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

"Ms. Bromon, welcome to the Better Mousetrap."

The urbane voice of the GSV emerged from nowhere in particular. Bryam nodded in acknowledgement but said nothing. She and the glossy black drone representing the Till We Meet Again OAQS had just been Displaced aboard. They had appeared, with a couple of soft pops, in a deceptively spacious lounge, all indirect lighting and potted plants. Typical understated Culture style, she thought.

"And may I introduce the Avatar of Q'aantar Orbital Hub," the cultured voice went on.

A slender silver-skinned being approached across the lounge. It waved a hand in welcome.

"Greetings," she said formally.

"The pleasure is mine," the Avatar said, "Please do sit here with me."

They sat together on a spacious lounger, the material deforming itself to adapt to their individual contours.

"And finally, the representative of the Geomorphological Eccentricity," the GSV said.

A rotating seat swung around. Squatting in it was a hairy troglodyte wearing a studded leather jerkin and a hard hat with a greasy oil lamp and wielding an intimidating pickaxe.

"Don't mind me," the troll grunted, "I'm just along for the ride."

"So, now that we're all here," the Better Mousetrap said, "An item of good news. We have belatedly received a reply from the NR. They claim to have no interest in the Hakanth system, that they have certainly never installed any technology here and insinuate that we, the Culture, are fabricating all this as some subtle form of insult."

"Do we believe them," Bryam asked, "And are we still sure its NR technology?"

"I think we have to give them the benefit of the doubt," the Better Mousetrap replied, "Especially since some of the language they're using is distinctly, ah, undiplomatic."

"And, if it’s not their kit, it's a bloody good replica," the dwarf representing the Geomorphological Eccentricity interjected tersely, "I doubt even I could make a copy this good."

Bryam shrugged.

"The NR don't care what we do. So, what shall we do?"

"We're going to have to break in," the drone representing the Till We Meet Again OAQS said.

"Can we actually do that?" she demanded.

"Probably."

*

Bryam was once again on the Till We Meet Again OAQS, now holding station a few hundred kilometres from the eccentric asteroid. She was wearing a "peace-rated" but still very capable suit, designed to be able to protect its fragile human occupant under a wide variety of circumstances, although not officially a threat to any serious war-minded NR device. She flexed her arms, which felt exactly as if she was naked.

"Do I really need this thing?" she asked.

"I'm seriously hoping that you won't," the ship said, through the suit, "But I'll feel better if you do. Better safe than sorry."

Bryam sighed.

"Okay," she said, "So let's get on with this, shall we?"

"Indeed."

She stepped through the entrance to a six-person module and sat carefully in one of the seats which had modified itself to take account of the bulges of the suit. The ship had explained that the asteroid had so much 4D shielding that a Displace would be potentially risky, not to mention feasibly impolite, so she was going to have to make the journey physically.

The module slid out of the GCU's forward port and crossed the few hundred kilometres in a couple of minutes, a slow approach designed to appear unthreatening. The view on the module's forward screen showed a slowly-tumbling irregular mass, dotted here and there with craters and impact marks of all sizes. Other screens showed views closer to the truth: a massy mostly-solid core under the camouflage, energy production and usage, neutrino emissions from matter-antimatter annihilation events, active thermal management and, here and there, grey areas where even the most powerful of the module's sensors could not determine the contents exactly.

"Now it's time to knock politely," the ship said, using the module's systems.

"Where's the door?"

A flashing red circle appeared on the forward screen, marking a nondescript area which slid in and out of view with the rotation of the asteroid. On its next appearance, it slowed and then stopped in the centre of the screen, as the module's propulsion system synchronised with the movement of the rock. The surface grew closer and closer without Bryam being able to see anything notable then, without warning, a section of the exterior simply faded away exposing a docking bay more than large enough to accommodate the module.

"Gently does it," the ship said, sounding smug, "The lightest of Effector touches on the bay door field controls plus a few NR-style permission-to-approach bursts."

"Count me impressed," Bryam said, "So are we going inside?"

"Yup."

The module slid neatly into the opening and came to rest exactly ten centimetres above the bay floor. The outer field closed and the bay rapidly flooded with an atmosphere which the module suggested might just be breathable but advised keeping the suit's helmet components engaged nonetheless.

"Time to go," the ship said, switching to the suit's systems.

The module door opened silently and Bryam stepped out. The inner bay door rolled open a second or so later, giving access to a wide-open space, very high, set everywhere with thick balconies and shelves. There were no barriers or banisters at the edges, of the kind which might be considered desirable for a species which could not fly; instead, there were widely-spaced ladders which Bryam could imagine being easily traversed by a gliding creature with claws on its wings. The light seemed odd, to Bryam's eyes, more greenish-yellow than she was used to, but more than enough to see by, even without her genofixed optical enhancements.

"Well, the automation knows we're here," the ship said.

"Nice of them to turn on the lights."

"Yes, indeed, and the AG. Although it has also just transmitted what looks suspiciously like a distress signal in an oddly specific direction."

"Hmm. Should we be worried?"

"Not immediately. But I've asked all the local Minds to keep a close watch and forwarded a report widely elsewhere."

"Okay. Let's take a look around."

Bryam stepped to the edge of the balcony and looked up and down. The greenish light illuminated a vast cylindrical space which, according to the schematics flashed up by the suit, seemed to run almost the entire length of the long axis of the asteroid. Her current position seemed to be almost exactly half-way between top and bottom, according to the convention apparently adopted by the local artificial gravity. There was no movement, no signs of activity.

She retraced her steps and explored the inner wall. Wide openings at regular intervals led to a branching network of passageways terminating in cells each of which contains exactly six ovoid Storage pods, each big enough for almost any humanoid. The pods looked silent and passive to her eyes, although the suit reported complex activity within, consistent with maintaining a stable and entirely reversible death for the occupant.

"So that's the people," she said to the ship, "Where's the processing substrates?"

"In the walls."

She put a gloved hand on the nearest wall. The suit's tactiles and sensors suggested it was cool, micrometrically smooth and filled with complex activity.

"Could we wake up one of these people?" she asked.

"We could," the ship replied, "But now might not be the best time."

"Why not?"

"There's a very fast ship inbound here, displaying a highly plausible NR emission signature."

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