The Denizen approached and stood looming over me, and lifted the key from the box. He inspected it closely, first with one combination and then another of the complex lenses which bulged from his glasses.
He nodded slowly and spoke, seemingly to himself: "It is time. It is time." He repeated it over and over again.
After a minute or two, he seemed to awaken from whatever trance state he might have been in. He turned back to me, his eyes still glazed, wordlessly took the lined wooden box, gently placed the key within, shut the lid with a little click and placed the whole thing on a nearby workbench.
"So, Threwen Bolloch," he said, looking at me over the top of his spectacles, "I - and we - have another request to make of you. But first I need to tell you a few things, important things, about me, and about you too."
I have long held a suspicion about my own nature, my place in the grand scheme of things. It seemed like now was the right time to ask the big question.
"Am I just a part of you, a projection or synthesis of some kind?" I demanded, looking up at his old lined face, "Am I a creation, a child of your own personality?"
"No, my child, that is not at all your nature," he replied softly, shaking his head gently, "Although I can imagine how you might harbour the suspicion. But, you are exactly and entirely as your own memory recalls - a full and independent Culture human."
I could not doubt his words, even in a place like this where anything imaginable could be made real. So it was true: I really was a volunteer when I agreed to act for Phrontisterion. I suppose I had my reasons at the time: I just wanted to experience something different, something beyond the ordinary, or beyond even the kind of outward-looking experiences that a spell in Contact might give me.
"But you are much younger than any of the individuals that joined together to produce me," Phrontisterion went on, "Indeed, you have never even encountered remnants of most of the older ones. Their personalities are far gone, a mere echo of which still forms a part of me. Even so, something of every one of them still remains within me."
He waved a hand in the direction of the racked bottles. My eyes followed the movement. For an instant, nothing happened, then the room around us faded into a white haze, without me being really aware of how it happened. Colours and patterns began to emerge from the mist; it seemed to me that all the disembodied brains in their gloomy tanks were now replaced by brilliantly-coloured patterns, moving shapes and twisting angles hanging in the air, somehow suggesting that the movements themselves were merely projections into the dimensions I could see of vastly more complex motions beyond my understanding.
"Even a Group Mind such as I," Phrontisterion continued, his cluster of lenses and scruffy lab-coat somehow replaced by half-moon reading glasses and a flowing white robe, "Becomes bored and tired, listless and enervated, after so many millennia. So many of my remnants feel they had nothing further to contribute to the Culture, nothing new to learn, nothing more to teach. Many do not retain any individual existence at all - I can of course speak for them - and those few whose remnants remain active seem to have been amusing themselves by creating, well, shall we say, idiosyncratic virtual spaces for the entertainment of others."
That certainly explained why the remnants I had encountered had chosen to present themselves to me and others as rather crass and old-fashioned stereotypes from some - possibly entirely imaginary - primitive past. Facets of some of the typically sarcastic drones creating virtual worlds to challenge, perhaps even intimidate such visitors they choose to admit.
Looking around, I thought I could recognise some remnants in the swirling colours: the Master of the Dojo seemed to be represented by swirls of petals; some mutating paisley figures resembled something I had seen on the Professor's cravat; the Librarian might be present as a complex jumble of coloured lines. Other shapes I did not recognise, but all were distinct, quite different from one another. And they were all, in their own way, ineffably beautiful.
"For a long time," Phrontisterion went on, "I have been considering Subliming, leaving this plane of existence for a richer, more complex dimension."
"You can do that?" I gasped.
"Not alone. But the Mind of the Inevitably Successful In All Circumstances has agreed to help. Of course, all of me must agree to this course of action - all the remnants must give their consent. And now they have. The proof of this is, of course, the symbolic key, the release you so kindly delivered earlier. And you can see that all these parts of me have begun their preparations."
Again, he waved a hand in the direction of the entrancing patterns all around us.
"But there is a cost to Subliming; there are unbreakable rules to be observed," he went on, "One of these rules is that the entire substrate supporting an intelligence must enter the Sublime. Now, our substrate is inside your head, is part of your brain. We cannot leave without you."
I said nothing. The figure in the flowing robes turned to look directly into my eyes.
"We sensed, when we asked you to act on our behalf, that you too had begun to suffer from a certain ennui, a pervasive sense of boredom," he said, those green eyes somehow seeing into my soul, "And so, Threwen Bolloch, I must ask you: will you consent to Sublime with us?"
I hardly needed to think. He was quite right: the universe of the Culture had long bored me, wearied me. I wanted something else, new experiences beyond anything the real world could offer.
"Yes," I said, "I will go with you."
I opened my eyes, once again in reality. I felt at peace, at one with the universe.
I looked up and smiled beatifically at the slender silver-skinned being approaching across the lounge. It waved a hand in welcome. It was the Avatar I had been expecting, the human-shaped representative of the GSV Inevitably Successful In All Circumstances.
"You are here, I believe, to help us Sublime," I said calmly, "We are ready to begin."
The Avatar's face lit up.
"It will be an honour and a privilege."