Malias jumped and twisted in the air, every defensive system screaming warnings. In the extreme slow-motion of her hyper-alert state, she could detect the collapsing bubble of a Displacement field; her augmented senses and semi-autonomous weapons systems focussed on some unidentified being emerging from the dissipating haze. Her scans and sensors seemed to be comprehensively blocked; she could tell absolutely nothing about the structure or composition of the creature, although she recognised the Centaur shape from what might have been a Galactic Compendium of Sentients’ Bodies, or maybe just a childhood story.
Formali-Kai had thrown up a mirrored forcefield around itself and give the impression of using its Effector to probe the defences of whatever it was that had just materialized. The Centaur waved a hand casually, without taking its eyes away from Malias; there was a loud buzzing, a blinding flash as the mirrorfield dissipated and then, seemingly seconds later in her hyper-alert state, a long-drawn-out crack as the drone, now inert and apparently lifeless, fell to the pavement at her feet.
Even Malias's SC implants and enhancements were no match for a drone as highly-specified and militarily-capable as Formali-Kai. If the drone had been so casually rendered inoperable by the creature, whatever it really was, then she had no chance of prevailing through mere force of arms. If the Centaur had wanted her dead, she would already have been a smear of hot plasma scorching the paving stones.
She stood up straight, slowly raised her arms in a gesture of surrender and wound back her mental processing rate to something close to human-basic normal. Even at the suddenly glacial pace of her thoughts, it seemed that the Centaur paused for a long moment, looking at her thoughtfully.
There was a soft "ping" in her head, informing her that the link to Hub had been broken.
"That was, I believe, a wise decision," the creature said, in the same deep voice she had heard earlier.
"Who are you?" Malias demanded, breathlessly, "What are you?"
The Centaur held a hand to its chest, as if it were about to declaim some poetic oration.
"I? I am the Protector of the children," it answered, walking over to inspect the motionless drone, "Once, I was an Avatar of the Famigeratist. When the ship's Mind decided to Sublime with the adult passengers, I was upgraded, made fully autonomous, and a fragment of the ship's personality was lodged within me. Call me Fami, if you like."
With one hoof, Fami nudged the inert machine, which rocked to-and-fro slightly, and shook its head sadly. It returned to Malias, its hooves clattering on the paving.
"So, your Hub had some concerns about the humans aboard," Fami continued, "And sent you two to reconnoitre. With some attempt at secrecy, too."
The Centaur walked past the woman to the railings, intently observing the fluttering children now beginning to re-emerge from their hiding-places.
"Although your Hub Mind must have lost its touch after all this time," it said, almost to itself, "if it thought a minimum-aperture-wormhole Displace would go unnoticed here."
It shook it head, as if clearing unwanted thoughts, then turned again to Malias.
"I see that Special Circumstances has not ceased its practice of employing unpredictable and impulsive individuals," Fami went on, its deep voice sounding stern, "And I'm not sure I like the implication that your Hub was complicit in one of SC's little schemes."
Malias had listened to the diatribe with eyes wide open, not daring to interrupt. But she felt she had to understand more.
"But why did the ship's Mind Sublime?" she blurted, "Or all the adult humans?"
Fami snorted, a surprisingly horse-like sound from the human face.
"The General Service Vehicle Famigeratist - later reclassified 'Limited' - had been part of the Culture presence in the galaxy for over four thousand years. It felt that its duty had been done, its dues had been paid; it was time for a permanent retirement. Surely this is not so very hard to understand?"
Malias nodded slowly.
"As for the humans, the Famigeratist selected them, after careful research, as those likely to want to follow this same path. It wanted a coherent group, a representative sample, big enough to retain Cultural integrity in the Sublime. It travelled quietly across the greater galaxy, not making its location very obvious, and collecting those who had made it known that they were interested in Subliming."
Malias nodded again, unwilling to interrupt the flow of revelations.
"The surprise, and it really was entirely unanticipated," Fami went on, "Was that a substantial fraction of those contemplating leaving the Real had children, and that those children were a limiting factor on their willingness to Sublime. And so the ship came up with the - original, as far as it knew - approach of fitting all the children with neural lace, and persuading the parents that they would remain in touch with their offspring from the Irreal until the time came for them to make up their own minds. This approach is - was - working just fine, but now, thanks to the drone's interference, the departed are demanding that their children are returned to them forthwith. And the children are agreeing."
The Centaur turned back to the railings, where all of the flying children had again congregated and were drawing closer, circling the slender spire which was the most prominent feature in the middle of the chasm which bisected the ship.
"I will, of course, be placing all my - that is, the ship's - notes and observations in a variety of public repositories, archives and data vaults," it went on, "So your attempted espionage was entirely without point."
"I'll be sure to pass that on," Malias said, with a flash of her usual acerbic nature, "In whatever post-operations debrief I'm asked to join."
"I had thought that my old friend would have been able to guarantee safe harbour for our offspring but, sadly, I was wrong," Fami said, ignoring her remark, "I can see that my children are not safe here. I will no longer be resisting their transition to the Irreal."
Whenever a Sublimation Event was about to occur, in the very considerable experience of the Culture, a Presence would appear, as had been observed on numerous occasions throughout the galaxy. An immaterial dark form shaped like an inverted teardrop, partially eclipsing the sunline, appeared silently, contriving to give the impression that it had in fact been there all the time. Malias looked up, triggering various instinctive and autonomous recording processes which would take in as much detail as her extended senses would allow. This might conceivably help with the analysis and understanding of the Sublime - although previous recordings of Sublimation events had, she knew, been frustratingly difficult to analyse.
The Presence seemed to be at once a dark brooding cloud and somehow a beacon of incandescent light and scintillating complexity. A chant sprung up, childish voices in a piping harmony: "I Sublime, I Sublime, I Sublime!" Then the children disappeared, simply faded from view without fuss or bother, followed a second later by the dark shape itself.
Almost all the flying craft stabilised as whatever dim automatic systems or sub-sentient AIs took control after the sudden absence of their pilots, and flew off sedately in the direction of their hangers and docks. A very few - presumably too crude to allow for autonomous flight - crashed into the walls or tumbled into the canyon.
Malias turned; Fami too had disappeared, presumably Sublimed with all the other intelligences. The great ship was suddenly quiet and still. There was nothing alive anywhere, no movement other than the few tumbling wrecks. Most systems were sleeping, according to her enhanced senses; just a few essentials still running on crude automatics, and everything else essentially mothballed.
Malias had never felt so alone in her entire life.