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

"Ms. Seich?"

"Yes."

"Welcome to Phage Rock."

Vaila Seich was a tall and strikingly handsome woman in late middle age. Her hair, now entirely white, was still long and full-bodied, and was currently plaited into a neat pigtail which fell to her waist. She held herself stiffly erect, scarcely turning her head at all, a mannerism commonplace to those who had spent long hours working in microgravity in a hardshell suit.

"Thank you. And how should I address you?"

"I am the mind of Phage Rock. Most people just call me Phage."

"Okay, Phage. Can you tell me where I will find my meeting?"

"Your discussion group on Multi-modal Inter-Cultural Dependencies can be found in Meeting Room 105, which is on this floor. Please take the corridor to your right, the third door on the left."

The voice of the AI which was apparently in sole control of Phage Rock - such trust these people put in their machines! - emerged from nowhere in particular. Other members of her party were being individually greeted in much the same way as she had been; it seemed that whatever hardware was supporting Phage had plenty of spare computational resources to handle simultaneous personalised greetings.

"Thank you, again."

"You're welcome."

She moved off down the corridor Phage had indicated. The suite of meeting rooms, lecture theatres, auditoria, annexes, breakout spaces, and ad-hoc working places were all spacious and luxuriously appointed, but they were so cold! Much colder than Seich was used to. She wasn't sure whether this was because they were inside an asteroid only a few kilometres wide, and perhaps only tens of metres from the icy coldness of space, or whether the species hosting this particular round of discussions just preferred it that way.

She twisted the cuff controls which turned up the heating inserts in her clothing to their maximum, as well as puffed out the insulation. As she walked, she noticed that emergency airlock seals, consisting of massive rotating slabs of mirrored metal, were concealed in recesses at intervals along the corridor, not making themselves entirely obvious, perhaps, to some people, but completely apparent to one familiar with space habitat construction.

Vaila Seich was still distracted by the imposing engineering of the backup airlock seals when she almost bumped into a man emerging, as it turned out, from the door she had been seeking. As she backed away, she realised that he was a very attractive man. A beautiful man, even. Tall, young-looking, with a well-muscled physique displayed to good effect by a loose singlet and knee-length shorts. He had a wide flat face, an almost completely hairless head - not even eyebrows - and his skin was a rather delicate shade of eggshell blue.

"So sorry! Please accept my deepest and most sincere apologies," she said formally, in her own language.

The young man turned ice-blue eyes in her direction, paradoxically warming her face with a rapid uncontrollable blush, and suddenly smiled widely. She could have gazed into those smiling eyes for ever.

~Hey! No problem. Good to bump into you!

He was a Tursener, from the local solar system which included Tursen, the fourth planet and the only one habitable by humanoids and - now that she had time to think about it - a planet both cooler and drier than her own home world. Tursen was the only planet capable of supporting liquid water, orbited on the outer edge of the habitable zone and was currently emerging from an ice-age phase. No wonder that the locals' preferred temperature and humidity were so different from the relatively moist and warm conditions preferred by Seich's people.

The man's voice, through her ears, sounded warm and deep, alluring, like being bathed in some molten confection. She did not, however, understand a single word of it. Her smart translation device, embedded just under her skin, chose to render his words with a slightly-irritating chirpiness. These machines, now becoming commonplace, allowed near-idiomatic communication in numerous languages, although Seich always felt like she was in a dream, uttering complete gibberish but able to understand what was being said only as if through several layers of sound suppression fabric and a collection of white noise generators.

~I guess you're here for the conference. Which meeting are you attending?

"The one on Multi-modal Dependencies," she said, only slightly flustered.

~Great! I'm in that one, too. I'm Olivero d'Athus dam Fusch.

He extended both hands in a fashion which, Seich knew, represented an everyday formal greeting for a Tursener, but which she would normally have regarded as uncomfortably intimate. Feeling rather forward, even slightly naughty, she took both his hands in her own.

"I am very pleased to meet you. I am Vaila Margaroso Seich."

~Likewise, I'm sure. Well, the first session's about to start, so you'd better get inside. Maybe I'll catch up with you later on?

Vaila Seich nodded in response - a gesture which didn't need any translation here - and d'Athus stepped politely aside, then set off at a brisk pace down the corridor. Seich watched him go. She rather hoped she would be seeing more of Olivero d'Athus.

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