The Nacaractil were something of an enigma to the Culture. They were originally a kind of bat-like flying animal who seemed to have been caught half-way while evolving to a ground-living species. The long and slender fingers that had originally supported the skin membranes which allowed them to fly had given them truly incredible manual dexterity at a very early stage of their evolution, and their brain size and intelligence had exploded in a brief moment, in evolutionary terms. They had developed on the Galactic scene at an astonishing pace and, very possibly to the relief of a few of the more sedentary Involved, Sublimed at a very early stage.
The biological progenitors to the Nacaractil’s now machine-only society had, to a being, already Sublimed, together with a large fraction of their AIs and other sentient devices. The usual view, as expressed by the Galactic Council and its representatives, was that their civilization was so far diminished that their legacy could legitimately become the target of various Scavenger species; indeed this was now generally the case, and their many habitats and few planets were being strip-mined for technological insight and advancement by various of the more rapacious civilizations. The Nacaractil would have become just another soon-to-be-forgotten civ with a few hugely abated remnants dotted about the Real if it were not for the fact that some modest fraction of their most advanced and capable ships and AIs had remained un-Sublimed specifically, it seemed, to create spectacular works of art.
"Hi. Hub here," the voice sounded simultaneously from Sharbat's and Valbada's terminal devices, "I've just received word that an ex-Rapid Offensive Unit, now a Very Fast Picket is inbound here, name of Disproportionate Armament, with the specific request to transport the four of you to a destination which seems curiously unspecified."
The Mind that was now the Hub of Lhak Orbital had not always been so employed. Now, it was merely responsible to the lives and well-being of ten billion people, catering to the near-infinite variation of the human condition and seeking - through the medium of a million avatars and a billion personal presences in terminals, house systems and slaved drones - to engage, entertain and divert the population in the thoroughly hedonistic fashion to which they had been born.
During the Idiran War, the Hub mind had been a vital part of the Culture's rapidly-extemporised war machine, serially embodied in - as so many others had been - an eclectic mixture of cobbled-together OUs and a rag-tag assortment of other war-enabled craft. It had never been a full-blown custom-built Operational Unit, always finding itself in charge of some ill-fitting assortment of second-hand and second-best components which it struggled to make work with tolerable efficiency.
The war's end had allowed many Minds to step back: go on a retreat or a sabbatical, abscond or simply Sublime. Lhak Orbital found itself in need of a new Hub and volunteers had been sought. The Mind now acting as Hub had always found its decision to take on the Orbital profoundly satisfying, although it could not quite shake the conviction that it was somehow missing out on something.
"When's the Disproportionate Armament arriving?" Valbada asked.
When a Culture Mind starts taking the time to add filler words to its conversation, it is generally a clear indication that there is something more going on than meets the eye. Hub was perfectly capable of completing a thousand lifetimes of conversations in the time taken to utter that single syllable. It sounded to Valbada like there had been a frank exchange of views between the Orbital and VFP, with the O coming off very much second best.
"It's not stopping," Hub said, sounding peeved, "It's just announced that it will be barrelling through here at something close to its maximum sustainable speed, and expects to snap-Displace the four of you aboard sometime in the next four minutes."
After the end of the Idiran War, the vast number of true warships the Culture had created during that long and terrible conflict had been stood down, deactivated, componented, stored and dismantled by the tens of thousands. Some vanishingly small fraction had been demilitarised, redesignated Fast Pickets or Very Fast Pickets, and were now used for transferring small packages of matter - people, for example - in the few cases where the transmission of information alone was deemed inadequate.
"Oh well," Sharbat said laconically, draining his drink, "Better get sobered up, then."
A few minutes later, there were four soft pops caused by collapsing Displacement fields in the Forgotten Problem, which were remarked upon by nobody at all. An infinitesimal fraction of a second later, a corresponding collection of silvery ovoids appeared and then disappeared in what looked like a Culture-standard shared accommodation section - all indirect lighting, comfortable furniture and potted plants - which served to disguise, at least for a few moments, just how small the place was.
"This looks like a ROU," Sharbat said, almost to himself, "All engines and weapons pods, and precious little space for any people."
"Welcome to the Disproportionate Armament."
The voice came from a ship-slaved drone, a tiny silvery thing no bigger than a child's fist.
"Please accept my apologies for the precipitate way you were brought aboard," the voice went on, "But my directions from the Prosthetic Conscience were to deliver you in the shortest possible time, and the snap-Displace saved several hours."
Noibalt grunted inarticulately; Valbada seemed a little unsteady on her feet. Formali-Kai's fields flashed alternately red and yellow-green, indicating good humour and calm friendliness.
"Let me show you to your cabins," the ship-drone went on, "Perhaps you can, ah, freshen up and we can regroup here in, say, twenty minutes?"
All three humans were glanding several fairly potent stimulants and counter-agents using the drug glands which almost all Culture citizens possessed. Twenty minutes would be just enough time for most of the effects of the alcohol and narcotics to be neutralized and their brains restored to normal intellectual function.
The interior of the ship was indeed so small that a guide was not really necessary. The three humans found their way back to the shared accommodation section to be greeted by an out-holo projection of a serene-looking old man with well-trimmed grey hair and beard, clad in flowing white robes and apparently taking his ease in a comfortable chair.
"Hello, hello," the figure said as they re-entered the cabin, spreading his hands in a fashion no doubt intended to be reassuring, "Take a seat; make yourselves comfortable."
"Er, who are you?" Valbada asked, settling herself in one of the sprawling couches which were just as form-fitting as they looked.
"I am a mind-state abstract of the GCU Prosthetic Conscience," the figure replied calmly, "I'm here to let you know what's going on and what might be necessary for you - and me - to do about it."
The three humans looked at one another. It sounded, they would agree later, like the real deal: a credible threat to the peace of the greater galaxy, or at least that bit of it that concerned the Culture.
"Your original message mentioned the Nacaractil," Noibalt said, frowning, "Some of us have had experience with them before."
"Indeed," the projected figure agreed, "The remnants of that civilization seem to be making a concerted effort to upset at least two of the Involved, or species once deemed so; perhaps the Nacaractil just wanted, once again, to make some kind of artistic statement."
"Who are the Involved in question?" Sharbat demanded.
"Well, us, for one," the pretend version of the Prosthetic Conscience replied, "The other is the Dra'Azon."
"Ah," Valbada murmured, "Them."