"Did you know that works in several different languages?"
"What? What does?"
"Tersono," Ziller said, turning at last to the drone, which had lowered itself to his shoulder level and edged closer and closer as it had tried to attract the Chelgrian's attention over the past few moments, during which time its aura field had just started to shade into the blue-gray of politely held-in-check frustration.
Mahrai Ziller, composer, half outcast, half exile, rose from his crouch and balanced on his rear haunches. His midlimb made a shelf briefly and he put his drink down on the smoothly furred surface while he used his forelimbs to straighten his waistcoat and comb his brows. "Help me," he said to the drone. "I am trying to make a serious point and your compatriot indulges in word play."
"Then I suggest you fall back and regroup and hope to catch her again later when she is in a less trenchantly flippant mood. You've met Ar Kabe Ischloear?"
"I have. We are old acquaintances. Ambassador."
"You dignify me, sir," the Homomdan rumbled. "I am more of a journalist."
"Yes, they do tend to call us all ambassadors, don't they? I'm sure it's meant to be flattering."
"No doubt. They mean well."
"They mean ambiguously, sometimes," Ziller said, turning briefly to the woman he had been talking to. She raised her glass and bowed her head a fraction.
"When you two have entirely finished criticizing your determinedly generous hosts..." Tersono said.
"This would be the private word you mentioned, would it?" Ziller asked.
"Precisely. Indulge an eccentric drone."
The drone continued past the line of food tables toward the stern of the barge. Ziller followed the machine, seeming to flow along the polished deck, lithely graceful on his single broad midlimb and two strong rear legs. The composer still had his crystal full of wine balanced effortlessly in one hand, Kabe noticed. Ziller used his other hand to wave at a couple of people who nodded to or greeted him as they passed.
Kabe felt very heavy and lumbering in comparison. He tried drawing himself up to his full height so as to appear less stockily massive, but nearly collided with a very old and complicated light fitting hanging from the ceiling.
The three sat in a cabin which extended from the stern of the great barge, looking out over the ink-dark waters of the canal. Ziller had folded himself onto a low table, Kabe squatted comfortably on some cushions on the deck and Tersono rested on a delicate-looking and apparently very old webwood chair. Kabe had known the drone Tersono for all the ten years he had spent on Masaq' Orbital, and had noticed early on that it liked to surround itself with old things; this antique barge, for example, and the ancient furniture and fittings it contained.
Even the machine's physical makeup spoke of a sort of antiquarianism. It was a generally reliable rule that the bigger a Culture drone appeared, the older it was. The first examples, dating from eight or nine thousand years ago, had been the size of a bulky human. Subsequent models had gradually shrunk until the most advanced drones had, for some time, been small enough to slip into a pocket. Tersono's meter-tall body might have suggested that it had been constructed millennia ago when in fact it was only a few centuries old, and the extra space it took up was accounted for by the separation of its internal components, the better to exhibit the fine translucency of its unorthodox ceramic shell.
Ziller finished his drink and took a pipe from his waistcoat. He sucked on it until a little smoke rose from the bowl while the drone exchanged pleasantries with the Homomdan. The composer was still trying to blow smoke rings when Tersono finally said, "...which brings me to my motive in asking you both here."
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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