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

Hide and Seek

There was nothing that Hy-Golten could do, just at the moment, to alter the turn of events in any way. He was locked in the moderately spacious accommodations his Deluger hosts had provided for him; the rooms were pleasantly cool and airy enough, and it had turned out that the food and drink synthesisers actually worked really well. He had no access to real-time data from the Swat with Passion - so he had no idea of where the ship was heading or how long it would take to get there - but the suit was still perfectly capable of picking up Culture news broadcasts - not that there was anything particularly newsworthy going on at the moment, it seemed - as well as having almost infinite archives of recorded entertainments, interactive games, pornographic simulations, historical reproductions, fantasy encounters and other immersive entertainments too numerous to mention. Under the circumstances, Hy-Golten was inclined to follow the old dictum: if it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.

He therefore spent his days much as any Culture citizen would do under the circumstances. He played games, watched entertainments and immersed himself in a variety of sims and virtual environments. In between times, he enjoyed the most elaborate meals and cocktails the synthesisers could be persuaded to create, taking the time to contemplate that, despite their faults, the Delugers really appreciated a good meal.

He also spent much time composing long messages to the extensive group of friends, buddies, followers, acquaintances, admirers, cohorts, lovers and cronies he had amassed over the decades, explaining his reasons for leaving the Culture, apologising for any embarrassment this might cause and wishing everybody well for the future. The suit announced that it was currently unable to send any of these communications, at least without deploying its Effectors in an obvious way – they had agreed to keep its full capabilities a secret for the time being - but promised to store the notes until a suitable opportunity presented itself.

His infrequent contact with the Delugers was in the person of the Xeno-relationships Officer he had met on his arrival whose name, as it turned out was Zinchuloriun. The face of the junior officer would appear on a wall screen in Hy-Golten's quarters every couple of days; apparently, Captain Mathaclorian was far too busy - or perhaps far too grand - to demean himself with further social contact with the human.

Deluger anatomy was not well-suited to the production of the sounds of the Marain language but nevertheless Zinchuloriun would attempt to greet the human in that tongue when his face first appeared on the screen. The accent was atrocious and the words barely recognizable, but Hy-Golten respected the attempt by the officer to speak an alien language; human biology meant that the noises of the Deluger speech were impossible to create, so he would always have to rely on the suit translating for him.

"The Captain wishes you to know," Zinchuloriun said through the suit's translator once the introductory pleasantries were done, "That the Swat with Passion will arrive at its first destination within the next one-point-one hours."

"Ah," the human said amicably, "And what happens then?"

"The Captain very strongly encourages you to leave the ship at that time," the Xeno-relationships Officer replied carefully, "The ship has a number of important duties to perform which will prevent it from docking anywhere with an atmosphere for several years, perhaps longer."

"I see," Hy-Golten said sanguinely, "What is this destination?"

"It's a place called Norilsk," the Duluger said, seeming to hesitate slightly before uttering the booms and squawks which made up the name.

"Never heard of it," he replied, a thought silently echoed by the suit's voice in his head. This was slightly surprising; the suit's data archives were of course a miniscule subset of the vast troves and immense repositories and compendious records that the Culture had amassed over the eleven or so centuries of its existence, but still hugely more that any human could expect to keep in his own head. Still, the suit could have been expected to know of all places currently existing in the galaxy; Hy-Golten wondered how the suit had decided on a translation while simultaneously being unaware of the existence of such a location.

"Never heard of it," he replied, a thought silently echoed by the suit's voice in his head. This was slightly surprising; the suit's data archives were of course a miniscule subset of the vast troves and immense repositories and compendious records that the Culture had amassed over the eleven or so centuries of its existence, but still hugely more that any human could expect to keep in his own head. Still, the suit could have been expected to know of all places currently existing in the galaxy; Hy-Golten wondered how the suit had decided on a translation while simultaneously being unaware of the existence of such a location.

"Few people have," the officer said obscurely, "Please prepare to leave your accommodation within the next fifty minutes. I will be there in person to escort you."

"Sure."

Zinchuloriun signed off with another garbled phrase in Marain, then the screen went blank.

~I suspect some of what the Tell It To The Jury calls monkey business is about to occur, the voice of the suit appeared in Hy-Golten's head.

~You're probably right, he agreed, But we should just play along with it, yes?

~Of course. The VFP is probably in hailing range if we really need it.

~Reassuring. Although I doubt there'll be anything that you can't handle to contend with. If they really wanted us dead, they'd have used the full resources of the ship before now.

~Indeed. So we wait.

Forty-nine minutes later Hy-Golten was waiting patiently just inside the locked door. He had brought no luggage or belongings onto the ship, save for the suit - which counted as neither, of course - and getting ready had taken only enough time to finish a meal and dictate the last of his messages.

Exactly on schedule, the door locks clicked and the door itself slid open. Zinchuloriun stood there, resplendent in his rather showy uniform.

"Ready to go?" the Xeno-relationships Officer asked, with only the minimum of politeness in his voice.

"As ready as I'll ever be," Hy-Golten said expansively, stepping forward into the hot humid atmosphere of the ship proper.

Accompanied by the officer waddle-walking at his side, the human retraced the steps he had taken on his arrival. He did notice that there were quite a lot of what looked like the Deluger equivalent of marines lining the high corridor, their toad-like forms almost hidden under the weight of space-capable armour and conspicuously ugly weaponry. It could have been an honour guard, of course, although the nervous look Zinchuloriun exhibited suggested the real purpose was to make sure that Hy-Golten actually left the ship, one way or another. Captain Mathaclorian declined to put in an appearance; Hy-Golten was unsurprised. He made a show of ignoring the soldiers; in reality, the suit probably outgunned the battalion of guards, although he was pleased that this assertion was not in fact put to the test in a firefight.

Some minutes later, he found himself outside the inner door of the industrial airlock by which he had entered earlier.

"Goodbye," the Xeno-relationships Officer said stiffly in Marian.

He gestured for the human to enter, which Hy-Golten did. The inner hatch slammed shut behind him, leaving Zinchuloriun firmly on the ship side of the door. Not entirely surprised by this, Hy-Golten strolled over and looked through the reinforced viewing portal set into the outer door. Whatever was out there was grey and uninviting, a vast space illuminated by harsh spotlights from the ship itself that seemed to light up deep shadows rather than show any detail of the interior.

Without warning, the outer lock opened with a clatter. Hy-Golten was thrown outward by the rush of damp air which froze into sparkling ice crystals instantly. The suit's faceplate components deployed instantaneously so that he could continue to breathe normally. He was tossed head-over-heels a couple of times before the suit was able to stop his tumbling using force fields and orient him so that he was facing back towards the ship. As he watched, the airlock closed - silently this time, since there was essentially no atmosphere to propagate the sound - the Swat with Passion backed away from the opening where it has docked and then accelerated away in a haze of blue light, leaving Hy-Golten with an unrestricted view of bright stars on a dark background.

"Where are we?" Hy-Golten asked the suit, speaking aloud for the benefit of hearing his own voice in the gloom.

"It's a worked-out, or at least abandoned asteroid mine," the suit said after a delay just long enough for Hy-Golten to start being worried.

"An asteroid mine?" he demanded, confused.

The Culture's approach to resource extraction was based on widely available matter transmutation, so almost any otherwise useless hunk of rock or ice could be converted into the useful superstrong or exotic materials used to make ships, Orbitals and indeed almost every artifact the society chose to fabricate. If the Culture was making something substantial in this system, like a manufactory or even just a standard Orbital, they would have sent a tug or two to just sweep up the entire ball of rock and run the whole thing through a matter converter or simply melt the entire object and separate the elements they desired. So, the idea of asteroid mining - digging into a ball of rock with machines - was so primitive that Hy-Golten struggled to understand it.

"Yes, a mine. It's part of a Preserve; remains of significant historical interest," the suit said, "It represented the furthest point of expansion of a humanoid species once living on a planet further towards the sun in this particular system."

The suit dumped a short precis into Hy-Golten's head via his lace. Apparently, this particular species convinced themselves that they were the only intelligent species in the observable universe, and so declined to become a genuinely space-faring society and instead retreated to their planet of origin. They settled in for the long haul, as some species choose to do, not fully appreciating that planets are actually quite fragile places to live, especially if not equipped with reasonably sophisticated long-range asteroid detection and deflection abilities. Nevertheless, they had given up on spaceflight and indeed on most sophisticated industry, and returned to a pastoral lifestyle which was intended to be sustainable indefinitely, living in harmony with the natural resources of the planet; the entire species was wiped out a few thousand years later by an extinction-level asteroid impact.

The few remaining artifacts from this now non-existent civilization were expected to be preserved indefinitely, as a warning, or museum, or monument to their failure by a series of civilizational groups, most recently including the Culture.

"So who looks after this place now?" he asked, looking around.

The asteroid had no atmosphere and almost no gravity. The suit used its fields to allow Hy-Golten to walk almost normally, as well as lighting which lit the interior rather more evenly than the spotlights of the Deluger ship.

"Quietus," the suit said softly.

The Quietudinal Service - Quietus, as it was usually called - was that section of Contact which dealt with the dead. The dead outnumbered the living in the greater galaxy by some distance, if you add up all those individuals existing in the various Afterlives the many different civilisations had created over the millennia. Mercifully, the dead tended to keep themselves to themselves and caused relatively little trouble compared to those for whom the Real was still the place to exist within and try to exploit. Quietus also took on responsibility for worlds of the dead, where it had been deemed appropriate to preserve such places as shrines, monuments, mausoleums, crypts, tombs or exhibitions.

"Ah. So, the totally trustworthy Captain has chosen to deposit us in a place without any people or useful resources, but still entirely within the purview of Contact?" he asked the suit cynically.

"Yup, that's about it," the suit replied, "I've already signalled the Tell It To The Jury, which is on its way. We'll have to hide out here for a day or so, so as not to attract the attention of the local Quietus operation - not that they visit here very often anyway - but we should be away without difficulty. Oh, and I’ve sent all your messages."

"Great," he replied, "I’m glad to think that the Captain will be getting his comeuppance at some point. If I ever felt guilty to defrauding him, I've certainly done away with any such crass emotion now."

The suit's lights picked out a heavy metal door in some ancient metal, its face pock-marked with corrosion and scratched by innumerable collisions.

"This leads to the interior of the rock," the suit said, "I could force it open, but there's no power or atmosphere on the other side either."

"Might as well wait here, then," he muttered.

With the suit's help, he slumped into a sitting position with his back against the decrepit door.

"Wake me when the VFP gets here."

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