Are you in pain? Look, who are you? It was ours, was it not? Or did we miss something? Silence for a moment. The displacer copied your mind-state to the machine it ejected.
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Are you in pain? Look, who are you? It was ours, was it not? Or did we miss something? Silence for a moment. The displacer copied your mind-state to the machine it ejected. That was why we found your twin so handily placed to intercept you when we realised you were not yet ours and there might be a way out via the displacer.
Actually, I believe your twin machine may have been badly damaged by the plasma implosure directed at yourself, and as all you were trying to do was get away, rather than find a novel method of attacking us, the matter is anyway not of such great importance. Well, never mind. Come and join us now. The rest sleep, with inactive copies of the brain-states in the core, for study.
Do you care for them particularly? And there have been no mind-state total losses at all except that brought about by your displacer. Ha ha! What the crushingly powerful four-limbed hug would have done to a human unprotected by a suit designed to withstand pressures comparable to those found at the bottom of an ocean probably did not bear thinking about, but then a human exposed without protection to the conditions required to support Affronter life would be dying in at least three excitingly different and painful ways anyway without having to worry about being crushed by a cage of leg-thick tentacles.
The nest space was hemispherical in shape and easily a hundred metres across. It was used mainly as a regimental mess and dining hall and so was hung with flags, banners, the hides of enemies, bits and pieces of old weapons and military paraphernalia. The curved, veined-looking walls were similarly adorned with plaques, company, battalion, division and regimental honour plaques and the heads, genitals, limbs or other acceptably distinctive body parts of old adversaries.
Genar-Hofoen had visited this particular nest space before on a few occasions. He looked up to see if the three ancient human heads which the hall sported were visible this evening; the Diplomatic Force prided itself on having the tact to order that the recognisable trophy bits of any given alien be covered over when a still animate example of that species paid a visit, but sometimes they forgot.
He located the heads - scarcely more than three little dots hidden high on one sub-dividing drape-wall - and noted that they had not been covered up. That there was absolutely no rapid way of telling which of these possibilities was the case was exactly the sort of trait the human found most endearing in the Affront.
It was, equally, just the kind of attribute the Culture in general and his predecessors in particular had found to be such a source of despair. Genar-Hofoen found himself grinning wryly at the three distant heads, and half hoping that Fivetide would notice. The juvenile floated closer, trembling even more than politeness dictated, until it was within a tentacle reach. The juvenile eunuch waiter vented away with suitable alacrity. Fivetide turned to the human.
God-shit, how we spoil you, eh! The gelfield suit absorbed the blow by stiffening; Genar-Hofoen staggered a little to one side, laughing. Do you like my new uniform? Genar-Hofoen made a show of looking the other being up and down. To the central mass were attached, congenitally, between six and eleven tentacles of varying thicknesses and lengths, at least four of which normally ended in flattened, leaf-shaped paddles.
A group of discreetly blank portrait discs indicated the females of other clans Fivetide could honourably claim to have successfully impregnated; the discs edged with precious metals bore witness to those who had put up a struggle. Fivetide pirouetted, gas sac swelling and buoying him up so that he rose above the spongy surface of the nest space, limbs dangling, taking hardly any of his weight. He thought himself rather overdressed. There was the gelfield suit itself of course, so much a second skin it was possible to forget he wore it all.
Normally the suit was nowhere more than a centimetre thick and averaged only half that, yet it could keep him comfortable in environments even more extreme than that required for Affronter life. Unfortunately, some idiot had let slip that the Culture tested such suits by Displacing them into the magma chambers of active volcanoes and letting them pop out again not true; the laboratory tests were rather more demanding, though it had been done once and it was just the sort of thing a show-off Culture manufactory would do to impress people.
Typical Culture, thought Genar-Hofoen. Ordinarily Genar-Hofoen had the suit appear milkily silver to an Affronter over most of its surface while keeping the hands and head transparent.
Only the eyes had never looked quite right; they had to bulge out a bit if he was to be able to blink normally. On top of the suit he usually wore a gilet with pockets for gadgets, gifts and bribes and a crotch-cupping hip holster containing a couple of antique but impressive-looking hand guns.
In terms of offensive capability the pistols provided a sort of minimum level of respectability for Genar-Hofoen; without them no Affronter could possibly allow themselves to be seen taking so puny an outworlder seriously. For the regimental dinner, Genar-Hofoen had reluctantly accepted the advice of the module in which he lived and dressed in what it assured him was a most fetching outfit of knee boots, tight trousers, short jacket and long cloak - worn off the shoulder - and in addition to an even bigger pair of pistols than usual had slung over his back a matched pair of what the module assured him were three-millimetre-calibre Heavy Micro Rifles, two millennia old but still in full working order, and very long and gleamingly impressive.
Cradled in three of its limbs was a large tray full of transparent, multi-walled flasks of various sizes. The waiter watched the containers topple, fall and roll on the tray it held with an expression of wide-eyed terror Genar-Hofoen needed no ambassadorial training to recognise. The genuine danger to the waiter of any of the containers breaking was probably small - implosions produced relatively little shrapnel and the Affronter-poisonous contents would freeze too quickly to present much of a danger - but the punishment awaiting a waiter who made so public a display of its incompetence was probably in proportion to that conspicuousness and the creature was right to be concerned.
Is it? Fivetide turned on the waiter. Its gas sac deflated and it ran across the floor membrane for the banqueting area of the nest space, dodging the Affronters gradually making their way in that direction.
Fivetide turned briefly to acknowledge the greeting slap of a fellow Diplomatic Force officer, then rotated back, produced a bulb of fluid from one of the pockets on his uniform and clinked it carefully against the flask Genar-Hofoen held. There would be a lot of this sort of stuff this evening, Genar-Hofoen knew.
The dinner was an all-male gathering and therefore likely to be fairly boisterous even by Affronter standards. Genar-Hofoen nodded as the drink warmed its way down his throat to his stomach.
He coughed, which had the effect of making the gelfield ball out round his mouth like silvery chewing gum for a moment - something which he knew Fivetide thought was the second funniest thing a human could do in a gelfield suit, only beaten for amusement value by a sneeze. My compliments to the chemist. In the old days, at banquets held by the military and within the higher reaches of Affront society, contests between groups of captured aliens had been a particular and reasonably regular highlight, despite the fact that mounting such fights was often hideously expensive and fraught with technical complications due to the different chemistries and pressures involved.
Still, on really special occasions these days the fights would be between two Affronters with a dispute of a suitably dishonourable nature, or between criminals. Fivetide took great pleasure in describing to the human the unique nature of the fish, which were equipped with mouth parts so specialised the fish could not feed normally and had to be raised leeching vital fluids from another type of fish bred specially to fit into their jaws.
The second course was of small edible animals which to Genar-Hofoen appeared furry and arguably even cute.
They raced round a trench-track set into the top of the pit at the inner edge of the circular table, pursued by something long and slithery looking with a lot of teeth at each end. The cheering, hooting Affronters roared, thumped the tables, exchanged bets and insults, and stabbed at the little creatures with long forks while shovelling cooked, prepared versions of the same animals into their beaks.
Scratchounds made up the main course, and while two sets of the animals - each about the size of a corpulent human but eight-limbed - slashed and tore at each other with razor-sharp prosthetic jaw implants and strap-claws, diced scratchound was served on huge trenchers of compacted vegetable matter. The morsel sailed through the air in an elegant trajectory that ended with Fivetide barely having to rise from his place to snap his beak shut on it.
He swivelled left and right, acknowledging appreciative applause in the form of whip-snapped tentacles, then settled back into the padded Y-shaped bracket that served as a seat. His feet dangled over the debris trench which circled the perimeter of the table, and which the suit assured him was reeking in the manner approved by Affronter gourmets.
He flinched and dodged to one side, nearly falling off the seat, as a harpoon sailed by to his left, narrowly missing him. He returned to picking at the miniature pieces of indifferent food in the pressurised containers in front of him, transferring them to his mouth with a gelfield utensil shaped like a little four-fingered hand, his legs swinging over the debris trench.
He felt like a child dining with adults. Ha ha ha! He slapped Genar-Hofoen on the back with a tentacle and threw him half off the seat and onto the table. Genar-Hofoen smiled politely and picked his sunglasses off the table. The Diplomatic Force colonel went by the name of Quicktemper. It was the sort of title which the Culture found depressingly common amongst Affronter diplomats.
Have another throw! The Affronter intercepted it deftly and threw it back, laughing uproariously. Fivetide jerked upright.
Bugger me, what sort of manners do they teach you in that Culture? Good play! Mine; I bet on that! I did! You see, Gastrees? I told you! In all his life he had never been anywhere as unequivocally alien as here, inside a giant torus of cold, compressed gas orbiting a black hole - itself in orbit around a brown dwarf body light years from the nearest star - its exterior studded with ships - most of them the jaggedly bulbous shapes of Affront craft - and full, in the main, of happy, space-faring Affronters and their collection of associated victim-species.
Still, he had never felt so thoroughly at home. It was the module, speaking through the suit. Genar-Hofoen thought. Can you get back here, please? Good grief, are you mad?
I only just got here. A bet? Genar-Hofoen slapped the table with his hand. Several eye stalks turned in his direction. He looked at the others, exchanging knowing looks and sharing in the general laughter; the human had been out-limbed. Genar-Hofoen twisted in his seat and brought his left leg up to stamp its booted heel onto the table surface. Others again looked on with the sort of expression Genar-Hofoen had learned to recognise as a smirk. A thousand! Genar-Hofoen permitted himself a small grin.
What a perfect way of annoying everybody.
Plot summary[ edit ] The Excession of the title is a perfect black-body sphere that appears mysteriously on the edge of Culture space, appearing to be older than the Universe itself and that resists the attempts of the Culture and technologically equivalent societies notably the Zetetic Elench to probe it. The Affront, a rapidly expanding race which practises systematic sadism towards subject species and its own females and junior males, also try to exploit the Excession by infiltrating a store of mothballed Culture warships and using them to claim control of the mysterious object. As a condition the Sleeper Service demands that Genar-Hofoen, a human member of Contact, attend it to seek a resolution with his ex-lover who lives in solitude on the GSV. They had had an intense love-affair and, after a series of sex changes, had each become impregnated by the other until Genar-Hofoen was unfaithful and Dajeil attacked Genar-Hofoen, killing the unborn child. Dajeil then suspended her pregnancy and withdrew from society for 40 years and the Sleeper Service hopes to effect a reconciliation between them. As the stolen Affront fleet approaches the Excession, the Sleeper Service deploys a fleet of 80, remote controlled warships, in a misguided attempt to neutralize the threat. The Excession releases a wave of destructive energy towards the Sleeper Service.