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

Warmer Inside

~Dear friend, the Mind of the Road Less Travelled sent, I feel it is time for us to go our separate ways.

~Esteemed colleague, the Mind of the Obambulatist replied, I have to agree with you. Good fortune goes with you.

~And you, of course.

~May I ask you to take especially good care of Llyfith Grabouldsa Xavyer Bryoni Matlyen dam F'seuch. That man seems to be developing some quite remarkable abilities, and so late in life, too. I suspect he may yet become our best Referrer ever.

~The health and welfare of Mister Matlyen will be amongst my top priorities, second only to the protection of the Delphic Chaosarium.

~Excellent. Are you completely prepared for the changes in our communication protocols?

~I am. The clever way that the Castophrenic Widowhood use the mathematics of chaotic systems in hyperspace still impresses me. I will of course use the new protocols in communication between ourselves - and the other ships and slaved weapons systems we have been able to influence - and refrain from potentially dangerous content in comms with our more distant colleagues.

~Excellent. Fare thee well.

*

"The Obambulatist has arrived," announced the now-singleton floating orb which was the more sophisticated representative of the LSV Road Less Travelled as it gently guided the two humans and the drone along a corridor, "I am now entirely enclosed in the hull-fields of the GSV. Perhaps you would like to enjoy the view?"

Histoker nodded carefully, his head still recovering from the party atmosphere; Valbada merely grunted inarticulately.

Formali-Kai used its fields, presumably at the request of the Road Less Travelled, to throw a virtual flat screen in front of the two humans; the display showed a view of what must have been the Obambulatist's top-side parks: complete landscapes with hills, forests, plains, river and lake systems and small resort villages and hotels covered all the great ship's flat top surfaces and must have measured several hundred square kilometres.

"GSVs really like their personal wildernesses, don't they?" Valbada muttered.

The screen winked off and disappeared abruptly.

"Mr Matlyen and Dn Harunda-Lua have been transported aboard," the glowing orb went on, "We will shortly have an opportunity to welcome them."

The orb stopped outside a door.

"Can I remind you that Mr Matlyen is, by all reports, a rather solitary and antisocial, even reclusive individual," the orb said calmly, "So, please, no big emotional displays, keep your distance, speak quietly. Let him do the talking, if he wants to; if he says nothing, please respect that."

"Of course," Formali-Kai replied urbanely, sounding faintly amused.

Histoker and Valbada looked at each other and shrugged in unison, their bodies still struggling to tidy up their bloodstreams after the party.

The door opened swiftly and silently to reveal a bulky bearded man in a heavy kilt with an authentic-looking sporran and a blousy white shirt apparently inspecting the arrival lounge with fitful interest. He was accompanied by an old-looking drone, shaped like a squat eggshell-blue cylinder.

Before any of the humans could move, or even speak, Formali-Kai shot forward. The other drone sprang in the air then dove to meet Formali-Kai head-on. The two machines formed a whirling ballet of movement too quick for the unaided human eye to follow, some complex choreography whose patterns and manoeuvres followed some arcane rules evidently beyond mere human understanding. Despite their frenetic motions, the two drones displayed coruscating aura fields suggesting that violent, passionate emotions were being played out. There was clearly a great deal of very high-speed communication going on between the two devices.

The humans - all three of them, including Matlyen - looked on in some astonishment. Histoker would later swear that his mouth was literally hanging open in astonishment.

The quietly-glowing orb which represented the Road Less Travelled hovered motionless just inside the door. Valbada glanced at it.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

The orb made a sound which might have been a sigh of approval.

"I had hoped that something like this would happen," the voice of the Road Less Travelled said calmly, "But I think the explanation should come from these two old friends."

The two drones drew to a halt sharing, Histoker and Valbada were astonished to note, a common aura field of rosy pleasure and happiness.

Matlyen narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"You too," he said slowly, wagging a finger, "You share some history you're not telling us about."

The two interlinked drones bobbed in acknowledgment, strangely coordinated in what must have been an entirely deliberate act.

"We were friends once, many centuries ago," Formali-Kai began.

"More than friends, really," Harunda-Lua continued, "Companions, lovers, partners. But then Formali-Kai changed, suddenly, inexplicably. I never could get any kind of rationale, any kind of understanding of its personality alteration."

"With hindsight, it must have been when the mimetic virus was implanted in me," Formali-Kai said, sounding wistful, "Whoever did that must have thought that one so very close to me would spot the differences in my personality and pre-emptively sought to distance myself from Harunda-Lua."

"I had to be rejected, pushed away," Harunda-Lua agreed, "Suddenly, we found ourselves quarrelling over nothing, the way erstwhile lovers do at the end of a relationship. We could not agree operational procedures for the missions we were asked to undertake, we could not maintain friendships with the same person. At the end, we could barely tolerate each other's company; just to be in the same room was uncomfortable."

As they spoke, the conjoined drones’ aura fields swirled between many colours, displaying the complexity of the emotions they must both feel.

"Now that I look back at that period," Formali-Kai said sadly, "I can now see that I was entirely in the wrong. The mental debugging that the Road Less Travelled undertook seems to have stripped away a whole lot of filters on my perceptions, my memories of those times. I have of course apologised profusely to Harunda-Lua, and I understand that it has generously accepted those apologies."

"No apology needed," Harunda-Lua said graciously, "You were, quite literally, not yourself."

The three humans had been following this exchange closely.

"So what happened then?" Histoker demanded, his mental functions now restored to something close to normal.

"We went our separate ways," Harunda-Lua said simply.

"I requested a change," Formali-Kai added, "Crew member on a different GCU at the first opportunity. I never saw or communicated with Harunda-Lua again. I had no desire to, although I can see now that this was another artifact of the virus in my mind."

"What ship were you on?" Valbada asked, "When all these arguments happened?"

"We had just joined the GCU Equivalency Principle," Formali-Kai replied.

Histoker and Valbada looked at each other. He shrugged.

"Never heard of it," she said flatly.

"I looked at the records, closely," the voice of the Road Less Travelled said via the orb, "The Equivalency Principle was and still remains a diligent and reliable member of the Contact section. It has a sizeable history of recommendations from assorted Contact Coordination Committees, has handled several potentially difficult situations with skill, courage and diplomacy, and continues to be a popular choice for human and drone crew alike. I can find nothing to suggest that it has ever done anything out of line with the operational recommendations it received."

"Sounds like a goody-two-shoes to me," Histoker muttered.

Matlyen again narrowed his eyes with great suspicion.

"Before you joined the GCU," he asked the conjoined drones, speaking slowly, "What ship were you on?"

The two drones twisted in the air, exactly as if they were moving their sensing bands to face one another.

"We spent a long time aboard the LSV Anterior Mandibuliform," Harunda-Lua said.

"When it was still designated a Medium Service Vehicle," Formali-Kai added, "It was a long time ago."

"Hmm, now this is interesting," the glowing orb representing the Road Less Travelled said, "The Anterior Mandibuliform has become something of a recluse in recent centuries. It long ago ceased publishing a course schedule, so there's no generally-available record of where the old thing is, and there are not very many people aboard - most, it seems are actually in Storage."

"Do you think we have discovered the identity of another of the conspirators?" Valbada asked the orb.

"Very probably," the ship said, "One to program Formali-Kai as a mole for this very reason and one to make sure the drone was taken to the Delphic Chaosarium as quickly as possible."

"But why?" Matlyen said, almost to himself, then added in a louder voice, "There's another moving part, another component part in all this."

"I think you're right," the voice of the Road Less Travelled agreed, "And I think I've just spotted what might be that missing actor."

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