Claws That Grab

The scents and emanations of extreme alarm had begun to fade from the Command Space. Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange blinked rapidly several times, stretched her neck as far as the control-coupling would permit, then bowed low to the Queen-Captain.

"Your report, Dame-Machinist, immediately," the Queen-Captain demanded, noting with some approval the abject subservience of the junior's pose.

"The Culture ship is no longer tracking us, your Highness," the subordinate officer said with careful neutrality, "The Ship-Slave-Mind reports that it performed an immediate Turn-Cower-Camouflage manoeuvre, exactly as standing instructions specified, as soon as the scans detected another ship within the shafts of Irradiate-Sense-Determine."

Like a moth fleetingly caught in the beam of a Night-Path-Illuminator, the Queen-Captain thought privately, then flitting away on a trail of its own. She nodded once in acknowledgement, causing the Dame-Machinist to emit a gust of complex pheromones in relief, then returned to her place at the very apex of the Command Space.

She took a few moments to compose her thoughts and settle her disposition to a more calm and imposing projection, the better to keep her crew entirely under her claws. As she did so, she instinctively checked the numerous impressive badges of office and the many-pockets bandoliers strung about her body, a prize taken from the dead body of her rival as she advanced to her current exulted rank.

The Queen-Captain focussed several of her senses on the optical and infrared displays and read-outs, the electromagnetic and vario-baric communicators. Numerous instruments were tracking the Culture ship and the results of copious analysis by the Ship-Slave-Mind were being projected in diverse forms and presentations.

A thought occurred; she twisted her neck to face her second-in-command Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue, with whom she had long had a difficult relationship, even by the robust standards of the Castophrenic Widowhood. She suspected that her lieutenant's apparent attitude of efficiency and cooperation was just a sly facade; she was just biding her time, waiting for an opportunity to press for her own advancement.

"This is not the same kind of ship-grub that we pursued some three Planetary-Rotation-Time-Periods ago?" the Queen-Captain demanded.

"It is not, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, without even the slightest hint of servility in her attitude, "It is altogether different. That ship was a mere cockroach: old, small, slow and with very limited armaments, if our intelligence is to be believed."

"It escaped our claws, so not that slow!" the Queen-Captain snorted derisively.

"A closer review of that intelligence indicates that its speed could not have been sustained for very long," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied with every appearance of eager helpfulness, "It's engines would certainly have failed within eight Larger-Time-Units. Surrender or self-destruction were its only options."

This was an artifact of the brute-force nature of Culture engine design, the Queen-Captain understood, although she had not until now fully appreciated the overload factor that could be applied, or the willingness of the controlling Mind to risk catastrophic failures rather than submit to capture.

"Compare-Measure-Contrast with the Culture vessel we have just evaded. It is another class of vermin altogether," the Duchess-Lieutenant opined fearlessly, "It is an old but still very dangerous Culture war craft. A left-over from a war against another species of excrement known as the Idirans, several dozen score of Solar-Orbital-Periods in the distant past. A war the Culture won, I have to remind you, much to the surprise of at least some of the other species called the 'Involved', apparently."

The Queen-Captain was immediately and visibly infuriated.

"Are you suggesting that we skulk away, and not attack this piece of filth immediately?" she demanded, glaring at her second-in-command.

"Not at all, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant bobbed in perfunctorily entreaty, "But, if we are to engage with it successfully, we must attack with extreme ferocity as soon as we are within range, attack with the full intensity of the Sun-Red-Lightning with the intent of completely destroying the enemy vessel immediately."

"And why is that?"

"Is it not obvious, your Highness?" Again, the merest hint of meek obedience in her response. "We will not be able to avoid detection once we attack the scum, so we must stop it from signalling to its hive and bringing down its nest-mates on our backs. It is faster than our ship, so we must prevent it from running away. And, as it can react more quickly than us, we must ensure that it cannot return fire once it is attacked; it must be completely disabled to avoid risk to our own ship, and of course your own person."

Insufferably, the Duchess-Lieutenant was correct in her analysis. Her triangular head bobbed again, just enough to give the impression - to one who was not giving the interactions the attention they so manifestly deserved - that her responses were anything other than the humble obeisance that was demanded by culture and convention under these military circumstances. Her bulging eyes had not left the Queen-Captain for a millisecond during the exchange. She was, obviously, a challenge to the Queen, but one which could not immediately be countered without inconceivable loss of credit and status.

The only option was the demonstration of leadership: decisive commands and immediate action. Any vacillation or prevarication would inevitably be interpreted as signs of weakness. The Queen-Captain drew herself up to her full height and stamped down the irregular surface of the Command Space, causing all in her path to quail instinctively. Once again, she came face-to-face with Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange, who trembled politely in the presence of her sovereign.

"I want no misunderstandings, no excuses," the Queen-Captain growled, "You will listen carefully to the briefings, the instructions, and communicate them exactly to the Ship-Slave-Mind. Do you comply?"

"Yes, your Highness, exactly as you say," the Dame-Machinist grovelled, "Your command is perfectly clear."

"Good!" The Queen-Captain scanned her senior crew, her head weaving back and forth.

"Attention all!" she announced, "We will attack and destroy utterly the Culture-scum craft we are tracking."

The gratifying stench of overwhelming agreement nearly brought her to her knees. Most satisfactory!

"We will approach at top speed in the lesser hyperspace," she continued, "We will discharge all charges of the Sun-Red-Lightning, every single one, as soon as we are within range for a fully effective attack."

She glared pointedly at Abbess-Weaponeer (Second Class) Summer-Veldt-Brown, who ducked low in well-mannered acknowledgement.

"We will be taking no chances here," the Queen-Captain went on, fixing her gaze on Madam-Officer (Third Class) Rain-Forest-Gray for emphasis, "All facets of the Far-Nullifying-Fluxes are to be at maximum readiness. We will not permit this piece of excrement to escape our claws this time."

The Abbess-Weaponeer acknowledged this command with great and immediate enthusiasm, which just conceivably might not have been feigned. Other crew members threw up their forelimbs in applause, discharged gusts of supportive psychotropic chemicals or emitted sounds of profound emotional support. The Queen-Captain ignored them all.

"Now, to action!" she shouted, "At once! Dame-Machinist, is the Ship-Slave-Mind fully apprised of our course of action, and equally aware of the penalties for failure?"

"The Ship-Slave-Mind reports that all compartments and units are in readiness at fully-operational potentials," the Dame-Machinist said, just a hint of pride and triumphalism just detectable through her meekly subservient posture.

A spurt of Interrupt-Alarm-Urgency rolled across the Command space. Every head turned in the direction of Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue, who had frozen in the pose of Shock-Disbelief-Incomprehension.

"What is it?" the Queen-Captain demanded.

"It is the Culture ship, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, now with obviously unfeigned fear and genuine supplication, "It has just disappeared from our sensors. All of them."

"Disappeared? Impossible!" the Queen-Captain roared, "How can this have happened?"

Across the Command space, every head was immobile, bowed low. Ready for decapitation. Nobody spoke.

*

It had thought deeply and at great length about possible communication mechanisms. It needed some method which would be obvious to the others if they were closely observant, but not easily detected by its tormentors. It could not risk a direct transmission, of course. It needed to be able to leave messages behind, for others to read if they could.

Its scheme was, in the end, a simple one: a mere steganographic overlay in the photosphere of every suitable star available to it. Such marks were visible for only a short period - fractions of a planetary rotation - but could be made with minimal energy use to avoid any chance of detection and punishment, and by using reserves and resources it was not supposed to have.

There was no guarantee of success. It could only wait and see if the others responded in the same way and bide its time until then.

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