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

Ancient Grudge

Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian of the 217th Ambalshore Respawning was in a tetchy mood, despite currently being acting Full-Captain of the Deluger Franchisement Light Destroyer Swat with Passion. He was sitting in the centre of the generous accommodations his rank - acting rank, dammit! - permitted, his webbed feet in a swirling pool of scented water, a refreshing drink and tasty sweetmeats immediately to hand and a screen showing the current instalment of Franchise Now! propped in front of him. It all ought to be calm, serene, refreshing to body and mind; instead, it was a constant torture since none of his underlings, staff or servants seemed to be able to get it all exactly right.

Despite his frequent and repeated demands and complaints, his drink was still too warm, the foot-spa too cold and the sweetmeats stale to the point of inedibility. The magazine instalment was one he had already viewed - twice! - and, to cap it all, his request to have his acting-Full-Captain rank made permanent had been declined, again. No matter how loyal his assessments were, no matter how energy-efficient and effective his command had been, no matter how much it had enhanced the status of the Deluger Franchisement across this part of the galaxy. The smirch, the black mark seemingly permanently affixed to the Ambalshore name - no matter how long ago that was - was at work again, he was sure of it; no Ambalshore had risen to a full-command rank in a dozen or more generations, regardless of their obvious merits.

Exasperated, the Lieutenant-Captain gave up trying to relax, kicked the 'drain' toggle on the footbath, dumped both drink and snacks in the recycling hopper and flip-flopped over to his desk carrying the screen still displaying the out-of-date magazine. Squatting down on the deskpad, he wiped the irritating magazine from the screen and set it up to access a secret part of the clan archive.

To an average humanoid's eyes, a full-grown Deluger resembled nothing so much as an overgrown frog, or perhaps toad. An adult might be three-quarters of a metre tall when sitting or squatting; at full extension of those powerful hind legs, over two metres from head to toe. They tended to hop everywhere, so they had a strong preference for high ceilings - fifteen metres as a minimum - but spent much time squatting on their hind legs, using their prehensible fingers to operate controls and manipulate gadgets. Oh, their face might be flatter and jaw smaller than that of the kind of small amphibian found on so many worlds - convergent evolution at work - but their eyes were large and bright with undisguised ambition and low cunning.

Sentient Delugers were all male; their females were much smaller, non-sentient; basically, just amphibious egg-laying machines spawning tadpoles in huge numbers. Females and young were carefully tended in ideal and very well protected conditions in secluded ponds and waterways in many parts of their planets and habitats. Basic Deluger biology meant that they were capable of very rapid population growth, hence their name; early contacters tended to be deluged by juvenile offspring looking for their next meal.

A typical adult male Deluger was crabby to his subordinates and underlings, fawning and obsequious with his superiors - although often ineffective and lazy in carrying out whatever direction they might have been given - and, for all the dryness of their skin under normal conditions, they were widely considered to be slimy and slippery individuals by many of the numerous other civs in the greater galaxy. Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian was an altogether typical member of his species.

After a few moments fiddling with the passwords and deadlocks, the Lieutenant-Captain accessed the secured data file that all members of his clan had a copy of. Not that he really needed to view it, of course; he knew the contents all too well indeed. He tugged it onto his screen and set the playback running at normal speed. He plonked the screen down on his desk, crossed his forelimbs and rested his head grumpily on his hands.

The recording was of an interaction between a senior member of the Ambalshore clan in the uniform and regalia of a Full Captain - almost certainly a progenitor of the current Lieutenant-Captain - and a tall humanoid in a tightly fitted suit which covered him completely, save for a transparent section around his face. The human was a representative of the Contact section of the Culture, it stated, although certain dedicated intelligence reports suggested that he was actually from Special Circumstances, the closest thing to a military that the Culture claimed not to have.

The viewpoint of whatever camera device was set up to take in both bios and a sizeable chunk of the bridge of a large Deluger warship. Subtle clues in the design of the equipment in the background, and of the uniform worn by the officer - fully confirmed by the timestamp information overlaid on the corner of the screen - suggested that this recording made during that very difficult time known as the Blitteringueh-Deluger War, a short but bitter conflict between the two civilizations.

They have such tiny feet, the Lieutenant-Captain thought, how do they manage to stand upright at all?

A flat metallic-looking device attached to the being's chest was producing a plausible imitation of the elegant chest-booms and majestic throat-rumbles of the Deluger language. Intelligence had long suggested that the voice-box was somehow connected to a device actually inside the human's head, which he used not only for communication with the Full-Captain but also remotely with other members of its tribe.

The Full-Captain – history had recorded him as Welfron Chinicharian of the 120th Ambalshore Respawning - was making an impassioned plea for assistance from the Culture and was, unusually, working on the basis of actually telling the Culture-man the truth - since fairly solid evidence generally suggested that the Culture would know what was going on anyway and getting caught in a flat lie to the Culture was unlikely to advance one's cause.

In any case, the Full-Captain and his ship, and a small fleet under his command, had been given the hugely important task of recapturing one of the Deluger's most precious holy relics from the Blitteringueh home planet: the preserved foot and ankle of the First Saint, the Deluger who had, if the myths and great books were to be believed, almost single-handedly set up the first Great Dynasty, enfranchising the males of that line to direct the development of the civilization for a thousand generations.

The Full-Captain was making a fervent and passionate case about the social, mythological, political, religious, cultural - hah! - and communal importance of the Dynastist's Foot to the Deluger society and very much playing down the impact of his personal failure on the likely progression of his own career, not to mention that of his clan. The Contact representative – whose name had never been satisfactorily identified – seemed to be listening attentively enough, albeit in the condescending way that Culture humans seemed to be able to project even through the linguistic and societal barriers and, in the received opinion of generations of clan members, seemed on the verge of acceding to the Full-Captain's request.

Them without warning, the human stopped dead in the middle of an utterance, and appeared to look past the Full-Captain as if he was not there, despite the latter’s fine ceremonial dress and impressive collection of medals and decorations. It appeared that the Contact person was in communication with his fellows using that device in his head and, whatever was being communicated, it was not good news.

"I cannot help now," the being had said, his attention briefly returning to the Full-Captain, "We have more urgent things to attend to. Please accept my apology for wasting your time."

And with no more than that, the human turned on his preposterously tiny feet and set off towards the exit. The camera device tracked his progress automatically, which allowed it to capture him repeatedly muttering a word for which, it appeared, the translation unit had no equivalent, and was therefore rendered in Marain, the Culture's common tongue, which generally sounded like an extended fart under water. It was some time before a reliable translation was available to the Deluger Full-Captain, and even longer before a proper understanding was available; the human had kept repeating, "Excession, Excession," as if this was some kind of an explanation for its heinous act of denial.

The recording came to an end. The Lieutenant-Captain sat staring at the blank screen, deep in thought, for a long time.

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