"So where are we heading?" Matlyen asked the ship-drone, glanding a little soothe to instigate a state of internal calm, so as to avoid any further damage to his rapidly-healing body.
A holo display bloomed in front of the man still swaddled in the support pod, showing a familiar representation of the galaxy. A green dot glowed, flashed rapidly a few times; then the image swirled and zoomed so that the green dot resolved into a cluster of stars in that same colour.
"This is a volume generally known as the Verticillate Nodes," the ship-drone representing the Reformed Pacifist said calmly.
"Never heard of it."
"It's not particularly remarkable. I was on my way when I was asked to take a minor detour to investigate the distress calls from the Extended Adolescence."
"Well, thank you for that."
"I was very glad I was able to find you without significant delay - a few more hours and I would have been forced to abandon the search for the remains of the ship - and the recovery itself was uneventful. But," the ship-drone went on, "Right now I have to make all speed for my original destination."
The holo display partially reversed, the green-coloured stars merging into a fuzzy blob. A brilliantly red dot flashed some undefined distance away.
"We are here," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist said, though the slaved drone, "At my design-maximum speed, we'll be in the vicinity of the Nodes in forty-one hours."
"So what merits your interest there?" Matlyen asked.
"Well, there are unconfirmed reports that the Widowhood are planning to invade a planet. An inhabited planet."
"A planet? Invasion? Inhabited by people?" he said, utterly aghast, "Surely it would be easier just to build a few habitats?"
"The Widowhood don't like AG, or the apparent gravity produced by rotating structures," the ship said placatingly, "It unsettles them immensely. They seem to have an innate sensitivity to gravitation attraction, and they're only really comfortable when it's being produced by a big lump of dumb matter."
There was a worrying pause. Matlyen knew perfectly well that any Culture Mind could have completed a thousand lifetimes of concentrated cogitation in those few seconds. The ship was either pausing for effect - although what it was trying to convey was obscure - or there was some truly prodigious deliberation preceding the next remark.
"The planet they're supposedly invading," the Reformed Pacifist said eventually, "is populated by an un-Contacted Stage-2 civilisation. Another variant on the pan-Human form, which seems to crop up with considerable regularity regularity in the galaxy, for some reason. So, it is quite possible that this planet is being targeted precisely because the current inhabitants look just a little bit like us."
"An act of provocation?" Matlyen demanded.
"Possibly. It certainly looks that way."
"But an invasion! Millions of people at risk!"
"Perhaps hundreds of millions," the ship confirmed, "We don't know what the Castophrenic Widowhood's plans actually are."
"Are you going to be able to stop it?"
"I don't know if I can," the voice coming from the slaved drone said, sounding worryingly pessimistic, "Widowhood ships are notoriously difficult to keep track of, and a full-scale planoforming exercise would mean a considerable presence in the vicinity."
Another pause. Just as worrying.
"And, in any case, should I attempt to interfere? I'm in continuous debate with a number of experienced Minds who have been coordinating the local war effort. I certainly won't be acting until a clear consensus emerges. The CW have been claiming that we - that is, the Culture - have been interfering with their cultural development for a long time."
"And have we?"
"Not to my knowledge. Which is not to say that some secretive Special Circumstances coven or Interesting Times Gang has been keeping it to themselves. But the Widowhood say we've been doing it for many millennia, and I find it highly unlikely that a hidden cabal could operate for that length of time without some vestige of information leaking out."
Matlyen lay back in the embraces of the medical support pod, suddenly exhausted by the conversation.
"Look, right now you should concentrate on getting well," the ship said, sounding sympathetic, "There's nothing either of us can do until we have more up-to-date information, as well as a clear consensus for a course of action. Neither of which is likely to be forthcoming very quickly. So, rest for now. Do you want me to put you back to sleep?"
Matlyen was confused. "Yes. No. Wait, are there any other people on board?"
"Humans, no. There is an old drone I've been unable to shake off," the slave-drone said, sounding amused, "I'll ask it to swing by and say hello, if you like?"
Many warships, Matlyen knew, had no crew at all, and the Culture was collectively in two minds about the wisdom of such an approach. Pan-humans and most drones would be unlikely to survive long in a war zone in space without the support of a ship and, in any case, the kind of energies required to destroy or even disable a Culture vessel would probably imperil any people on board. So, crewless vessels meant that the loss of mind-state would be kept to a minimum, in the event of a serious fuck-up. On the other hand, there was evidence that unmanned craft tended to make tactical decisions which were more reckless, more dangerous and, perhaps, more foolish, precisely because there was nobody else at risk.
"Later on, please," Matlyen replied, "I think I need to rest now."
"Good day. I sensed you were about to awake," came an urbane voice that Matlyen did not recognise, "I trust you feel more recovered."
He briefly slipped into the semi-trance that most citizens of the Culture could use to monitor their internal state. His body reported a very significant improvement: bones knitted, organs healed, tissue damage largely mopped up. He flipped out of the trance and tried to sit up. He was still in the medical pod, which sensed his intent and gently helped his movements, but he was relieved to note that it was his own muscles, his own bones, that were taking most of the strain.
A squat cylinder in a shade of pale eggshell hovered directly in his line of sight. The drone mentioned by the ship, he assumed.
"Much improved, thank you," he replied, appreciating the irony implied by the courtesy. A millisecond query to the ship would have provided the drone with a complete breakdown of his medical status, with 99%-plus accurate estimates of his recovery time.
"I am Goart Harunda-Lua Bo-Handraden Xato Moux," the drone said amicably, its aura field a band of dim yellow-green around its centre.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"It seems we are to be ship-mates for the foreseeable future," it went on, "I'm afraid that the Mind of the Extended Adolescence has agreed to be incorporated into the hyperspacial substrate of the Reformed Pacifist, and the fabric of the ship itself abandoned."
"Can I speak to the Extended Adolescence?" Matlyen said, alarmed, "Is it okay?"
"I'm right here," the familiar voice of the old ship said, from no apparent source, "No ill-effects, and the ship was pretty well slagged from a combination of the Widowhood’s weapon system and the Leviathan’s digestive fluids."
"That's a relief," he replied earnestly. He hadn't realised he had felt such affection for the old ship.
"But not entirely good, I'm afraid. We are, all together, in a war zone, inside an old but very much fully-armed warship, with at least the serious possibility of actual military action. The Reformed Pacifist’s intellectual attention is - understandably - mostly occupied elsewhere at the moment, so I am just as much a passive passenger as you are."
Before he could respond, the drone jerked up in the air, its fields flashing rainbow in surprise.
"What happened?" Matlyen demanded.
"The Reformed Pacifist reports that it caught an observation of a Widowhood ship in its Forward Track Scanner," the voice of the Extended Adolescence said, "A vast object, as big as a planet, moving at considerable speed through hyperspace. Just a flicker, visible for only a moment. Then it disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Matlyen echoed.
"Completely. No sign of a return signal of any kind. No apparent disturbance in the Grid. Nothing visible in either hyperspace."
"What the fuck?"
The Extended Adolescence made a sound which sounded very much like a snort.
"As you can imagine, the GOU is running with all its sensors at maximum capability. More than maximum, in some cases; to the level of significant degradation in days," the ship went on, "So, there is at least one Castophrenic Widowhood presence out there somewhere. Quite possibly more than one, perhaps quite a lot more, since it may just be dumb luck that allowed us to spot some kind of ship in the first place."
The Extended Adolescence paused, perhaps receiving some considerable briefing update from the Reformed Pacifist.
"And now we are heading - at some considerable speed, I might add - into a volume known to be of interest to the CW, with almost no capability of detecting their - perhaps numerous - ships. We have no clear objective or plan - just 'observe', apparently - and no guarantee of being able to get away again."
"Great," the drone Harunda-Lua said gloomily, its fields yellow-grey with resignation, "A suicide mission."