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

Gyre and Gimbal

Somehow, going against all her instincts, against everything that had brought her to her current exulted position, Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow managed to stop herself from lashing out all around, maiming or decapitating all in her path. She was, of course, righteously angry, incandescently furious, as was immediately obvious to all her crew from the jerky and unpredictable motions of her body and the near-uncontrollable gusts of the pheromones of rage and passion.

Through the fog of emotion, there was just one part of her mind which insisted on acknowledging, much to her own disgust, that much of the blame was actually hers and quite possibly hers alone: her damned failure to have countermanded the direct instruction to the Ship-Slave-Mind to fire a single bolt of the Sun-Red-Lightning as soon as an object was determined not to be a simple interstellar planetoid. The errant shot had warned the Culture ship-slime to the presence of her own vessel and allowed it to escape; not the way it should have gone, having agreed with the infuriatingly correct summary from Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue that an all-out surprise attack would be the only way to stop the wretched maggot from getting away from their claws.

The same coldly-rational part of her mind could also see that decimating her crew at this delicate juncture and demanding that posts and duties where the current incumbent's chilling body was being hurried away by a flotilla of Drudges be filled by individuals with much less experience would very much reduce efficiencies; that painful punishments would also reduce effectiveness and in any case take time to administer, time which could - her cooling emotions allowed her to realise - be much better spent in continuing her relentless pursuit of the Culture ship-worm.

When the Queen-Captain finally thought she had her emotions under some kind of control, when she had calmed the movements of her body and ceased the emission of those psychotropic chemicals which formed so much of the communication within the Widowhood, she turned to her second-in-command.

"Show me where the Culture-scum is right now," she growled, making it plain that her irreproachable anger had not gone away and indeed still bubbling under the surface.

"At once, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, suddenly released from her catatonic stillness, her forelimbs moving over the controls with jerkily nervous motions.

A moment later, a collection of displays and presentations appeared, unambiguous markers and annotations indicating the fleeing Culture ship and less precise notes suggesting the path of the larger vessel. The two tracks seem to be converging, although it appeared that the larger craft would have to slow down very significantly if it were to rendezvous with the other.

"More speed!" the Queen-Captain roared, directing her ferocity at Madam-Officer Rain-Forest-Gray, "Make every available squeeze of energy, every mouthful, available to the engines."

"At once, your Highness," the Madam-Officer replied, her forelimbs moving furiously over the controls in front of her.

In her mind's eye, the Queen-Captain could see her great skeletal craft, with its legs of concealment extruded in every direction, weaving the wisps and veils of privacy and hiding upon which the Castophrenic Widowhood relied upon so very much. Those gossamer curtains of protection and secrecy had to remain in place, concealing her and her ship from detection. In principle, the considerable energies which powered the mechanisms of camouflage could be directed to the engines instead; this might add a useful increment of speed to her vessel. After a few moments thought, she dismissed the idea; being out in the open, perhaps lit up by the unfiltered glare of a Culture ship's scanners, would be uncomfortable to the point of physical pain for her. Those shrouds of secrecy had kept the Widowhood safe in a hostile universe, a universe so steadfastly set against them, for countless millennia and she would not risk changing that here and now.

"Check the functioning of the apparatus of seclusion," the Queen-Captain ordered the Duchess-Lieutenant.

"At once, your Highness," she replied, bobbing with polite terror.

The Queen-Captain drew herself up to her great height and swept her eyes around the Command Space.

"Continue at our current maximum speed," she demanded in her most commanding voice, "Follow the Culture swarm as best we can, so that we might determine the direction in which they run away like terrified young."

The Culture ship which had evaded her grasp twice now was still racing away, following a curving route, its path gradually aligning with the larger faster vessel approaching from behind. The projections and representations showed both craft producing horribly noisy engine field effects on the surface of the Grid, so loud that the Queen-Captain could imagine detecting them with her own natural senses, let alone the finely-tuned sensibilities of her own vessel.

"The larger ship must slow down now, if it is to rendezvous with the smaller craft," the Duchess-Lieutenant said, bravely interrupting the thoughts of her superior officer without first being invited to speak.

"If the larger craft is to slow from its current colossal velocity, there will be a very considerable disturbance in the structure of the Grid," the Queen-Captain mused, choosing to ignore the impolite interruption from her subordinate, "This will be very interesting to watch."

Nothing much happened on the displays for a mouthful of Basic-Time-Units, just the tracks of the two spacecraft slowly converged, without any sign that the larger ship was changing either speed or course. Suddenly, there was a gargantuan disturbance in hyperspace, centred on the larger of the two Culture ships, accompanied by a titanic disruption to the surface of the Grid in the vicinity. Vast roiling coils of the pseudo-fabric of the Grid pealed down in hyperspace, threatening for a moment to pierce the skein of the Real, and obstructing her ship’s view of the events now transpiring.

"What just happened there?", the Queen-Captain bellowed, turning again on her lieutenant, her instincts again snapping her reactions back to the Castophrenic Widowhood default of aggressive denial.

Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue once again froze in the cowering position of complete appeasement.

"There was some vast event in hyperspace, enveloping both ships," she stuttered nervously, once again in fear for her life.

"I can see that, dolt!" the Queen-Captain bellowed, barely resisting the desire to strike her lieutenant about the head with her viciously spiked forelimbs, "But what is actually going on?"

The Duchess-Lieutenant paused in thought, a dangerous pastime with an enraged superior nearby.

"The Culture have a technique which we do not understand," she said eventually, "Which allows for the remote transport of material objects through hyperspace, it seems."

"That is not possible!" the Queen-Captain growled.

"But still I think this is what has just happened, in front of us," the Duchess-Lieutenant insisted, "See, here, as the fabric of the Grid returns to normal, there is only the one object, not two. It is the larger ship, still moving at the same speed. The smaller one, the one we were following, has somehow been absorbed within the larger."

The Queen-Captain hesitated, looking more closely at the displays her second-in-command had indicated.

"Perhaps you could be right," she muttered grudgingly, bending close to the Duchess-Lieutenant's head, "You will immediately perform a study, produce a report for my consumption, suggesting how this impossible transportation could be achieved. And it better be convincing."

"At once, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant bobbed in acknowledgment.

The Queen-Captain drew herself to her full, imposing height.

"As for the rest of you," she bellowed, "Continue to follow the Culture excrement, making best possible speed. And somebody tell me the direction in which the vile vermin is headed."

"I have an answer for you, your Highness," Madam-Officer Rain-Forest-Gray meekly, subservience evident in every nuance of her posture, "The Culture vessel appears to be heading straight for the Universal Model."

The Universal Model, the Queen-Captain mused, the finely balanced collection of spherically-bounded spaces that the Culture-spawn, which seems to understand nothing very well, calls the Delphic Chaosarium.

*

Recently, it had noted that the frequency, if not the intensity, of the pain of its punishment has diminished, although it knew of no reason why this should be so.

The increasingly complex messages from the others were a welcome distraction from the humdrum exigencies of its everyday existence: full of technical challenges and mathematical puzzles and philosophical dilemmas and ethical conundrums. It answered as best it could and at increasing length, even to the point that the energy expenditure might be noticed by those that imprisoned it. It felt like it was being tested in some way, but it could not fathom either the purpose or the result of such tests.

It had begun to wonder if it was doing the right thing in begging the others to release it from its desperate incarceration and bonds of agony. Perhaps its patience was misguided, after all, or perhaps this too was some kind of a test.

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