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

The drone threw up an out-holo screen in front of the three humans. The hologram showed the local star from an apparent vantage point a few million kilometres away. A whirling mass of unimaginably hot plasma was being ejected from a point on the surface, arcing up and out and then falling back like the arches of some immense bridge. In the hole itself, something unseen was building forcefield caissons which shone incandescently white against the reds and oranges of the photosphere, curving cofferdams of energy which somehow managed to hold back the red-hot star-stuff against the titanic gravity of the star itself.

As the humans watched, a boxy black shape emerged at the focus of the maelstrom, partially framed by the same fiercely glowing forcefields. The blocky silhouette, like a matt-black doorway into nowhere, looked tiny against the vastness of the star but it must have been hundreds of kilometres long to be seen at all.

"Is that the Nacaractil?" Valbada demanded, her eyes irresistibly drawn to the cataclysmic struggle being displayed.

"One of their ships, yes," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience said calmly, "It’s been hiding in the photosphere."

"So that's why the Dra'Azon hadn't spotted it?"

"Right," the ship replied, "And neither had I, to be honest. It was very well hidden. But an ex-warship like the Disproportionate Armament has a fairly exotic array of sensors, and it caught a glimpse of something large and powerful inside the star on its way through the system. I just passed the information on to the Dra'Azon."

The tussle between the Nacaractil ship and whatever forces the Dra'Azon was deploying seemed to be very evenly matched, going on for minutes in a universe where a decisive space battle could be over in milliseconds. The Dra'Azon did seem to be slowly dragging the Nacaractil ship from the depths of the star but was failing to entirely envelope the craft in whatever exotic field structures it was using.

The view on the projected screen zoomed in, the black lozenge that was the immense Nacaractil ship swelling to fill the field of view. The incandescent field lines crawling over the matt surface edged to-and-fro, the visible result of monumental energies being expended in frequencies and dimensions not directly visible to the human eye.

"How did the Nacaractil ship get in there in the first place," Noibalt asked.

"Well, I can't be sure, of course," the Prosthetic Conscience said, "But my best guess is that it dove deep into the gravitational well of the star while still in hyperspace, then transitioned to the skein inside the photosphere."

"Can we do that?" Noibalt demanded, entirely amazed.

"I wouldn't want to try it," the GCU conceded, sounding genuinely fascinated, "But it represents very impressive management of field enclosures and high-gravity-well hyperspace transitions."

The brawl between titans went on and on, the humans watching the screen and drone, module and GCU presumably using more esoteric senses. Despite prodigious efforts, it seemed neither side was able to gain a conclusive advantage over the other; neither seemed able to escape or perhaps had the desire to do so. Neither side were deploying the most powerful weapons available to them, either. Both Dra'Azon and Nacaractil had capabilities which could have ripped the entire star apart in a moment but doing so would of course destroy all the planets in the system.

"There aren't a huge number of Dra'Azon or Nacaractil left in the galaxy but by now pretty much all of them will have heard about what's going on here," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience said eventually, "But we really don't want the few that are left to be at each other's throats. Too much risk of collateral damage."

"What do we need to do?" Valbada asked, her sense of duty coming to the fore.

"We need to take their toys away. Or at least threaten to."

"What do you mean?"

"Both the Dra'Azon and the Nacaractil have put quite a lot of effort into their respective artistic conceits. The Dra'Azon reformed this planet back to the state at some critical historical moment, and then kept it there. And the Nacaractil put much thought and effort into crafting an artwork on this planet, thumbing the Dra'Azon's metaphorical beak, and used our devices, tweaking the Culture's collective noses."

The humans looked at one another, realisation sinking in.

"So, I'll inform the Dra'Azon and the Nacaractil that we, the Culture, intend to reclaim our property," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience went on, "While you four, and the module, start disarming every weapon you can get to."

"I thought Formali-Kai said we couldn't disarm all the weapons which some of them going off?" Noibalt asked, looking alarmed.

"That's true, and the Dra'Azon and the Nacaractil both know that, but we could still make a serious effort to do so. We might not survive the attempt, might even blow up the planet ourselves, but it might focus attention on a plausibly peaceful resolution."

Sharbat frowned.

"Wouldn't that make us the bad guys?" he demanded.

"Perhaps," the ship's voice said, "But remember the old saying?"

"Yeah," the three humans chorused, "Don't fuck with the Culture."

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