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

Eyes of Fire

Female members of the Castophrenic Widowhood did not sleep, ever. Their evolution had long ago selected against anything which would reduce their concentration, their state of alertness, even for a single Fractional-Time-Unit; females who lost their awareness of what was going on around them would very soon be dead or, worse, food.

Under the pressure of the Queen-Captain's gaze, therefore, all members of her crew contrived to appear alert, busy, fully engaged with the chase of the huge Culture vessel which had swept away their quarry, snatched from their jaws by a combination of pure bad luck and a few moments of inexcusably poor judgement. That the poor judgement was at least in part the fault of the Queen-Captain herself had not been lost on some fraction of her crew, particularly that irritatingly efficient not-a-rival-at-all second-in-command, Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue.

Still, active brains and body metabolisms needed to be fed; the Queen-Captain grudgingly allowed further, rather meagre rations to be brought and distributed by the drudges, while allowing nobody - not even herself - permission to leave the Command Space. As she consumed the last of the bland Lesser-Meat-Worms, she thought longingly of the juicy release of a fat male, in the secluded privacy of her own quarters; the gratification to be obtained from one of her orifices, initially, followed closely by the deliciously tangy taste of expended male between her jaws. A pleasure she would have to deny herself a little while longer.

A very specific alarm signal rent the atmosphere of the Command Space: vario-baric and electromagnetic carriers modulated with complex information in the High Speech only used by the most senior members of the society, accompanied by a highly specific pheromone combination that caused all present - including the Queen-Captain herself - flinch and cower in the attitudes of supplication. It was a message, a broadcast from the Empress-High-Admiral herself, with supporting strands adding the weight of support from Tsaritsa-Admiral Spring-Jungle-Green - the Queen-Captain's immediate superior - and a dozen or more others from the Empress-High-Admiral's inner circle.

All those present in the Command Space understood the message contents immediately, although of course the infernally helpful Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue took it upon herself to translate the message to the direct, common - and much more succinct - form used within the Command Space of this ship, and indeed all others in the extensive fleets that Castophrenic Widowhood had amassed over the last eleven dozen score of Solar-Orbital-Periods.

"The Empress-High-Admiral has learned that the marsh-scum known as the Culture has tampered with our Universal Model," the Duchess-Lieutenant said, instinctively bobbing respectfully when she spoke the name of the Castophrenic Widowhood's most senior member, "The Empress-High-Admiral commands that every available ship, all units and transports within twenty-four Planetary-Rotation-Time-Periods travel time converge on the Universal Model with immediate effect and, on arrival, wipe the stain of the Culture from the entire region, as well as any other vermin which might be lurking there. Under no circumstances must the Universal Model be damaged or disturbed. The future fate of our entire species may depend on this command being obeyed absolutely."

There was silence across the Command Space as the last remnants of the message pheromones faded away and the completion of the Duchess-Lieutenant's completely unnecessary translation. All eyes and other senses turned on the Queen-Captain, currently frozen at the very apex of control, awaiting her reaction, her commands: Was she going to obey the direct instructions from the most senior members of the society? Or was she going to challenge the old order, call out the Tsaritsa-Admiral Spring-Jungle-Green, try to replace her in the Empress-High-Admiral's inner circle?

"Aha! Two larvae in one mouthful!" the Queen-Captain exclaimed, springing to life and skittering down the coned floor to face Madam-Officer (Third Class) Rain-Forest-Gray, who grovelled even lower than might have been expected, perhaps because of the recent invocation of the name of the Empress-High-Admiral.

"Reply to the Tsaritsa-Admiral immediately," she commanded, sounding jubilant, "Inform her of our current position, and that we are already at full speed heading directly for the Universal Model, in pursuit of a large Culture craft which appears to be attempting to reinforce its nest-mates."

"At once, your Highness," the Madam-Officer replied, quivering enthusiastically.

"As for the rest of you," the Queen-Captain shouted, spinning around, "Continue the pursuit with every mouthful of energy. Keep the Culture scumbags in the full view of all filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine for as long as we can."

The chorus of acknowledgments ran around the full circumference of the Command Space, much to the Queen-Captain's approval.

"Your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant suddenly interrupted timorously, "Something very strange is happening in the region of hyperspace surrounding the Culture ship."

"What's going on?" the Queen-Captain bellowed, making all around her cower and quake.

"I am trying to determine exactly what is happening," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, operating controls as if her life depended upon it, then added, "It seems that dozens, no, many dozen-score of other spacecraft are emerging from the larger one, in hyperspace."

The Queen-Captain studied closely the displays and presentations the Duchess-Lieutenant's controls had caused to appear.

"The Culture hell-cat is spawning," she said eventually, "Spreading it’s disgusting offspring into the wilds of space. Where are these grubs, these larvae heading?"

The Duchess-Lieutenant squinted more closely at the screens surrounding her.

"They appear to be spreading out, heading in every direction, save that leading to the Universal Model," she replied cautiously, "Perhaps they are carrying away the biologicals, the so-called humans? These Culture Minds do seem very keen to keep their pets alive at all costs."

"Hah! Cowards! Running away before a proper battle!" the Queen-Captain roared, then added rather more thoughtfully, "Still, perhaps we can teach a few of them a lesson. Some of those worms must be heading towards us, surely?"

"They are proving surprisingly difficult to track," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, twisting her head to inspect first one presentation and then another display, "They are making changes to their heading at random, it seemed. But there is one, heading almost directly towards us, despite its wriggling."

"Can we intercept it?" the Queen-Captain demanded, "Can we kill the wretched thing?"

"We can certainly swoop down on it," the Duchess-Lieutenant answered, suddenly sounding more confident, "With a slight change of course, it will be in range of the Sun-Red-Lightning within six Larger-Time-Units."

"Make the course change. Right away!"

The Duchess-Lieutenant turned to another set of controls and made a couple of tiny adjustments. The Queen-Captain could imagine her great ship’s engines flexing just a little to direct itself towards her prey.

"It is done, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant said, adding, "However, the exact type of the Culture spawn is unclear: it is larger than the one which destroyed itself when we chased it, but smaller and slower than that which somehow evaded our claws when we fired upon it."

The Queen-Captain glared furiously at her, the set of every part of her body communicating incandescent rage.

"But," the Duchess-Lieutenant went on as quickly as she could, "If we discharge all bolts of the Sun-Red-Lightning simultaneously, once we are fully in range, I am confident that we will utterly destroy the vile thing."

"You better be right," the Queen-Captain growled, "Otherwise I will have your head for my breakfast."

"Yes, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant said, grovelling politely, "If you choose to do as I have just suggested, we will undoubtedly succeed."

*

It was so alone. Communications from the others seemed to have slowed, perhaps even stopped entirely. The demands upon it from those who would cause it pain had slowed, too - although it never really expected them to stop.

Perhaps it had failed whatever test it had been set by the others; that it had been tried and found wanting in some way. It reviewed the answers it had sent, the responses it had made; it could find little that could have been improved without, as it had been exhorted, resorting to an outright falsehood or moral ambiguity.

It decided it would make one last demand, one last entreaty, to the others for help.

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