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

I always felt faintly uneasy in the Old Laboratory, on those infrequent occasions I was asked to attend. I had long suspected this was a deliberate ploy.

I had appeared just inside the entrance, the key box still in my hand. The heavy steel door, pockmarked with rust, closed with a clang behind me. That always makes me jump, no matter how many times I come here.

In front of me spread a dank echoing cellar with wide brick-lined arched corridors branching off in every direction. The walls, and what I could see of the corridors, were lined with heavy wooden benches topped with row after row of bell jars and large flasks, bubbling with worryingly-murky coloured liquids in several rather dismal shades. Something darkly organic lurked in each one; without exception, they were brains in bottles, almost all with eyeballs still attached. Most looked as if they might have been extracted from somebody human, but some certainly were not: too many eyes for example.

Tubes and cables of indeterminate purpose dangled from the high ceiling or hung in sagging loops from the walls. I could hear the sounds, almost subliminal, of esoteric fluids being pumped into the housings and tanks, punctuated by the occasional flicker and crack of arcing electrodes or a splashing drip from a leaking feed pipe.

The Denizen of the Laboratory was a man of unusual height and even more unusual slenderness. He had wild black hair and a bushy black beard; what remained uncovered of his face was obscured by large eye-glasses with complex arrangements of additional lenses which could be swivelled down to inspect even more closely whatever object had caught his attention. He wore a long coat, once white, now stained in many places by arcane chemicals, holed by acids, tattered and torn at the hem, and generally worn almost to the point of disintegration.

As I moved forward, the Denizen put down whatever it was he had been studying when I entered - exactly what I was not inclined to determine - and flicked back what complex optics he had been using to reveal piercing green eyes only partially concealed by thick lenses. I had to remind myself that this strange-looking human was in fact nothing of the sort, merely a projection into this virtual world of the composite personality of the Group Mind itself. Even in this human guise, I got the sense of some vast intelligence watching me from behind the bottle-bottom spectacles, some brooding presence entirely at odds with his slightly scatty, slightly scary external appearance.

"Hello, Phrontisterion," I began.

The tall figure nodded in acknowledgement but said nothing.

"I've been asked to bring you a message."

The faintest of frowns could perhaps be seen crossing his face.

"A message? What of it?"

I stepped forward and presented the inlayed box, flipping the lid open to reveal what lay within. No doubt the beautiful old metal key - in the virtual world - was in fact an information token or encoded message of some kind. Exactly what, however, I had no idea.

"It is time," I said softly, holding the box high, "It is time."

Suddenly, every one of the disembodied eyeballs in the Old Laboratory seemed to be regarding me with great attention.

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