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

Vaila Siech had worked for half a generation on the basis of a vision, a personal conviction which had turned into the strength of a crusade. She had been described as a traitor, a fanatic, a terrorist, a lunatic. Nevertheless, she had remained dedicated to a cause which, to her, was self-evidently right: that a society based entirely in space had to be free of any kind of centralised hegemonic control. Not as a piece of purely political dogma, despite what the more scurrilous reports and egregious propaganda might have suggested, but from the principle that it was simply much more efficient, for a highly dispersed society, to allow - indeed, expect - widely-separated groups to make their own decisions about their own futures.

Her life had been variously exciting, exhilarating, frightening, depressing and boring. She had survived political schisms, assassination attempts - physical and character - media and network harassment, a show trial, interment in an off-planet prison colony, and the various dangers and vicissitudes of living mostly in space for the best part of fifty years.

Astonishingly, within her lifetime, the political climate over large parts of her own world - generally known as Rotisiv - had changed radically. She had been personally rehabilitated, returned to her home world and hailed as a hero, a freedom-fighter, a brilliant and imaginative policy-maker. Her once-radical views had metamorphosed into mainstream political thinking. Now, most nations, cultural groups and companies now accepted - even embraced - the progressive view that the task of those on the home world was to enable groups to become self-sufficient in space, and spin off ships, rocks and other space-capable habitats into the void to spread her species across the galaxy.

During the period of her internment, technologies for space travel had improved immensely, thanks to a massive - and still mostly uninterpreted - donation of technological archives from an enigmatic species which called themselves The Onlookers, although their contribution seemed to have completely stopped for reasons currently unknown. Even when stuck at purely relativistic speeds, Seich's people had begun to explore a few nearby systems. Once the Onlookers had given them space warp technology capable of propelling a craft at superluminal speeds, velocities which - for the latest generation of ships - now approached a hundred times the speed of light, the range of their explorations increased phenomenally.

And what they found - against all rational probability - was that there were people everywhere.

Once everybody got over the mutual shock and surprise of encountering a dozen or more other species of metre-scale humanoids, all - by some unimaginable coincidence or, considered much more likely, unseen meddling by some superior agency - at about the same level of cultural and technological development, it was not long before the idea of forming some kind of alliance had begun circulating.

Seich had chosen to stay out of the formal political structure of her world, preferring to present herself as a visionary figurehead rather than a day-to-day politician, although her influence over the future direction of her society was still held to be considerable. So, it was perhaps inevitable she would be one of many asked to represent her world at the interminable series of conferences, negotiations, meetings, forums, seminars, roundtables, summits, discussions and general get-togethers which the process seemed to demand.

~See the geezer standing in the corner? Looks like he's got a pole up his arse?

Olivero's voice purred in one ear, a sound which made a tingle run down Seich's spine every time she heard it. Her embedded translator supplied the meaning rather primly. She was slowly learning the Kurtursen language, the lingua franca of the planet, but she still relied rather too much on the translation device in her skull.

"Yes, I can see him clearly," she answered, suppressing a sudden urge to giggle, "But what is it I should be observing?"

The person who had attracted Olivero's attention was a member of the rather standoff-ish Gzilt delegation. With their uptight martial uniforms and rigidly formal military command structures, there was somehow a certain tension in the room whenever a Gzilt stood to speak. They always seemed to have a slightly different point of view, whatever the topic under discussion. Some had contended, in muted private conversations, that this was because, unlike the majority of the species represented at the conference, the Gzilt were not mammals but egg-laying humanoids.

"He argue for..." Olivero began, then switched to his own language.

~He tried to argue for human supervision of all AIs. No machine to make decisions without somebody approving it first.

The Gzilt seemed to have a certain distrust of smart machines, or at least smart machines with their own personalities. Their approach to the construction of artificial intelligences had focussed on replicating the functionality of the human brain in such a way that the machinery could execute a copy of a person's thought processes. Certainly, members of the Gzilt delegation tended to look uneasy when addressed directly by Phage, for example.

"I imagine he was in a minority of one?" Seich answered. Olivero nodded.

They watched as a uniformed female approached the male Gzilt, who immediately snapped to attention. There was an exchange of complicated hand and arm movements which Seich understood to be some form of salute then, after a short discussion, the two moved off in the direction of the conference suite reception area which led to the docks and airlocks.

~Taking their toys home again, it seems.

There were about eight different species currently involved in deliberations on possible alliances, although different groups and societies seemed to be entering and leaving the discussions with worrying frequency. It looked like the Gzilt were reacting to yet another perceived slight and withdrawing from the conference, again.

Her embedded translator - which also functioned as a communication device - buzzed in her head, followed by a polite but firm request - not an order at all - to attend an urgent all-hands meeting.

"I have got to go," she said to Olivero, squeezing his hands firmly, "See you tonight?"

~You betcha! Hope you're not too tired?

She shook her head slowly, quite unable to keep a knowing smirk from crossing her features.

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