It was as if she was awakening from a long and restful sleep in a comfortable bed and a contented mood. Her mind seemed sharp, clear, focussed; she knew who she was and what had happened in the emergency refuge. Her body was surprisingly pain-free: no ache in her lungs or rasp in her throat. She could see clearly enough, although the white ceiling was featureless and, when she turned her head, the machinery around her looked sophisticated but basically incomprehensible. She could move her arms; she felt as if she could probably sit up if she tried, although she decided against attempting anything that energetic for the moment.
But where was everybody? The machines would, she had no doubt, have noted that she had regained consciousness within seconds. But there seemed to be no actual humans anywhere nearby. She looked around to see if she could identify a call button or some other means of summoning assistance. As it turned out, she didn't have to. As she looked up again, a nurse entered the room and smiled in her direction, then moved to operate some obscure control on the medical machinery. He had the hairless head and pale-blue skin typical of many Tursen natives.
"I believe the conventional question, under these circumstances," she said carefully, "is 'where am I'?"
"Welcome back," the medic replied, in excellent Rotisivan, "You are in Medical Ward 17, sub-level 5, Section C."
"Yes, well, but perhaps I should be more specific," she said, "On a galactic scale, where am I?"
The medic smiled even more widely.
"My apologies," he said, "I had forgotten how long you had been away. You are within Phage Rock, in interstellar space between Tursen and Rotisiv."
Seich felt herself becoming suddenly confused and agitated, despite the - drug-induced, presumably - calmness she had felt earlier.
"Phage? Interstellar?" she stuttered, then added, "And what happened to Olivero?"
"Olivero d'Athus dam Fusch was notified as soon as you showed signs of awakening. As for your other questions..."
The medic was interrupted by Olivero himself appearing at the doorway.
"You're awake!" he cried, rushing to her side and taking her hand solicitously.
Seich felt the tears welling in her eyes, blurring her vision. She clung to his hand tightly, not wanting to let him go ever again. He seemed more than happy for this to be the case. She blinked away the tears; as her sight cleared, she looked more closely at Olivero. He looked - well, the same but different. Perhaps more lines around the eyes and across his forehead; a certain stiffness in his movements.
"What happened to you?" she gasped.
"I got older," he said simply, "While you, my dear, got younger."
"Younger? What do you mean?" she demanded.
"You were in a pretty bad way by the time I got you out of that emergency shelter," he explained apologetically, "I found a third space-suit in the compartment. I forced the spare helmet over your head, although the seal may not have been perfect. And I blocked the hole with suit components, as best I could - it was far too big to be sealed with quick-setting foam alone."
"You suffered substantial tissue damage from hypoxia and cold," the medic interjected, "You were, technically, dead for a while before the medical resuscitation crew got you out."
She gasped, horrified at the narrowness of her escape.
"You were the only person killed - or very nearly so - during the entire attack," Olivero went on, "So you're something of a hero. You were talked about a lot. So I agitated, a lot, and persuaded enough people that we should use some of that experimental body regeneration technology on you."
"How long was I unconscious?" she demanded.
"It's taken years to put you back together again," Olivero said, grimacing, "I've spent the time learning your language properly, amongst other things."
"Mr. d'Athus has been a frequent visitor to our facilities," the physician added, "Sometimes it's been a bit difficult to get him to leave."
Seich's head was in a whirl. It must have showed, as Olivero squeezed her hands again.
"I think there's lots of stuff you need to catch up on," he said gently.
It took subjective ages for Siech to feel she had finally caught up with everything that had happened while she had been asleep. Olivero spent several hours every day talking to her, while she rested in between exhausting bouts of physiotherapy designed to help her re-learn the movements of her rebuilt body. She took to absorbing content from portable screens and even reading the occasional printed book, for as long as her strength held out. Once she got sturdier and moved to accommodation more appropriate to the reduced demands of her body, she started receiving plenty of visitors; she learned that she was, once again, indeed moderately famous, a celebrity: a figurehead - even as she slept - of resistance to the Hegemony. Olivero was a constant, appearing at her side several times a day; their conversation ranging far and wide over their common interests, topics both personal and political.
Olivero explained that the Hegemony's fleet was taken by surprise by the speed and effectiveness of Phage's armed response. There were detailed high-speed recordings of the devastating impact of several million tonnes of pulverised rubble being hurled into the path of spacecraft approaching at high speed. Having taken a number of casualties, the attack had turned into a rout; the surviving warships turning as rapidly as their engines and life support systems would permit and heading back in the direction of the inner system.
Phage had been more worried about the large number of delegate ships which were still firmly docked with the Rock itself, where there was a certain amount of protection. The lightly-armed and armoured inter-stellar ships would be sitting ducks for Hegemony attack if they had attempted to leave. As it turned out, the Gzilt ships that had earlier left Phage - the only proper warships not aligned with the Hegemony - had returned to help dispatch, or at least see off, the attackers. Nevertheless, it was widely observed that it was the swiftness of Phage's thinking which was the deciding factor in the conflict.
One particular event, extensively recorded at the time and widely commented on subsequently, had stuck in Seich's mind. For the umpteenth time, she replayed a segment which opened with a scene in one of Phage Rock's communal eating areas, with groups of people eating at tables or in quiet conversation.
"Good morning everybody," came the voice of Phage, "I have two announcements to make."
People everywhere looked up, surprised. Phage rarely made announcements audible to a large group, preferring individual private communication.
"First, I declare myself independent of any government or representation of the Tursen system. I wish to join the Aliens as a sovereign entity."
"The Aliens?" a voice shouted, "I thought we were going to be called The Culture?"
There was the shortest of pauses.
"Correction. Current popularity polls do indeed suggest that 'The Culture' is the preferred name. And so I do declare my allegiance to The Culture."
There was a stunned silence, then everybody was on their feet, banging the tables and stamping on the floor in applause.
"I shall take it that this proposal meets with general approval," Phage said, sounding smug, "Secondly, I propose to leave the Tursen system in the very near future, heading in the direction of Rotisiv. All are welcome to join me, all will have the opportunity to leave at any time. Just let me know your preference."
"How are you going to get to Rotisiv?" another voice called out, "Surely you're much too big to use hyperspatial warps?"
"Quite correct," Phage responded, "Even as I speak, automated systems are constructing engines capable of accelerating me to high relativistic speeds. The journey time is expected to be around three years, subjective, and thirty years for the rest of the universe."
Seich knew this to be considerably slower, over the few tens of light-years between the two systems, than any hyperspace-capable interstellar ship, but at an acceleration much higher than any in-system craft she had ever heard about. It seemed that others had had the same concerns.
"But, but, to do that in that time available," came the same voice, "the acceleration would have to be so high that anyone even remotely human will be squashed into paste?"
"Inertia nullification is implied by the mathematics provided by the Onlookers which we use for hyperspace drives," Phage replied.
"That's not possible! Nobody's been able to solve the equations required to determine a stable configuration."
"Well, I've been able to do the sums," Phage replied with a barely detectable hint of pride, "And I think it will work. There's a risk that I'm wrong, perhaps. Feel free to leave if you're concerned."
As it turned out, nobody - nobody at all - jumped ship. Phage - the independent mind whose quick thinking had, perhaps, saved them all and had unilaterally aligned itself with the new grouping, even before the details were fully worked out - had engendered unthinking trust in the abilities of artificial consciousness. It was to become a defining feature of The Culture.
Phage almost immediately became a sort of mobile meeting-point for the continuing and apparently interminable series of conferences shaping the Culture's future. The Gzilt were still arguing for a dedicated military force as part of the new grouping, although all the other civs even now arguing about the precise form of the nascent society seemed set against this. It was Seich who identified an alternative approach, as part of a semi-serious - and slightly inebriated - conversation with Olivero.
"We really need a group to deal with these complex situations," she had suggested, "In circumstances where conventional actions and resources are inadequate or inappropriate, a group which can coordinate resources to be pulled from normal duties - but only when required."
"Ha! You're right," he answered, "We should call it 'Special Circumstances'."