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

The Game is Afoot

The Deluger Franchisement was an Aspirant civilization which has been tagging on the coattails of several of the Involved - including the Culture - for quite some centuries. Somehow, they do not quite seem to be able to find the wherewithal or talent to make the step to true Involved status. There were several theories as to why this should be so.

The hypothesis preferred by the less cynical of the Culture's Minds was simply that Delugers - both individually and as a civilization - were simply prone to histrionics and affectations about their place in the grand scheme of things. The Franchisement was forever complaining to the Galactic General Council about the antics of other civilizations, generally behaving as the equivalent of that curtain-twitching nosy neighbour who is always writing to the council, the local Member of Parliament and the newspapers to moan about the behaviour of others while simultaneously ignoring, waving aside or knocking back any protestations about their own actions.

Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian and the crew of the Swat with Passion were currently representing the might of the Deluger Franchisement in an ambassadorial role at the High Seat of the Safanariumal Empire. The Acting-Captain was not enjoying it very much.

Now, Safanariuma was not actually an empire, not any more, and had not been so for a millennium or so. The imperial assets it had conquered - or at least claimed that it had - had long since quietly made their own way to independence, or some close facsimile, and were now following their own paths forward in this part of the galaxy. The High Seat controlled a region of space - loosely speaking, since the policing of the distinctly modest volume in question was sporadic verging on whimsical, mostly ineffective, and heavily influenced by both petty politics and bribes - centred on Bhlan Orbital.

The Orbital was not one the Safanariumal Empire had built itself, but rather acquired through a process which even the most assiduous of historians in the galaxy - and there were certainly plenty of those - could not with any precision describe. The available accounts seemed to be wilfully, even deliberately obtuse, contradictory, unclear, incompatible, obscure or just plain inconsistent. Nonetheless, the Orbital itself was now a citadel to such decadent and perverse pleasures that any being who could tolerate an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and a gravity which the Culture would regard as slightly less than Standard would race to enjoy.

The Culture had not invented Orbitals but had taken to building them with much enthusiasm all over the greater galaxy. An Orbital built by the Culture would be a hoop of super-strong matter just a few thousand kilometres across but fully three million kilometres in diameter. Such a hoop, placed in a suitable orbit around a convenient star, would be spun at a rate which would provide a conventional day-night cycle while simultaneously providing an apparent gravitational field on the inside of the ring that the Culture regarded as Standard. Such an arrangement provided a vast amount of living space and, in the Culture's considered opinion, the interior should be moulded to provide as many different kinds of natural-looking environment as could be imagined.

Bhlan Orbital was much older than the Culture as a civilization and was therefore quite different. The ring was over ten thousand kilometres wide but fully a quarter less in diameter. It was spun more quickly, so the effective gravity was not too bad, but the days and nights were ludicrously short. Not that the day-night cycle was particularly relevant: the star Bhlan Orbital orbited was considerably dimmer that any that the Culture would consider acceptable, with the nett effect being that everything of interest always occurred indoors.

The original builders, whoever they were, had no interest in reproducing conditions which might be found on a rocky planet, or indeed any kind of planet. There was no attempt at maintaining any kind of biosphere: none of the Edge walls many kilometres high intended to keep in the kind of dense atmosphere that humans and others would find acceptable; no planoforming or landscaping of any kind. Both inner and outer surfaces were millimetrically smooth - a Culture Orbital would have undulations in the base material for mountains and oceans - and whatever dust specks and gas molecules which might be found had no doubt escaped from one of the many pressurised volumes.

The pressurised volumes in question were vast palaces built directly onto the Base material at widely-spaced intervals: sprawling arrays of towers and domes and pinnacles, as if ten thousand demented oligarchs had competed with one another to create the biggest, most elaborate, luxurious, imposing and most prestigious palaces they could imagine. The overall effect was, as could be expected, a vast number of tacky and gaudy monuments to excess.

Few of these palazzos were inhabited by many people; quite a lot were entirely deserted, the interior volumes open to the vacuum of space. A number were home to a handful of people, or less; squatters with some nebulous claim to the citadel scraping a living from barely-functional atmosphere generators and frequently-repaired food recycling equipment, generally still in place because it had not been worth anybody's while to actually remove them.

But a very few of the oligarch's palazzos were still maintained to something close to their original standard, complete with a huge staff of retainers, flunkies and servants, almost all of whom were biological in nature: a few cyborgs, a tiny number of humanoid robots and no really smart machines at all. Why this was the case was another mystery: certainly, drones from civilizations like the Culture were made entirely welcome, although none had shown any desire to remain for longer than a few months.

Some of these lavish establishments were pleasure palaces, open to all who could demonstrate access to adequate credit or some other suitable arrangement. These places offered elaborate games of all kinds, including permanently fatal ones, pleasures of the flesh - or equivalent substances - of every kind imaginable and gambling with unlimited stakes for those poor souls addicted to finding the edge cases which put the lie to the old adage: "the house always wins, eventually".

The most impressive palace of them all was in fact used as a palace: that is, an extraordinary building housing the dynastic ruler of the Safanariumal Empire and her - quite literal - High Seat. The High Seat in question was in the centre of the grand throne room, at the very epicentre of the entire baroque construction, the ceiling of which would have been approaching stratospheric levels if this was a planet. Approaching the throne, if done the hard way, would involve walking up ten kilometres of steps - a penance worthy of the truly committed - although there were plenty of mechanical aides for the favoured few.

On this particular occasion, the ground floor, as it were, of the towering throne at the very top of the winding stairs was being used to host a reception for ambassadors, cultural attachés, diplomats, consuls, envoys, chargés d'affaires, plenipotentiaries and miscellaneous representatives of fifty or more civilizations, political groups or societal factions.

Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian was of necessity representing the Deluger Franchisemen to the best of his ability - as he would have claimed to the top brass who had directed him to this task - and therefore wearing his very smartest dress uniform and a particularly impressive set of military insignia adorning his webbed feet. To his annoyance, nobody was particularly paying him any attention.

The Acting-Captain circulated amongst the groups and individuals, gaping politely at the other representatives, until he remembered that this was a gesture that, according to his irritatingly competent xeno-relationships officer, might not be reliably interpreted as friendly by all species. Still, the last individual he had greeted in this way - a humanoid who bore a passing resemblance to the Culture person that he remembered from the embarrassing recording in the family archives - stopped and turned in his direction, holding up one of its hands in a way Mathaclorian knew was intended as an amiable greeting.

"Greetings," the Lieutenant-Captain said, using the booming tones used when greeting somebody whose status, relative to oneself, was currently unknown, "I am Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian of the 217th Ambalshore Respawning, representing the honour of the Deluger Franchisement."

There were so many nuances of status in Deluger society that another of his kind would already have worked out whether he was greater or lesser in social stature. The Acting-Captain was surprised, therefore, when the other person replied using an unusual form of Deluger speech, one restricted to the rare circumstances where one was in the presence of a person of identical standing.

"Salutations," the humanoid said, presumably through some translation device which was not making it obvious, "I am Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle, of the Culture."

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