"Of course. Your presence is trophy enough. To declare this your home would be -- "
"Excessive," Ziller said pointedly. The drone's aura field flushed a sort of muddy cream color to indicate embarrassment, though a few flecks of red indicated it was hardly acute.
Kabe cleared his throat. The drone turned to him.
"Tersono," the Homomdan said. "I'm not entirely sure why I'm here, but may I just ask whether, in all this, you are talking as a representative of Contact?"
"Of course you may. Yes, I am speaking on behalf of the Contact section. And with the full co-operation of Masaq' Hub."
"I am not without friends, admirers," Ziller said suddenly, staring at the drone.
"Without?" Tersono said, field glowing a ruddy orange. "Why, as I say, you have almost nothing but -- "
"I mean among some of your Minds; your ships, Tersono the Contact drone," Ziller said coldly. The machine rocked back in its chair. A little melodramatic, thought Kabe. Ziller went on, "I might well be able to persuade one of them to accommodate me and provide me with my own private cruise. One which this emissary might find much more difficult to intrude upon."
The drone's aura lapsed back to purple. It wobbled minutely in the chair. "You are welcome to try, my dear Ziller. However, that might be taken as a terrible insult."
"Yes, well. But I meant by us. A terrible insult on our part. An insult so terrible that in the very sad and regrettable circumstances -- "
"Oh, spare me." Ziller looked away.
Ah yes, the war, thought Kabe. And the responsibility for it. Contact would regard this as all very delicate.
The drone, misted in purple, went quiet for a moment. Kabe shifted on his cushions. "The point is," Tersono continued, "that even the most willful and, ah, characterful of ships might not accede to the sort of request you have indicated you might make. In fact I'd wager quite heavily on it that they wouldn't."
Ziller chewed some more on his pipe. It had gone out. "Which means that Contact has already fixed this, doesn't it?"
Tersono wobbled again. "Let's just say that the wind has been tested."
"Yes, let's. Of course, this is always assuming that none of your ship Minds were lying."
"Oh, they never lie. They dissemble, evade, prevaricate, confound, confuse, distract, obscure, subtly misrepresent and willfully misunderstand with what often appears to be a positively gleeful relish and are generally perfectly capable of contriving to give one an utterly unambiguous impression of their future course of action while in fact intending to do exactly the opposite, but they never lie. Perish the thought."
Ziller did a good stare, Kabe decided. He was quite glad that those big, dark eyes were not directed at him. Though, certainly, the drone seemed impervious.
"I see," the composer said. "Well then, I suppose I might as well just stay put. I imagine I could just refuse to leave my apartment."
"Why, of course. Not very dignified, perhaps, but that would be your prerogative."
"Quite. But if I'm given no choice don't expect me to be welcoming, or even polite." He inspected the bowl of his pipe.
"That is why I asked Kabe to be here." The drone turned to the Homomdan. "Kabe, we would be so grateful if you'd agree to help play host to our guest Chelgrian when he or she appears. You would be half of a double act with me, possibly with some assistance from Hub, if that's acceptable. We don't yet know how much time this will take up on a daily basis, or how long the visit will last, but obviously if it proved to be extended we would make additional arrangements." The machine's body tipped a few degrees to one side in the webwood chair. "Would you do this? I know it is a lot to ask and you needn't give a definitive answer quite yet; sleep on it if you please and ask for any further information you'd like. But you would be doing us a great favor, given Cr. Ziller's perfectly understandable reticence."
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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