The problem with being a hero is that some people will never let you live it down. This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game, played it and then came back. And that, as far as he was concerned, was that.

Others, however, had different ideas.

It was a damp evening on the slopes above the fjord at Ikroh on Chiark Orbital. The artificial sky was full of grey clouds and sporadic rain pattered down on to the leaves of the mass of trees below, already starting to change colour as autumn advanced steadily on. In his house, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, had set a fire going to combat the evening chill. He sat in a couch facing the fire. In front of him was a low table on which a chess board was placed, black and white pieces scattered across it in an elaborate formation.

Gurgeh was working on a paper on some of the more obscure Idiran gambits, and had spent all day setting the pieces up on the board, moving them back and forth as he took the role of Black and White in turn whilst working through the likely consequences of each strategy. Mostly, he had come to the conclusion that the gambits were deservedly obscure and that Idirans deserved their reputation for decidedly average chess play. One or two looked as though they might have some promise, though.

Then, his deskpad pinged.

Gurgeh was never the sort to rush to answer every message, but something for which he could not logically account was telling him it was important that he should answer this one. He tried to ignore the feeling, but its mere existence, not to mention the pad's continued pinging, successfully broke his concentration and he simply could not settle back to analysing Wyyxxzrth's Ninth Strategem. With a sigh, he gave up, and announced, "House, I will take this call."

"Gurgeh, is that you?" enquired a tiny, squeaky voice. "It's me, Flere-Imsaho. Did you see my message?"

Gurgeh cursed softly under his breath. "Yes, it is me, Flere-Imsaho, and I did, and the answer's no. I had a bellyful of adventuring with Special Circumstances when you lot sent me to Azad to discredit its entire culture by literally beating them at their own game, without, I might add, telling me that was your plan first. I nearly got killed. Lots of Azadians actually did. And I lost five years of my life to doing it. I'm not going through all that again."

The intelligence drone sounded almost hurt by his attitude. "Well, you won, didn't you? You eventually beat no less a person than the Emperor himself."

"Who promptly committed suicide, after trying to murder me. Winning isn't everything."

"The way you've lived your life so far rather belies that well-worn sentiment."

"To hell with you, machine. If you'd had to deal with feeling indirectly responsible for a couple of suicides, several murders, an appalling massacre and a multi-system civil war, maybe you'd reconsider a few of your basic assumptions too."

"You might bear in mind the enormous amount of suffering avoided by the collapse of that deeply unpleasant empire, for which you were also indirectly responsible. I hear most of the worlds that Azad used to rule are doing much better, at least now they've got past the worst of the civil conflict. And, besides, if you'd only hear me out, you'd realise that what we're asking you to do is nothing like as difficult as it was on Ea."

Gurgeh scowled and crossed his arms. "If it's so easy, how come you can't find someone else to do it?"

"Because this time we don't need the greatest games player in the Culture, but someone who looks like the greatest games player in the Culture. Which, unsurprisingly, is a lot easier to pull off if you are that person anyway…look, can I come over to your house and explain this? The details aren't safe to discuss over a screen. "

There was a long silence. "OK," said Gurgeh, finally. "But I'm not crossing the galaxy this time."

"You won't have to," said Flere-Imsaho.

Preparing for the journey was, by comparison with the voyage to the Empire of Azad, a fairly simple matter for Gurgeh. As it would only last a matter of days, he only had to explain to his friends that he really had to finish his chess paper and so would be, effectively incommunicado for a week or so. As it was not unusual for Gurgeh to do this, it passed without much more than the usual weak jokes about how he needed to get out more (which, however much he actually got out, were also not unusual). For his more distant friends, he simply arranged for an outgoing message to the same effect.

To Yay Meristinoux, however, who had been living with him since his return from Azad, Gurgeh was not prepared to lie, so he told her exactly where he was going and why. Her reaction was unenthusiastic, to say the least.

"But, Gurgeh, why? We discussed this when you came back last time. You were angry and upset; you kept saying that Special Circumstances had used you…why do you want to go through it all over again?"

"Mostly because I don't think this will be "it all over again". It's just a short trip to meet and greet a few aliens who need humouring, some tedious but necessary diplomacy, not years travelling on a starship to play at a very complex game for very high stakes."

The doubt showed clearly in Yay's brown eyes. "And you believe all this because S.C. have told you? They lied about your mission last time, they might be lying again now."

"I'm a game player, Yay. I'm good at reading people's bluffs, and I don't think this is one of them."

"You completely missed the bluff in Azad."

"Well, I learned from that. I've upped my game since."

"You really think so? Well, you might need it. This might be dangerous, Gurgeh."

"I know, my darling."

Gurgeh travelled to Varda on the Mallett class shuttle, Wacky Funster, on whose official flight records, its Mind informed him, this trip would not be showing. At only 100 metres long or so, the craft was tiny by Culture standards, but then Varda was only a few light years from Chiark, and only minimal hyperspace capacity was necessary to get there in a couple of days. Such vessels were workhorses, usually buzzing to and from Orbitals and passing GSVs or other larger vessels to carry passengers or light cargoes in one direction or the other. Gurgeh had brought a chess set and spent the journey working on his paper. He had decided it would be embarrassing, as well as suspicious, if he had not at least got most of it finished by the end of his week's "seclusion."

As for Varda, it was an unremarkable planet, orbiting Chiark's sun somewhat more remotely, its atmosphere oxygen-based and its climate tolerable enough. There were some Culturniks there already on its one island continent, in mining settlements inland and particularly holiday resorts by the coast, since the one truly noteworthy geographical fact about Varda was the many beaches of volcanic black sand it had fringing its great blue ocean.

However, amongst a race of space gypsies that roamed the galaxy in ships kilometres long, vacationing on a well-explored planet quite near where you lived was considered highly unadventurous. If you announced to your friends on Chiark that your next holiday was on Varda, they might start suggesting that perhaps it was time to change gender, volunteering exciting new combinations of secretions you might gland, or just telling you that you should get out more.

Wacky Funster landed in a space cleared discreetly out of dense rainforest about fifty kilometres away from the nearest settlement. Gurgeh disembarked and was met by Flere-Imsaho, who resembled a tiny, floating model of a ringed planet that you could fit in your cupped hands, and a tall, fair haired man in a short dark robe and baggy trous. The latter introduced himself as Mostaleg Erdanis Katidnar Hudjan Kofonad, an operative from Contact. Gurgeh wondered whether that was really his name, not so much because Contact was a secretive organisation as because he found it hard to believe that any intelligent adult would voluntarily adopt the name "Dark Warrior." However, Contact, like Special Circumstances, attracted some odd people.

"Your opponents are staying in an abandoned storage hut just on the other side of this clearing." He indicated to their left with his thumb, and they started walking across the bare red earth in that direction. "We've re-fitted it for them, and they've been living there happily for a few days now. They aren't too high maintenance – mainly interested in a steady supply of fruit-based alcoholic drinks."

"Okay," said Gurgeh. "And these guys have no idea that there's much more to the Culture than this planet?"

"Definitely not," said Hudjan. "We flew them here via a roundabout route designed to keep them away from any GSV or Orbital, and limited their exposure to our technology as far as possible. Obviously, we couldn't help revealing that it's fairly impressive just by getting them here, even though they came in what must be the oldest warship the Culture still has, Close Quarter Contingencies."

"Good grief. That's several millennia old. I thought it was in a museum. "

"It was," said Flere-Imsaho. "Officially, it's undergoing restoration right now. You wouldn't believe the trouble involved in getting hold of that ship, not to mention getting it flying again. And all because a couple of maintenance workers on a General Contact Unit glanded themselves higher than naqq birds one day and decided to joyride a landing craft down to the nearest planet, Sethis Kappa 5. Of course, the GCU Mind could have blasted them out of space as soon as it realised what they were up to but…in spite of what some people think, Contact actually prefers not killing people unless we have to. By the time we were able to send in a snatch squad and collect them, our space janitors had made contact with our primitive alien friends, who had concluded they must be gods."

Gurgeh shook his head in disbelief.

"They aren't capable of space travel themselves," went on Hudjan. "They've had limited contact with any life off Sethis Kappa 5 because it's remote, largely desert, and of little interest to anyone who is capable of space travel. The main form of interaction between races there is blasting buckshot through each other. The squad from the GCU managed to persuade the Sethisians that the maintenance workers were actually false gods, only to be hailed as the real ones. And then the Sethisians started asking to send ambassadors to, well, as far as they were concerned, the divine world. We decided it would be less damaging to give them what they wanted than try to explain the truth. It's beyond their comprehension."

Flere-Imsaho abruptly halted, hovering in mid-air like a large white butterfly. "I have to stop here," it announced. "Much closer, and they'll be able to see me. Remember, Gurgeh, I and several other drones will be watching the storage hut from a short distance, and there are armed SC agents hidden in the trees too. Just shout if things start getting out of hand, and we'll be there in seconds."

"Why should anything get out of hand?" asked Gurgeh. "The Sethisians think I'm a god. Why would they try to harm me, or even consider it possible?"

Flere-Imsaho said nothing. Hudjan gave Gurgeh an odd side-long look, and finally said. "Look, they have primitive weapons, percussive side arms. It's unlikely they'll be able to do any damage to you that couldn't easily be medically repaired, but you can never be sure. This species hasn't had anything like the kind of detailed study that we would make of one that we thought might be ready for contact. The truth is, we don't know exactly how they might react to certain things you might do or say, maybe without thinking about it. Just…be careful."

Hudjan and Gurgeh carried on walking in silence. They had just got under the shadow of the tall Vardan liveoaks when Gurgeh noticed the hut, a ramshackle construction of roughly-sawn planks from those same trees, the white wood stained green with algae and lichen. The dense vegetation hid it until you were almost on top of it. It was an oblong maybe sixteen feet by twelve, with one square window in the short side and a doorway without a door that revealed nothing but yawning blackness. Gurgeh felt his stomach muscles tighten in the same way they did before a major game. He let his glands give him a quick burst of Green Waters, to take the edge off his nerves.

Hudjan went up to the door and announced, "My lords, the Morat has arrived." Gurgeh suppressed the urge to giggle. In the Culture, no-one outside ancient literature or deliberate pastiches of it was ever addressed by such inegalitarian terms as "my lord." He almost wished he'd read more of that kind of thing at school, if that was the way this was going. Striding up to the door behind Hudjan and walked into the hut with as much boldness as he could muster, as though he were one of the heroes of those old epics.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness within. When they did, he realised that he and Hudjan were standing in front of a table behind which three figures were seated. They were humanoid, around five feet tall or so, with grey skin, large black eyes and strange protuberances lining the tops of their heads. They wore dark cloaks over what looked like leather jerkins with some kind of body armour, and, as Hudjan had said, they were carrying long barrelled pistols of an antique-looking kind in their leather belts.

The Sethisians rose, and bowed deeply to Gurgeh, who was taken aback by the gesture. People in the Culture did not greet each other by bowing and nor did they do it as some kind of gesture of respect to a superior, since no relationships of superiority and inferiority existed. However, from his time in Azad, Gurgeh was familiar with those civilisations where that was not the case, and even if he had not caught the look in Hudjan's eye, he would have grasped what to do. He bowed back, whereupon the three aliens sat down again.

"Hail, Morat," announced the tallest of the Sethisians, in halting but comprehensible Marain. Obviously some study of the language had been going on back on Sethis Kappa 5, and on the ship from there to here. "I am Silver Sandstorm of the Dekii, and these are my comrades, Clear Emerald and Bloodstone. We come as ambassadors of our people."

"Greetings to you all, my lords" said Gurgeh, wondering how long they would continue talking in this highly unnatural manner. "Welcome to this world. I hope you have had a pleasant journey and are comfortable here."

"Yes, Morat," replied Silver Sandstorm. "And we are impressed with what we see. Truly, your realm is a mighty one, great far beyond our imagining."

If they've had their minds blown by Varda, thought Gurgeh, their home planet really must be primitive. All that this planet had to show by way of settlement were fairly basic mining facilities mostly operated by drones with a few commuting humans from Chiark, plus some very unexciting beach resorts for the elderly and timorous. However, he had better play along with them.

"You're very kind," he said. "But Hudjan here tells me that you insisted on being brought to visit us half way across the galaxy. Why was that?"

Silver Sandstorm stared directly at Gurgeh, his black, pupil-less eyes like those of a shark. "It is a legend of our people, Morat, that the sky god created Sethis out of the void aeons ago, and that in the beginning our ancestors were his slaves, toiling for him in the endless work of building the universe, creating the other stars and planets and so on. But after many thousands of years, the hero Black Obsidian, our first chief, tricked the god into playing a game of chethis, the stakes being that if he won, his people would go free. He won, and we have been free ever since. However, we have always known that one day the gods would return to us, and there would be another game for the same stakes. When the divine messengers in the great silver bird came to us, we knew that this time had come. And so I am here, as chief of the Dekii, to play chethis with you, the Player of Games in this divine realm. If I lose, we are your slaves. If I win, you must confirm our freedom and the gods must leave us in peace."

Gurgeh felt a rising sense of panic. Flere-Imsaho had explained to him that these aliens wanted to see the greatest game player of the Culture, who they in effect saw as some kind of god of games. What the drone had conveniently omitted to mention was that he might be actually expected to play against them. Furthermore, he had never heard of chethis. Yay had been right all along. He should never have trusted Special Circumstances again.

He took a deep breath, and tried to look as insouciant and god-like as he could manage. "I accept your wager, Silver Sandstorm. Bring out your game, and I will sit down with you and play it. "

The Sethisian turned to face his two colleagues, and began gabbling incomprehensibly to them in what must have been their native language. It looked as if he was translating Gurgeh's comments; clearly, the others had not learned Marain to a conversational standard, or at all. Their responses seemed excited, even gleeful. It must have been what they were anticipating would happen.

Silver Sandstorm turned back to Gurgeh – "It is well. Bloodstone, fetch the board. Hudjan, you must stay to ensure that there is a witness to fair play."

"I will," said Hudjan, sitting in one of the chairs opposite the Sethisians, whilst Bloodstone disappeared into the darkness at the back of the hut to fetch…well, whatever the board was. Gurgeh took the remaining empty chair next to him and opposite Silver Sandstorm. Game on, he thought to himself, and his stomach tightened a little more.

"Gamlok's Gulch is not the town in The Saga of Merhag Meggnorson!"

"It is! It says so here!"

"No it isn't! Gamlok's Gulch is the village in The Saga of Merhag Meggnorson. The town is Spaceport Five. A child reading that book at school could tell you that answer is wrong!"

"Rules are rules, Morat – we must go by the answer given on the card!"

"Actually, Gurgeh," intervened Hudjan, who was acting as question-master. "I think we really have to, before you insist on going into more detail about the plot of The Saga of Merhag Meggnorson. I mean, I had to read it at school too, but I'd kind of blotted most of it out of my memory like a bad dream."

Gurgeh glared at his fellow Culturnik, then across at the three Sethisians. Six hours had passed. Six long hours, during which all involved had drunk deeply of the bright red fruit-based alcoholic drink, apparently called kasho brandy that the Sethisians were so keen on, and during which the true nature of chethis had emerged. A fucking trivia game, he thought for the umpteenth time.

Not a game of chance, not a game of skill, not a game of artistry, but a game where you had to roll a die, move your piece, a little round wooden container divided into segments, around the board and fill up the segments with little coloured shapes, one for each category, as you answered correctly questions of the category dictated by whatever square you landed on. Whoever filled it first, won. On same squares you missed a turn, or had to do a forfeit. Others gave you the choice to nominate another player to take a question in that category, and if they got the answer wrong they then lost a turn.

It was a game of pointless knowledge, some of the answers provided were wrong anyway, and he was very bad on all sport not involving board games, something Silver Sandstorm clearly knew a lot about. The alien explained that, primitive as Sethis Kappa 5 was, they were capable of picking up the communications of some of the more advanced civilisations near to them, including their sports news. Decades out of date, usually, but then information doesn't have to be particularly up-to-date to base a game on it.

Gurgeh reflected that if he'd been playing it with his friends, he'd long ago have told them where to stick this stupid game. But that would hardly be diplomatic, let alone worthy of a divine being. He just had to keep on playing, hoping that Silver Sandstorm would win and end the agony before too long. The moment might be coming soon, as the alien only had to pick up a segment on "Science and Nature" to fill his piece.

Silver Sandstorm picked up the die and rolled. He got a four, which took him on to a square for "Beings", a question he got wrong because he couldn't identify the last-but-one President of the Remollian Confederation. It was Gurgeh's turn. He still had to fill two segments in his piece. He rolled, got three, and landed on a square for "Art and Literature", one of the categories he was missing. Everyone looked expectantly at Hudjan, as he fiddled with the cards, and Gurgeh knocked back a slug of kasho brandy.

"Who carved the sculptures of a thousand Fire Cranes on the Great Gate of Crystal at Sannak, in the…"

"Tennota Topeh," cut in Gurgeh. Old Topeh went on about it in great detail in the preface to the book on chess he also wrote, one of those he'd just finished reading. It wasn't a good book, and he should really have stuck to sculpture, but was also really the only work that fully describes all of Wyyxxzrth's Stratagems.

"That's the right answer," said Hudjan. "What a stroke of luck for you."

Gurgeh picked up a brown segment and clicked it into place. "Chance favours only the prepared mind," he said. He didn't actually believe that was always the truth, but it sounded cool and might at least rattle Silver Sandstorm a bit. The Sethisian did not react, and simply rolled the dice for his next turn. He threw a six, landing him on one of the "Answer or nominate" squares

"I nominate the Morat," he announced, with the merest hint of a smile. "And the category is Sport."

God damn you, thought Gurgeh.

"Who holds the record for the number of consecutive wins of the Galactic Nupball championship?" asked Hudjan. Gurgeh knew immediately he was doomed. Nupball was a very simple computer game usually played, at least in the Culture, by pre-teen children and nostalgic adults in chronic denial of their true age. He was staggered someone had even bothered to organise a Galactic championship. He would never guess who the winner had been.

"I don't know, " he said. And as it turned out, the extra turn Silver Sandstorm got was all that he needed to get himself on to the square for the category he needed and answer the question correctly. He had won, and immediately launched into a series of forehead-to-forehead touches and weird hand gestures with his two colleagues that Gurgeh assumed must be the Sethisian way of celebrating victory.

"Looks like your people have their freedom, then," Gurgeh told Silver Sandstorm.

"The game has been played and Destiny has decided it our way," announced the latter, whereupon the three aliens picked up the bottles and started downing all the remaining brandy as a toast to their success.

As soon as they decently could, Gurgeh and Hudjan made their farewells to the Sethisians and left the hut. They found the S.C. agents Flere-Imsaho had mentioned earlier had left their hiding places in the trees and gathered outside. Once the Sethisians had celebrated to their own satisfaction, and most likely after they had sobered up too, Hudjan and the agents would be escorting them back to a shuttle in another clearing, deeper in the forest, and that would take them back up to Close Quarter Contingencies in orbit, ready to fly them back home.

The two Culturniks walked back towards Wacky Funster, somewhat less steadily than they had walked away from it earlier. Gurgeh was tired and dehydrated and he knew from experience that a hangover was lurking in the caverns of his consciousness, ready to come out and club him over the head at anytime. The sun was sinking in the sky and, as evening approached, the heat of the day was mellowing out. Gurgeh would have to wait another day or so until the shuttle would fly him back to Chiark. This would ensure, said Hudjan, that the Sethisians were well out of the way and there was no chance of them getting any hint of where he was heading and guessing that that the Culture was rather larger and more widespread than they supposed.

At about the same point they had left it, Flere-Imsaho arose from a clump of vegetation where it had been hiding, like a giant butterfly finished supping on the nectar of a flower.

"I hear congratulations are in order," it said. Gurgeh scowled back.

"You misled me, drone. You didn't tell me I'd be playing a game, you didn't tell me what it would be and you particularly didn't mention that whether I won or lost would be quite so significant to the people I was playing with. Even by previous standards, that's a real achievement in bullshitting."

Flere-Imsaho's aura flashed a rainbow of colours, suggestive of a combination of resentment, annoyance and unease.

"We needed you to react naturally, Gurgeh, and act as if you hadn't spent days planning how best to lose narrowly to the Sethisians, which, let's face it, is exactly what you would have done if I had let you know all that. You had to look like the God of Games playing spontaneously, not a well-rehearsed actor, or they would never have bought the illusion."

"You're talking like a fucking film director, Flere-Imsaho."

"Well," cut in Hudjan, "in this job, you have to be like a film director. It's all about creating illusions, deceiving your audience, bluff – that's how a lot of our interactions with other races work, in practice. It's a hell of a lot better than war. Those aliens, as far as they're concerned, have preserved their freedom and protected themselves from the bad consequences of unexpected contact with the gods. We've got ourselves out of a hole and can keep well away from Sethis Kappa 5 until they've reached the right level to cope with contact. Everyone's got what they want."

"For you and them, perhaps," said Gurgeh. "But you manipulated me to create your illusion – yet again. And you lied to the Sethisians. And, well, aren't we all supposed to consider the Culture an ideal society? Every time I work with Special Circumstances, I go back to my home afterwards and it seems a little less ideal because of what has to be done to sustain it. Even if that is just pulling off a ridiculous scam."

"We do what has to be done to keep the Culture what it is, Gurgeh," said Flere-Imsaho. "It's a dangerous universe, even for the most technologically advanced race we know of. If you wanted to keep out of it, stay blissfully ignorant, you only had to say, "No.""

They had reached the bottom of the steps up into the shuttle. Gurgeh turned to face Flere-Imsaho and Hudjan.

"I'll never be blissfully ignorant again. But I am saying "No." I'm not working for S.C. or Contact again, ever. You'll have to find yourselves another game player the next time you need one."

"Well, that's for you to decide," said Flere-Imsaho, as Gurgeh climbed the steps away from them. It wondered whether, if he was needed again, they might need to blackmail Gurgeh. That was what had ensured he agreed to his journey to Azad, after all. It would need some tap-dancing, since so far as Gurgeh was concerned the drone that did all the blackmailing and its tape of him cheating at a game had both been destroyed when a research vessel was hit by a solar flare a couple of years ago.

"Have a nice trip home, anyway," shouted Hudjan, after Gurgeh's retreating back.

Gurgeh said nothing.

"So are you going to listen to me more in future about this kind of thing?" asked Yay. They were lying in bed together, at Ikroh, listening to the heavy autumn rain come hammering down on the roof above them.

"Yes," said Gurgeh. There was really no way out of that. "You were right. They bluffed me again, and I let them do it. I suppose even a game player is no match for professional diplomats. There's honour in game playing, and rules, and…" He paused briefly. "And people stick to the rules. Usually."

Yay reached over and touched him gently on the arm. "There are supposed to be rules in diplomacy too, but...I guess people just don't stick to them as much. Keep to your chess stratagems in future, Morat."

"I will, my love," he said.