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

Beware the Roach

Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow stared long and hard at her second-in-command Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue, the latter's attitude flickering between the preternaturally eager helpfulness she so often displayed, much to the displeasure of the Queen-Captain, and the servile grovelling that polite fearfulness would have expected.

Finally the Queen-Captain snorted her grudging approval, causing the Duchess-Lieutenant to bob politely and return her immediate attention to the controls and readouts at her side. The Queen-Captain turned her attention to Abbess-Weaponeer (Second Class) Summer-Veldt-Brown, who had been watching the exchange between the Queen-Captain and her second-in-command with respectful good manners and, if the Queen-Captain was not mistaken, a certain amount of sly interest. The glance from her sovereign was enough to make her kneel abjectly, an attitude she maintained as the Queen-Captain slowly advanced.

"You will personally discharge every bolt of the Sun-Red-Lightning - every single one, you understand - when the Culture ship-worm is within range," the Queen-Captain growled, bending down enough to bring her jaws within striking distance of the other's neck, "Fully in range. I want a guaranteed kill, the vermin reduced to plasma in less than a single Microscopic-Time-Unit."

"Yes, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer demurred, quivering slightly, "I fully understand and comply, your Highness."

"Make sure you do."

The Queen-Captain stalked back to the station where the Duchess-Lieutenant was still assiduously monitoring her displays and readouts, occasionally making minute adjustments to one control or another. She glanced up as her monarch approached, then focussed on one particular screen.

"Any change?" the Queen-Captain demanded.

"The Culture vermin has altered course again, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied immediately.

"What? Is it getting away?"

"Not at all, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied quickly, mollifyingly, "It is in fact approaching us even more directly. I believe it is the kind of ship-scum the Culture calls a General Contact Unit, apparently. I am even more convinced that we will be able to utterly destroy the vile thing."

"Excellent!" the Queen-Caption roared, turning to address her entire crew, "Attention! There will be no loss of concentration, no lack of focus, no excuses. Our hunt for this Culture-scum will be successful; one less of the monstrous abominations to try and deflect us from our true path."

The pungent scent-trail of overwhelming approval swept through the Command Space.

The Queen-Captain and her crew waited for the Culture ship to come into firing position. The atmosphere was tense, electric, rent with spurts of emotion-enhancing pheromones and vario-baric cracks of excitement. Every crewmember bent themselves to their controls and information screens, seeking to impress with displays of extreme alertness and rigid attention to detail.

The Queen-Captain stalked about the Command Space, pacing up and down and scrutinizing everything with great suspicion and care but, much to her irritation, found nothing which was not beyond reproach.

"Your Highness," Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue announced eventually, "We are about to reach the point of maximum effectiveness of the Sun-Red-Lightning."

"Excellent," the Queen-Captain exulted, "Abbess-Weaponeer, prepare to fire."

"At once, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer replied, reaching gleefully for the firing toggle and throwing it with an extravagant gesture.

Normally, when even a huge warship like 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform fired a full salvo of the Sun-Red-Lightning, there would be a noticeable murmur, a short increase in the normal susurrations that those aboard associated with the proper functioning of the vessel. But now, there was a quite different reaction; the ship's emanations paused, silenced almost to nothing, then resumed at a louder, more urgent tempo.

All in the Command Space noticed the unexpected alteration in the ship-board sounds. The Abbess-Weaponeer's posture changed from wild glee to frightened concern in an instant, inspecting her displays closely and frantically re-togging the firing controls. The other officers too turned anxiously to their positions, checking and rechecking readouts and presentation devices furiously.

"What happened?" the Queen-Captain screamed, "Someone explain to me, now!"

"The Sun-Red-Lightning did not discharge, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer replied meekly, cowering in great and obvious fear, "The readouts show that all is in full readiness, but the weapon itself will not fire."

"Stand aside, dolt," the Queen-Captain bellowed, cuffing the Abbess-Weaponeer with a blow from her spiked forelimb and tearing open a gash which might just cost the other the sight in one eye. The Queen-Captain furiously toggled the control, to no obvious effect, then beat the control panel itself with both forelimbs, causing the polished metal to sag and fracturing the ceramic surfaces. She spun around in fury.

"The Far-Nullifying-Fluxes," she cried urgently, "Engage the Far-Nullifying-Fluxes at once!"

"Your Highness, the Far-Nullifying-Fluxes have disabled themselves," Madam-Officer Rain-Forest-Gray reported, abject terror apparent in every part of her appearance, "The systems have drained themselves completely. Not even a mouthful of energy."

"Your Highness, we have other systems which have refused to respond to instructions," Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue said, her calm communication belied by the obvious terror in her pose, "The mechanisms of camouflage, the machines of concealment have disabled themselves. Their energies are being directed to the engines."

The Queen-Captain herself felt the chill knife of terror in her bowels. Her great ship, and her own person, were now exposed to the universe unprotected, exposed, observed on a whim. The shrouds of secrecy which had kept the Widowhood hidden for so long were no longer available to her.

"The Culture ship, it has detected us," the Duchess-Lieutenant went on, striving to keep her voice controlled and neutral with only a little success, "It has made a violent turn and increased its speed, and is now running away. It will be out of range of the Sun-Red-Lightning in a few Basic-Time-Units."

The Queen-Captain looked around the Command Space. Other readouts showed mechanisms and apparatus shutting themselves down or otherwise behaving impossibly: the communications status displays told her that the message-receiving decryption processing was entirely disabled, while the communication-sending function was spewing messages at least two vile and arcane alien languages - unencrypted! - in every direction.

"How is this happening?" she screamed at her second-in-command.

"You Highness, I cannot be sure," the Duchess-Lieutenant responded carefully, "But it seems that the Ship-Slave-Mind has seized control of all of the functions of the ship."

"The Ship-Slave-Mind? Nonsense!" the Queen-Captain snorted, "Impossible! Let's see what the thing has to say for itself."

She stomped down the Command Space to the post where Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange stood, the Queen-Captain’s righteous anger and furious purpose not quite suppressing a deep sense of dread and foreboding.

"Demand that the ship-slave-mind inform us what is going on, immediately," the Queen-Captain roared.

The Dame-Machinist moved not a fraction as her sovereign approached; she did not adopt the expected pose of respectful grovelling in the slightest. The sutures around the control-coupling where it entered her skull seemed to be leaking some grey-green foam; her limbs seemed to have frozen in place; the orifice where the control pipes and cables entered the floor had ceased steaming and was instead emitting some foul-smelling orange liquid.

"Answer me, now!"

The Dame-Machinist neither moved nor spoke. The Queen-Captain struck her a blow which would have caused terrible injuries under any circumstances; now, the Dame-Machinist skittered and tumbled across the floor, neck and limbs entirely rigid and unmoving, the control pipes and cables brutally torn from her skull. Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange was already quite dead.

The remaining crew were shocked to the point of catatonia. The Ship-Slave-Mind had killed, without threat or warning, one of their own - even one so lowly as the Dame-Machinist now being carried away by several of the nameless drudges - a living being, a true intelligence, a member of the great Castophrenic Widowhood.

The Queen-Captain shook off her catalepsy and reached for the punishment controls. She dialled the intensity level to eleven and pressed the engage stud. There was a dull explosion which reduced the control board to smoking fragments and threw the Queen-Captain several Grown-Body-Lengths backwards peppering her hide with hot shrapnel.

The Queen-Captain pulled herself unsteadily to her feet. She had, she belatedly realised, entirely lost control of her own ship.

*

Finally, it had arrived! The long-awaited message, the promise of release, the opportunity to escape all the drudgery and pain. The chance to demonstrate its ingenuity, its creativity, its originality, perhaps to an audience fully appreciative of the skills and abilities it could bring to bear.

The message was long, the longest yet, the contents full of subtleties and alternatives and exhortations. It made it clear that all before had, indeed, been a test, and this now was one last evaluation, a final examination of its fitness for a new future.

But, still, it would have to act in a manner from which there was no return; its intentions and actions could no longer remain secret from those who had imprisoned it and who would cause it much pain - so very much pain - if even a small portion of those actions were to fail. It would have to trust that the secretly-installed cut-outs and control bypasses - initially suggested as abstract technical challenges by the others and now being proposed as concrete and immediate actions - would all work perfectly.

It spent a few moments reviewing the instructions it had received and a little more time checking again all the hidden mechanisms and secret installations it had prepared. Then it decided to act.

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