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

Refan-Haifeen and his friends did not seem to have any great sense of urgency, Shoo considered.

The party had, inevitably, gone on late into the night, with individuals and groups arriving and departing at frequent intervals. It genuinely seemed that Ranu-Kiraa and his artworks were tolerably famous, and there had been a constant press of bodies around him. Tiksan too seemed to have his own collection of followers who earnestly engaged him in arcanely technical discussions. Refan-Haifeen and Anka had disappeared early - to absolutely nobody's surprise - while Shera seemed content to play the grand hostess. Shoo had circulated amicably, conversed graciously, declined several offers of sex politely and finally, following the directions of one of the Hub's serving drones, ended up sleeping by herself in a tiny cabin close to the bow of the ship.

The following morning, when she finally emerged, she found Refan-Haifeen, Anka and Shera enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the rear deck and saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances who had stayed over after the party. The last of these had just casually dived into the sea when Tiksan appeared, looking tousled and bleary-eyed; he ignored Shoo entirely and staggered to the table where he poured himself a large cup of some steaming beverage.

Refan-Haifeen turned and beckoned Shoo to join them. She did so, nodding polite greetings to the others and helped herself to a ripe sunbread from a nearby bowl.

"Hub assures me that the weather on Grafikic Plate will be good enough to dive this afternoon," Refan-Haifeen said without preamble, "It's four hours ahead there, so we'll need to set sail fairly soon. Hub wants us to be well out into the ocean before the Displace."

"So we'll be on board during the Displace?" Shoo asked.

"We will," he answered, "I'm correct in assuming that you'll be happy taking the risk?"

Displaces used a remotely induced singularity via hyperspace, widely regarded as a mature technology as far as the Culture was concerned. Nevertheless, there was an unfinesseable risk, a one-in-many-millions chance of catastrophic failure to the process, and Culture Minds tended to shy away even from that admittedly miniscule possibility.

"Huh," she snorted, "Compared with diving in the Seahorse, I think it's safe enough."

"Hey..." Tiksan began,but was interrupted by Ranu-Kiraa emerging noisily from the ocean and dripping profusely on the deck, all while holding up Refan-Haifeen’s surfboard.

"Good swim?" Refan-Haifeen asked cheerily, taking the board and quickly drying it off with a towel.

"Very good," Ranu-Kiraa rumbled, then looked around rubbing his webbed hands together, "So, are we ready to set off?"

Refan-Haifeen stood up. "I'll get the engines started."

*

Being on the open ocean in a relatively small boat was not an entirely new experience for Shoo, but she found the relative unfamiliarity at first slightly alarming and then, perversely, rather calming. The sun, now fully emerged from the haze of an Orbital sunrise, shone in a cloudless sky. The surface of the sea was an iridescent cobalt blue disturbed only by the slightest hint of choppiness. The warm breeze on her face and the occasional cooling spray thrown up by the bows was, she concluded, rather an agreeable sensation. Even the roar of the engines from below decks seemed the appropriate soundtrack for the motion of the vessel.

After an hour or so, Refan-Haifeen throttled back then cut the engines. The sudden silence was broken only by the lapping of waves against the hull. There were no birds, no sign of anything living. Shoo moved from where she had been lounging against the bow rails and entered the wheelhouse where Refan-Haifeen and Tiksan were conferring.

"We're where Hub said we should go," he announced, studying intently the amusingly archaic instruments mounted in front of the helmsman's position, "So we just need to wait for..."

There was a tiny flicker; the world in front of their eyes changed completely. There was a sudden splosh which rocked the ship and threatened to unbalance Shoo; the sun moved in the sky to a place just after the zenith; the wind changed direction and was noticeably cooler; even the colour of the ocean was different.

"...the Displace," Refan-Haifeen concluded.

The Hub Mind, using some infinitesimal fraction of the immense resources available to it, had just Displaced a bubble of a few thousand tons of air and sea water of the Grafikic ocean to leave a hole just the right size for a similar bubble of air and water containing the Calypso and its crew to be dropped into.

"That went well," Shoo replied, trying not to sound too relieved.

Before anybody could reply, Anka stuck her head around the wheelhouse door. "Well, come on then," she shouted enthusiastically, "Let's get diving!"

She led the way into the hold which contained the Seahorse. The dank and echoing space was alive with purposeful activity; it seemed that she and her sister, together with Ranu-Kiraa, had been busy preparing the submersible for its dive: charging batteries, filling tanks, testing floodlights and all the other arcane attentions such primitive technology demanded of its human operators. Anka and Tiksan manned the derrick which would allow the bathyscaphe to be pulled from its resting-place in the hold and deposited in the sea. They tested the machine and its associated cables and declared it ready to go, although what their criteria were for this judgement were opaque to Shoo.

Refan-Haifeen climbed a rather rickety-looking ladder and levered himself through the open pressure lock which formed the only entrance to the bathyscaphe. He disappeared inside for a few moments then re-emerged to gesture to Shoo to join him. Swinging herself down, she found the space inside to be compact, even cramped for two people. If she had been prone to claustrophobia - which she was not - she might have found the tiny capsule impossibly intimidating; instead, the decimetre-thick walls of the craft were somehow reassuring.

Somebody closed and sealed the lock from the outside. Suddenly it was a lot quieter, a hushed ambience broken only by the sound of their breathing.

"You're the passenger here," Refan-Haifeen said softly, breaking the sudden silence, "I'll be driving this thing. But, just in case, I should give you a short briefing on the controls."

Shoo nodded, glanded a couple of concentration-enhancing drugs and focussed hard on the stream of directions from Refan-Haifeen. He rapidly talked over the use of each of the controls in turn, then worked his way through a checklist intended, she realised in amazement, to confirm that the craft's functions were working correctly. Her concentration was broken a few minutes later by the crackle of crude electrical signalling, which would be the only means of communications - voice only - between bathyscaphe and surface.

"Hi, in there," came Tiksen's voice, "You ready to go?"

"Ready here," Refan-Haifeen replied, reassuringly confident.

The roar of the engine powering the winch changed in its tone; there was a sudden lurch and the Seahorse emerged from the hold, then swayed alarmingly for a few moments allowing Shoo to glimpse the immense reel of rope and cable on the rear deck which would allow for old-fashioned communication between submersible and surface as well as permitting the craft to be recovered in the event of a problem. There was another lurch as the deck crane swung around and then the bathyscaphe was deposited gently in the ocean.

Anka dived gracefully from the deck, reached the Seahorse in a few strokes and detached the shackle which connected bathyscaphe and derrick. She swam to the front of the submersible and waved cheerily to those inside. Refan-Haifeen responded with a double thumbs-up, then operated one of the controls Shoo had been introduced to earlier; the Seahorse sank like a stone, so quickly that Shoo was barely able to suppress a gasp.

"Sit tight," Refan-Haifeen advised, "We'll be going down for a long time."

The sunlit surface disappeared above and, as the water darkened, he leaned forward to operate the controls which powered the cluster of spotlights on the front of the craft. There was little to see: Shera and Anka, now both entirely naked, swam down and waved through the porthole. It was difficult to tell the twins apart, except for the slender gold chain which Anka habitually wore around her waist. Later still, the face of Ranu-Kiraa appears for a few minutes, then was gone.

It was quiet - apart from the occasional alarming creak from the pressure vessel as it accommodated the ever-increasing forces as it sank towards the deeps - and deathly cold. Shoo was glad of both the insulating properties of the lining of the bathyscaphe and the dumb but effective heated jerkin she had been presented with by Tiksen.

"Well," Refan-Haifeen said softly, "Now we're really on our own."

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