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

Seich and Olivero met again in the shared recreation space where delegates could, if they chose, mingle in a more casual fashion after the close of the official sessions. Alcoholic drinks, and preparations containing other psycho-active chemicals, were available on request, so that conference attendees could eat, drink, smoke and otherwise ingest substances which might lighten moods, reduce inhibitions or otherwise add to the gaiety of species. Food was prepared and served, colour-coded to show which was suitable for each species, and the whole service was orchestrated most efficiently by a small army of wheeled servitors which were largely autonomous, but ultimately under the control of Phage itself.

It was widely - and correctly - asserted that more problems were resolved and issues sidestepped during the after-hours socialising than in any of the formal sessions.

The conference protocol suggested that representatives from visiting civilisations should return to their ships - docked in widely-spaced areas on the outer skin of Phage - to sleep, while the Tursener hosts had accommodations within Phage itself. This allowed conditions to be maintained to be at their most comfortable for the differing requirements of each species. This protocol was, in practice, widely ignored.

Seich and Olivero's relationship was not the only affair to have blossomed during the conference - people being what they are - nor was it the most high-profile. Politeness and general good manners decreed that such things were not really for public comment - or at least any official communication - which meant, of course, that the gossip mill was running overtime trying to keep up with who was sleeping with whom.

Seich was talking to one of her colleagues from the Rotisiv group and a member of the T'satortelligan delegation in one of the open bar areas when Olivero appeared, only ten minutes later than the time he had promised - almost perfect punctuality by his standards. Their eyes locked across the space, holding each other's gaze for a long moment, despite the bar being packed with people, all - it seemed - talking at maximum volume in a multitude of tongues. Her companions glanced at each other, then moved away, barely acknowledged by Seich herself.

Olivero walked towards her, his hips and shoulders rolling in his customary swagger. Seich simply could not drag her eyes away from the much younger man. The bar area suddenly seemed so distant, the entire focus of her world was on the blue-skinned alien looking at her with such beautiful eyes.

She thought back to the astonishing physical regeneration capabilities that some of the pan-human societies in the conference had developed; literally, the ability of re-grow one's own body at the cellular level to a body plan based on a much younger version of oneself. She wondered if she could arrange to be reformed as she had been twenty or thirty years ago, the better to enjoy his present energetic attentions.

Taking her hands in his own in the fashion she had found so alluring at their first meeting, Olivero bent very slightly to bring his mouth close to her ear.

"You look especially lovely tonight," he said, his accent - after weeks of practice in her language - still strong but his words were clear enough, "Do you want to have another drink?"

She looked down at the barely-touched glass in her hand.

"Not really," she answered truthfully, "Do you want one?"

~You must know what it is I really want.

She did, she admitted to herself, indeed know what it was he wanted. And, she knew, it was exactly what she wanted too. Really, really wanted. Right now.

One of the statistically improbable, yet observationally accurate truths about their two species was that, physically, they could have satisfactory - indeed, spectacular - sex together. Hearsay and gossip, from the conference circuit, suggested that something similar was true for most of the humanoids still committed to the conference outcomes. Medicinal and bioengineering techniques from all the societies was more than sophisticated enough to deal with the slightest risk of sexually transmitted diseases, mutually dangerous bacteria or viruses, or biochemical incompatibilities. Indeed, the conference simply would not have been allowed to progress if there was the slightest risk to the health and well-being of the participants.

Nevertheless, there were limitations: it was just not possible for any pair of the different species to have a child together. One direction which had been an early outcome of the less-formal parts of the conference proceedings was a drive for inter-species fertility and full biochemical compatibility. It could not be, everybody had agreed, an immediate outcome of the discussions - there were many more pressing objectives to be achieved, and in any case the scientific understanding required was not fully developed. It was also not something that Seich, at her somewhat advanced age, had really expected to be personally affected by - but her personal experience had made her appreciate just what a huge impact it would have on the societies coming together and the teeming multitudes within.

Seich looked again at the drink in her hand, then downed the entire cocktail in a single movement. The spiciness of the flavourings and the kick of the alcohol made her blink sharply a couple of times; she recovered herself, put the empty glass down on a nearby table and sidled closer to Olivero.

"Let's get out of here," she whispered in his ear.

She slid her hand into his, giving it a gentle tug to indicate just how much she needed to be somewhere much more private with him. Several dozen pairs of eyes identified them about to leave, although none spent more than a fraction of a second looking in their direction.

They had reached the long corridor which led to Olivero's sleeping accommodation when there was a sudden cacophony of confusing sounds: several thudding bangs accompanied by worrying vibrations in the floor, making the two of them stagger, followed by whooping alarms and red lights flashing. The emergency airlock seals rolled ponderously and unstoppably into place, making it impossible to return to the recreational area even if they had still wanted to.

"I'm under attack. Taking evasive action," Phage's voice sounded in her ears, the mind of the asteroid still taking the time to provide personalised messages in multiple languages.

Seich was shocked and surprised, like Olivero and presumably everybody else, but still managed to shout out a question.

"You're an asteroid! How can you be taking evasive action?"

Phage's voice sounded smug.

"Ah. I was coming to that."

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