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

I should perhaps introduce myself: D'nariff Ochasta Threwen Shara Bolloch dam T'charn, at your service. I am a Culture citizen, now well into my second century and - despite what the Master of the Dojo had suggested - not at all a child. I have been resident on the GSV Inevitably Successful In All Circumstances for nearly thirty years and before that I lived on a variety of Culture Orbitals.

And, yes, I have a Group Mind in my head.

For reasons which might be SC-grade paranoia - or perhaps just obsessive secrecy - the computational substrate which contains Phrontisterion is physically located within my own skull, much like an enhanced neural lace. I am told the component elements are distributed throughout my brain, which add just a little to the mass of my head. Apparently, the distributed nature of the substrate makes little use of my own biological grey matter to support its operation, but the dispersed nature does allow me to talk to it in a fully immersive fashion. I can communicate directly with the Group Mind - when it is acting as a single entity - or I can at will enter any of the virtual worlds created by the remnants of those - mostly but not universally drones - who have joined the Group Mind. I act as both door and doorkeeper to Phrontisterion; I hold the keys for entry both physically, in the real universe, and in the virtual worlds, too.

Once again, I entered the virtual Dojo of the Master, this time joined by Formali-Kai. The drone had been rendered, entirely whimsically, as a tiny child, apparently about five years old. The infant clung to my hand as I stepped forward and bowed from the required spot. The Master had not moved from his normal place of meditation but, on this occasion, he looked up immediately I arrived.

"Ah, Threwen. I see you have brought Formali-Kai as I required," he said, a hint of resignation visible in the lines around his eyes, "Please accept my thanks."

I bowed again.

"I think this should be a private interview," the Master continued, "I will summon you by the bell when I require you once again."

I knew then that this would be a lengthy interview, lasting days or months of virtual time, although only a few minutes for me in the Real. I was preparing to leave the Dojo in the usual respectful manner when the Master spoke again.

"Please could you join me in the Library once you have escorted Formali-Kai on its way."

"Yes, Master," I intoned, carefully hiding my surprise, then backed away.

When I opened my eyes again, the tiny body of the drone Formali-Kai hung motionless in the air, displaying no visible aura. Clearly its attention was elsewhere. I made no attempt to communicate with it. I had other things on my mind.

The Library is unique within my Group Mind. It is the only virtual place where more than one of the remnants appear simultaneously, separately - as opposed to the appearance of the personality of Phrontisterion as a whole, as a single sentient entity - which happens in the virtual environment I know only as the Old Laboratory. While the Master's request for me to join him in the Library was not quite unprecedented, it was sufficiently unusual - and sufficiently unexpected - that it seemed to presage some radical change, some new challenge, about which I was entirely unaware.

Later, after I had answered the Master's summons and shown Formali-Kai on its way - accepting gracefully its profuse thanks and acknowledging numerous urbane pleasantries - I sat myself comfortably in my reception lounge, set my thoughts as necessary to enter the Library and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, I was inside the Library, the heavy baize-lined door closing gently behind me. In the low lighting, I could make out row after row of shelves of some dark wood, all filled with ancient tomes bound in tooled leather and smelling very faintly of dust and decay. At the far end of the room, there was a large solid stone fireplace containing a crackling log fire; in the gloom, I could just make out several figures, standing or sitting in the firelight.

"Come forward, child," came the voice of the Master.

As I approached, I could see several of the more prominent - or at least sought-after, by those outside - facets of Phrontisterion were already present. The Master of the Dojo sat cross-legged on a mat to one side of the fire, his robes arranged as elegantly as ever. On the other side, the Professor - clad as always in a tweed jacket over a puce waistcoat with a flamboyant paisley cravat - was sitting in an overstuffed armchair, a globe of some aromatic brown liquor in one hand and a large cigar in his mouth. The Librarian herself - a skinny woman in a long dark dress, her hair tightly bunned and run through with a variety of pins and pencils - stood looking nervously into the flames.

I looked around. In the flickering firelight, I had a sense of other eyes on me - watchers in the shadows, perhaps - but nobody else was making themselves otherwise apparent to me. But it did seem as if something of importance was about to occur.

The Master raised an expressive eyebrow in the direction of the Librarian. She swivelled in my direction.

"We have a message for you to convey," she said primly, "To the Denizen of the Old Laboratory."

"Of course, Ma'am," I responded politely, "What is this message?"

She said nothing, just glanced at the Professor in his chair. He put down drink and cigar on a convenient side table, and picked up some object I had not hitherto noticed. He stood and presented me with a finely-wrought box of inlayed wood, already open in his hands. Within, I could see a large key of brass and silver nestling in purple silk.

"Take it," the Master urged, "And present it to the Denizen. You are to say, 'It is time'. Nothing more. Do you understand?"

"I understand the instruction," I said, taking the little box and closing the lid, "But not the reasons behind it? What is going on?"

And then the Library and all those present simply faded before my eyes.

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