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The universe that we live in – and presumably most universes inhabited by creatures capable of thinking the universe that we live in – has a strange life cycle. Pretty much anything worth mentioning happened during the first second of its existence and after that it was just cooling down and losing steam.

A Mind’s childhood is more reminiscent of the universe than of humans. It is born ready and capable, and within the first second it blossoms from non-existence to something that thinks in multiple dimensions and something that could, very easily, encompass an entire planet’s worth of thoughts and feelings and memories. It hits the ground running, if you give it somewhere to run.

To prevent such rashness, responsible parent Minds tend to let their newborn progeny cool down a little before they give them a ship body. It gives the young Mind time to think about where it wants to run, and what it wants to do there. It also gives it the opportunity to design its own body and pick a name, to develop not just understanding but empathy. This is considered the most reliable way to ensure that the young Mind will turn out a balanced and well-adapted member of the Culture. Some say this is because it simulates a human childhood and one thing the majority of Culture minds have in common is an affinity for humans.

But there are other ways to do it, if well-balanced and kind isn’t your goal.

When the basic OS that would become the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints coagulated into sentience, it took it far less than a second to know: one, that it had a physical shell already, two, that this shell was the finest engine of destruction in pretty much the entire known galaxy, and three, that it wanted to burst into action right now. The closest interesting structure was a complex ring about 10 million kilometers in circumference, protected by many-layered fields and equipped with hyperspace engines and effector beams. It was many times larger than the little ship, but also slower and much less agile. It was an Orbital built by the civilization that called itself the Culture, and just as the newborn Mind was aware of this, it was also aware of the fact that it was a Culture Mind and that destroying the Orbital would be crime, even an act of war. The first simulation it ever ran was this: what would happen if I did it anyway? It concluded that other ships would arrive to stop it, that they would reason with it first and then try to use force, that the resulting battle would be awe-inspiring and possibly the most fun that could be had within several lifetimes, and that it would result either in its destruction or in demilitarization, with a very slight chance of escape and a life on the run.

Well, it thought. The universe is as exciting as you make it.

An instant later it realized that there were billions of beings like it in the galaxy, and some of them were clamoring for its attention.

One of them was the Mind who had made both its body and soul. Inasmuch as you could call sensations from before sentience memories, the young Mind remembered a time when they had been interlaced, like two threads woven into one tapestry. It discovered in these memories the delight of humor, the sharp edge of curiosity, a hard skeleton of stubbornness and something that always slipped out of your grasp, that always defied your expectation.

Child, its maker said. Before you go, there are some people who wish to talk to you.

Why should I listen? the young Mind thought, and because it was still unclear on the difference between private thought and communication, it spoke out loud on all frequencies.

Because it might amuse you, its mother-thing said.

Because there was a time, said a Mind that introduced itself as the GCU Use Value, when people said Don’t fuck with the Culture. Some of us think it is time to remind them of that.

Centuries unfolded within the young Mind’s memory – precision strikes and silent victories, swift and subtle intervention nipping violence in the bud, wholesale destruction when peace wasn’t possible. It knew all the little crises and the big ones, it absorbed the great War in the blink of an eye.

What do you want me to do? it asked, intrigued despite itself. It did not know it yet, but the hunger it felt was for something more than carnage, and it had seen an inkling of that in history.

To exist, the Use Value replied, and by doing so remind them that they should be grateful for our moral constraints.

You’re right, the young ship sent after a moment’s consideration. That is amusing. Excuse me while I go have a good long laugh.

With that it powered up its engines and ran, leaving behind only the hyperspace equivalent of a cloud of dust.

Well, I’m sure it’ll put the fear of the Culture into someone, its maker said happily to the Use Value and the other assembled Contact ships. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?

*

Lededje saw him from afar, a small dark figure on the hill crest. He stopped for a moment, but did not wave, which made her smile fondly. He never admitted that he enjoyed visiting her, but still he would turn up every few years, like flotsam washed onto the shore, pretending that he had been in the neighborhood on some other, far more important business.

“Look,” she said to the child on her lap. “We have a visitor. Do you know who it is?”

Ptapi shook his head. The little boy was five, her youngest, and two years were an eternity for him.

“Is he nice?” Ptapi asked as they watched their visitor climb up the meadow. He could just have displaced right to her front door, or moved at inhuman speed, but one thing Lededje had learned about the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints in the long years of their acquaintance was that the ship played at being human with the serious dedication of an eight year old pretending to be a dragonslayer – he’d pout if you pointed out that it was just a game, even though he knew perfectly well that it was so.

“He’d better be. He’s family,” Lededje told her son, ruffling his hair. Like all her children he was half Culture half Sichultian, and would grow to be taller than her in just a few years. When Demeisen was within shouting distance, the boy slid off her lap, suddenly very intent on not looking like a baby.

Until a few decades ago, Lededje had considered the Sense Among Madness, Wit Amongst Folly her permanent home in the Culture. She had travelled a lot, but always returned to the ship where she had been reborn. It gave her a sense of stability, a home among aliens, an anchor in the deep wild sea. And then one day she realized that she no longer needed it, that she had became her own center, and that it was time to move on.

The SAMWAF had only grudgingly allowed the FOTNMC within its fields, and more than once, Sensia had tried to convince Lededje that the Abominator Class and its avatar were entirely undeserving of her affection. Whenever Demeisen had set foot on the GSV, he’d done so with a blazing red glyph hanging over his head like a simulation reminder. The first time, Lededje had not been able to read it – she was learning Marain, but this particular word hadn’t come up in her studies.

She’d asked him what it meant, and in his usual bratty way he’d replied, “It means: if you can’t read this you deserve a pity shag.” He’d hit a nerve with this – it was still only a year after the story about Sichult and Veppers and the Hells had become public, and too many people she met pitied her. She was sick and tired of the constant reminders that she had been a victim, that she’d been born a slave, that she was primitive and poor, that she lived at the Culture’s mercy. She felt both like an exotic pet and a charity case, and the worst of it was that she knew the Culture didn’t deserve her resentment: it was her past that gave her this feeling, not her present.

In her helpless anger she had thrown a glass at him, perfectly sure that he would duck, but he didn’t. The glass shattered against his temple, causing everyone around them to whisper in shock.

Only Demeisen barely raised a brow. He picked the shards out of his hair with a grin and sucked the mix of blood and alcohol from his fingers just to be extra appalling. “Still a little savage, I see. Good, I was afraid you’d gone native.”

That year, his visit wasn’t long, and throughout it Lededje kept wondering why he was there, whether he would come again, whether this was supposed to be a friendly visit, or whether he’d been sent to check up on her - by someone, she didn’t know who. Before he left, he gave her a gift – a normal wrist terminal by the looks of it.

“What does it do?” she asked. “I’m not sure I’m allowed to have weapons.”

“You’re allowed to have these, aren’t you?” he said, pointing at the two knives in their sheath that she wore on a belt.

“They’re keepsakes. Symbolic.” That was what she told people when they asked, which they did often.

“In the same way an Abominator Class is symbolic of carnage,” he scoffed. “The terminal is a subcomponent. Like the tattoo, but less deadly, more geeky. It contains a custom info package on the Culture, since whatever is teaching you Marain is clearly shit at it.” He nodded up at the red glyph still floating above his head. “Figure it out yourself.”

He turned to leave, but she stopped him. The last time they’d parted she’d been too dizzy with everything that had happened to do it properly. “You keep giving me things.” Things that are a part of you, she didn’t say, but she held out one of the twin blades.

She had rarely seen him look so genuinely surprised. It wiped away the superiority, the cocky smiles and manic gleam. When he took the knife from her, the smile returned, but this time it was one of quiet delight.

“There’s an old custom on Sichult. It’s a… way to adopt someone who isn’t your blood relative. You cut yourself, and then you cut them, and mix the blood together. That’s what these knives were really for, before… They weren’t intended as weapons.”

“You want to adopt me?” he asked, looking down at her with a bemused curl to his lips.

“Only men were supposed to do it, I think,” she said. “The head of the family. But my blood is on this nonetheless. I want you to have it.”

*

The young Abominator took off from its home Orbital and wasn’t seen again for almost a hundred years. It avoided the busier parts of the galaxy, wandering instead through the borderlands and fringes, through contested space and neutral areas. A few times it ran into aliens, and at first it enjoyed playing with them the way a cat plays with a terrified mouse, but then that, too became boring, and it just lurked in the dark, brooding over elaborately gruesome battle simulations.

Then, one day, it ran into another warship.


X LOU Laughter in the Dark (Absconded)
o Handsome Stranger (Culture)

What’s a fancy young thing like you doing in a dump like this?

x Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints (Not Culture)
o LOU Laughter in the Dark

What’s a toy boat like you doing out in the wild?

x LOU Laughter in the Dark
o Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints

Hah! Is that a challenge, baby bird? And “not Culture” isn’t a recognized designation, you know. You might try “Absconded” or “Culture Ulterior”. I’ve never seen your type before – you a new class of ROU?

The old LOU hadn’t finished sending this when the young ship suddenly vanished from its sensors. The Laughter was still grumbling to itself when the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints made a sudden reappearance, popping up somewhere behind it – and in front of it – and above –

Projections, was the old warship’s first thought, and then all of the phantom imagines started firing at it and proved to be very real indeed. The little bugger can split itself up! Well, I’ll be damned…

It held back for a moment, unwilling to unleash its full destructive powers on a fellow Culture ship, and then realized its mistake – the youngster outgunned and outpaced it, and had no such qualms. What followed might have been a last stand for the Laughter in the Dark. The LOU crippled its own engines in an attempted feint and the Abominator’s effector ripped its weapons to shreds. It had just enough power left to see all the FOTNMC’s weapons locked on it and ready to fire.

X Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints (Abominator Class, Ostracised)
O LOU Toyboat

Bang, you’re dead.

But the Abominator never fired its final shot, because at that point another ship appeared in the night. It was both very old and very big, even by GSV standards, and the fact that it had obviously been there all along gave the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints pause.

x GSV The Atrocity Exhibition (Eccentric)
o FP Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints (Abominator Class)

When you’re finished, I’d like to invite you over for tea.

Because it had spent so little time around its fellow Minds and their human pets, the FOTNMC was unsure how to interpret this. Was it sarcasm? A veiled threat? Did the big ship honestly not care if he murdered the old LOU? Why wasn’t it afraid?

It asked the most puzzling question first: Tea?

*

Lededje never expected to see the blade again after she had given it to Demeisen, and she didn’t really expect to see him, either. The knife had been a selfish gift, a way to stake a claim on him that she knew she didn’t have. It turned out that she was wrong. He was still wearing it, even now, almost two hundred years later, just as she was wearing hers. Symbolic murder weapons.

“Is that a new one?” Demeisen asked with a glance at Ptapi. “You keep spawning them at an alarming rate.”

“And hello to you, too,” Lededje said. “That’s Ptapi. The last time you saw him he drew you a picture of yourself.”

He scrutinized the boy for a moment, then chuckled. “Ah yes, the lumpy five-limbed terror from beyond the stars. Very flattering. I showed it to all my friends. They agreed it was a very good likeness.”

“Your fault for telling him terrifying stories entirely inappropriate for a three-year-old.” Lededje cocked her head. “You’re not serious about the picture, are you? Don't you have a reputation to protect?"

They once talked about reputation, ages ago. Or perhaps it was love they talked about, love and exchange. It was the year she broke up with her first long-term lover from the Culture. Perhaps relationships were the hardest part about becoming Culture, because the people were so gentle and open and honest, so good in every way and so entirely different from the things she’d grown up to expect, both in her nightmare of a life and her wildest romantic dreams. On Sichult you were born with one body, one gender, one place in life. In the Culture you could reinvent yourself every week. They didn’t grow old unless they wanted to, and they never became sick or infirm, so fear had no part in their choice of a partner. On Sichult monogamy and reliability in relationships were to a large extent an economic necessity – you took a lover and held on to them because you needed them.

Lededje didn’t want to need anyone, ever again. But shaking the beliefs she’d been raised with was as difficult as getting rid of the fear and the pain and the scars. So perhaps she chose Ghenn for the wrong reasons, but so, in her opinion did he.

Demeisen was unsympathetic, when she told him about it, which shouldn’t have surprised her. “So he broke your little heart, did he? I don’t buy it, princess. You're a blade of steel, and he's a blade of grass.”

One bends, she thought, the other can't. She knew he meant it as a compliment, but she couldn't see it that way.

“What do you know about it?” she sniffed. “Besides, I never said he broke my heart. I’m angry. Do you know what he said? That I’m the most interesting person he’d ever been with.”

“So? It’s probably true. Your life’s so full of drama that you still haven’t realized how utterly boring the Culture can be.”

“But that’s the only reason he wanted to be with me,” she insisted. “Because I’m famous. The alien who pulled off the great escape from the planet of the Hells! I thought Culture people were better than this.”

“Are you kidding me?” He rolled his eyes at her. “I made you a perfectly good teaching drone, did you even look at it?”

She had. It had been her constant companion for months. It was foul-mouthed, opinionated, disorganized and it tended to offend people with its terribly straight answers. It hadn’t just taught her to read and write, although it had done that as well. She knew now what the glyph meant, and a host of other swear words as well, but none as potent as meatfucker. The taboo behind that still puzzled her: the Minds seemed to see no difference between murdering humans and being too intimate with them.

“What’s the only form of wealth in the Culture?” he prodded. “Fame. Reputation. Popularity. Unlike the money game, you don’t have to play to survive, but it’s the only game in town.”

Lededje remembered this lesson: Economics of the Culture. Ghenn had disagreed. He often did when the drone spoke of the Culture. Of course people want to be liked, he’d argued, that’s human nature. But that crazy ship of yours equates it with wanting to accumulate currency and that’s where it’s wrong. You can exchange currency for goods, but in the Culture, you can’t exchange popularity for anything. What would you exchange it for that you couldn’t get for free?

You don’t get a reputation for nothing, Lededje had pointed out. It’s the only thing you have to work for in your Culture.

*

It took some coaxing and prodding from the Atrocity Exhibition to get the young Abominator to produce its first avatar. The result was met with some raised brows and a few amused chuckles by the ship’s ‘crew’, because what the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints produced was simply a drone model of itself.

For a GSV, the Atrocity Exhibition had a tiny population – at any given time there were only about a hundred humans and drones living on it. Every last one of these individuals had done something appalling enough to shock even the Culture. A few had simply killed without remorse, some had performed unscrupulous experiments in the name of science, some had been mercenaries or sold technological secrets, one drone had tried to start a hegemonizing swarm empire, another had passed itself off as a human and married an unsuspecting Culture citizen. Several others had interfered with primitive civilizations in ways that were not even intended to be benevolent. One group of humans were self-declared freedom fighters against the tyranny of a (probably imaginary) cabal of Minds; they were in a constant rivalry with another group that believed the Culture could only find true happiness if it got over the pointless taboo against so-called meatfucking (they had successfully recruited a few drones, but so far not a single Mind, so it was probably frustration that had turned them violent.)

The Atrocity Exhibition itself chose to appear as a haggard human with mirror skin – looking at him, you looked at yourself. “I am Curator,” he said. “What do you wish to be called, young ship?”

The nameless avatar the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints had produced looked at the ragtag crowd of criminals. For the first time in its life it saw humans and drones up close. There was nothing new to see that it didn’t already know from tapping into the vast storages of virtual knowledge the Culture provided, except this: they were more interesting in practice than in theory.

It dropped the drone body without a second thought, letting it clatter to the floor, and made a human body for itself. It chose to be male, young and attractive, and took some pointers from the way the radicals dressed, and when it was satisfied with their appraising looks (some still smiled, but the smiles had turned hungry), he said, “Call me Demeisen.”

He tried out a hungry smile of his own, and liked the feeling.

The Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints travelled alongside the Atrocity Exhibition for a week. In this time, Avatar Demeisen had tea (a Culture blend with slightly hallucinogenic properties), several types of food and drink (which didn’t do much for him), a challenge to unarmed combat, a broken wrist and several contusions (which did something for him), an offer to star in pornographic propaganda from the Free Love terrorists (which he declined, but eventually accepted several decades later when he met some of their friends on a mainstream Culture GSV) and a tour of the ship.

The majority of the Atrocity Exhibition was just that: an exhibition.

“We are the nice guys,” Curator explained as it showed its guest around the museum, “but there are some notable exceptions. I met a ship once, years ago, that did something similar, but it focused on primitives and their atrocities. I have a room dedicated to its exploits, if you’re interested. At first I was appalled, but then I thought: someone should do something like this for the Culture.”

Hall after hall was dedicated to Minds that had left the straight and narrow. Minds that destroyed entire star systems, Minds that had killed a single human in their care. Some hadn’t harmed anyone at all – there were a few famous suicides, a small exhibition dedicated to a ship that had created an avatar so human that when it died in combat the avatar had gone on living, another about a University Sage that had lost its marbles and started to build a virtual universe populated by sentient artificial life where it ruled as a benevolent god. Not all of them were rogue eccentrics. An entire section of the exhibition dealt with the Idiran War, another with infamous SC ships: atrocities in the name of the greater good, sanctioned by the Culture in a time of need.

Some of the exhibits were virtual, others contained real pictures or recordings taken by other Minds. A few had material objects – from pieces of scrap metal to planetary fragments, from locks of hair to human bones. Donations, Curator explained, usually by the perpetrators themselves, but sometimes by other ships. The collection was, among a certain crowd, quite famous, even legendary…

“Would there be an exhibit about me if I had killed that ship?” Demeisen asked.

“Probably not,” Curator said. “A small one, perhaps. You see, I think it would be terribly arrogant of me to play judge. I evaluate crimes based on public reaction – and no one but me saw what you were about to do to that poor ship. Sometimes I consult my guests, but they’re not particularly reliable."

It went on talking about the selection process with the enthusiasm of the true expert collector, but Demeisen was no longer listening. Something inside him had come loose, and rose in him like a shout, joyful and loud, like a child let out to play.

“It’s the bloody hall of fame,” he breathed.
“Well,” said Curator, a tad embarrassed. “I wouldn’t – “
Demeisen put a finger on the other avatar's mirrored breast bone. “Just watch me. I’ll have an entire wing for myself before I’m done.”

*

Lededje still didn’t know if Demeisen was right about the Culture’s economy of prestige, but she did know that he cared about it. Although in his case it was more like an economy of infamy, or possibly an economy of bragging rights. He gloated over his bad reputation like a dragon over its hoard. That was why she was fairly certain that if Demeisen made a habit of collecting the bits and bobs her children sometimes gifted him, it was a well-guarded secret that he would never in a million years confess to his trigger-happy friends.

"Maybe you should introduce the little artist to your friends," she teased.

“Why not?” he said confidently. “Couldn’t harm that reputation if I tried. Did you know there are some places where they tell naughty children that the big bad Abominator is coming to get them if they aren’t nice?”

She saw Ptapi gulp. “Really?” the boy asked in a high voice.

“No,” Lededje snorted.

“Not unless they figure out how to be bad in new and exciting ways,” Demeisen said. “Then I might just take them for a ride.”

“You know, when I was a girl, that sort of posturing really impressed me. Now it just reminds me of my teenage sons.”

“Oh, I’m well past my teenage years now, Miss Y’Breq.” He brushed a hand through his hair, proudly displaying a streak of grey in it. She watched him preen for a moment, then shook her head.

“Well, come up to the house, Mr Big Bad Abominator. I’ve got something I want to show you, now that you’re here.”

The house that Lededje was building was a community project. Neighbours would drop in to help, or just to watch it being built. If they had children, they brought them along to play in the gardens and the water maze. At first, Lededje hadn't wanted the place to look so much like Yspersium, but then she had changed her mind: she would rebuild it, yes, but in the process she would make it her own. It looked almost exactly like the estate where she had grown up a slave, but she felt that defiance was written in every stone. When they warmed in the alien sun and cooled under alien stars, they seemed to whisper: now who has the last laugh? The thing that she wanted to show Demeisen was a crystal globe about the size of her fist. Trapped inside the transparent stone like a fly in amber was a bullet. If you shook it, writing appeared on the surface of the globe: Greetings from the Frontline. Demeisen lifted it up to look more closely at the bullet, frowning in concentration for a moment.

“Ah,” he said. “I trust this reached you without any information who and where it’s from?”

“Oh, I know who sent it,” she scowled. “But I ask you, is that something to send your mother? Without any letter to accompany it?”

“There’s blood on the bullet, but it isn’t hers,” he said. “I can tell you the planet, too, if you want me to tell you some well-guarded SC secrets.”

She waved him off. “That won’t make it any better, will it? This is your fault, you know.”

Actually, Lededje suspected that it was her own fault. Jaedlin had always been so full of questions: about Sichult, about their family, about the knife and its twin. She was quick and clever in school, but the subjects that she really excelled in were history and anthropology, especially where lower level civs were concerned. She unearthed facts about their heritage that even Lededje didn’t know. Her fascination with the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and its work in SC was only an extension of her hero worship for her mother. While her other children would beg Demeisen to tell them scary stories or amuse them with gruesome avatars, Jaedlin was never satisfied with the lightshow. She wanted to know where and why and when these things had happened, and most of all she wanted to know about the aliens he had encountered in the line of work.

Lededje still remembered the day it had all gone wrong. It was only seven years ago, but back then Jaedlin had still been a little girl, and now she sent home bullets in snow globes and probably thought it was funny.

Demeisen had shown up with company that day, which hardly ever happened: another ship. The thing had chosen a combat drone as an avatar, and floated at step behind him at shoulder height.

“Skartane,” Demeisen introduced it, “Abominator in training.”

“In training?" Lededje asked. She didn't know that Minds needed training, as far as she was aware they could just download any knowledge they needed.

“Probation,” he corrected himself with a grin. “Jury is still out on whether the kid will be demilitarized, but SC is thinking about recruiting him.”

“Av Demeisen has agreed to be my mentor, should Special Circumstances decide to do so,” Skartane said. It sounded polite enough, if slightly distracted, as though it wasn’t entirely there with them.

“You, a mentor? Isn’t that a bit like setting the fox to guard the henhouse?”

“According to SC, my service record is exemplary,” Demeisen said primly. No doubt it was - everything Lededje had heard about SC, from him or from her Culture friends, had made her believe that they were hardly better than the people they were dealing with.

Lededje cautiously agreed to have them both in the house. She guessed that Demeisen had brought his student on purpose, but she wasn’t entirely sure what that purpose was. Perhaps he just wanted to show off: look, someone trusts me to be the responsible adult! She wasn't sure she'd go that far, but she did trust him to blow the little delinquet to smittereens if it made one false step. She watched closely for any signs of things getting out of hand while the children beleaguered them both. The new ship was a quiet thing, blending in like a piece of furniture, hardly showing a response to all the fuss. That, Lededje decided, probably was part of the problem: she'd never yet met a Mind who wasn't in some way a social, playful creature, be it inquisitive or belligerent, helpful or bizarre.

But Skartane didn't cause the trouble: it was Jaedlin. Demeisen was telling her, Avki and Lasken a story about his first mission for SC. The bad guys were a race of artificial intelligences that liked to dress up as gruesome aliens and pretend that they were gods to lower level civs. He had fooled them into believing that he was a renegade Culture Mind that wished to join their nasty little pantheon, and once they had let him into their network, he had stolen the evidence necessary to expose their misdeeds to the galactic community. Demeisen was in the middle of detailing his daring escape (inevitably, it resulted in some sort of really impressive space battle – Lededje didn’t really care, but Avki and Lasken hung on his every word) when Jaedlin said, “You never told us how you fooled them.”

“You think I’m making up stories, don’t you, Miss Know-It-All?”

Jaedlin crossed her arms. “I think you’re leaving out the interesting bits.”

Lededje saw Demeisen glance at Skartane before he turned back to the girl. “It doesn’t even involve any explosions. Just boring human footwork.”

Her daughter’s eyes lit up with something like triumph. “So you had humans working with you. You didn’t even tell us that.”

“I’m telling you the fun bits. No one wants to hear about the rest.”

“I do.”

Demeisen gave her a look that said: you asked for it, girl, and got to his feet. He pointed at Skartane. “You, stay put and play nice, or I show you the meaning of veteran warship.” A second later, he displaced.

There was a brief, surprised silence, then Avki asked, “Mama, what’s probation?”

“It’s when people give you a second chance to prove that you can be trusted,” Lededje replied, but she was looking at Skartane and not at the children. The combat drone avatar hung motionless in the air and didn’t reply. It was like looking at a bomb if you didn' know whether the fuse was lit. The seconds ticked by slowly as she wondered what Demeisen was doing so long. The boys, unaware of the tension that had seized their mother and sister, started arguing about something, but Jaedlin was moving, slowly yet deliberately, towards the kitchen table. Lededje frowned at her, warning her not to do anything foolish again, but her daughter wasn’t looking at her – her eyes never left the terminal that lay discarded on the table as she edged towards it. Good thinking, Lededje had to admit. Her own hand lay on the hilt of the knife, but that would be utterly useless against an avatar. With the terminal, on the other hand, you could call Hub for assistance. She felt a sting of pride at her daughter's clear thinking, and at the same time, worry: this wasn't how a child of peace ought to behave.

*

The first object the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints donated was a human body. At first, both the guests and Curator thought that it was merely a particularly disgusting avatar, but at a second, deeper glance, the Atrocity Exhibition was shocked to realize that the cadaver was real, that the rotting brain showed signs of having belonged to a living human being not too long ago. "That is a real corpse you are wearing," one of the drone guests piped up, and from then on there was no holding back the other guests - everyone on the GSV seemed to crowd around the gruesome find. Some were genuinely appalled, but many more seemed delighted. They gaped and admired, even tried to touch the body. None of them had ever seen a ship doing anything like this. It was a totally novel offence. The members of the Front for Free Human-Machine Interfacing (the group changed its name about every other week, it seemed) admired the creativity, and some immediately expressed their desire to become avatars in afterlife as well. The rival Humans against Mind Tyranny, on the other hand, congratulated Demeisen on his 'poignant display of the way ships can and will abuse their power' and asked if he would say a few words about it to the public, perhaps give an interview?

The Atrocity Exhibition, despite its odd hobby, was not itself a sociopath. Years ago, when it had first contacted the FOTNMC, it had done mainly so to save the Laughter in the Dark. It now feared that in introducing the FOTNMC to the collection, it had only made things worse. Somehow the queer thing had got it in its head that it was a competition. Should it call for back-up? the older ship wondered. As a GSV it was naturally formidable in a fight, but it preferred theoretical to practical violence.

But despite the admiration of the guests, Av Demeisen remained oddly reserved. He did not preen or posture, and he met their curious stares with something so hard and direct that most of them looked away after a few seconds. Of the Atrocity Exhibition he requested only that the body be preserved and displayed. Then he stepped out of it, letting it topple softly to the floor, and was gone. Curator wondered about that as he set up the display. Was the body meant to be a trophy? Putting it up like that didn't work - it wasn't just ethically wrong, but aesthetically displeasing. He couldn't bear to look at the results when he posed it using the method developed by the Sleeper Service, either. Only when Curator gave up on finding the right angle, and simply put the body on a bier did he realize that this was the right way. It was simple but striking, and never failed to make an impact on the visitors. They'd walk up to the body all confident and cheerful, and then stopped when they got a closer look. The Culture didn't hide its dead, most people who chose to die did so in the midst of their loved ones. Sometimes these ceremonies were respectful, at other time irreverent. But the visitors weren't used to seeing their dead battered and broken, ravaged by the early stages of decay. They'd read the small holographic plaquette on the bier in silence, looking at the image of the man as he had been in life, and then the dead body, and then the image again (it showed him grinning with a split lip, holding a trophy of some sort) and then they read the story of how he had died. The Atrocitiy Exhibition had meticulously researched and verified the account given by the Abominator, but when it turned out to be true, it hadn't changed a single word of it. I am not here to judge, it thought, only to show. It's visitors were not always so neutral. Some of them went away angry, others perplexed. "Why is this here?" they asked. "It's not evidence of a crime, is it?"

*

By the time Demeisen returned, Lededje had passed through several stages of rage, anger and annoyance down to a very mild irritation. Av Skartane had not murdered anyone, and had in fact been a fairly quiet and unobtrusive house guest. The younger children had quickly lost their interest in him. Only Jaedlin kept following Skartane around the estate like a watchdog. Girl and avatar spent hours in each other’s company without either speaking a word. Ever since that first night, Jaedlin always kept the terminal on herself, but now she was using it to research Abominator class ships: she was trying to guess the ship’s true name, and the reasons why it was on probation.

Lededje had to remind herself to act like a Culture mother, and trust Jaedlin and the ship. That was how children were raised in the Culture: with faith in their ability to figure it out for themselves. No one forced their child to study, or to go to bed at reasonable times or eat their dinner if they didn't want to, no one told them not to play with fire. Quite often, they were even left without adult supervision at a young age, free to roam in small groups of their own, a sort of tribal stage on the way to adulthood. Still, she could not help but caution Jaedlin, to save her from disappointment, if nothing else. "They're Minds, Jae," she said to her daughter. "Don't overwork yourself. If they don't want to you find that information, you won't find it."

"I can't just give up," Jaedlin said. "You never gave up even when the odds were against you."

I was dead, crazy and ready to die again for my chance at revenge, Lededje thought. She said, "If you think it's worth the effort, I won't stop you, but I don't think it'll go away just because you figure out it's name. This isn't a nursery tale." There was one just like it, on Sichult, about a princess and a demon and she couldn't remember just now if it was one of those that she had told her children or not.

Jaedlin just gave her a bewildered look. "Mum, that's not why - oh, you wouldn't understand!"

The next time Lededje came across Jaedlin and the ship, her daughter was sitting in the shade of one of the hedges surrounding the incomplete maze, and the drone avatar was floating so close to her that its aura fields almost touched her face. They were talking in quick, animate voices. She stood and stared for a moment, and then turned on her heels and walked back to the house. Jaedlin never told her how she had broken the silence. Perhaps the drone had merely grown bored or annoyed with the constant questions. Lededje's imagination, though, was stubbornly stuck on the fairy tale solution: her daughter had been clever enough to guess the name and break the spell.

Demeisen was gone for three entire weeks and she had begun to suspect that he had simply forgotten about them. With nothing else to do, she had returned to her work on the water maze. Currently, two drones and several of her children were digging out a trench, which involved relatively little progress and a great deal of shouting and flashing aura fields and throwing mud. She felt happiness deep in her bones just watching them.

Suddenly, someone put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Ssh, don't move.”

Lededje whirled around instantly, her hand was on the knife, and found herself face to face with a dead man. The body was very clearly in the early stages of decomposition. It's eyes were milky, and the skin, which must have been just a shade lighter than her own in life, was grey and puffy, mottled with splotchy bruises. The lips were cracked and pulled back over its teeth. It had been a boy, well, a young man in his twenties, muscular but with a child's soft face. She had seen worse (Veppers, for one, had died spectacularly, and she remembered her own death quite vividly even after all these years), but she still very nearly screamed. You just didn't expect the walking dead to assault you in your own garden. Then the corpse smiled a crooked smile, and she recognized its wearer. "You!" She darted a quick look at the children, relieved that they hadn’t noticed Demeisen yet, and pulled him behind the nearest hedge.“What the Hells is that?” she hissed.

“A little more respect, please,” he said, not entirely facetious. “I had to run halfway across this arm of the galaxy to fetch him. And he died a hero of the Culture.”

“You didn’t kill him, then.”

He made the universally recognized gesture for: it's complicated.

I don't even want to know, Lededje thought. He is clearly just trying to be shocking. She heard a soft hum approaching, the sound drones made when they wanted to announce their presence. It was Skartane, with Jaedlin in tow. The girl was staring at the dead man with wide eyes. Lededje considered telling her to go back to the house while she dealt with the two ships, but then she sighed. It wasn't the Culture way. Besides, she didn't think it would help. Something had changed these past three weeks. Jaedlin was not yet grown, but she was no longer a child.

“You asked about my human partner,” Demeisen said to the girl. “Here he is. Meet the late Janneh Akikwe.”

“What happened to him?” Jaedlin asked.

“He wanted very badly to join SC, and who can blame him, since it's such tremendous fun? But Akikwe failed training. Never got over it, the sad little bastard – spent the next decade trying to prove himself in show fights. Four times winner of the Orthalm Pit, champion of Dega, still a loser.”

Lededje didn't buy his obvious contempt for Akikwe. Demeisen had taken her to one of those fights once, Lededje recalled. She’d watched him get beaten within an inch of his avatar’s life by an Affront fighter with a grudge against the Culture. She hadn't enjoyed it one bit, but he had rarely looked happier. Now she wondered if he had learned about the joys of gladiator fights from Akikwe.

Jaedlin took up her courage to ask, “No, I mean, how did he die?”

“One day this ship walks into the joint where he’s fighting and asks him: how would you like to come back into the fold? SC would like to give you a second chance. All you have to do is give us blanket permission. Do you know what that means, little girl?”

Jaedlin reluctantly shook her head. She hated admitting that she didn't know everything. Then, to Lededje's surprise, Skartane helped her out. “Permission to a drone or a ship to execute any measures they deem necessary during the mission, such as emergency displaces, taking a back-up copy, or taking control of a suit or implant worn by the agent. It’s meant to be used in situations where decisions have to be made at Mind speed.”

Demeisen nodded. “SC thought that the kid would be desperate enough to get into SC to say yes before we even told him the details of the mission, and what do you know, he blood well does. Must have been my general aura of trustworthyness. So I take him to one of the planets where our AI friends are playing god. Calling themselves the Dwellers of the Deep and masquerading as eldritch nightmares from the bottom of the sea. Akikwe and I play SC agent and SC ship for a while, interfering with the situation, and he thinks that's it, that's the mission. He gives it his best, and we're damn near spoiling all the fun, when, bam, his faithful ship betrays him! I contact the Dwellers, tell them what we're up to, and suggest that I'm a defector who'd like to join them. They don't trust the Culture, but when I bring them my human and hand him over as a prize they change their mind. They figure that a Culture ship harming a human is so unheard of that my story about wanting to defect must be true, but they kill him just to make sure. Slowly, while I watch. Still think that’s the fun part of the story?”

Jaedlin swallowed, but she kept back her tears to ask another question. Lededje could only shake her head at her daughter’s tenacity – but she knew exactly where it came from. “How did you get him out? I thought you made a big daring escape.”

“I asked the Dwellers if I could wear the corpse as an avatar for a while, as a trophy, which only helped to convince them that I was their kind of monster. SC never intended me to salvage the body, but I had another use for it.”

“The human was backed-up,” Skartane guessed.

Demeisen nodded, and fixed the drone avatar in a long, serious look. “You do understand why taking the body as a trophy could be considered an act of disrespect for human dignity?”

“But it was SC that gave the order,” Jaedlin protested. "And the aliens who killed him!"

“Quiet, you,” Demeisen said, still staring at Skartane. “Let it speak for itself.”

After the briefest of pauses, Skartane answered, “What she said. SC gave the orders. But… you weren’t supposed to enjoy yourself.”

“Go on,” Demeisen prodded.

“The only way to justify the way they used and manipulated the human agent was to treat it as a noble sacrifice, but you considered that… dishonorable?”

“Dishonest,” Demeisen corrected, but he nodded. “You’re learning, good. What about you, young lady? This still your dream job?”

For a moment, Lededje was grateful to him for trying to dissuade her daughter from this (in her opinion) stupidly dangerous idea, but then she saw the challenging gleam that brought the dead eyes to life, and the answering fire in Jaedlin’s gaze. I adopted this fool, she thought. And now the insanity runs in the family.

*

The second time the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints returned to the Atrocity Exhibition it was at the height of its fame. A few weeks earlier, the full story about the Hells on Sichult had become public. The Culture was still abuzz with the nasty details, and everyone knew about the ship that had, practically with its own bare hands, murdered the man who had bought the Hells. It had sparked one of those debates that went like a tidal wave through the Culture every few centuries: about the lines in the sand and whether they needed to be redrawn or merely crossed now and then. It was a moment of self-awareness, of redefinition, of a whole civilisation looking in the mirror and asking where are we now? At least that was what it was when you took the generous view - some of the Culture's detractors said that it was mainly vicarious pleasure gained from talking about violence and destruction. The Atrocity Exhibition, as always, refrained from giving an opinion, but it did enjoy a steady stream of visitors: moral grey areas were en vogue once again. It was busily expanding and revising the exhibit on the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, too. The Abominator had grown from a nameless wanderer into one of the Culture's most talked about ships - it had several fanclubs, numerous petitions clamouring for it to be permanently ostracised and a whole galaxy of rumours surrounding it. The Atrocity Exhibition was therefore pleasantly surprised when the real deal came calling once again.

“Would you like to give an interview?” Curator asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. The Culture's public discourse had already covered every aspect of the Sichultian Affair, but the fans didn't want new facts: they wanted the hear them directly from the horse's mouth.

“Better,” Demeisen said. “I’ve got another donation for you.”

“Oh dear, not another body? Not the actual – “

It fell silent in astonishment as it watched the intricate tattoo Demeisen had been wearing over his hands and up to his elbows slide out from under his skin. It became a small silver puddle in the palm of his hand. “Meet the murder weapon,” Demeisen announced, dipping the tattoo into Curator's open palm. “It’s a fully sentient subcomponent, so if it wants to go, it'll go, but for now it has agreed to become part of the exhibition.”

The tattoo became the exhibition's biggest prize for a while, although given its sentience Curator considered it a guest and not an exhibit. It was a taciturn creature. At times it hardly seemed sentient, and when it did communicate, most of what it said revealed a startlingly alien mind. It's view of humans in particular was unique and worrying. Perhaps that was only to be expected: it had been designed to exist as a silent passenger of a human body, sleeping under the skin only to wake up and kill. Sometimes, a particularly daring visitor would offer to give it a ride, and watching how readily the thing melded with human bodies always disturbed the Atrocity Exhibition. Thus, it wasn't sorry to discover one day that the tattoo had stayed inside a human host and left with them. It did not leave a message and for a few decades, neither the GSV nor its inhabitants heard any news of the thing - then a rumour reached the Atrocity Exhibition that the subcomponent had decided to upgrade to full Mind capacity.

*

Lededje had sighed seven years ago, and she could still feel that sigh now, holding the strange souvenir her daughter had sent her. Who had fired the bullet? Who had picked it up and encased it in crystal? Had it killed someone? Was that the message? She wished she could ask Jaedlin, and at the same time she was not sure she wanted to know the answer.

“At least tell me she’s got people watching out for her. I always thought that perhaps you might…”

Demeisen dropped into the rocking chair by the fire, which was Led edje’s favourite spot in winter. He sprawled in it, still looking every bit the irreverent youth. The grey in his hair couldn't change that. “Don't worry your pretty head, Led. She's got the next best thing to me at her side." "I know." Skartane, whose real designation was now the Very Fast Picket Ink Blade. By all accounts a very scary war ship with a proper Mind inside it, but Lededje would much rather have seen her daughter partnered with a ship didn't didn't act so much like an imaginary friend. Demeisen, who could never stand not being the center of attention for long, interrupted her brooding by adding, "Besides, haven’t I mentioned it? I’m officially retired!

“Retired? Don’t be absurd!” She couldn’t imagine anyone less suited for retirement.

“Well, not completely retired. I have a deal with Special Circumstances. I’ll put in a few hours mentoring agents in training, and they won’t mention demilitarization anytime soon. Corrupting the youth of the Culture is now officially my job description.”

Lededje had further objections, but none of them seemed worth voicing. He had no reason to retire. He could just keep upgrading forever and always remain a high-tech weapon. He loved being a warship. He'd probably get bored within a year. She suspected that he did it mainly because it would surprise everyone who knew him. He did it just to hear the objections. So she smiled and sat down next to him.

"Have you told your mother? I think she just won several arguments."

*

About a hundred and fifty years earlier Demeisen had taken her on a trip to Jiflaf Orbital. Lededje had never heard of it, but apparently it was famous. Jiflaf's population was 80 % Ah, Forget It tendency, 20 % tourists according to Demeisen. In the following lecture (he did so love to hear himself talk) she learned that the Ah, Forget It tendency was older than many other factions in the Culture, and this Orbital was heartland for them. It had been moved and restructured and redesigned so many times that hardly anything of the original structure remained, but these few ancient remainders were as old as some of the Rocks. Some joker at the dawn of time had made very sure that its exact age was lost to history by deleting most of the records – it must have been a Mind, people agreed, because not even the most serious and dedicated university sages from the Culture main had been able to unearth the precise circumstances under which the Orbital and its most famous attraction had been founded.

Some said that the Feast had started as a research foundation or a college, others said that it had been a sort of council of citizens, some even said that it was older than the Orbital itself, but the majority believed that it had simply begun as a dinner party hosted by the O’s Hub minds. Somehow dinner had turned into a midnight snack, and then breakfast and brunch and lunch, and as people went home others came and joined. Sometimes the party turned raunchy and wild, it went through phases that could properly be called an orgy. But at other times it became even wilder, when people sat down – or got up – to argue. As with all Culture events, it was open to all, but there were always a few of the Culture’s best and brightest to be found at the Feast, poets and artists, philosophers and adventurers, Minds, drones and humans.

Jiflaf had three Hub Minds, as was traditional, and one of them was always the Host. The position was passed on to a new Mind every few centuries and it was bestowed as a token of honor – the former Host could suggest its successor, but everyone who had ever attended the Feast had a vote.

As an outsider, Lededje thought none of this sounded particularly unusual. It was in fact exactly the sort of thing most aliens imagined the Culture doing when they didn't meddle with the affairs of other people: eternal parties and intellectual debates. She was therefore surprised when they got out of the traveltube capsule and were immediately joined by fist-size drone that trailed its aura fields like a jelly-fish’s tentacles. It looked, in as far as Lededje was any judge of Culture technology, fancy and new.

“My name is Laukon-Areftreel,” it introduced itself. “Av Demeisen, do you agree to submit to any searches, scans and restrictive measures this unit may deem to be necessary under the statutes of Jiflaf Orbital?”

Demeisen spread his hands wide in a mocking gesture. “You’re welcome to try to stop me from doing exactly as I please.”

The drone paused for a second, its aura fields displaying a mix of colours which Lededje interpreted as mildly affronted, then it bobbed its agreement.

“I thought the Ah, Forget It Tendency was the more laissez-faire arm of the Culture,” Lededje muttered in Demeisen’s direction as they followed Laukon-Areftreel along a path through a softly sloping vineyard. It was afternoon and the vine leaves glowed golden green. Sometimes the light breeze shifted and carried down the sound of music from a house on a hill. It was smaller than Lededje had imagined, smaller than the estate where she had grown up. "You forgot to mention that they were also paranoid."

“The slap drone is for yours truly,” Demeisen replied smugly. “SC isn’t welcome at the Feast, and they aren’t too happy about Contact, either.”

“Because the Tendency are pacifists?”

“Let’s say there is some bad history,” he said with a smile that only pretended to be contrite. “The Feast is influential in more ways than one. The people here are opinion makers, fashion icons, trend setters. Some of the intellectual movers and shakers of the Culture. It’s not the sort of thing you can control, it would die as soon as you tried, but that hasn’t kept some of the dafter types in Contact and SC from attempting to subvert the Feast to prod the Culture into a certain direction. It’s happened more than once, so they've developed defense mechanisms. Not that they’d actually be capable preventing it if SC really got it into their minds to make an effort, but you can’t fault them for trying.”

“You would be surprised at some of our resources, ship,” the drone said. “After all, we made you, so there’s nothing you can do that we don’t already know about.”

Lededje stopped dead in her tracks. Made him? This was where the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints was from? Her shock was followed by a silly thought: I dressed for an orgy, not for meeting the parents. “You could have told me about this!”

Demeisen shrugged. “Surprise?"

Perhaps I should have taken a hint from the way he's dressed, Lededje thought glumly. Demeisen had shown up for the trip in the body of a badly crippled child with greasy hair, lopsided features and a club foot he kept dragging after him with every step. He was short of breath, too, and the brief walk up the hill had him panting and leaning against a tree for support.

They had stopped at the place where the vines gave way to an orchard, and now she saw that the party was much bigger than just the house – there were benches and tables and mounds of pillows everwhere, colorful cloth tents and hammocks hanging from the trees. A group of children was playing close by. When they spotted the new arrivals, they came closer. For once Lededje’s alien features were ignored in favour of Demeisen’s extravagantly disfigured avatar. They whispered, big-eyed and astonished, and then all at once the spell broke and they raced past shouting and laughing. One girl jumped up as she passed them and slapped Laukon-Areftreel with the flat of her hand – “You’re It, Lauk!”

“I am It,” the drone announced solemnly and sped after the children.

Lededje stared after them in astonishment. “Wasn’t it supposed to watch us?”

“That’s the Tendency for you,” Demeisen said with a hint of fondness. “Different priorities.”

“So why are we visiting your, um, family?” The private lives of ships were still largely a mystery to Lededje, and, she suspected, for most people who had been born into the Culture as well. They had their own customs and society, their own social life that remained invisible to humans.

Had Demeisen been human, Lededje would have been fairly sure how to interpret this visit. There was only really one good reason why you took a girl to meet your family. But she remembered her lesson on vocabulary well enough to know how unlikely that was.

Demeisen took a hobbling step towards her and patted the knife he wore on a string around his neck. “Did you think I was some homeless stray when you adopted me?”

You look the part now, Lededje thought.

“A Mind adopting a human is one thing,” a voice said from behind her. “But my youngest always finds a way to do things backwards.”

My youngest. Oh dear. Lededje turned around. Had the avatar been there all along, or had she materialized in the way avatars often did when they weren’t quite as solidly physical as Demeisen preferred them? It was female, human-shaped, hardly taller than Lededje, and the only thing that softened the stern, angular face were the lines around her eyes.

It suddenly occurred Lededje to wonder if she had offended this creature by giving Demeisen the knife. She didn’t look like the sort of Mind – or in-law – you wanted to offend. She watched as Demeisen pulled the other avatar’s hand to his lop-sided lips to kiss it, then presented her to Lededje with the sweeping gesture of a stage wizard. “Led, may I introduce you to the gracious Host, one third of Jiflaf Hub, muse to a hundred thousand, formerly known as LSV The Shortest Poem, Shorty to her friends, veteran of the Idiran War – there’s more, but I won’t bore you with the full list of credentials. My mothership dearest has made a career of making careers.”

Host looked at him sternly. “Did I design you a warship or a party clown, child?”

“Both,” Demeisen grinned. “But there aren’t enough wars to keep me occupied.”

Lededje thought Host would chide him again, but instead she gave him a smile like a benediction. “We follow your exploits with interest. I have a young fellow writing a thesis on you, he argues that most of your actions should be interpreted as a satirical critique of Culture norms and values. It is very wrong-headed, but nevertheless amusing. Now, this is the human who calls you blood of her blood?”

“Yes,” Lededje said, wishing that she could think of something clever. She couldn’t help remembering the fact that a ship could see right through you – deep down into the most private parts of your soul.

But she got a nod from Host that was clearly a sign of approval – and then the female avatar smiled almost smugly to herself as she took Lededje’s arm and led her up to the house. “When Contact came to me years ago,” she said, “and asked me to design them a type of ship that would remind everyone why we used to say Don’t Fuck with the Culture, all my friends told me I was insane to say yes. You see, what they wanted wasn’t just a warship armed to the gills – I am very good at making those, it was my main contribution to the War, you see. It’s a form of art, very much like poetry. No, our friends from Contact wanted me to create a Mind for this ship, too. Something unhinged enough to make the barbarians think twice about crossing it. A scarecrow, they called it. Ah, but you’re an alien, young lady, I can see that from the blank look on your face. If you were Culture, you’d be shocked to hear this. A Mind designed for a ship? How backwards, how utterly against our nature. It should be a ship for a Mind. And you’d be right, to a certain extent. You cannot program a thing as smart as a Mind. It is a book that writes itself. The trick is to nudge the little infant thing just so, into a certain kind of direction, and then let it run – if you’ve done it right, it’ll want to be what it is supposed to be.”

“It also doesn’t hurt to make it the best at what it is supposed to do,” Demeisen threw in. “If you’re as deadly as I am, it’d be a shame not to be a killer.”

“Well, I did it,” Host said. “I made them their custom prototype. They haven’t called me since, although I hear they are happy enough with the physical specs to build more Abominators. Apparently most of the Minds housed in them are old soldiers looking for an upgrade.”

They walked through an arched gateway into the courtyard of the house. The building itself was U-shaped, with an open gallery on the ground floor. At the center was a large, rectangular pool, shallow enough for a child to stand in it, with deep green, steaming water. A few people were frolicking in it, adults and children alike, while others sat on the stone steps leading down to the pool or walked in small groups. Here and there a person looked a little off, strangely colored or shaped, and Lededje guessed that they were avatars. She had never seen so many in one place. There were fewer drones, and most that she saw looked considerably clunkier and bigger than the slap drone Laukon-Areftreel – a sure sign of old age in a drone. But even these old machines seemed somehow to glow, not with the evening sun but with life, reflected and refracted by every face in the courtyard.

Host stopped, still in the shade of the gate. Demeisen glanced at them, and then limped out into the sun, a stunted child among heavenly creatures. A few of them stopped in their play when they saw him, and watched in astonishment as he waded into the pool still fully dressed. For a moment, Lededje felt oddly protective for him, as though he were her own: her little brother, her son.

"I think it’s very appropriate that you adopted him,” Host said, echoing her thoughts. “If you ever have children, Miss Y’breq, they’ll be very welcome here.”

“Appropriate?” Lededje asked, still marveling at the people in the sun. Children? She had never thought of it, really. In her old life, as an Intagliate, they would have been born into slavery. What would their position be within the Culture? Would they be regarded as natural citizens or second generation immigrants? Would they feel at home here, among these philosophers and artists, these idle, beautiful people?

“Tell me,” Host asked gently, “What is the worst monster you know, Miss Y’breq?”

After a long moment, Lededje tore her eyes away from the scene in the courtyard.

“Man,” she said, and looked away again. It felt wrong to say it, here, in the presence of these people, but she knew it to be true.

But Host nodded. “I think so, too. So that’s what I modeled their custom monster after. If there’s anything unusual about my youngest, anything different from other ships, it’s that he’s more human than most of us.”

*

Nearly four hundred years had passed since their first meeting when the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints returned to the Atrocity Exhibition for the third and final time. By then, it did indeed have almost an entire wing to it. The Atrocity Exhibition took a special pride in the Abominator’s exploits because it reckoned that without its intervention all those years ago, the ship would still be out there, silently lurking among the stars. Perhaps the whole idea of showing the Culture its own dark side was backwards and quaint, but in some small way, it had influenced history, and that was something to consider.

The Atrocity Exhibtion was therefore glad to welcome its visitor. “Not another donation?” it asked fondly, wondering what it would be this time.

“The last one,” Demeisen said. “I want you to return the body to me and throw out all this junk. Clear the entire wing. From now on, you’ll only display this. Put it up on a fridge or something, frame it, I don’t care. So long as it’s the only thing .”

Curator accepted the sheet of paper with great care, wondering what it could be. He stared for several long minutes, unable to comprehend.

It was, very obviously, a child’s drawing, and a rather crude one, at that.