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

Before anybody could react to this proposal, the white-robed projection stood up, suddenly looking worryingly serious and imposingly formal.

"Before I go any further," the Prosthetic Conscience pronounced, "I need to formally ask whether you are all willing to undertake a mission here. It might be dangerous; survival, given the capabilities of the Nacaractil and Dra'Azon, is not guaranteed. Although I am more than willing to ask the Disproportionate Armament to back you up before it leaves."

Noibalt leaned forward.

"What would happen if I - any of us - said no?"

"You would stay on the VFP," the Prosthetic Conscience replied promptly, "And be returned to Lhak Orbital. Perhaps not as precipitously as your departure, but certainly within a few days. You would be in no danger whatsoever."

Noibalt spread his hands in a gesture of acceptance.

"That sounds fairly boring," he declared, "I'll definitely take part."

Formali-Kai swung about in the small space which was the VFP's crew lounge, its fields radiating formal blue.

"I, too, wish to be included in this mission."

Valbada flowed lithely to her feet, standing stiff and straight.

"You can count on my service."

Both humans turned and looked quizzically at Sharbat, who was still sprawled on a couch. He looked from one to the other, then shrugged.

"Oh, I'm in, don't worry about it," he drawled, "This is what being on the Call-Up List is all about."

"Good, good," the representation of the Prosthetic Conscience said, sitting down again and waving his hands. The standing humans also resumed their seats.

"It'll be several hours before the Disproportionate Armament arrives at Mescalarian," the projection went on, "So we have some time to carry out some tasks and impart some background information. Firstly, I have asked the VFP to enable, re-arm and activate some large selection of your embedded subsystems."

As one, the humans emitted a sigh of relief. None of them would ever have admitted that having their fangs drawn was anything other than disconcerting, even traumatic. The sense of strength, personal capability and power those SC-grade enhancements gave was an absolute adrenaline-fueled rush.

"I'm not including anything overtly offensive - if only because it would be unlikely to be successful if deployed against beings as capable as the Dra'Azon," the white robed figure explained, "So, some effector capabilities, not at battlefield strength, but force-field and shield systems at maximum."

Valbada and Noibalt shrugged, oddly synchronised. Sharbat looked grumpy and muttered, "Guess it'll have to do."

The projection raised an eyebrow in his direction, but refrained from comment.

"Then, of course, there's the incident referenced - critiqued, if you prefer - by the Nacaractil's artwork," the Prosthetic Conscience said.

Valbada narrowed her eyes.

"This was the event that you yourself were involved with, yes?"

"Peripherally," the white-robed figure said, "The Mind which was marooned on Schar's World was rescued from an Idiran force by a Special Circumstances agent - a human called Perosteck Balveda - by deploying a single memoryform weapon previously disguised as a tooth. But not before the Idirans and their representatives had made an almighty mess of the place. The Dra'Azon had to step in and tidy up. I suspect they didn't like that."

"Just one weapon on Schar's World?" Noibalt said thoughtfully, "How many on Mescalarian?"

"Just over six billion."

"Six billion?" Noibalt almost squeaked.

"Yes. Just about the same as the number of people on that planet before they snuffed themselves."

"That's not a coincidence, is it?"

The projection displayed a convincing shrug.

"I don't think so," it said sadly, "Although individually not particularly destructive, that number of memoryform guns and bombs would have a combined destructive power of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads. More than enough explosive capability to scour the planet down to bedrock. And, effectively destroying a Planet of the Dead might be a provocation the Dra'Azon could not ignore."

"So what did the six billion people of Mescalarian do to themselves?" Valbada asked.

"Long-distance missiles with radiation bombs which killed the people but left the buildings standing, mostly," the projection said promptly, "The ecosphere collapsed from radiation poisoning, so the few survivors were unable to grow food. All perished. The Dra'Azon restored all the buildings and environments to their pre-war state, frozen in the condition seconds before the missiles went up."

"Hmm," Sharbat said quietly, "We're really going to have our work cut out for this one, aren't we?"

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