He'd found that later he could often remember exactly the words that had been said, but he still had to work to determine the sense behind them. At the time he would just feel oddly detached. Until the spell was broken, as now, and he was awakened by his name.
He was in the upper ballroom of the ceremonial barge Soliton with a few hundred other people, most of them human though not all in human form. The recital by the composer Ziller -- on an antique Chelgrian mosaikey -- had finished half an hour earlier. It had been a restrained, solemn piece, in keeping with the mood of the evening, though its performance had still been greeted with rapturous applause. Now people were eating and drinking. And talking.
He was standing with a group of men and women centered on one of the buffet tables. The air was warm, pleasantly perfumed and filled with soft music. A wood and glass canopy arced overhead, hung with some ancient form of lighting that was a long way from anybody's full-spectrum but which made everything and everybody look agreeably warm.
His nose ring had spoken to him. When he had first arrived in the Culture he hadn't liked the idea of having com equipment inserted into his skull (or anywhere else for that matter). His family nose ring was about the only thing he always carried with him, so they had made him a perfect replica that happened to be a communications terminal as well.
"Sorry to disturb you, Ambassador. Hub here. You're closest; would you let Mr. Olsule know he is speaking to an ordinary brooch, not his terminal?"
"Yes." Kabe turned to a young man in a white suit who was holding a piece of jewelry in his hand and looking puzzled. "Ah, Mr. Olsule?"
"Yeah, I heard," the man said, stepping back to look up at the Homomdan. He appeared surprised, and Kabe formed the impression that he had been mistaken for a sculpture or an article of monumental furniture. This happened fairly often. A function of scale and stillness, basically. It was one hazard of being a glisteningly black three-and-a-bit-meter-tall pyramidal triped in a society of slim, matte-skinned two-meter-tall bipeds. The young man squinted at the brooch again. "I could have sworn this..."
"Sorry about that, Ambassador," said the nose ring. "Thank you for your help."
"Oh, you're welcome."
A gleaming, empty serving tray floated up to the young man, dipped its front in a sort of bow and said, "Hi. Hub again. What you have there, Mr. Olsule, is a piece of jet in the shape of a ceerevell, explosively inlaid with platinum and summitium. From the studio of Ms. Xossin Nabbard, of Sintrier, after the Quarafyd school. A finely wrought work of substantial artistry. But unfortunately not a terminal."
"Damn. Where is my terminal then?"
"You left all your terminal devices at home."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You asked me not to."
"One hundred and -- "
"Oh, never mind. Well, replace that, umm...change that instruction. Next time I leave home without a terminal...get them to make a fuss or something."
"Very well. It will be done."
Mr. Olsule scratched his head. "Maybe I should get a lace. One of those implant things."
"Undeniably, forgetting your head would pose considerable difficulties. In the meantime, I'll second one of the barge's remotes to accompany you for the rest of the evening, if you'd like."
"Yeah, okay." The young man put the brooch back on and turned to the laden buffet table. "So, anyway; can I eat this...? Oh. It's gone."
"Itchy motile envelope," said the tray quietly, floating off.
"Ah, Kabe, my dear friend. Here you are. Thank you so much for coming."
Kabe swiveled to find the drone E. H. Tersono floating at his side at a level a little above head height for a human and a little below that of a Homomdan. The machine was a little less than a meter in height, and half that in width and depth. Its rounded-off rectangular casing was made of delicate pink porcelain held in a lattice of gently glowing blue lumenstone. Beyond the porcelain's translucent surface, the drone's internal components could just be made out; shadows beneath its thin ceramic skin. Its aura field, confined to a small volume directly underneath its flat base, was a soft blush of magenta, which, if Kabe recalled correctly, meant it was busy. Busy talking to him?
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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