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

"Hub?"

"Here. How can I help?"

"How long will it take me to get to Romea's current location?"

"Ah hour and eleven minutes, give or take a few seconds, if you leave within the next nine minutes."

"Be serious. I need more than that to finish my makeup."

"I thought as much. So, an hour and seventeen minutes, from when you leave, is my best estimate."

"Thank you, Hub."

Juliann Apris was in her boudoir, a gloriously ruched and fabulously decorated part of a generously expansive suite of rooms which she enjoyed on the T'seff estate, an elegant collection of low buildings set round a series of spacious sun-lit courtyards. The estate, which had been home to her extended family for nearly a thousand years, occupied some miniscule fraction of the land area of Brodeksa Plate, which was itself just one of the thousands of Plates which made up the great rotating world called Mapague.

Long ago, somebody had noticed that, if one built a ring three million kilometres in diameter and then spun that hoop so that it turned on its axis once per Culture-standard day, that rotation would conveniently produce one Culture-standard gravity on the inside of the ring. Even if you made the hoop only a few thousand kilometres wide, such a structure would provide thousands of times more living space than one ordinary rocky planet and use just about the same amount of material to boot. Admittedly, much of the material would have to be immensely strong exotic matter and the whole thing would have to be held together by forcefields, but the elegance in using the same rotation to produce both an acceptable day-night cycle and an apparent gravity which made the idea intrinsically attractive. The Culture called such structures Orbitals.

The Culture had not actually invented Orbitals, although they had taken up the concept - tuned to their preferred reference gravity and diurnal cycles - with great enthusiasm. Now, the greater galaxy was littered with millions of such constructions, home to the vast majority of the forty trillion people - humans, aliens and drones - which made up the society.

Not particularly unusually, Mapague Orbital was not the only one in the stellar system known as Renova. A second, more recently completed ring known as Contulet lay in the same orbit, enjoying the same meticulously engineered conditions so pleasantly convenient for life. The two orbitals were carefully and deliberately positioned so that they were in each other’s Lagrange points, separated by approximately sixty degrees, so that they were a constant distance apart. This significantly reduced the energy expenditure required to keep the two huge habitats in exactly the desired configuration, a task shared by the controlling Minds of the two Os, each fabulously capable intelligence residing in a purpose-built mini-habitat located in the centre of each Orbital and therefore generally known simply as Hub.

There was, naturally, a considerable amount of traffic between the two Orbitals - almost all of it in the form of people: humans or drones of various shapes and sizes. It was entirely possible for a person to ask its local Hub to Displace to a specific location on the other Orbital - or the same one, for that matter - but the convention in such cases - perhaps more important than rules, as such, in the Culture - was that Displaces using remotely-induced wormholes were reserved for emergencies and other extremely urgent cases. Besides, Displacing was inherently and unfinessably dangerous; the risk of something going horribly, terminally wrong was only about one in eighty million for any single Displacement event, but that was still enough to put the average, fussily perfectionist Hub Mind off using the process for anything alive except in the direst of emergencies.

So, across each orbital there were hundreds of ports dedicated to cross-orbital traffic, each home to a whole fleet of craft which spent their time shuttling across the few hundred million kilometres separating the two huge worlds. Most of these were simple runabouts, space-capable at purely relativistic speeds and fitted for a handful of occupants in extravagant comfort. There were a smaller number of bigger vehicles, effectively buses for larger parties or school trips, and an even smaller number of full-blown Culture Modules, capable of hyperspace travel but at speeds limited to a few hundred lights. For the runabouts, travel time between ports was a little under an hour; it was one of these that Juliann would be using for the crossing, accounting for a large fraction of the total travel time.

Mapague Brodeksa Juliann Morjana Apris dam T'seff was a young woman; no more than a girl really, given the Culture's approach to extended education and self-determined maturity. In the enthusiasm of youth, she had caused herself to be intagliated extensively; her tattoos covered very nearly her whole body and were both exuberant and dramatic although not, for reasons which were entirely artistic rather than practical, either animated or independently self-aware.

Without rushing unduly, she meticulously applied various paints and colourants to her face and other parts of her body. Finally satisfied, she stepped back and studied herself in the full-length reverser field. Her tattoos moved with her as she turned this way and that. Juliann very rarely wore clothes which in any case were - like almost everything in the Culture - entirely optional; her full-body tattoos were, in her opinion, too artistic and beautiful to be covered up. She also wore no jewellery other than a single tiny earring, which doubled as a terminal to communicate with Hub and indeed everybody else in the Culture.

"Hub."

"Still here."

"Ready to go. Let Romea know I'm on my way and when I should expect to be with him."

"Will do. You look spectacular, by the way."

"Yes, I do, don't I."

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