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

Willing Prisoner

It seemed that, unlike the Culture, the Deluger Franchisement had no qualms about bringing a full warship into the volume claimed by the High Seat of the Safanariumal Empire. Admittedly, the Swat with Passion was only a Light Destroyer, and of a mere Aspirant civilization at that, but it was still a very serious piece of ordnance to be docked in one of the numerous ports that decorated the underside of Bhlan Orbital.

Some of the more astute thinkers in the galaxy had long maintained that a civilization's spaceship design ethos was strongly correlated with that society's general civilizational demeanour. Most Culture ships, for example, tried for a balance between functionality and aesthetics: form following function for the most part, but softened by a pervasive, if minimalistic, elegance. The general slab-like structure of a General Service Vehicle, for example, was moderated by elegantly arranged accommodations for millions of people, as well as at least one 'natural' park on its top-side. Culture warships, on the other hand, reflected that society's abhorrence of violence and were generally brutally functional, eschewing any sense of aesthetics whatsoever except, usually, symmetry.

In more martially-orientated societies, warships - and all ships were warships, of course - were often modelled after bombs, shells, torpedoes, bullets, missiles, grenades or even bladed weapons from ages past, just for the satisfaction of the supposedly threatening look, with no regard for the efficiency of such designs. Civilizations with strong historical sensibilities would sometimes shape their craft like famous artworks or artifacts, so it was not entirely impossible to come across a flying statue with a heroic pose; societies which appreciated abstract aesthetic values tended to create ships with geometric shapes: cubes and dodecahedrons were particularly popular.

Hy-Golten wondered what the external design of the Deluger ship said about the Franchisement. It looked like an agglomeration of soap bubbles of various sizes, blown up to a hundred metres across and painted, to his eyes, some motley shades of orange and brown. The curves of the hull were emblazoned in many places with markings and decals for which his suit and neural lace offered translations; he declined; it was all impenetrably technical and at the same time undoubtedly crude and clunky-looking.

"That looks like a fine ship," he said to Captain Mathaclorian, who was politely waddle-walking to keep pace with the human, eschewing the mighty hops he would otherwise have employed in this high-ceilinged place. The float-pallet tagged along behind like an obedient pet, leaving plenty of room for the occasionally slightly erratic progress of human and Deluger.

"Oh, it’s adequate, I suppose," the Deluger responded, half to himself, "Although I really should be in command of a proper cruiser."

Mathaclorian and Hy-Golten entered a worryingly industrial-looking airlock set into the side of the Deluger ship. The inner door was shut tight for some reason, despite the perfectly breathable atmosphere in the dock area. The outer door closed with a noticeable clatter of armoured reinforcements snapping into place; nevertheless, the inner opened smoothly and silently to admit the pair to the body of the ship.

After progressing down a long, wide and very high corridor, the two beings and the automated pallet entered a large circular space, a sphere with the bottom third cut by the line of the floor. The vast hall must have filled an appreciable fraction of the soap bubble - one of many dozens which made up the fabric of the ship - and was very probably close to the central and most well-protected part of the ship. The curved walls were lined with wide walkways - hopways they should be called, Hy-Golten considered - with circular doorways and closed doors which led, it appeared to private quarters and accommodations for the crew.

The atmosphere felt incredibly hot and humid to Hy-Golten's senses. The suit was effortlessly able to keep most of his body at a comfortable temperature, although the hot blast on his face was still both a distraction and distinctly unpleasant. He did not want to close the helmet part of the suit, though, as he suspected this would be regarded as some kind of an insult to the Delugers.

The Captain breathed deeply, distending his chest in a way only a Deluger could manage and letting out a great sigh of evident satisfaction.

"That's better," he muttered to himself, "I was practically freezing to death out there."

A member of the crew bounced up to the Captain, his last hop ending in a posture which, Hy-Golten knew, was supposed to indicate profound obeisance. Even through the species barrier, and without the aid of gestural translation from suit and net, the genuflection looked false, entirely contrived, although it seemed that Acting-Captain Mathaclorian was quite prepared to take it at face value.

The crew-member's emblems and insignia identified his rank as that of Xeno-relationships Officer (First Class), as translated inside Hy-Golten's head by his lace, a somewhat middling rank which, according to the slightly scathing analysis offered by the suit, a position most suited to those with a certain amount of intelligence but lacking in the ability to successfully make his way all the way up the naturally competitive Deluger society ladder.

The officer's mouth and chest moved, the booming words translated for Hy-Golten's benefit as: "All is in readiness, Captain, merely awaiting your words of command."

"Excellent!" the Captain boomed, "Bring forth the scanners and analysers."

The officer turned and bounded away. A few moments later, a mass of Delugers converged on Hy-Golten and the Captain, all identified as of midshipmen rank or lower, according to the suit, and all transporting some kind of complex-looking devices: some smaller items being carried by waddling cadets with larger apparatus mounted on skids or some kind of rather wobbly wheels.

Hy-Golten felt slightly alarmed, even oppressed by the crush of bodies around him, despite having been briefed on this by the Tell It To The Jury. The basics of Deluger biology meant that they tended to breed profusely at the slightest provocation - basically, when the females sensed there was enough for all the offspring to eat and were ready to spawn - so there was no shortage of bodies to perform even the most menial roles. Deluger ships were notoriously over-staffed; even a small-ish cutter like the Swat with Passion would have a crew of over a thousand. Most of the roles would be near-sinecures, with any crewmembers with even the slightest hint of ambition falling over themselves to try and ingratiate themselves with the senior officers.

The swarming Delugers hustled their motley equipment into a rough circle surrounding the Captain, Hy-Golten and the float-pallet. There was a minute or two of confused activity punctuated by many bellowed commands and directions, watched by the man with mildly amused detatchment and by Mathaclorian with obvious if subdued annoyance. Finally the commotion settled down, the crew returning salutes and signals of readiness as the Captain's glare swept around the circle. Mathaclorian turned to Hy-Golten.

"Let's see the Dynastist's Foot, then," he demanded, an edge of suspicion in his voice clearly audible through the translation.

"No problem. Help yourself," the human said airily, turning to the float pallet, "It's not locked."

In response to a short command from his lace, the pallet settled itself on the deck. Hy-Golten walked over and opened the white box by the simple expedient of placing the flat of his hands on both sides and lifting the cover, thereby revealed the antique casket within. There was a moment which could only be interpreted as reverential silence, followed by the prolonged and near-deafening booms of Deluger cheering. Hy-Golten could feel his ears closing up to protect his hearing; if the noise got much louder, the suit would have to intervene and deploy at least some of its helmet components to protect its wearer.

Mercifully, the cacophony subsided before that was necessary. The Captain barked commands to his underlings who set about the operation of their equipment with what was supposed to be interpreted as alacrity, although the lackadaisical attitude was entirely apparent to the human. The crew were quiet for several long minutes, the silence only interrupted by a few peeps and pings and burps from the machinery while they performed whatever arcane analyses they were designed to undertake.

Hy-Golten watched the proceedings sanguinely while the Captain waddled back and forth, showing many signs of agitation and distress, although managed - against all his instincts, it seemed - to avoid haranguing any of his crew. One by one, the equipment operators ceased their intensive operations and stood back, holding up both palms in the Deluger equivalent of a thumbs-up.

"It seems we have the real deal," Mathaclorian said, looking around and sounding simultaneously surprised and gratified.

"Surely you expected nothing else?" Hy-Golten said, contriving to appear just a little hurt.

"Of course, of course," the Captain replied, with a transparent attempt at mollification. He bellowed a couple of commands to the crew still waiting by their equipment, then turned back to the human. "So it is time for me to show you to your cabin."

The moderately spacious suite of rooms that had been allocated for Hy-Golten's use were mercifully much cooler and drier than the rest of the ship. It looked like the Delugers had tried to mimic at least the surface aesthetic of Culture shipboard accommodation but without really understanding the true intent. The proportions were all wrong: the ceilings were too high and the spaces too elongated, and the lighting was placed at a level where it shone directly into Hy-Golten's eyes, rather than being tastefully indirect. Still, it had everything that Hy-Golten really needed, assuming for a moment that the synthesisers and food dispensers operated as expected and produced something tolerably edible.

"I'll leave you here," the Acting-Captain said, probably trying to sound gracious but actually coming off as unctuous, "I'll let you know our next port of call as soon as I can."

*

~The Swat with Passion has just left Bhlan Orbital, the suit privately reported to Hy-Golten via his lace.

~I'm sure it has, he replied, Where we'll end up is still to be determined, though.

~I won't be able to determine the ship's heading without obvious Effector intrusion into the ship's systems. Do you want me to do that?

~No. Let's not display your more advanced capabilities just yet, shall we? Go with the flow, for now, okay?

~Okay. By the way, the door to this space is locked from the outside.

~Really? I'm not entirely surprised. Could you open it?

~Of course. Although it would be obvious that I've interfered with the mechanisms.

~Fine. Again, let's sit tight for the moment.

~Agree.

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