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

Data Dissemination

"The Reformed Pacifist is now safely stowed in one of my Bays," the strange being called Obby said, "So, may I invite Llyfith Grabouldsa Xavyer Bryoni Matlyen dam F'seuch" - the creature performed a surprisingly elegant little bow in the direction of Matlyen - "and Goart Harunda-Lua Bo-Handraden Xato Moux to join me?"

Obby gestured towards the corridor which led to one of the exits with at least six of his pincers, a movement which looked strangely welcoming. Harunda-Lua's aura flushed the rosy red of humorous pleasure; Matlyen smiled warmly.

"Lead on," he said.

Obby spun around and set off down the corridor, its legs making soft rat-a-tat-tat noises on the floor as it walked. Matlyen and the drone followed closely.

Matlyen knew perfectly well that, since Minds thought so much faster than humans and inter-Mind communications - especially when the Minds in question were all now resident in the same hull enclosure - similarly rapid, the Obambulatist would already know everything the Extended Adolescence and the Reformed Pacifist had discovered, analysed and inferred. No doubt plans and contingencies were even now being formulated by the three Minds, if not actually put into action already.

It had also already occurred to Matlyen that the skirmish between the Reformed Pacifist and whatever Castophrenic Widowhood ship had managed to track them down and fire upon them undetected had happened at speeds noticeable to humans. This was, he thought decidedly odd. Engagements between Culture and equiv-tech ships normally ran at Mind speeds, and were frequently over in a matter of milliseconds, or less. So, while the Castophrenic Widowhood ship had certainly got some Big Guns, enough to cause the GOU to run away, all of their tactical decisions were being made by biological brains, even though the Widowhood had highly capable AIs.

The corridor opened into a welcoming and comfortably-appointed transit lounge, very typically Culture in appearance: all comfy furniture and discreetly indirect lighting, dotted with what were either elegantly-trimmed potted plants or slightly worryingly organic-looking sculptures. The lounge was deserted apart from the three of them; Matlyen - who was not particularly comfortable in the presence of large numbers of individuals - had been afraid that the corridor would open into some open plaza teeming with people. He guessed that his preferences had been casually taken into account during one of innumerable communications between GOU and GSV.

*

~Well, that is it, the Mind of the Reformed Pacifist sent, everything I and the Extended Adolescence have. Every dataset, every model, every opinion and speculation. The lot.

~Very interesting, the Obambulatist replied, the mathematical insights of the Extended Adolescence are particularly impressive. Do you or it think the same insights could be applied to the problem of breaking our secure communications, or even to the detectability of our remote scanning technology?

~You would have thought it possible, wouldn't you? Both I and the Extended Adolescence have been thinking very hard about these problems, but no success yet. It could take ages to explore all corners of this new mathematics of hyperspace.

~Hmm. I agree, although if the Castophrenic Widowhood can achieve it, then we ought to be able to replicate the capability. Short of capturing a Castophrenic Widowhood ship intact - which might prove to be very difficult, given that they appear to be able to do things we cannot - I can think of no way of speeding the process.

~Me neither. So, immediate action then?

~I see no alternative.

*

"Please take a seat," the Avatar named Obby said, indicating one of many soft-looking couches in the transit lounge with several outstretched pincers. Matlyen subsided into the cushions, which really were as pleasantly comfortable as they looked.

"Can I offer you some refreshment?" the Avatar went on.

Matlyen felt the stress of the last few days catching up with him: pursued, badly injured, and then physically healed as quickly as the technology of the Culture could manage, pursued again with the very real threat of instant obliteration hanging over him the entire time, and then another rescue in the nick of time.

"I think," he said slowly, "I need a very strong drink."

"A large Leisetsiker spirit, perhaps?"

"Perfect!"

A flying ship-slaved drone shaped like a polished silver salver appeared from some hidden alcove, supporting a reassuringly large glass of a faintly green-tinged fluid. The drone slid elegantly to a stop just by his elbow, allowing him to pick up the glass, sniff suspiciously and then sip with considerable approval.

"I can see that is hitting just the spot," Harunda-Lua said affably, its fields shading to the yellow-green of mellow approachability.

Matlyen smiled wanly. He held up the glass to inspect the tiny silver motes which circulated in the pale green fluid, then took another, larger sip. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Yes. Yes, it is," he sighed.

The drone's aura field lit up in the rainbow of surprise, which faded into the grey-white of frustration with circulating spots of the brown of displeasure. Not a good look, Matlyen thought.

"What's going on?" he asked the Avatar.

"I - that is, the Obambulatist - appreciate that both you and Dn Harunda-Lua have been through rather a lot just recently," Obby said immediately, "But I am afraid I have to ask you - both of you - to do more, for me, for the war effort and for the Culture as a whole."

"You're not going to like this," Harunda-Lua said sourly.

Matlyen stared despondently at his drink, then took another very large swallow.

"I have developed a plan," Obby said, sounding rather sad, "In conjunction with the Minds of the Reformed Pacifist and the Extended Adolescence. It's probably obvious that we have to get the discoveries made by the Extended Adolescence to the wider Culture. This we cannot do by even our most secure communications protocols - since we know the Castophrenic Widowhood can sometimes break our encryption."

"So you will need to transport this intelligence physically, by ship?" Matlyen asked.

"Correct," the Avatar said, waving its pincers, "Entirely not by coincidence, I have long been a repository for quite a large collection of ships; old warships, for the most part, de-armed and made quiescent after the end of the Idiran war, as a contingency against the kind of position we find ourselves in. In the light of the current emergency, you will not be surprised to learn that I have been recommissioning and re-arming these craft; the strategic advice I was given was to get this very substantial cache of munitions and matériel to the Delphic Chaosarium as quickly as possible, given that turning over the Chaosarium to Widowhood control was a key item in their ultimatum."

"So you've actually got a lot of ships?"

"Again, correct. But they are going to need some work. Further analysis by the Mind of the Extended Adolescence has suggested further improvements to the configuration of the engine fields to minimise the disturbance to the Grid, as well as a way of reducing the problem-solving impact on the ship's Mind."

Matlyen looked confused.

"I have developed a specialist AI to work alongside the Mind, in a separate sub-core," Obby went on, gesticulating with his upper appendages in an oddly expressive way, "Specifically tuned to solving the eight-dimensional mathematics and managing the engine field configuration on a moment-by-moment basis."

"So your ships will be able to travel faster without being easily detected, after this modification?"

"Yes. Still not at top speed, but significantly faster than the Reformed Pacifist was able to manage."

"So that's good?"

"It is," the Avatar confirmed, "And then, of course, there are all the people aboard this ship."

A Culture General Service Vehicle would normally have a crew measured in the millions. People - women, men, drones, even the occasional child - would come and go all the time; leaving or joining at the many Orbitals and fewer planets and Rocks the ship would visit over the course of its perambulations, or being spun off as part of the crew of a General Contact Unit to visit interesting-looking stellar systems, gas clouds, novae, black holes and all the fascinating representations of the physics of the galaxy.

Given the suddenness of the ultimatum from the Castophrenic Widowhood and the resulting urgency of the response required, the Obambulatist had been entirely unable to off-load any of its crew. There had been voting, of course, but the overwhelming majority had been in favour of remaining with the GSV and providing a defence of the Chaosarium. Now, however, both mission and risk profiles had changed; the Obambulatist was now strongly recommending that everybody should be evacuated aboard the numerous ships now about to be dispatched.

Obby explained all this at some length.

"Most people will be leaving then? Soon?" Matlyen asked, still trying to get his head around the latest developments.

"Yes. I want to get everybody away from here before we get too close to the Chaosarium," the Avatar said, "So I've given them all a little under eight hours to get ready. Even so, I want to ask you two to stay behind. If you insist, I will of accommodate you on board an OU or GCU, but I'd prefer it if you both remain."

Matlyen sighed.

"Okay, I’ll stay. But why?"

"I think you’ll be needed," Obby said opaquely. It appeared that was all the answer he was going to get.

This being the Culture, the imminent departure of the bulk of the personnel immediately let to a furious round of going-away parties, social engagements, good-fortune receptions, goodbye fairs, concerts, keep-in-touch conferences, good-luck orgies, exhibitions of completed artworks, music festivals and the riotous host of other social engagements a seriously fun-loving society like the Culture prided itself in doing to excess. Still, a few brave souls elected to stay behind, more to witness the actions of the GSV rather than anything of more practical use.

Matlyen stared morosely at the glass in his hand, then swallowed the remainder of the contents in one gulp. He turned to Harunda-Lua, still glowering greyly nearby.

"I guess you'll be staying too?"

"Yeah," the drone muttered, "And I got not more reasons for it than you did."

Matlyen put the drained glass back on the flying salver, then turned back to Obby.

"Great. Can you show me to some suitable accommodations? I think I want to take a nap."

"Follow me," the Avatar said, again gesturing with a handful of pincers.

*

Matlyen had followed Obby the short distance to a rather spacious suite of rooms with a curtained balcony which overlooked one of the many artificial canyons which bisected the accommodation section of the great ship. He glanced at the view, thanked the Avatar politely, shut the door behind it, lay on the bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

He had woken many hours later, feeling only a little rested. He asked the suit he was still wearing to remove itself; it flowed into a puddle at his feet then gathered itself into a ball and flew out of the open window. He showered, changed into clean clothes - he found a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt and a heavy pleated kilt like those he habitually wore in a drawer in the bedroom - and ordered breakfast, which arrived on a larger version of the flying salver through the balcony curtains a few moments later. He was just enjoying a second mug of a hot and slightly stimulating beverage and his third breakfast pastry when a screen discreetly pinged behind him.

"Good morning," Obby's voice came from some hidden speaker. The screen showed a shining grey ovoid against a slowly moving starfield.

Matlyen acknowledged the greeting with a wave of his half-eaten patisserie.

"I'm about to send out my evacuation fleet," Obby's voice went on, "We may very well be being watched by the Castophrenic Widowhood, despite my considerable speed, so I will be sending them out all at once. I thought you might like to watch."

Matlyen took a bite from his pastry and set it down, then turned in his chair to study the screen. Without warning, the starfield was suddenly filled with warships. Some were Displaced from deep inside the GSV's interior, snapping out of existence from within the thousands of evacuated bays where they had been quietly stored over the millennia and reappearing in hyperspace, powered up and already heading outwards. Others - the vast majority - were revealed as the giant ship peeled back some of the outer layers of its field structures to reveal the craft it had placed there over the past few hours, loosing entire fleets of smaller ships like seeds disseminating from a colossal pod. The ships scattered to the hypervolume in a series of explosive flurries; bombardments of ships, layers and blossoms of vessels like a whole deployed hierarchy of cluster munitions, every warhead a warcraft. A cloud of vessels expanding in every direction.

"Behold my diaspora!" Obby's voice said, sounding triumphant.

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