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

Escape Velocity

In the last days of comparative peace before the - with hindsight - inevitable declaration of war against the Culture, before the studied hedonism and bohemian pleasures that members of that society regarded as their right would be threatened by violence and death, two lone citizens - ship and human - were being closely tailed by a pursuer who seemed intent on making a premature start to the hostilities.

The human crew member, whose name was Bryoni Matlyen, was clad in the best approximation to a combat-ready space suit the ship could cobble together at short notice, and both he and the suit were firmly embedded in a high-G acceleration couch. Not that either suit or couch significantly improved the chances of survival; if the effects of gravity ever became perceptible within a Contact Unit, that vessel was already gravely damaged.

"Well, that's it," the disembodied voice of the LCU Extended Adolescence said, "No chance of going faster. I'm at the point of catastrophic engine failure in the next ten hours already."

"And it's still gaining on us?"

"Afraid so." The ship sounded morose.

Matlyen turned back to the screen, which was still showing a hazy view of what might have been a distant dark cloud of turbulent gas against a dim starfield.

"You still don't know what it is?" he asked.

"No. It’s a ship of some kind, but I can find nothing exactly like it in my records."

Whatever it was, the alien ship had swept out of the interstellar darkness in hyperspace below the Extended Adolescence, undetected by the LCU until it was almost too late, and fired some exotic weapon with neither warning nor attempt at communication. The discharge of the weapon, itself not fully comprehensible to the ship's sensors, was just barely deflected by the LCU's hull-fields, and the ship was unlikely to survive another shot like it. The Culture craft had set off within nanoseconds and rapidly reached its maximum sustainable velocity. It was not immediately pursued - perhaps because the other craft presumed the LCU had been completely destroyed - but seconds later it had executed a tight turn to follow close behind.

The Extended Adolescence pressed ahead as quickly as its engines could manage, the fields from the overloaded units tearing livid scars in the pseudo-surface of the Energy Grid - that impenetrable barrier in hyperspace which separated universes and was used to power ships. The ship made alternating attempts to communicate with whatever it was that was chasing it with wide-beam distress messages to the Culture about the danger it was facing. It was not getting responses to either.

A Scree class Limited Contact Unit would normally have a complement of five. The previous crew had been together for a considerable number of years and, for several frankly banal reasons, they had all decided to remain on the GSV Unconventional Wisdom when the Extended Adolescence had rendezvoused a few weeks before. The ship had been disappointed that only one person had volunteered to join it for its next mission, even though that the waiting list for Contact personnel to join ships was very long; its reputation had suffered considerably in recent years after a series of unsatisfactory, even boring expeditions.

At the time, the ship had seriously considered a major rebuild on board the GSV, perhaps in the form of a more modern General Contact Unit, and maybe a new name to go with it. But a GCU would be expected to carry a much larger crew, and it would have been even more embarrassing if it could find insufficient Contact volunteers from the teeming billions aboard the larger craft.

As he had grown older, Bryoni Matlyen had discovered - something to his own surprise - that he was becoming increasingly solitary, even anti-social. In the Culture, this was a rare and strange affliction, given the society's famously-indulged love of parties, engagements, receptions, fairs, concerts, conferences, orgies, assemblies, exhibitions, festivals and a riotous host of other social events. Undeterred, Matlyen had sought out a Contact position where he could expect minimal social interactions, and determining that he was the only crew member on the Extended Adolescence had pleased him immeasurably.

The Extended Adolescence was now very glad that there was just the one human aboard.

There was a period of silence in the accommodation section while the cloud of gas on the screen coalesced into what might have been a skeletal outline of a spacecraft. To Matlyen’s eyes, the ship - if that was what it was - seemed to be formed of a spherical basket-weave of tubes and spars, supporting bulging nodes and nodules and a forest of spindly legs, like an oversized version of some spiny seaborne invertebrate.

"Well, it's a long shot," the Extended Adolescence said carefully, interrupting Matlyen’s train of thought, "But there might be a way we can survive this."

"How so?" Matlyen replied, who was carefully maintaining an impressive state of calm with only a little help from his drug glands.

"There's a brown dwarf ahead, more or less exactly on our track. Just luck."

"Okay. But how does that help us?"

"It's one occupied by Pleiadic Nauticum. Let me show you."

The adult form of the proto-sentient photo-plasmid creatures known as Pleiadic Nauticum principally inhabited the cool upper reaches of brown dwarf stars. Their larval stages and the immature young travelled vast circulating stellar convection currents which swept them alternately into the deeps and back to the surface as they matured.

As a species, they had evolved the ability to migrate between the stars at sub-light speeds, when the old home star cooled too much to allow for their growth, or simply to spread themselves more widely across the galaxy. When enough full-grown adults had amassed at the surface, the individuals would mesh themselves together to form a giant living infrared telescope, scanning the skies looking for small dark stars which might become their new homes.

Periodically, the Nauticum would set sail across the void, spawning in vast waves and shoals, red-brown ovoids spiralling away from the old dwarf star in huge numbers, and rapidly cooling to black as they entered their frozen hibernation state. Mature adults had limited control of gravitational forces - natural AG, to a close approximation - and used it to undertake interstellar journeys lasting hundreds of thousands of years.

Matlyen blinked as the condensed briefing flashed across his mind via his neural lace.

"So how can these Pleiadic Nauticum help us?" he asked, frowning.

"They can't," the ship said gruffly, "But there's something out there which eats them."

"Eats them?"

"Yup. Another precis for you."

An image of a huge dark tubular shape blotting out the stars flashed across Matlyen's field of view. His first thought was that it must be a ship; something alien, unknown. As the viewpoint drew closer to the creature, the apparent regularity of form collapsed as monstrous welts, swellings, ganglions, cysts, vents and protrusions could be seen on its surface, all in continual chaotic motion, squirming and writhing as if in response to exotic internal processes, some kind of intensely energetic physical reaction under barely-managed containment. As he watched, one orifice opened showing a hint of dull red fire within, while another suddenly spurted a cloud of black gas; whether this was for steering or propulsion, or merely excrement was uncertain.

~ Dorskey's Leviathan, the ship said in Matlyen's head, ~ One of a fairly rare class of interstellar predator. They follow the Nauticum as they travel from star to star, waiting for centuries in silent orbit until it is time for a swarm to break out.

~ Just how big are they? he asked.

~ Much, much bigger than me. We need to arrange to be swallowed by one.

~ Will that conceal us?

~ It might, if whatever is following us doesn't get to look too closely.

The images of the twisting, churning surface of the beast suddenly disappeared. Matlyen would have shaken his head to clear his thoughts if the suit had not prevented such an energetic motion. He had never quite got used to the abrupt transition between projections from the neural lace and direct perception of reality.

"So, here's the plan," the voice of the ship went on, "We need a decoy, something to convince our tail that we're still running away. So, I'm going to have to make one."

"But we don't have anything which can move as fast as you," Matlyen complained, "Surely that ruse would be seen through instantly?"

"Quite right," the Extended Adolescence replied, "So I'm going to have to take myself apart."

"What?"

The ship explained, in some detail. It probably had better things to do, right at this moment, but the effort required to hold even an intense conversation with a near-human-basic person no doubt consumed only some infinitesimal fraction of the Mind's intellectual resources.

"We've got a module on board," the ship said, "It's a tiny thing, more like a lifeboat than a proper ship, and equipped with a rather limited AI. I'm going to cut my engines out and attach them to the module. I'll tell it to keep moving ahead, as fast as possible, imitating my emission signature, and then arrange to blow itself up shortly before the engines fail or when the pursuer gets too close."

There was a pause, as if the ship was focussing on more important things.

"Meanwhile, you and I will drop out of hyperspace and get as close as we can to the brown dwarf," it went on, "Using only my emergency manoeuvring capacity."

"Surely your main engines will still be running when you do all that?" Matlyen said, sounding utterly aghast.

"Yes. It's not without its risks, I assure you. But I've failed to come up with a better plan."

"Okay. And then we'll be swallowed by the beast?"

"Hopefully," the ship replied, "If our luck holds."

"So how do you know that there actually is a Leviathan out there?"

"I don't," the ship said flatly, "Not right now. That's one of several risks we will have to take if we're to stand any chance of survival."

"It doesn't sound like we have many options here," the human said, equally emotionless, "I’m sure you’ll go ahead when you think the time is right."

"I will. You'll have to trust me on this."

Matlyen nodded, or at least the closest he could manage. There was another silent pause, giving the human the impression that intensive preparations were taking place. Or so he hoped.

"Right, here we go," the ship said suddenly, "I will be pulling myself apart with extreme rapidity. This is going to be extremely violent."

Ho-hum, said the Extended Adolescence to itself, it looks like I'm going to get that rebuild after all.

The faceplate of the armoured suit clanked down and the visor suddenly darkened. Matlyen felt an unpleasantly sickening lurch in his stomach as the ship’s internal gravity was turned off. He heard an immense growling roar, even within the suit, as if a clash of titans was tearing apart a whole range of mountains. He was thrown one way and then another, spun and twisted again and again, as the ship ripped active components from its fabric and hammered them into new configurations. Then there was an intense flash of light, glaring even through the opaque glass. He lost consciousness and remembered nothing more for quite some time.

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