The VFP Disproportionate Armament had not slowed down to rendezvous with the GCU Prosthetic Conscience, but simply chucked the three humans and the drone aboard with another high-speed Displace with the minimum of ceremony. The same white-robed character had greeted them, this time as a physical avatar rather than a holographic projection, and immediately hustled them into a six-person module.
"I'll be with you," the avatar had said cryptically as the door closed, although this was immediately clarified when the same voice emerged from the module's systems.
"I've compressed an abstract of my own mind-state into the AI substrate in this module," the voice said, "It probably won't be noticed by the Dra'Azon and, even if it does, this module doesn't represent a serious threat. Besides, I’ll be in near-real-time communication with the real me at all times."
Valbada turned to the other two humans and the drone.
"So, we're more-or-less on our own then," she said, "No backup. No plan. No clear options."
"Well, we do have a bit of a backup," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience said, "The Disproportionate Armament is still in the general volume, even if it is not making itself obvious."
Noibalt nodded slowly. Sharbat just shrugged. Formali-Kai's aura field's flashed alternatively grey and red with humour and frustration.
The GCU was holding station a handful of light years away from the planet Mescalarian. The module closed the distance at a slow warp speed, intended to be nicely balanced between a non-threatening approach and an urgent arrival.
"We're approaching the Quiet Barrier. The Dra'Azon has acknowledged our presence and we're being closely scanned," the module said, adding a moment later, "We're being allowed through. Nice to get positive permission. The Dra'Azon says we can land anywhere we like but is recommending the Square of the Victorious in Dies'Meinchu."
Dies'Meinchu was the capital of one of the opposing sides in the short and effectively annihilatory war whose unnecessary brutality, mindless militarism and pointless gigadeaths had prompted the Dra'Azon to declare this one of their Planets of the Dead.
"Any reason not to accept the suggestion?" Sharbat asked.
"None I'm aware of," the module replied, "Let's aim for it, then."
The module performed a couple of lazy spirals around the planet before it swooped elegantly through the atmosphere and came to rest exactly ten centimetres from the ground. Drone and module scanned the immediate area, relaying the results to Noibalt's neural lace and on heavily overlaid screen displays for the other humans.
"Nothing particularly worrying," Formali-Kai reported.
"Time to go," Valbada said.
The module door opened; the drone dived out and took up a position five metres above, its many senses at maximum sensitivity. The three humans followed more slowly and looked around.
They were standing in the centre of a vast city square of classical proportions. Tall and slightly foreboding buildings lined the edges, fronted by balconies and viewing platforms at multiple levels. Flags fluttered listlessly in the tired-looking sunlight. Wide boulevards led in from opposite sides and numerous narrower streets fanned out around the edges. The surface beneath their feet was smooth and solid, apparently made from some reinforced synthetic material, and entirely pristine: no stains or scuffmarks anywhere. It was not hard to imagine rows of booted soldiers marching in unison across the square, flanking vast war machines and missile carriers, in front of cheering crowds waving national flags and rigid salutes from the Glorious Leadership on the raised platforms.
The module, which had not bothered to camouflage or conceal itself in any way, looked completely out of place.
The square was nearly silent; just the desultory fluttering of the flags would be audible to an unaugmented human. For the ex-SC agents, who had abilities far beyond any human-basic norms, could make out a rippling hiss that seemed to have no source.
"What's that hissing noise?" Noibalt asked.
"It's the weapons," Sharbat replied, "The memoryforms changing their shape. Look at this one here."
He took a few steps then leaned forward to closely examine something. The other humans joined him. Hanging in the air just below shoulder height was what looked like a ring of silvery metal set with a single tiny dull stone; a finger-ring or perhaps a toe-ring suitable for many humans. As they watched, it seemed to shimmer into something resembling a gun: a gun made mostly of air; a gun of lines, thin wires, hardly solid at all, more like a framework, like a pencil outline somehow lifted from a page and filled out just enough to grip.
"Let me take a closer look at this thing," Sharbat said.
He gently probed the device using his embedded Effectors. Electromagnetic Effectors were one of the most powerful weapons available to the Culture, but also the most precisely fine-tuneable. They could disable, destroy or merely reprogram almost anything - including people, although use of this capability was widely frowned upon. They could also be used to interrogate the state of almost any device, which was the ability Sharbat was using now.
"Hmm," he said after a few moments, "The rather dim AI in here is extremely confused. It is convinced it is being wielded by a verified user - a genetically-identified Culture citizen, no less - and reaches a state of extreme readiness. And then the instruction is cancelled and it returns to standby. Rinse and repeat."
"Yes," Formali-Kai said, "All the rest I've investigated seem to be the same. All utterly convinced in their own tiny minds that they are only following instructions from authorised personnel."
"So where are the rest?" Noibalt asked.
"Everywhere," the drone replied, "Just look around."
The weak sunlight glittered fitfully on an eclectic collection of objects - jewellery of all kinds, fingernails and teeth, even eyeballs - lined up across the square, floating in the air, occupied the same spacing as the uniformed rank and file would have done during one of the grand marches. The objects flickered periodically into spindly guns, wire-frame grenades and other shapes too specialised to be immediately recognised, then back into their innocuous forms.
"What's holding the things in place?" Valbada inquired.
"They've activated the self-stabilisation mechanisms," Formali-Kai replied, "Low-level force fields intended to assist the user - a probably inexperienced user - in making an accurate shot. Minimises risk of collateral damage, together with the self-aiming capabilities."
"Could we Effectorize them, force them into their safe state?" she pressed.
"Individually, sure," the drone replied, "But, given their hair-trigger state when active, it would be an impossible challenge to disable them all, even for the Dra’Azon. And the effect of even a small fraction of them discharging would be devastating for the planet as a whole."
"So, we're on a planet effectively mined by Culture weapons emplaced by the Nacaractil, which we can't disarm," Sharbat drawled, "The Dra'Azon certainly have the capability to obliterate us, and probably the GCU as well. I can't believe that the Nacaractil aren’t around to observe the outcome of this standoff."
"Yes," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience came through their terminals, "It would be much fairer if the Nacaractil had some skin in this game, wouldn't it?"
Just then, the watery sunlight flooding the square began to flicker, darkening and brightening unpredictably. All three humans looked up in astonishment.
"What the fuck's going on?" Sharbat shouted.
"That's the Dra'Azon," the Prosthetic Conscience said, sounding smug, "Digging a hole in the sun."