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

Dual Reflection

"Can I take it," Histoker asked the gently glowing orb which was the more attractive face of the LSV Road Less Travelled, "That there is no new information as to the identity of the agent or agents we suspect might be wanting to experiment on the Chaosarium?"

"There's nothing new," the ship confirmed, sounding apologetic.

"And no doubt you will already have scrutinised the records on everybody - drones, humans and ships - either aboard or otherwise in the vicinity," Valbada added.

"Minutely. You're very welcome to have a look yourselves, of course."

"I doubt that would be useful," Formali-Kai muttered sourly, its fields grey with frustration. There was a moment's silence, then the old drone's aura suddenly flashed the rainbow shades of sudden surprise before turning to bright blue and striped yellow.

"I have an idea," the machine announced, sounding extremely pleased with itself.

Histoker glanced at Valbada, who said, "Okay, let's hear it then."

"Given how well this supposed agent appears to be covering their tracks," Formali-Kai said, "We'd just be waiting for them to make a mistake - which they might not. So we would be sat on our metaphorical thumbs for the rest of time."

"Sounds right," Histoker agreed.

"Sounds boring," Valbada interjected.

"So we need a course of action which might provoke whatever mysterious person or device to themselves take action, ahead of their plan, which might reveal their presence or identity," the drone went on, "I propose we pretend to attempt to perturb the spheres ourselves."

"This approach has possibilities," the voice of LSV Road Less Travelled agreed, "It would have to be done discreetly, though, in a way that any observer could conclude that it was being attempted without my knowledge."

"So we should use one of those little runabouts?" Valbada suggested brightly, "They're big enough for the three of us, at a pinch."

"And make the final approach in suits," Histoker added, "Leaving the runabout somewhere which looked like it was being hidden."

Formali-Kai's aura fields shaded to the red of humorous pleasure.

"I see you've got the idea," the drone said dryly.

"I like it," the ship said through the floating orb, "I'll provide suits and spacecraft with fields which will null out even their minute gravitational attraction, so you'll not be at risk of accidentally influencing the motion of the spheres. Unless you do something really stupid, of course, like crash into one."

"Yeah, yeah, we'll be careful," Valbada said offhandedly. Histoker nodded in agreement.

"Is there any particular sphere you want to visit?" the ship asked.

"The one called the Cathedral," Formali-Kai said immediately.

"Ah. Yes."

Every one of the spheres that made up the Delphic Chaosarium was a different diameter, and each had a different and irregular arrangement of tunnels and chambers within. This meant that the centre of gravity of each object was not precisely at the centre of the sphere, a difference which added exciting mathematical complexity to the equations which described the motions of each one.

The specific object in the cluster which had long ago been named Cathedral was amongst the largest in diameter, but definitely the least massy; it was also the least symmetrical. For reasons which remained inscrutable, one hemisphere was entirely solid, as far as could be determined, while the other was pierced by such a bewildering array of openings and cavities that it was very nearly entirely empty space, retaining just enough material, it seemed, to support its multiply-pierced surface. The overall impression was of some vast baroque church, its arches and columns and vestries all somehow converted to three dimensions and spun in a remote region of space. Since the material, whatever it was, which formed the walls of the artifacts was uniformly polished to a dull mirror finish, the interior of the Cathedral shone with reflected starlight, adding to the air of veiled mystery within.

The differences between the Cathedral and all of the other objects which made up the Chaosarium had led some researchers to speculate that it had some sort of defining or controlling role in the motions of the whole assemblage. This proposition had never been conclusively proven nor convincingly refuted, as were so many of the questions surrounding this most enigmatic of artifacts. Nevertheless, the object known as the Cathedral was especially carefully watched, just in case it took some action, some change of direction - no matter how small - which contradicted the well-understood laws of physics and therefore demonstrated the presence of deliberate activity.

Just then, there was a knock at the door, followed immediately by Finark Noibalt and a handful of others. They looked like they were already in a party mood.

"Well, come on then," Noibalt said, his arms around the waists of two very attractive persons, one male and the other female, "There’s others waiting to meet you. "

Valbada glanced at Histoker, who smirked.

"Shall we go?" she asked.

"It would be rude to decline, when these good people have gone to all this effort," he replied, "You coming too, Formali-Kai?".

"Don’t mind me," the drone replied, "This looks more like a bio kind-of-thing. Enjoy yourselves."

*

The runabout was small, but comfortable enough for the two humans in their form-fitting suits: probably no bigger than a compact combustion-powered automobile from any one of many Level-three civilizations the Culture's Contact section had encountered over the centuries. The little ship could operate perfectly well in many common liquid environments - water, methane, sulphur - as well as a wide variety of atmospheric gas mixtures, and was entirely at home in open space where it was able to proceed at respectable speeds, albeit non-relativistic.

The little spaceship accelerated smoothly out of the Smallbay which, despite its name, dwarfed the runabout. As they pulled away, the doorway shrank to nothingness against the slabsided vastness of the Limited Service Vehicle.

"I'm closing the bay door now," Formali-Kai said. It had done something drones generally preferred not to do, in Histoker's experience: it was resting physically on the wide console that separated him from Valbada.

Histoker nodded. Managing the bays were the kind of activity which would normally be done by the Mind of the ship itself, and the drone using its Effectors on the emergency override controls was just part of the pretence that they were leaving without the Mind of the Road Less Travelled being aware of them.

"And we'll be clear of the field array in a few seconds," the drone added.

Histoker wondered again just how good their pretence would appear to be. Surely, he mused, no ship could fail to notice something penetrating their fields, which represented the real - if not physical - hull of the large vessel. There might be ways of slipping unnoticed though that complex of traction, sensory and signalling energies, he considered, but they were not ones in widespread use.

The runabout accelerated hard, and the pale-grey ovoid which was the LSV's appearance from the outside disappeared into the star-specked blackness of space. A screen displayed a blinking dot against a starfield, which slowly resolved into steady blue points tracking the current position of individual elements of the Chaosarium and a single flashing green mote indicating the Cathedral itself.

The three companions sat in silence until the full scale of the Cathedral became apparent on the screen, even without whatever image-augmentation software was improving their view. Even to the naked eye, the stark difference between the two hemispheres was immediately obvious: one half a smooth ball of solid mercury dully reflecting the light from the stars, the other pitted and pockmarked everywhere with dark holes as if the object had been repeatedly run through with a variety of boring machines, laser cutters and tunnelling devices.

As they watched, the apparent rotation speeded up, caused by the increasingly curved path the runabout was taking.

"How are you proposing to hide the runabout?" Valbada asked the drone.

"I'll tell it to put itself into a powered orbit around the Cathedral itself," Formali-Kai replied, "Keeping the body of the object between the runabout and the Road?"

"Would that really work?" Histoker asked.

"Of course not," the drone replied, "If the ship was actively looking, it would be spotted in a microsecond. Less, probably. All for show."

There was a few seconds pause, then the drone announced: "Right, that's it. Time to check your suits and get going."

The rather dim AIs in the spacesuits worn by Histoker and Valbada brought themselves to maximum alertness, signalling their status through numerous displays and readouts. The suits shaded themselves to a non-reflective black, making Histoker and Valbada look like they had suddenly been replaced by cut-out templates of themselves. Formali-Kai, who was once a militarized Special Circumstances drone - albeit now centuries behind the cutting-edge - and needed no special protection from the vacuum, raised itself from the console where it had been resting. Its normally gunmetal casing was now noticeably darker, approximating the same shade as the suits.

"Ready here," Valbada announced.

"All set," Histoker added.

The runabout's AG turned itself off; the sudden removal of pressure on the padding of the seat bumping them into the air, which was rapidly being replaced by a vacuum. The runabout peeled itself open around them and the three companions were tossed unceremoniously into space.

The suits aligned the humans head-first with the pierced side of the Cathedral and accelerated towards it, following the drone who had streaked on ahead, its position marked by flashing circles on the heads-up displays.

"Hey, Formali-Kai," Histoker called, "Don't get too far ahead."

"Don't worry," the drone replied, "I just want to check things out."

The humans urged their suits to maximum speed, heading towards the largest opening into the centre of the Cathedral, an opening which had looked merely huge and foreboding from a distance and was now widening into a vast and mysterious chasm which seemed to descend into infinity. The interior of the object, as with all the others in the Chaosarium, had been comprehensively and minutely mapped years before - copies of these maps were lodged in the suits' AIs as well as Formali-Kai's memory - and many of the more notable features had been given names as well. This one was called the Nave.

The suits aligned the humans head-first with the pierced side of the Cathedral and accelerated towards it, following the drone who had streaked on ahead, its position marked by flashing circles on the heads-up displays.

The two humans slowed as they entered the vast space, looking around to get their bearings and to try and locate Formali-Kai, which was difficult enough in the gloomy darkness. The suits' AI soon picked it up, though, about ten kilometres inside the entrance, and the two humans sped forward to join it. When they arrived, the drone appeared to be studying a section of the wall: a blinking spot of red light illuminated a scratch, a scar perhaps ten centimetres long in the otherwise smoothly polished surface.

"Somebody has been here," the voice of the drone came over the helmet speakers, "Or something."

The drone's sensing band, previously coloured the same soot-black as the rest of its casing, suddenly came to life in bright shifting bands of iridescence. The suits too suddenly came to full alert, various alarms and warnings making themselves known to the occupants.

"Movement," the drone said, "I think they are still here."

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