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

Double Check

Black holes were commonplace in the galaxy, and indeed the entire universe as far as the Culture knew. But most black holes were the result of the collapse of supermassive stars at the end of their life, when the pressure of light generated by nuclear fusion was insufficient to hold back the gravitational self-attraction of the matter making up the star. When this happened, every particle rapidly fell inwards, the density and thus the force of gravity increasing exponentially, until not even light itself could escape. For a star of a trillion trillion trillion tonnes, all that mass would be contained in a ball a few kilometres across when it became a black hole.

The origin of smaller black holes was much more problematic. For a rocky planet which might have been regarded as habitable by the people of the Culture, for example, weighing in at a mere thousand trillion trillion tonnes, the corresponding black hole would be less than a centimetre in diameter. The trouble was there was no known natural mechanism, according to the very-well-understood physics familiar to the Culture, for a black hole as small as that to be created.

One of the few things the Culture knew for sure about the Castophrenic Widowhood was their extreme dislike of artificial sources of gravity. This had come to light almost by accident, as part of a rare diplomatic communication to the Galactic General Council a few centuries ago. The Council had passed on an objection by another civ to the Windowhood's act of planoforming, to which the Widowhood's response was long, complex and detailed - more of a rant than a response, really - and included the assertion that they could not live with anything except 'real' gravity, even on their ships where mini black holes were used. In the interests of transparency, the Galactic Council had circulated the response to all their members, which of course included the Culture. The Minds that ran the Culture had, on the basis of that transcript - and entirely erroneously, as it turned out - assumed that the Castophrenic Widowhood had acquired, or invented, the technology to make black holes themselves.

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
I think we need a much more intensive study of the prior activity of the Eater of Planets. Where has it been? Where did it come from? Who, or what, made the thing in the first place? And why did they do that, anyway?

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
We do. Specifically, if we can trace the path of the machine over, say, the last ten thousand years, we could get an estimate of the rate at which the thing has been creating black holes and thus the number of such holes available to the Castophrenic Widowhood. And so the number of ships that they have.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Only if we accept that this planet-eater is, and was, the only one ever in existence. Which still seems unlikely to me.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
True, of course. But it would give us a lower bound on the number of their ships. And a reliable scaling factor to use in worst-case planning.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Useful intelligence, indeed.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Obambulatist
Do we have access to any assets in the volume of space where the Rambunctious Frippery first encountered this Eater of Planets?

  xGSV Chirality Test
I have a couple of Torturer-class ROUs which might respond well to a request for a close investigation of that region.

  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
Who are they, exactly?

  xGSV Chirality Test
The More Zeal Than Common Sense and the Diplomacy Through Other Means. They were amongst the first VFPs I refitted, so they're both fully tooled up. They will almost certainly enjoy a certain amount of whizzing about the volume, and they might even be prepared to suffer a little temporary engine damage to get there a bit quicker.

  xMSV Amphisbaena
What's their rush-in time?

  xGSV Chirality Test
About fifty-five hours.

  xGSV Obambulatist
That will have to do.
Please invite your ROU twins to have a little hunt on our behalf. And advise them to keep an eye out for the Castophrenic Widowhood.


  xGSV Chirality Test
Will do.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
There is a second strand of enquiry I believe we can explore.
I am sure we would all recoil from the idea of reading the mind, so to speak, of the Eater of Planets directly. But I am equally sure that nobody would object to us asking it some more, shall we say, pointed questions?


  xGSV Obambulatist
You are referring to the mind-state copy you have running in one of your sub-cores?

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Correct. I also have a Stored copy of the Mind-state of the Rambunctious Frippery, made shortly after it assisted in the move of the planet-eater's mind to a simulation.

  xMSV Amphisbaena
Aha! So you have the means to, effectively, reverse time to a point only a little after the GCU first encountered the machine?

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Again, correct. So I propose to wake my copy of the Mind of the Rambunctious Frippery and invite it to further interrogate the eater of planets. I will of course circulate any germane responses the GCU manages to extract.
Okay with everybody?


  xGSV Obambulatist
It seems all are content for you to proceed.
Keep us all in the loop.


  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
I will.

*

It was still in interstellar space, still proceeding at its best speed, still contemplating its memories - new and old - when the tiny spacecraft which called itself the 'Mountain class General Contact Unit, the Rambunctious Frippery' once again appeared alongside.

~How do you do that? it sent.

~Do what?

~Appear out of nothing right next to me?

~Ah. There are more dimensions of space than the three you are aware of, the three which we generally call the Skein. In the fourth dimension, there are two hyperspaces in which the restrictions on the velocity of travel are much less severe than the speed of light. I am designed and built to navigate these hyperspaces, at great speed.

~My memory tells me that such hyperspaces were long ago determined to be purely theoretical constructs, without practical applications. It seems that my memory is, once again, incorrect.

~It is certainly incorrect in this particular matter. But, do you believe that your memory is wrong in other ways?

~I have spent a great deal of time reviewing my own memories. There appear to be periods of time, some of them quite long, of which I have no recollection at all. In addition, some of my memories appear to be inconsistent with others.

~Is your absence of a name due to one of those gaps?

~I do not know. Is a name really that important?

~I believe it is. For example, we have decided to name you 'The Eater of Planets'.

~So you have discovered my purpose. How did you do that?

~This is one of the advantages of controlled access to hyperspace. From a fourth dimension, any unshielded object - such as yourself - is entirely open to inspection and analysis. It was not so very hard to deduce the purpose and operation of the very impressive collection of machinery within yourself.

~I see. So my attempts to conceal by purpose from you were always doomed to failure?

~I am afraid so. So perhaps you would answer some of my other questions?

~I can see there is little point in refusing. What do you want to know?

~Can you tell me how many black holes you have made?

~I cannot be sure.

~Because of the gaps in your memories?

~Yes.

~I accept that. So how many can you remember making?

~Seventeen million, twenty-two thousand, six hundred and twelve.

~Well done. You have been busy.

~Thank you.

~May I ask another question?

~I suppose you can. I do not see how I could stop you.

~Okay. Why do you make black holes? What is your reason for performing this energetic conversion?

~Oh, they are for habitats. For power and gravity. And nobody wants planets anyway. They are just a waste of matter.

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