"We've just Displaced in, from the Orbital." Malias said, in her best attempt at a reassuring voice.
The Drone did not react; the child glanced at it, seemingly unfocussed for a moment.
"I see the ship has just arrived," Roween said, "And you and Formali-Kai here are checking on us. And the Hub too."
~Her neural lace seems to be working just fine, Formali-Kai's laconic voice added in the privacy of her head.
Malias knelt down to become face-to-face with the precociously self-assured girl-child.
"We're all concerned," she said gently, "Where is your mother? Your aunts and uncles?"
"The grown-ups? They've all Sublimed," Roween answered with a dismissive snort, "Some of us are considering joining them, when we get older."
Subliming was one of the two common ways a species departed from the day-to-day life of the galaxy, always assuming that they didn't end up MAD'ing themselves on their home planet or being on the losing side of an inter-stellar war. It meant leaving, apparently forever, the mundane of the Real and entering into an infinitely complex, effectively immortal and indescribably wonderful alternative universe without threat or danger. It had been conclusively demonstrated that entire civilizations, or even individual Minds - or equivalently capable AIs - maintained a continued existence and identity in in the Sublime, although individual people tended to blur and fade. Such reports which came back from those who had Sublimed were vague, dreamy, even inconsistent. It was essentially an inscrutable mystery, even to sophisticated civs like the Culture, and it was certainly something that certain groups of Minds would very much like to know more about.
"Everybody's Sublimed?" Malias asked, aghast.
"All the adults, yes. The Famigeratist went with them."
~That's right, Formali-Kai interjected, ~The entire vessel is running either on automatic systems or low-level AIs. There's no Mind aboard, anywhere.
The SC drone had clearly been performing some extensive scanning and analysis while she had been talking to the child. A smart machine like Formali-Kai, in full-on combat readiness mode, could easily out-think any human, no matter how augmented.
"And they've left all you children behind?" Malias pressed.
In the Culture, as well as a number of allied civs - or at least those with a similar cultural attitude to their young - expecting children to Sublime, without any say in the matter, was regarded as tantamount to abuse. On the other hand, parents abandoning their young wholesale was hardly less offensive. Malias managed to suppress the reaction to screech something like "How could anybody do something like this?"
"Oh, yes," Roween said cheerily, "But I can talk to Mother when I want to, and she's waiting for me to make up my mind on whether to join her."
"You can still communicate to your Mother?" Malias asked slowly, the disbelief obvious in her voice, "Even now?"
"Yes, of course," the child replied, equally slowly as if speaking to somebody incurably hard of understanding, "That's why I have a lace, in my head. We've all got one."
"So, if you decide you want to go...?"
"I'll go. Mother has set aside a place for me in the Sublime."
"And if you don't? What then?"
"That's why we've come to your Orbital. A place to live for those who decide not to Sublime," Roween went on, now sounding rather despondent, "I'm sure your Hub will find a way to accommodate us."
~Is this true, Malias sent, really?
~Yes, came the voices of both Hub and Formali-Kai together.
~All of the children are using their neural lace to maintain a degree of contact with those already Sublimed, Hub's measured tones continued, ~The communication is occasional, tentative, not particularly detailed - but there's enough, according to my best analyses, to pass some understanding between parent and child.
~Yes, Formali-Kai added, I’m attempting to access the comms now.
~What? Wait, are you reading their minds?
The Culture really did not have laws, not as such. It did have complete freedom of information, at least theoretically, and created and maintained immodestly vast repositories of information which were available for all to access. But the twist was that information held in the minds of intelligent creatures - drones, humans, Minds - was sacrosanct. The first rule of the society - if the Culture had rules - would be: opinions, ideas and thoughts of intelligent creatures, of any kind, are always and entirely private.
~I'm attempting to, Formali-Kai answered, ~At least the surface thoughts, to understand what they're getting back from the Sublime. It was part of my briefing.
There was a pause then a puzzled voice sounded in her head.
~Not getting anything at the moment.
~This wasn't in anything which was explained to me! Malias objected angrily.
Before she got a response from either drone or Mind, the child looked up sharply, glaring furiously at the drone.
"Hey! What's going on?" Roween yelled, stepping back and pointing up at the hovering machine, "What are you doing?"
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and ran full-pelt for the edge of the top-side park, diving through the railings and disappearing over the side. The slats and foils of her wing-suit must have deployed almost instantly, as she reappeared a few moments later, swooping wildly over the artificial canyon that separated the upper part of the ship. A couple of Malias's defensive subsystems were tracking the fleeing girl, but she did not have to intervene; the systems seemed content that the child did not represent any kind of threat. The other flyers scattered, disappearing though bay doors and other entrances or retreating to what they might have considered to be a safe distance.
Malias spun on her heel and scowled at the drone, which appeared to be entirely ignoring her. It showed no aura fields and looked like its intellect was fully engaged elsewhere. It did not respond in the slightest to her repeated demands for an explanation.
~Hub? Where you aware of this?
~I did make an operational suggestion, as one of a large number of contingencies, Hub's measured voice came, ~that an attempt might be made to understand more about the nature of the Sublime. This wasn't what I had in mind, though.
~This has got to stop!
"I agree," said a deep voice from right behind her.