Kabe sat back on his cushions. He blinked a few times. "Oh, I can tell you now. I'd be happy to be of help." He looked at Ziller. "Of course, I wouldn't want to distress Mahrai Ziller..."
"I shall remain undistressed, depend on it," Ziller told him. "If you can distract this bile-purse they're sending you'll be doing me a favor, too."
The drone made a sighing noise, rising and falling fractionally above the seat. "Well, that is...satisfactory, then. Kabe, can we talk more tomorrow? We'd like to brief you over the next few days. Nothing too intense, but, considering the unfortunate circumstances of our relationship with the Chelgrians over recent years, obviously we don't want to upset our guest through any lack of knowledge of their affairs and manners."
Ziller made a noise like a snarled "Huh!"
"Of course," Kabe told Tersono. "I understand." Kabe spread all three of his arms. "My time is yours."
"And our gratitude yours. Now," the machine said, rising into the air. "I'm afraid I've kept us chattering in here for so long we've missed Hub's avatar's little speech and if we don't hurry we'll be late for the main, if rather sad, event of the evening."
"That time already?" Kabe said, rising too. Ziller snapped the cap shut on his pipe and replaced it in his waistcoat. He unfolded himself from the table and the three returned to the main ballroom as the lights were going out and the roof was rumbling and rolling back to reveal a sky of a few thin, ragged clouds, multitudinous stars and the bright thread of the Orbital's far side. On a small stage at the forward end of the ballroom, the Hub's avatar -- in the shape of a thin, silver-skinned human -- stood, head bowed. Cold air flowed in around the assembled humans and varied other guests. All, save for the avatar, gazed up at the sky. Kabe wondered in how many other places within the city, across the Plate and along this whole side of the great bracelet world similar scenes were taking place.
Kabe tilted his massive head and stared up too. He knew roughly where to look; Masaq' Hub had been quietly persistent in its pre-publicity over the last fifty days or so.
Then a few people muttered something and a number of tiny chimes sounded from personal terminals distributed throughout the huge, open space.
And a new star blazed in the heavens. There was just the hint of a flicker at first, then the tiny point of light grew brighter and brighter, exactly as though it was a lamp on which somebody was turning up a dimmer switch. Stars nearby began to disappear, their feeble twinklings drowned out by the torrent of radiation pouring from the newcomer. In a few moments the star had settled to a steady, barely wavering gray-blue glare, almost outshining the glowing string of Masaq's far-side plates.
Kabe heard one or two breaths nearby, and a few brief cries. "Oh, grief," a woman said quietly. Someone sobbed.
"Not even particularly pretty," Ziller muttered, so softly that Kabe suspected only he and the drone had heard.
They all watched for a few more moments. Then the silver-skinned, dark-suited avatar said, "Thank you," in that hollow, not loud but deep and carrying voice that avatars seemed to favor. It stepped down from the stage and walked away, leaving the opened room and heading for the quayside.
"Oh, we had a real one," Ziller said. "I thought we'd have an image." He looked at Tersono, which allowed itself a faint glow of aquamarine modesty.
The roof started to roll back, gently shaking the deck beneath Kabe's trio of feet as though the old barge's engines had woken again. The lights brightened fractionally; the light of the newly bright star continued to pour through the gap between the halves of the closing roof, then through the glass after the segments had met and locked again. The room was much darker than it had been before, but people could see well enough.
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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