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

The Quietudinal Service - Quietus, as it was usually called - was that section of Contact which dealt with the dead. The dead outnumbered the living in the greater galaxy by some distance, if you add up all those individuals currently in long-term Storage, or existing in the various Afterlives the many different civilisations had created over the millennia. Happily - mercifully - the dead tended to keep themselves to themselves and caused relatively little trouble compared to those for whom the Real was still the place to exist within and try to exploit. However, the sheer scale of their numbers ensured that important issues involving the deceased still arose now and again; the dead Quietus dealt with might be technically departed, but they were, sometimes, far from quiet.

Relatively small in terms of ships and personnel, Quietus could nevertheless call on whole catalogued suites of dead but preserved experts and expert systems - not all of which were even pan-human in origin - to help them deal with such matters, bringing them back from their fun-filled retirement or out of suspended animation, where they had left instructions that they were ready to be revived if they could be of use when circumstances required.

Quietus ships added the letters OAQS - for On Active Quietudinal Service - to their names when they were so employed, and usually took on a monochrome outer guise, either pure shining white or glossily black. They even moved quietly, adjusting the configuration of their engine fields to produce the minimum amount of disturbance both on the sub-universal energy grid and the 3D skein of real space. Normal Culture ships either went for maximum efficiency or the always popular let's-see-what-we-can-squeeze-out-of-these-babies approach.

Similarly, the human and other biological operatives of Quietus were expected to be sober, serious people while they were on duty, and to dress appropriately.

Bryam Bromon stood quietly in the shared accommodation section of the Escarpment class GCU Death and Paradise OAQS. She was a tall and slender woman with a calm and unruffled demeanour. It had often been remarked that Quietus was the only one of the Culture’s specialised services which required a uniform. While this wasn’t strictly true, nevertheless she was wearing long dark grey boots, grey trousers, a white shirt and a plain grey jacket with a high collar.

"We will be arriving in the Hakanth system within the hour."

The GCU spoke through a ship-slaved drone. The drone was a glossily black sphere no bigger than a child's head and hung motionless in front of her.

"I see," the woman replied, "And the problem we are to address?"

"I'll put a precis of the reports from the Better Mousetrap and the Geomorphological Eccentricity in front of you momentarily. But it appears we have an unexpected Backyard situation."

The Culture considered it at least impolite, probably uncivil and even plausibly immoral to continue to build an Orbital in what was, at least historically, somebody else's backyard - even if that somebody appeared to have been deceased for millennia - without at least making the attempt to ask permission. The ship-drone explained all this carefully.

"Ah. So we need to ask the dead nicely?" Bryam asked.

"Correct."

"And do we know who these people were?"

"No. There's a lot of searching old records going on, but nothing's turned up yet. It's almost as if records have been actively deleted."

"Can't we just ask them their name directly?" the woman asked earnestly, glancing over the reports.

"Ah."

When a Culture Mind starts adding noise words into its interactions with humans, there was either a worryingly huge amount of uncertainty in the answer, or there was bad news about to follow. Bryam judged this was going to be the latter case - correctly, as it turned out.

"The builder of the asteroid's systems aren't the same species as the civilization interred there," the ship's drone said carefully.

"It's not?"

"No. The bios in Storage are all pan-human. A closer examination of the Storage machinery and the processing substrates, not to mention its ability to partially shield itself from our sensors make it clear this is Equiv-Tech, the product of another Involved civilization. And, the most likely civ to have built this is the Nauptre Reliquaria."

"Ah, indeed," Bryam said thoughtfully, "And our current relationship with the NR?"

"Frosty."

The Nauptre were a species of grey-furred metre-scale gliding marsupials, long since choosing to inhabit only their few home planets and habitats carefully tailored to their specific requirements. Contact with the rest of the galaxy was managed entirely by machines: GSV-sized constructor ships, smaller but still capable craft, AIs and drones, collectively known as the Nauptre Reliquaria.

The Nauptre were firm believers in post-death virtual environments - Afterlives, as they were known - where transgressors of their own laws were punished for eternity. They deployed these virtual Hells for their own citizens - which was nobody's concern but their own - but also to members of lesser civilizations, particularly those they were mentoring - which had brought them into indirect conflict with the Culture.

"So, the NR might not be inclined to accept our interference with this asteroid, or even this system?" Bryam asked, "Even though our proposal for an Orbital has been widely circulated to members of the Galactic Council?"

"That is the concern," the ship replied, "Various urgent representations have been made to the NR, of course, but they don't seem inclined to respond, at least so far."

"So," she said, half to herself, "An impasse. We can't progress the Orbital until we get a response from the - presumed - previous residents, now sleeping. We can't actively interfere with the asteroid and actually ask because it might upset the NR."

"That's about it," the drone representing the Till We Meet Again OAQS confirmed, "Welcome to the wacky world of inter-civ diplomacy."

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