A short story set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Malias, Formali-Kai and another one of Hub's Avatars - or perhaps it was the same one - convened in an observation area on the underside of the Plate where space could be observed directly - through super-strong and exceptionally transparent windows - or the view overlaid or replaced with synthetic representations. At the moment, Malias was presented with a starfield in barely perceptible motion thanks to the rotation of the Orbital - the same rotation which produced both the effects of gravity and a Culture-standard day-night cycle. She could see no sign of the approaching ship.

No doubt both Drone and Avatar had senses of their own which would make the LSV's position known precisely. And so had she, now that she came to think about it. But at the moment, she was keeping all those enhancements in standby mode; she had found herself twitching occasionally, or suffering a momentary lapse of concentration, as newly-reactivated systems settled themselves into her mind and her body. She didn't like the twitchiness at all, but there was an undeniable sense of pleasure knowing those powerful latent capabilities were waiting to burst forth from under her skin.

Formali-Kai was an example of a fairly recent model of Special Circumstances drone for the Culture's Contact section; effectively a military machine with a variety of sophisticated, hardened sensory and weapons systems. The tiny machine, resembling a pair of fine white porcelain bowls, one upside-down on top of the other, had a distinguished career in an astonishing variety of roles and locations, and had, for a time, been partnered with Malias for several assignments.

Special Circumstances agents - human and drone - were very carefully selected, evaluated, trained, tested and briefed before being allocated to any assignment. But, once on that assignment, they were typically allowed a very high level of autonomy in their actions - within broad and carefully-defined bounds - with the proviso that they would be expected to justify their actions to a group of peers and Minds.

The last of Malias's missions with Formali-Kai had resulted in what had been politely reported as "an extreme difference of opinion" between human and drone: an obvious euphemism for a screaming argument between the two of them. The assignment had been abandoned before a satisfactory conclusion had been reached; the subsequent mutual recriminations and metaphorical finger-pointing had descended into a vicious pit of name-calling and abuse. Malias vowed never to work with Formali-Kai again; shortly afterwards, she had announced her retirement and returned to the Orbital where she had been born - which also happened to be the place where Formali-Kai had been constructed.

"Ah, so the Famigeratist appears to be arriving exactly on schedule."

The soft voice of the Avatar cut through Malias's ruminations on the past. She looked around. The drone floated a little way to the side, its aura fields showing a frosty blue of formal politeness. It had presented a facade of civil indifference throughout the encounter when it and Malias had been reunited the previous day, without displaying even a hint of apology or contrition. Now, it made no acknowledgement of Hub's announcement, apparently content to regard the approaching LSV using its own senses.

"Although I'm a little surprised it chose to move so slowly since it signalled me," the Avatar went on, "Unless its made some unlikely changes to its engine configuration, it should be able to sustain a considerable greater speed than that it is currently achieving."

"Is it still not talking to you?" Malias asked.

"It is indeed still silent," the Avatar replied, "I've had no further communication other than a formal Permission To Approach burst."

With no warning - at least to those using only un-augmented human senses - the view of the galaxy from the observation lounge was almost entirely obscured by a vast matt-black shape, only easily visible where its bulk obscured the stars. Malias struggled to avoid stepping back in surprise; only rigid self-control prevented any involuntary movements, and several of her still-sleeping augmentations twitched and clamoured to react to something that might have been perceived as a threat.

"Looks like it's intending to stay," the Avatar said casually, still gazing calmly out of the observation blister, "It's making all the usual changes to its field configurations, although" - now it sounded confused - "it's really taking its time over the process."

Malias watched as the black shape metamorphosed into a silver-grey ellipsoid. The outermost fields of the ship gave the faintest of suggestions of subtle movement beneath the surface, peristaltic processes which made the stationary LSV look like some colossal grub.

"Ready to Displace aboard?" the Avatar asked.

Malias concentrated for a few moments, engaging systems and closing metaphorical breakers to activate her augmentations, shivering in anticipation as the various components and units announced their readiness.

"Ready," Formali-Kai said in a studiously neutral voice. Its frosty blue aura did not waver.

"And me," Malias said.

"To confirm, I'm going to put you down on the rear edge of the LSV's front topside park," the Avatar went on, "Assuming it's not made any drastic changes to its internal layout, that will put you close to the main accommodation sections."


"All set here."

There was a double pop as two near-spherical Displacement containments suddenly appeared where human and drone had been located, and just as rapidly disappeared.

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