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

"Well, I am new here," Bryam said, as calmly as she could manage, "Things can change. I'm from the outside. I'm here to help."

"Help? Help?" she screeched, "I don't believe you."

The gaggle of girls behind her collapsed into disbelieving laughter, silenced almost immediately by a stern glance from the ringleader.

"I'm Brahe. Maria Brahe," the girl said fiercely, "You watch yourself. I've got my eye on you."

The girl called Brahe turned and strode away proudly followed by her posse, leaving Bryam to ponder her next steps.

The school bell rang again and the class was required to leave the dismal schoolyard and return to the chilly schoolroom. The same pattern was repeated for day after day, it seemed; never leaving the school, never going home, no parents, no sleep, no holidays, nothing but lesson after lesson punctuated by cold damp breaks in the windswept playground.

The material being taught was dull, repetitive and to be learned by rote; no creative writing, no problem solving, no arts and crafts, nothing but texts and maps and diagrams which swirled around the central tenet of the provable absence of supernatural beings who created stars, or the species known as Astrials.

Brahe kept her distance. Bryam got distrustful looks from her and a few of her closest cohort on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Bryam managed to strike up acquaintances with some of the other girls and even a few of the less shy boys. Always her message was: things can change, I'm a friend, I'm here to help.

In the classroom, Brahe seemed to be on the receiving end of rather more than her fair share of attention - always negative, of course - from the overbearing teacher. More than once Bryam had caught tears of frustration in her eyes when, despite her very best attempts, her work was determined to be not quite up to the required standard. After some unmeasurable period, she turned to Bryam with tears in her eyes while the monster's back was turned, and mouthed "help".

Another interminable period later, they were all back in the playground, Brahe and her gang surrounding Bryam. Brahe stepped forward and took Bryam hand in both of hers.

"We've learned our lessons," she said simply, "Please get us out of here."

"Where do you want to go?"


There was a warm glow, like the sun breaking though the clouds for the first time in aeons. Bryam turned; she could see a gate made, it seemed, of gleaming silver metal set in the stone wall of the schoolyard, somehow hitherto unnoticed but now standing open and inviting. As one, the whole class gravitated towards the exit. On the other side, there was a large park with wide open spaces, dotted with trees and paths and lakes. Set about on the green grass were swings and slides and a whole collection of exciting equipment to play on.

Brahe turned again to Bryam.

"Thank you."

And then the whole place simply dissolved in front of Bryam's eyes and she was back on the Xenagogue. She sat up blinking. She took a deep breath and blew it out ruminatively.

"How many times was I in there?" she asked.

The tiny silvered drone representing the Till We Meet Again, OAQS hovered solicitously nearby.

"Your consciousness was embedded a huge number of times - nearly a billion," it said, "I'm sure I don't need to bore you with the exact number."

"The events you remember are a typical example of your interactions," the bodiless voice of the Xenagogue cut in.

The silver nest of the induction helmet softly wormed it way out of her head and was once again resting on her hair. She tugged it off, looked at it thoughtfully then placed in gently back on the pedestal.

"How many of them are in there?"

"Just over thirty billion," the Xenagogue replied, "Almost all of them have moved on to a better place."

"So just like the experts anticipated."

"Exactly," the Till We Meet Again, OAQS said through the drone, "People get the Afterlife they think they deserve. We could not, in all conscience, change their Afterlife without an express desire from the majority of the population. Brahe was typical of those dithering between thinking they still deserved their treatment and considering that they had paid their dues. They had to trust us - you, in particular - to believe that things could change."

"And that worked?"

"Almost everywhere," the drone said, "You helped them change their mind, in innumerable different ways, to make them think they deserve something better. The Afterlife management system detected the changes in sentiment and did the rest."

"So we can leave them alone now?"

"Yes," the Xenagogue replied, "To enjoy their eternity."

  xGSV What’s Not To Love?
    oGCU Xenagogue
    oGCU Till We Meet Again, OAQS
Success, then?

  xGCU Xenagogue
    oGSV What’s Not To Love?
    oGCU Till We Meet Again, OAQS
It seems so. More than 99.9% of the denizens have moved on to a better place. [Report attached]
I believe Ms. Bromon deserves our congratulations.

  xGCU Till We Meet Again, OAQS
    oGCU Xenagogue
    oGSV What’s Not To Love?
I agree. I will pass them on.
Ms. Bromon is a rare find in the Culture. Almost all of our citizens have no real notion of discipline; it is not one of the virtues our society espouses. But she has a strong sense of duty, the ability to channel some of her personality to a higher cause. Just like the Astrials, as a society, so she was able to form an emotional bond with many of them.

  xGSV What’s Not To Love?
    oGCU Xenagogue
    oGCU Till We Meet Again, OAQS
We may need her services again.

  xGCU Till We Meet Again, OAQS
    oGCU Xenagogue
    oGSV What’s Not To Love?
Perhaps. I'll mention this possibility, too.

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