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

The Dra'Azon were, perhaps, an even more enigmatic species than the Nacaractil. The Dra'Azon were a partially-sublimed Elder civ, a pure-energy species mostly retired from the normal, matter-based life of the galaxy, although resolutely still residing in some parts of the Real and remaining enigmatically capable of protecting their interests. They were now severely abated but known to have a few representatives in most parts of the greater galaxy and still - from time to time - made more-or-less coherent representations to the Galactic General Council.

The data networks of the Dra'Azon were basically extensions of themselves, part of their own minds, and so the Culture felt ethically unable to do their usual general data trawling nosiness because it was too much like violating a sentient being's mind and therefore they did not actually know very much about the Dra'Azon. Since the exact extent of the Dra'Azon's abilities was not known to the Culture, in the risk-averse way the Minds which ran the society generally exhibited, those Minds were very much inclined to leave somnambulant superbeings well alone.

"So what have the Nacaractil been doing?" Noibalt asked.

The white-robed figure sighed.

"Somehow, the Nacaractil have got their hands - metaphorically speaking - on a very large cache of ancient Culture weapons."

"Genuine?" Sharbat asked.

"That, or extremely good replicas," the mind-state abstract replied, "There's no mileage in claiming that these are not Culture devices."

"And what kind of Culture devices are these?" Sharbat asked.

"They are pre-Idiran War memoryform weapons."

Memoryform weapons - guns, bombs, even sharp blades - were intended for self-protection of individuals, often but not always SC agents. Inactive, they could take on almost any form: a pen, a ring, a brooch, a tooth, even a toenail. Their disguise, and their limited power - never a battlefield piece or something capable of mass destruction - led to a degree of plausible deniability. Devices like this were only made in the period leading up the Idiran war but they were manufactured in huge quantities.

Unlike the more advanced - and more recent - weaponry produced by the Culture - mainly in the form of drones, although human SC agents with embedded military systems were also known - memoryform weapons were not sentient. They had rudimentary AIs, just enough to protect the innocent from collateral damage and to inform the user of the capabilities and limitations of the device.

The guardian AIs were not things you could hold a conversation with; they were more likely to subject you to a suspiciously well-rehearsed briefing - almost pre-recorded. You could interrupt the monologue with direct questions, but the replies always sounded like stock answers rather than the kind of engaging response a truly intelligent person - human or machine - would come up with.

Valbada leaned forward, clearly interested.

"Where did they get them?" she asked.

"I don't know," the holographic representation replied, "Although I can assure you that very detailed enquiries are being made in a number of quarters. But it's not implausible that, in the endless confusion of the Idiran War, a shipment got captured, abandoned, tossed overboard, forgotten, or generally mislaid."

Formali-Kai, who had been floating quietly nearby until now, swung forward, its fields displaying the grey-white of frustration.

"What have the Nacaractil done with these devices?" it demanded, sounding suspicious.

The white-robed figure sighed again.

"Installation Art, I'm afraid."

The Nacaractil liked their art to be monumental in scale - nothing smaller than a decent-sized planet would be considered good enough, working their way up to globular clusters in the most extreme cases. They also made their art as a sharply-pointed commentary on other Galactic civilizations, or on specific interactions between multiple civs. Sometimes their installations attracted the ire of some of the more prickly members of the Galactic stage, to the point of making threats to destroy the artwork in question and dispatching ships or other military resources to the region. Various more mature and level-headed civs, including - in surprisingly few cases - the Culture's Special Circumstances section had managed to smooth ruffled feathers - or equivalent outer body parts - pour oil on metaphorical troubled waters and generally managed to avoid a shooting war.

"So what is this installation art?" Sharbat drawled.

"It is, as always for the Nacaractil, a commentary: in this case, on the relationship between the Culture, on the one hand, and the Dra'Azon, on the other."

"I didn't know we even had a relationship with the Dra'Azon," Noibalt muttered, half to himself.

"I think the best word to describe it is 'nebulous'," the representation of the Prosthetic Conscience said, "We don't really know that much about the Dra'Azon. They are famously secretive, keep themselves to themselves."

"And the artwork itself?" the drone demanded.

"The Nacaractil have covered a large fraction on the land surface of a planet with a grid of our memoryform weapons, constantly flickering between their safe and non-safe forms, their disguise and the real thing. And they've built in on Mescalarian, one of the Dra'Azon's Planets of the Dead."

All three humans looked astonished; the drone aura field rippled rainbow.

"Inside the Quiet Barrier?" the drone asked.

"Yep."

"How did they do that?" the drone pressed.

"Again, I don't know," the white-haired projection replied, "Although the Dra'Azon are apparently pretty upset about it."

Sharbat leaned forward.

"These Quiet Barriers, they have them around all of their Planets of the Dead?" he asked, "What are they, exactly?"

"There's quite definitely one for every planet," the representative of the Prosthetic Conscience said, "The radius is usually the half-distance to the nearest other star; typically a few hundred standard light-days. The Barrier is really an exclusion zone patrolled by a single Dra’Azon; if you approach, you get a series of increasingly firm warnings then - with a very few exceptions - you get blasted into a dispersing cloud of sub-atomic particles by something that looks very much like Gridfire."

"Where does the Gridfire come from?" Noibalt asked.

"Good question. We don't know. There's no physical presence of any kind. But somehow the energy grid between the universes is pulled down into the Real for a picosecond or two, and then snaps back to its usual position in hyperspace."

Noibalt thought for a moment.

"Hmm. And what are these exceptions to utter destruction you mentioned?"

"Nearly four thousand years ago the Dra'Azon came to an agreement which allowed ships in distress to cross the Quiet Barriers. Genuinely in distress, mind you: they've made fairly messy examples of a couple of more overt attempts to land while faking technical problems."

"So how are we going to get down there?" Noibalt demanded.

"We might not. But we're going to try the only reasonable approach - just ask nicely."

"Ask nicely?" Noibalt sounded shocked.

"Well, yes," the Prosthetic Conscience replied, sounding very slightly embarrassed, "But preceded by quite a lot of background information."

"Will it work?"

"Probably. But the Dra'Azon won't allow anything as powerful as a VFP - demilitarized or not - or even a GCU inside the Silent Barrier. So, it'll be the four of you, in a small module."

"And what will we do when we get there?"

"Improvise."

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