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

Belly of the Beast

Somebody was calling his name. Everything was a bit fuzzy, even including his sense of who he was. His name, for example. There it was again. Somebody saying it.

Well, they were saying something. His first thought was that they were saying his name but now he thought about it he wasn't so sure. It was as though the sounds meant something but he wasn't sure what, or maybe he knew that they meant but couldn't be sure what the sounds actually were. No, that wasn't what he meant. Fuzzy.

Matlyen. That was his name, wasn't it?

He wasn't entirely sure. It sounded like it was supposed to meant something pretty important and it wasn't an ordinary word that he knew meant something. It sounded like a name. He was pretty sure it was a name. Chances were it was his name.

Matlyen?

He needed to get his eyes open. He wanted to get his eyes open. He wasn't used to having to think about opening his eyes; usually it was something that just happened.

Matlyen? Can you hear me?

There it was again, that feeling that somebody had said his name.

"Matlyen?" said a tinny mechanical voice. It was a silly voice, a made-up voice, like that of a child pretending to be a crude mechanical robot out of some ancient historical fiction.

"Matlyen? Hello, Matlyen?" the tinny voice said. It was hard to hear at all; it was almost drowned out by the roaring sound of a big waterfall, or something like a big waterfall; a high wind in tall trees, maybe.

"Matlyen? Can you hear me?"

It really did sound like a robot.

He opened his eyes and saw a robot. A skinny thing in bright silvery metal, with eight spindly legs, clinging to the suit at about chest height. Well, that fitted, he supposed.

"Matlyen? Can you see me? Can you hear me?"

The voice was echoing inside the suit, somehow. The spider-robot didn't have anything that looked like a mouth, or even a proper head, but it was pressing one end of itself, where a head might have been, against the material of the suit. Maybe it was vibrating the suit's surface?

"Esh?" he said. He had meant to say "Yes" but it had come out wrong. He didn't seem to be able to get his mouth to work properly. He tried to take a deep breath but that didn't seem to go too well either. It felt he he was sort of jammed, as though he had tried to squeeze through a really tight gap and it hadn't worked and he'd got trapped.

"Stay with me, Matlyen," the robot squeaked.

He tried to nod but ... no.

"Okay," he said.

Where the hell was he?

He tried to think where he had been last.

He had been standing in the accommodation section of the ship. No; he'd been hurried into some kind of suit that the ship had produced, backed into some complex-looking form-fitted seat that had malleabled its way out of the floor; the suit visor slamming down and everything going dark...

"Matlyen!" something squeaked. He got his eyes to open. Oh yes, this weird little spider robot thing, clinging to his chest.

"What?"

"Don't do that. Stay with me. Don't drift off like that."

He wanted to laugh, but couldn't. Drift off? How? To where? He was trapped here, caught.

"Am I trapped?"

"Yes, Matlyen, I'm afraid you are," the tinny voice said, "You've suffered some injuries, you're disoriented and your body is keeping pain turned off. The suit's also damaged, with limited self-repair capacity, and its stuck in the acceleration couch, so you'll have to stay there for the time being."

"Suit's broken?"

"Yes. I did tell you I had to cobble it together at short notice. But it's keeping you alive - it's a near-vacuum out here, and its built-in medical unit is already administering nanoscopic devices to enable bodily repairs as well as the direct application of nutrients and drugs to support your body’s own recovery capabilities."

He was taking all this very calmly, he thought.

Well, there wasn't much point in panicking.

He swallowed and said, "What happened?"

"Our little ruse worked, it seems. We're inside a Leviathan."

"So we're stuck here?"

"We are, at least for the time being. I've no engines, so we're just hanging in here, weightless. Most of my AG capability is disabled, and I've turned off the rest anyway. I'm making minimum use of force fields - just enough to maintain the integrity of myself in hyperspace."

"Why?"

"We still want to avoid detection from whatever mysterious craft assaulted us, although that seems unlikely after all this time. More importantly, now, we need to avoid any chance that the Leviathan will spit us out. The outer hull's ruptured in several places, but I still have power enough to maintain integrity, mostly. It's a balance between stopping the Leviathan from digesting us immediately, and provoking the beast to vomit us out."

"So you're saying we’re fucked."

"No I'm not," the spider robot squeaked, "We are fucked, in the sense that we're both in a very bad way, but on the other hand we are alive at the moment, and we have a substantial chance of getting out of this alive."

"We do?"

"We do. Thanks to the suit and your body's own emergency systems we can keep you stabilised and even start some repairs, meanwhile I seem to have shaken off our attackers and the distress calls I got out before losing my signal fields when I pulled myself apart should have been sufficient to summon help. I expect it is on its way even as we speak."

He frowned. It was just about possible.

"Why a spider?"

"It's a remote intended for space vacuum repairs. I'm using it because it's small and it can move about in zero gravity without using naked force fields, which might upset the Leviathan. I'll leave it here to keep you company if you want to stay awake, though it might be better to let you sleep now; it's going to be a while before I can get you unstuck."

He thought about this. "Sleep," he said.

The roaring noise started again, and then it went dark.

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.571.103]
  xGOU Reformed Pacifist
    oLCU Extended Adolescence
Hi. You OK in there?

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.571.103+]
  xLCU Extended Adolescence
    oGOU Reformed Pacifist
I'm badly damaged, but alive. [Damage report attached.] And my crew, too.
But a General Offensive Unit? Really? Surely you were re-designated as a Fast Picket ages ago?


Yes, really. It's the correct designation, now. I've been re-commissioned. I hate to break it to you like this, but the Culture is now at war.

War? I'd heard nothing about this! Not even a hint. Nothing at all on the gossip circuit.

I'm afraid it's all true. And it was quite definitely a surprise to me, too. And every other Mind I've communicated with. Nobody seems to have seen it coming.

So's who's had the temerity to declare war against the Culture? And when?

Two days ago. It's the Castophrenic Widowhood. [Report attached.]
Why don't you read all about it while we work out how to get you out of there in one piece?


Huh. A bit late for that!


He woke up, suddenly. He looked around.

He was in a standard-looking medium-dependency medical pod in a standard-looking medical facility. A facility which could be anywhere; ship-board, on an Orbital - anywhere. He felt okay. He was almost physically whole, wrapped in light compression foam over almost his entire body and he had some sort of movement-restriction bandages around his head. Pain indicators minimal; bodily damage assessment said he was recovering fast from multiple fractures to most major bones. No brain damage, little major organ damage. Widespread tissue damage, healing fast. He should be back on his feet in two days, in fragile good health the following day and back to normal a day or two after that.

He could flex his toes and move his arms. Both his hands were free of the recovery foam; he could waggle them, and feel the liquidic texture of the pod covering. Raising his right arm, he could sense the compression foam taking the physical strain, letting his muscles flex but leaving his knitting bones unstressed.

"Okay, " he said, "Now where are we? "

"Llyfith Grabould Xavyer Bryoni Matlyen dam F'seuch? " a deep voice said. It sounded like the ship. Or a ship. Or at least like something non-human trying to be reassuring. A ship-drone, bulbous and smoothly grey, like a huge pebble from a giant’s beach, swung into view.

"That’s me, " he said, "Where am I? "

"Welcome aboard. I am the Murderer-class General Offensive Unit Reformed Pacifist."

"Oh," Matlyen said flatly, feeling just a little bit relieved, "I guess you’re here in response to the distress calls. How did I get here?"

"You were Displaced, while unconscious," the ship-drone said, "From the Extended Adolescence."

"Glad you’ve found me. Us, I mean. What of the Extended Adolescence?"

"Severely damaged. Its remains are being held within my own field structure. I intend to leave it with the first GSV we encounter. The extent of the damage it sustained is such I suspect it will make more sense to re-house the Mind in a new ship. Frankly, the main housing is mostly fit for recycling. In any event, a point may come shortly when I may have to suggest that the Mind of the Extended Adolescence abandon ship and throw in its lot with me, allowing me to abandon the rest of the remains and so resume my habitual field structure and hence operational fitness."

"Why would that be?"

"Because, Mr. Matlyen, we appear to be heading into what will shortly become, if it is not already, a war zone."

Matlyen was suddenly very agitated and could not help straining himself against the foamy medical restraints. Therapeutically ill-advised, it knew. Not that he could help himself.

"A war? Against whom? And why?"

"Oh, it’s all formally declared," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist said, though the ship-drone, "Properly official. The Castophrenic Widowhood issued an ultimatum to the Culture three days ago. Which was rejected. And it is just possible that the unprovoked attack on you and the Extended Adolescence was the first act in that war."

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