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

I entered the Dojo and bowed low, as was expected of me, then stood motionless exactly three paces inside. I waited with well-practiced patience; I knew the Master of the Dojo would not rush himself to acknowledge my presence. I was the supplicant here, or at least representing one.

The Master sat still and unmoving on his raised platform, his formal robes elegantly arranged in a pleasing configuration, like some rare and complex flower of which he himself formed the central core. After a minute or so, he appeared to have completed his meditations, or whatever it was he was doing. He opened coal-black eyes and raised an interrogatory eyebrow in my direction. I bowed again.

"Come forward, child, and speak," he said, his voice deep and carefully-modulated. I complied promptly.

"There is a visitor without," I said without preliminaries, "It earnestly seeks an audience without delay. It begs you to review with it your memories of the Maskirovka situation."

"And who is it who would speak with me on this matter?"

"It is a drone, one that says it is from Contact," I replied carefully, "Its name is Roosh Formali-Kai Za-Handrahen Xato Roul."

The Master nodded slowly, thoughtfully, his eyes narrowed.

"A Contact drone, with a name like that? I think not. Special Circumstances, more likely. Nevertheless, I am sure it considers that such meagre scraps of knowledge that I still retain will be useful to it. I will allow this request. Ask Formali-Kai to join me at its earliest convenience."

"At once, Master."

I bowed once again and backed away politely; just as I reached the point where protocol demanded I should turn and leave, the walls of the Dojo dissolved before my eyes and I was back in the reality of the Culture.

In the formal lounge I tend to use on these occasions - all subtly indirect lighting and elegantly manicured plants - a tiny drone shaped like two fine china bowls fastened by their rims waited for my return. Its aura field displayed a formal blue specked with nervous motes of pale grey. In the Real, I had only been gone for a second or so - barely long enough for a slow blink - but still long enough for a smart machine like Formali-Kai to become just a little frustrated.

I smiled widely.

"The Master will see you now."

In my considerable - and very detailed - experience, I suppose, as Group Minds went, it was not so very unexpected for Phrontisterion to be more than a bit grumpy, especially one which contained a particularly high proportion of ex-drones with, shall we say, unusually interesting histories. And by interesting, I of course really mean a history which is variously disreputable, immoral, criminal, unsanctioned, illegal, ambiguous, illicit, equivocal, dishonest, unexplained, impenetrable, or just plain wrong.

So, I am the one who has to live with its orneryness, its sulks, the insults and name-calling as one element banters with another, the occasionally inane and repetitive repartee, and the evasions both subtle and direct. After all, it is what I signed up to do, all those years ago, when I was searching for a new purpose in my life: a volunteer to act as a go-between for a Group Mind and those who would communicate with it.

In the virtual worlds created by whatever remains of individual personalities within Phrontisterion - usually called remnants - I am a servant, required to carry out certain tasks and duties as directed. But all this happens in - literally - the blink of an eye and, for the rest of the time, I am free to enjoy all the fabulous pleasures and privileges of a Cultured existence. So, it is a situation I am more than happy to allow; in any case, many of the interviews with the remnants are often extremely interesting to witness.

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