to provide shade from the brilliant sun. Ship and mooring were set in a picturesque bay under a cloudless sky, high cliffs on one side, a waterfall tumbling prettily over the edge; on the other side, a brilliantly white sandy beach flanked by dense tropical vegetation, upon which Shoo and Refan-Haifeen now stood.

They had travelled for an hour in another subsurface car to get here. Refan-Haifeen seemed deep in some research of his own, communicating frequently using his earring terminal and speaking so quietly that Shoo could not make out what he was saying. Having checked on their destination and the expected time to get there - Hub's guarantee was two hours or less between any two points on the Orbital - Shoo was content to sit quietly, glanding a little shush and settling into a nap, to awake feeling refreshed and alert just as the car slowed to a stop.

Shoo looked out over the bay to where partygoers could be seen jumping and diving into the sea.

"How are we going to get there?"

Refan-Haifeen laughed.

"We swim, of course," he said, "Unless you want to ride on my board?"

Shoo snorted.

"I'll swim, thank you," she answered, bending to remove her boots and leggings.

Refan-Haifeen stuck his surfboard, nose down, in the sand at the edge of the beach, then swiftly removed his surfer's wetsuit and hung it over the protruding fins.

"Well, come on then!" he yelled, sprinting across the sand and plunging into the surf, striking out strongly for the floating party. He was impressed to note that Shoo was entirely capable of keeping up with him without apparent effort.

In the Culture, it was certainly possible to spend every hour of every day attending a gathering, party, event, assembly, meet-up, audience, get-together, reunion, soirée, ceilidh, fete, bash, knees-up, and any other social occasion of every size and type that could be imagined. Many people went through a phase of attending parties all the time; some never stopped; almost everybody attended some kind of event from time to time. There were even people who were professional party-throwers - although the notion of a "professional" in the Culture's post-scarcity society was a bit of a puzzler - and there were famous parties which had been going on continuously for decades, even centuries - even if all the original revellers had by now moved on.

By comparison, then, this particular event was small, quiet, low-key, even subdued. But from the perspective of a primitive planet-dweller from the dark ages, it was the most decadently riotous affair imaginable.

Shoo pulled herself quietly from the water onto the floating platform using a set of steps formed of shining metal conveniently provided for the purpose. Nobody particularly seemed to notice her arrival. She looked around: there were people in flowing robes, others wearing no clothes except for wide-brimmed hats, or bathing costumes of every conceivable description. Here and there were a few sea-adapted humanoids, sporting pink-lipped gills or the smooth bulges of subcutaneous recyclers; there were even some aquatic aliens - intelligent, of course, and happy to share the Culture's living-space - in form-fitting suits and helmets which allowed them to be comfortable out of the water. A Culture cross-cultural surfers party, she thought wryly.

Refan-Haifeen dived deep, then swam strongly upwards, emerging in a shower of spray and landing effortlessly on the decking. A group of revellers turned in surprise at his dramatic appearance. One of their number detached themselves and sauntered over to where Refan-Haifeen was dripping on the planks. She was a stunningly beautiful woman wearing absolutely no clothes, her nakedness accentuated rather than concealed by a slender gold chain around her waist.

"Refan-Haifeen, you old devil!" she drawled, "I was beginning to think you weren't coming this afternoon."

She drew him unresistingly to her breasts and kissed him passionately; the results of that passion were immediately and unmistakeably visible on the lower part of his body.

Shoo watched the performance with some amusement. She half-expected the floor show to evolve into uninhibited sex on the damp deck and was a little surprised when Refan-Haifeen pulled away - with some reluctance, it had to be said - put his arm around the woman's waist and waved in Shoo's direction.

"Ms. Shoo," Refan-Haifeen said as she approached, "This is Anka. She's my partner - well, one of them."

"I sort-of guessed that was the case."

Refan-Haifeen snorted.

"She's my colleague. One of them, as I said. In the project," he said, smiling.

Shoo's expressive eyebrows were now working overtime.

Refan-Haifeen waved across the throng at a group of three people, who had been watching their interactions closely. The crowd parted as they approached, led by a woman wearing a flowing robe which covered her from neck to ankle but was otherwise identical to the one who had just passionately embraced Refan-Haifeen. She kissed him demurely on the cheek, then stepped back.

"I was wondering when you'd get here," she said, looking thoughtfully at Shoo, "And are you going to tell us this secret you mentioned in your messages?"

"Let me introduce you," Refan-Haifeen said, "Ms. Shoo, this is Shera. She and Anka are natural twins."

"Really?"

Shoo was extremely surprised. Multiple births were rare in the Culture. Most people bore just one child over their three hundred years and, for the rare cases where somebody wanted more offspring, the usual choice was to bear multiple children at widely spaced intervals over a hundred years or more, to allow each child to grow and mature uninterrupted. Bearing twins was not impossible - very little in the Culture was impossible - but it was one of those things which was so unfashionable as to be almost unheard of.

"Anka and Shera might be the most proficient free-divers ever," Refan-Haifeen went on, "Both of them can hold their breath for twenty minutes or more."

"Very impressive," Shoo responded, recovering from her surprise with impressive rapidity, "Pleased to meet you both."

"And this is Ranu-Kiraa," he continued, indicating another of the group now clustering around them.

He was one of the less extreme aquatic adaptions Shoo had seen at the party. Apparently sexless and also entirely unclothed, he had slick hairless skin, webbed hands and elongated feet, closed gill-flaps at the side of his neck, but was still basically human in form.

Shoo raised her hand in greeting.

"The pleasure is mine," rumbled Ranu-Kiraa, his voice surprisingly deep and resonating. Adapted for underwater communication, Shoo wondered.

"And, by no means least," Refan-Haifeen went on, "Meet Tiksan."

He was a slender, wiry man with unruly blond hair wearing an electric blue shirt and shorts which extended almost to his knees. He had the most delicate-looking and sensitive hands; the kind of hands which, in ages past, might have belonged to a brain surgeon or a concert instrumentalist.

"Hello," he said shyly, barely looking up from whatever was being displayed on the unfurled screen of his terminal.

"Now, Ms. Shoo here will probably deny it," Refan-Haifeen said playfully, "But she's with SC."

"I neither confirm nor deny," Shoo said gravely.

Ranu-Kiraa growled with amusement, all but drowned out by Anka's uninhibited laughter. Tiksan glanced sharply at Shoo while Shera merely shook her head sadly.

"So, you've met the agent," Refan-Haifeen went on, waving his hands expansively to encompass the whole group, "Now it's time to show Ms. Shoo the Seahorse."

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