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

"Right," Sharbat drawled laconically, "Let's go for it."

"Message sent," the ship confirmed, "Mirrorshields up."

All three humans were instantly encased in individual shimmering mirrored force fields which would reflect a wide range of CREWS; other fields, not so immediately apparent, provided protection against kinetic and explosive weapons. The drone was instantaneously wrapped in a similarly shiny sphere of force, augmented by rippling bands of colour representing sophisticated sensory and targeting capabilities.

The humans sprinted across the square in diverging directions dodging and ducking as they went. They aimed their embedded Effectors on the tiny weapons flickering in and out of existence, trying to time their intervention when the devices were firmly in their inactive, disguised, safe state. By normal humanoid standards, they were moving at an astonishing rate, a blur of furious activity trailed by the ticking clatter of jewellery and bio-plausible prosthetics tumbling to the ground.

The timing of interventions could never have been perfect, given the randomness of transitions. Every now and then, a weapon would discharge, sending rounds in arbitrary directions, frequently missing any kind of target but occasionally striking nearby buildings. Shrapnel and stone chips rained down indiscriminately.

The drone, of course, was very much faster; even as the ship spoke it had set off trailing a sonic boom. Even an ancient and near-obsolete device like Formali-Kai could move and think hugely faster than even highly augmented humans. No doubt it was accounting for more of the memoryform devices than the three humans combined.

An unlucky plasma blast from a weapon morphed from a thumbnail struck Sharbat, causing him to stagger and fall to his knees.

"You okay?" Noibalt's voice came from his terminal.

"I'm fine," he replied, springing to his feet.

"Okay, okay, that's enough," the Prosthetic Conscience said calmly, "You can all stop now."

All around, the memoryforms took on their safe forms and fell gently to the ground. A subtle movement in the air, like an autumn breeze spreading fallen leaves but somehow in reverse, gathered the tiny devices into neat piles where they were momentarily wrapped in a shining sphere which disappeared with a soft pop.

The humans slithered to a halt, looking around, and then started sprinting in the direction of the module.

"What's going on?" Valbada demanded.

"A few seconds of three-way negotiation was enough to convince all parties to stand down," the ship said through their terminals.

Intelligent machines as smart as a Culture Mind could hold a thousand lifetimes of conversation in that period. The Dra'Azon had evolved naturally gigantic intellects and even the Culture did not know exactly the limits of their abilities. The Nacaractil had been a Level-8 Involved civilization for a brief period and must have developed some pretty capable AIs to reach such a civilizational height. The humans - and even the drone - could barely imagine the discussions, arguments, debates, exchanges, dialogues, disagreements, squabbles, disputes, altercations and frank exchanges of views that must have occurred in those few seconds.

"So now the Nacaractil are deactivating all of the memoryform weapons - safely, no risk to anything or anybody - the Dra'Azon is sweeping them into piles of exactly sixty-four devices, and I am Displacing the piles," the Prosthetic Conscience went on, "The Dra'Azon was persuaded to allow the removal of the Culture weapons and has agreed to make good the relatively minor damage caused by failed failsafes. We've avoided confrontations all round, got our weapons back - which I've agreed to destroy - and managed to stay alive and unharmed in the meantime."

"What about the Nacaractil?" Valbada asked, sliding to a halt just as Formali-Kai appeared above the module, "Surely they have lost a treasured artwork?"

"Well, yes, they certainly put a lot of effort into its construction," the ship agreed, "But exactly how much it was really 'treasured' and how much was just plain snarkiness may never be fully established. In any case, I offered a partial compensation: an ultra-high-resolution recording of the entire planet as it was before I arrived. Down to the level of individual atoms. In a format which could be included in almost any kind of Virtuality. So the artwork was never really destroyed."

"When was this recording made?" she asked, as Noibalt and Sharbat arrived.

"The module made it, as we approached, and transmitted it back to me," the voice of the Prosthetic Conscience went on, "I upgraded one of its scanners while I was waiting for the Disproportionate Armament to arrive."

"I thought we were taking our time getting down to the surface," Noibalt muttered.

"So now we just have to take the toys away permanently," the ship went on, "I'll activate their self-destruct mode after we leave."

"And the sun?" Valbada asked.

"The Nacaractil ship has already on its way out. It's leaving through the Quiet Barrier as we speak. I think it's trying to project an air of quiet dignity."

"How's that working out?" she said.

"Dubiously," the ship replied, "And the Dra'Azon is restoring the photosphere to its normal state. Quietness restored."

"So why were we here?" Sharbat asked, indicating his three companions, "Couldn't you just have Effectorized the weapons from the next star system?"

"I wouldn't have been able to disable them all, so I would have effectively blown up the planet. Then we'd really be the bad guys. But with you on the surface, we might have been able to do a better job and, in any case, the Dra'Azon would not have thought I'd risk your lives."

The ship paused, undoubtedly for effect.

"And, besides, it was a good excuse to have an ex-warship in the vicinity. Just in case."

"Huh," Sharbat growled, "Good to see we know our place."


The humans and the drone were once again in the Forgotten Problem, favourite intoxicants and narcotics to hand. The management had changed the decor in their absence: now, it resembled an elegant city-centre cafe. The walls inside were panelled in dark wood, decorated at intervals by framed images featuring past totalitarian regimes on a variety of planets. The intervening space was filled with highly-polished tables and hardbacked chairs in the same material. The cafe opened at the front onto a square not entirely dissimilar to the one in Dies'Meinchu, but this one featured strolling tourists, leisured bystanders and stalls delivering cool drinks and iced foodstuffs. The three humans were sitting outside under a gently fluttering canopy which sheltered them from a blazing sun in a clear sky, while the drone hovered motionless in a shady corner.

"This place has changed," Sharbat said sardonically.

"I like it," Valbada said, sipping from a tall frosted glass.

"Can we take it," Noibalt said, gesturing at the square in front of them, "That Hub approves of our actions?"

Lhak Orbital's Hub Mind had undoubtedly heard about the shenanigans around Mescalarian from the Prosthetic Conscience and the Disproportionate Armament on the galaxy-wide gossip channel which seemed to be the Minds preferred form of communication.

"I'm sure it does," Formali-Kai said, aura fields rosy with good humour, "Indeed, there's been a general increase in the approval rating of Special Circumstances since we got back."

Sharbat swept up his foaming drink, wryly saluted the projection of the square with the glass, then drank deeply.

"Glad to have been of service."

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