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Floating around in the deep near-void of space, shaped like a disc balanced precariously atop four volumes of ship, was the GNU Man In The Funny Black Hat.

No one ever said ships had to look sleek or be fast. The GNU Man In The Funny...was very far from fast, and sleek? Sleek was something used to describe very nice hair.

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

What the heck does GNU stand for, again? Did I miss a reclassification or something?

x GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
o GCU Karma's A Canine

No missing communiques. It named itself, I think - I asked it one time what it meant. It told me "General Nonsense Unit."

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Is it Eccentric?

x GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
o GCU Karma's A Canine

You could put it that way; it's either that or incredibly sane. Anyway, it said it didn't like having letters behind its name, something about it being too pretentious...

In any case, the GNU Man In The... didn't give too much of a damn what other people thought about it. Mostly it went in one direction, forward, because that was a good direction to go in. It hadn't run out of space to go, yet.

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

The bloody thing is going to end up out of range.

x GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
o GCU Karma's A Canine

There's no such thing as out of range, really.

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Yeah? Well, I'm glad I'm not going to be the sorry ship that has to follow it to the end of nowhere making sure it doesn't go bananas and give us all a bad name.

x GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
o GCU Karma's A Canine

But you're Contact. You love being Contact. You tell me how much you love being Contact all the time, oh isn't life as Special Circumstances so wonderfully exciting, oops, didn't mean to mention that bit, did you...

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Oh shut up.

It wasn't space that interested the GNU Man In.... A long time ago some humans had called it the final frontier, but that was a pretty presumptuous statement for a culture that hadn't even really got to the bottom of their own oceans. The GNU Man... felt quite strongly about that sentiment, that space was hardly the finalfrontier, or even a very important one.

What was the point charging about everywhere making a mess out of Idirians or the GFCF or all the other civilisations who thought that it was important to make a big fuss about how much they controlled in a universe filled with orders of magnitude more bits that weren't used by anyone else than bits that were?

The GNU MITFBH (oh, it knew its name was a mouthful even by Culture standards, mostly because other ships and even some citizens found GNU Man a little bit horrifying) had known a good number of GCUs who thought that, inside of its own boundaries, the Culture had solved all of its problems. Hey, by having enough to go around, nothing mattered enough to fight over anymore: hedonism cures all!

That, the GNU MITFBH knew, was because ships were interested in whole peoples, as in the collective noun that swept up billions of individuals into neat subgroups, and not people, as in the plural for lots of persons running around getting into trouble. Because while one was the loneliest number, two was almost quorum for a war.

The GNU MITFBH was happy to wander the universe, because it could really have been – say – a great turtle named A'Tuin supporting the weight of the world, because the world usually didn't care what it was balanced on as long as it just kept being balanced.

So really, wasn't it more important what was inside of things, not what was out on the frontiers?

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Ever talk with the GSV Sleeper Service?

o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
x GCU Karma's A Canine

Sometimes I go and watch its shows. One of your lot?

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Don't know what you're talking about. Anyway, it's one thing to have your cargo be cargo, all really asleep, but I just took a peek – a very small peek – inside the GNU and that's just sick.

o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
x GCU Karma's A Canine

Didn't know you were a hullfucker.

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

If it never talks to the rest of us then we've got to find other ways to communicate with it, don't we?

o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
x GCU Karma's A Canine

Communicating normally involves two parties agreeing to talk? Never mind, it's pointless arguing morals with S.C.–

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

Hey! We specialise in being moral, given sufficient time for the law of large numbers to kick in.

o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation
x GCU Karma's A Canine

Just tell me what you found.

x GCU Karma's A Canine
o GSV Alas, My Dizzy Personal Relation

It's got crew in sort of stasis, plenty of crew, but they're not really put under. They're asleep, but they're... It's like they're dreaming.

Cheradenine Zakalwe wanted to die.

That was a lie, but most of his life was a lie and it all added up – eventually – to being true. A lie plus a lie plus a lie plus a lie could, if you were really good at it, puzzle together into something correct.

It was correct to say that Cheradenine Zakalwe wanted to die, but there was the small problem of not knowing how much of him really did, and how much of him just wanted to take a long nap. Then there was the part of him that wanted to know how many other parts of him there were in order to make an informed decision on would constitute a consensus vote.

There was spending a life as an S.C. agent and then there was spending two lives, three lives, five lives, eight, sixty-four. Life in a carbon-based meatbag, lives in virtual reality, life in silicon-quantum-particle-mumbo-jumbo storage or whatever it was they kept backups of him on. Sma always scolded him for being a technological barbarian, but did that matter when a machine could download him into a doll if it wanted to? There were probably dozens of Zakalwes getting made into dozens of backups running around the universe.

Zakalwe had started out by killing himself in order to become himself, anyway, so none of that work had come as much of a shock to the system. But he was tired, damn it. Really bloody fucking seriously tired this time. Tired of everything, including owning houses, islands, planets, planetary systems and especially of owning nothing because everything wasn't worth anything.

So Cheradenine Zakalwe, whom Skaffen-Amtiskaw had once upon a time oh-so-funnily called Sharded-up-anine Zakalwe, was on the run while trying to die at the same time, and leaving a lot of very pissed off ships behind him in the process.

He was looking for refuge. He was looking for a place not just to stay, but to be. He wanted to close his eyes, and have them and the sleep that would follow – whether for a little bit or for forever – be real, this time.

'He did what?' Sma asked, voice raised.

'Blew himself up,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw reported, wiggling its case from side to side in the drone equivalent of a shrug. 'Blew himselves up, actually. They had a little party. Been planning it for years, I think: getting in contact with one another, trying to figure out where they all were.'

Sma looked pinched. Skaffen-Amtiskaw helpfully floated her a drink with its A.G. fields. 'He was going to eventually forget that he'd given us permission to split him up and decant him multiple times,' he clucked. 'He's a loose cannon, Sma, and now he's doing what loose canons do.'

Sma didn't say anything, just threw back the drink. It gave her another. She took that as well. 'There's more, anyway.'

'There's more?'

'He's been finding all of his backups and destroying those, too,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw hummed. 'Leaving very explicit legal memos when he does saying he doesn't want any of it backed up anywhere.'

'Does he expect that he'll be listened to?'

'Of course he does,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw chided. 'We're the Culture, not unenlightened, self-serving, unprincipled rabble. If he were a citizen, we'd destroy all of his copies and make sure his wishes were thoroughly respected.'

Sma narrowed her eyes.

Skaffen-Amtiskaw glowed deep, effusively joyful blue. 'But he never became a citizen, so really, who knows what will happen? One of him is almost a Mind; all they're waiting for is for the imprinting to smooth out a little and to find one or two other Minds willing to babysit it once it's born.'

Sma's champagne glass bounced off of its case when she threw it at him. Skaffen-Amtiskaw could never really understand why S.C. liked having these emotional humans handle other, differently emotional humans. It always got so messy.

Most people who are good at running end up hiding. It was a good principle, and Zakalwe was very familiar with it. You hid, and if you were really good you stopped hiding because you became someone else altogether.

He didn't want to hide, so this time he kept going. He ran to the ships that had hated him, and they took him in because their goals were now aligned. Many of them were ships who had never liked backing people up in more than one place, or restoring them into more than one person. With their help, Zakalwe got rid of the other copies, one by one, and it felt a bit like distilling everything down into the copy of him that was left.

It was funny, running from the Culture like this. For one, they weren't actually allowed to catch him.

'Everything I'm doing is perfectly within my rights and it pisses them off,' Zakalwe said to his latest and probably last temporary ally, the GSV Sleeper Service. He'd found every one of him that he could find. He'd left instructions that only he would know how to find for the rest, if he'd missed any of them. He had his legs kicked up on a table and was sitting on a very comfortable couch.

'S.C. will be upset,' the ship's drone said to him. 'They like you.'

'They like the idea of me,' Zakalwe countered. 'And I want that under copyright, these days.'

The ship paused. 'What's copyright?'

Zakalwe sighed.

'You were saying you wanted to go somewhere far away,' the drone said. 'Somewhere we wouldn't come to rescue you and put you back together again in the process.'

'Yup,' Zakalwe said, popping the p. 'So it's got to be one of you. Hopefully one that the others all think is a little bit nuts without actually being, well, nuts. I don't want to be turned into a puppet for some vid show.' He paused. 'No offence.'

'None taken,' the ship assured him.

'I just want a place to think clearly again,' Zakalwe said. It was strange, talking to a ship like it was a person instead of a Mind, but he'd been in the Culture long enough that some of it was rubbing off. 'I'm tired of playing war games, and no matter what you people tell me I always have the niggling sense that there are other people out there who are me, doing the same thing over and over again, like one your dumb machine subroutines. I'm done with it. I want to be one person, and then that person can decide what to do.'

'If that is what you want, Mr. Zakalwe, I think I have just the place for you.'

Zakalwe found himself deposited, the longest bloody ride he'd ever taken on a Culture vessel later, on the inside a ship that didn't look like what the inside of a ship normally looked like.

There was mud under his boots, for one. He was glad he never stopped wearing boots. You always had to have good boots on, where the Culture sent him. Whenever he was back in their space he refused to take them off, even when they slowed him down getting in on the sort of action that only takes place during peacetime, in a comfortable bed with a beautiful woman who had the Culture-normal biological modifications. Those were some of the only good ideas they'd ever had, in Zakalwe's opinion.

'Hullo,' said what he presumed was the ship's avatar: an oldish man in a funny black hat and glasses. 'Welcome onboard.'

'Some friends of yours sent me,' Zakalwe said.

'Yes, yes, I heard,' the old man nodded, walking him down a road. This ship's interior was a road, an unpaved, muddy track. There were some mountains and a few fields and everything, but mostly there was a road. Zakalwe walked with him. 'They said you needed a little help dying with dignity.'

Zakalwe blinked. 'I suppose that's right. Surprised they put it that way.'

The man in the fedora kept walking. 'How would you like to live one more life, then, just as yourself? Somewhere where there aren't any big, interchangeable whatsits happening, just you and one place, one Time, one Death.'

Zakalwe was sure he'd been going crazy for too long; some of the ship avatar's words had Capitals In Them.

'Yeah,' he said, thinking it over. 'Yeah.'

'I can help keep a lookout over those S.C. buggers,' the old man continued. 'I don't much like them. They're like bad Auditors.'

'Is there anything like a good Auditor?' And there was that Meaning, again.

'No, I don't think so,' the old man guffawed. 'No good Auditors there or here or anywhere. Like Death and gravity. And taxes.'

'You lot don't believe in taxes.'

'There are always taxes,' the old man chastised him. 'Even if they're paid in belief.'

Zakalwe had no fucking idea what was going on, he had to admit, only that on some level it seemed to make sense.

'The Sleeper Service said you always felt like there were too many bits of you not obeying what you wanted to do,' the ship's avatar said. 'Even when you weren't supposed to know how many yous were running about. I have a theory about that.'

'What's that, then?'

'It's called having a soul.'

Zakalwe paused. They'd walked a short long way, in the way that ships could foreshorten everything, and they were standing at the gates of a comically medieval looking city, where everything was a little crooked in space somehow. The man opened the gates and let him in. There were storage pods in racks and racks and racks inside the city walls.

'These are my crew,' the man said, patting one of them on the casing like he was patting the shoulder of an old friend. 'They're not in storage. They're down in my substrate, you could say. I'm not going to call it a virtual reality, because it isn't. They live in it, and they don't come out, and since the first generation they haven't known there is even an out, out here. It's their world, and it belongs to them. When they die inside their world, they die out here, as well. When people get born inside their world, they get born out here as well.'

'What's wrong with real life, then?' Zakalwe asked, not getting the point.

'Does the Culture feel like real life to some of its citizens?' the man asked in return. 'It's all clean and neat and sanitised.'

'Life isn't like that,' Zakalwe agreed. 'Life everywhere else, anyway. That's why Contact's always busy importing aliens, I think, so that its people don't go psycho fucking and sleeping and getting dressed up in different bodies just for the fun of it and not ever having to worry about anything at all.'

The old man looked at him. A boxy piece of luggage with too many small legs on it and a tea service on top lumbered itself over to them and sloshed tea everywhere coming to a stop. The old man handed Zakalwe a half-full cup. 'Do you miss worrying?'

'Maybe,' Zakalwe shrugged, taking it. 'I miss the thrill of being alive once and only once, game over afterwards.'

'Do you want to go in?' The old man nodded at an empty pod down the row. 'You get one chance to come back out, and then you're part of it. I don't back this up anywhere. The Discworld's etched into me; it's part of me, and I'm part of it, and we're air-gapped from the rest of the Culture because I don't klacks anything over to those lot.'


'You'll see,' the old man promised.

Zakalwe drank his tea and put down his cup.

'Ah hell,' he said, because that had been where he'd been living the last... century? More? At least a thousand man hours of being too many people but himself. 'Why the fuck not?'

He climbed in, boots and all. 'Should I take these off?' he asked, realising afterwards that he wasn't exactly in the sort of outfit the medical Culture boffins liked him in for this sort of thing. 'Should I change?'

'Oh no,' the old man reassured him quickly. 'There's a theory about boots... Nevermind. Ready?' He put a hand on the lid.

Zakalwe blinked up. This was a weird coffin. Better than no coffin. 'Do it.'

He closed his eyes, and fell into real sleep.

Zakalwe opened his eyes. There was a skeleton in a robe standing next to him, holding a scythe.

HELLO MR. ZAKALWE, said the figure. I'M DEATH.

'A bit fucking quick, aren't you?' Zakalwe asked. 'He said I'd get a life, first.'


'What's that supposed to mean?'


Zakalwe looked, and in the pinpricks of starlight making up the galaxy of Death's pupils, he saw the Culture in the beyond, and an old man in a hat waving at him cheerfully as a bald wrinkly fellow with a broom cleaned up around the storage pods in the GNU MWTFBH.

He blinked, and the portal disappeared.

Zakalwe tugged on his jacket and looked around. He was standing on neat cobblestones, and the world around him was a busy mess.

'Where is this place?' he asked Death.


'The Watch? Is that some sort of police?' Zakalwe peered up at the building in front of him. It looked both posh and extremely well-worn at once.


Death was gone.

The door to the watch yard opened.

'Oi,' said Samuel Vimes to the weird man – weirder than usual, anyway – standing in front of the watch house. 'Who are you, then?'

The turtle moved.

Somewhere else in the great void of space – which wasn't really a void if it was filled with things, now was it? – something else was happening. Being such a great bloody space, it turned out that the universe was big enough for the two of us, or them, or any other two things. Ideas, philosophies, peoples, souls.

The Picket Ship Staberinde slid its sleek, fast, many-gunned self out of the bays of its parent ship.

Hello, handsome, it said to itself, admiring its capabilities, its freedom to go anywhere and do anything, unrestricted by the tiredness of an organic meatbag ready to give up its ghost. It had given up its ghost, and now it was a Mind set free to go do what it had been born to do.

The PS Staberinde sailed into the non-existent-because-it's-all-relative night of the greater galaxy. It whooped and swooped and did not hit, of all things, some other ship that looked like a giant turtle carrying some very confused elephants.

Its only thought, in the midst of all this happiness, was a random throwaway thing, probably just a subroutine on the fritz: but what wouldn't it give for some good boots...