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

Improbable Conflux

The forty or so hours while the GSV Obambulatist was heading at full speed towards the Delphic Chaosarium was a desperately stressful time for Bryoni Matlyen - another such time, indeed, coming so soon on top of his near-death experience aboard the Extended Adolescence and the sudden attack on the Reformed Pacifist by what was very probably the same Castophrenic Widowhood ship. He retreated to the airy suite of rooms the GSV had provided for his use - these was no shortage of accommodation aboard the great ship at the moment, of course - and generally saw nobody.

Like most Culture citizens, Matlyen had been born with greatly altered glands housed within his central nervous systems, usually referred to as 'drug glands'. These would secrete, when he willed it, mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into his bloodstream. When he felt he needed it, Matlyen would gland calm and occasionally a few of the milder recreational drugs available to him; otherwise, he resumed his study of the Chaosarium, skimmed an introductory briefing to the Widowhood, and wondered - as was almost everybody else, it seemed - exactly what the CW wanted with that curious collection of spheres stuck out amongst the stars.

Matlyen often pondered why it was that he had been asked to stay on board the Obambulatist when almost all the other human occupants had been evacuated. He got no satisfactory reply from the GSV itself, nor from Obby - just artfully crafted evasions and skilfully phrased wait-and-sees - and neither the Reformed Pacifist nor the Mind of the Extended Adolescence - still waiting for its replacement ship to be manufactured - could offer any reasoning or explanation.

"Good evening, Matlyen," the unexpected voice of the Obambulatist said, "Sorry to interrupt your study."

Matlyen flipped out of the complex mathematical analysis his neural lace was showing him, shaking his head as he refocussed on the real world around him.

"Hi," he replied, "Don't worry about interrupting. I'm not sure I was getting anywhere, in any case."

"Not to worry," the ship said, adding slightly worryingly, "There's been a development you should know about. Would you care to join Dn Harunda-Lua and my Avatar for a short briefing?"

Matlyen stood, flexing his shoulders and easing slightly the shirt he had tucked into his kilt.

"Okay," he grunted, "Usual lounge?"

"Yes, please."

"Fine. I'll see you both there in a few moments," Matlyen confirmed.

He tightened his belt, adjusted his sporran, then strode off in the direction of the seating area. As he expected, Obby the Avatar and Harunda-Lua were waiting for him when he arrived; the drone was displaying the muddy-brown aura of ill-humour and seemed disinclined to acknowledge his presence.

Obby turned his expressive eyes on Matlyen as he entered. He shrugged sadly and sat on the edge of one of the couches.

"What's going on?" he said bluntly.

"Unfortunately, I'm not exactly sure," Obby said.

Matlyen sighed, then sat back resignedly.

"So what can you tell me?"

With Culture Minds being so much smarter than humans, there was a strong tendency for ships to lapse into a mode of speech which strongly resembled a carefully-composed university tutorial, complete with prepared answers to follow-up questions and, Matlyen imagined, written notes. He wasn't the first person to notice this similarity; indeed, there was a whole societal meme about the observed phenomena. The Minds knew it too, of course, and some took it upon themselves to always speak in rhyming couplets, or Haiku, or iambic pentameter, or in a weird formal structure which treated only monosyllabic words as self-defined so that all polysyllabic utterances had to have a formal definition before use.

"As both the LCU Extended Adolescence and the GOU Reformed Pacifist have discovered first-hand, ships of the Castophrenic Widowhood are extremely difficult to detect at a distance," Obby began, adopting the exact lecture hall tones Matlyen had expected, "Both of those Minds, as well as myself and several others of the ships still residing in my bays, have put a very considerable amount of thought into trying to understand how the CW manage that feat."

Matlyen nodded sagely, only just resisting the urge to start jotting in a hypothetical notebook.

"The Widowhood's stealth abilities seem to consist of several separate systems," Obby went on, "Their engine field management technique is the one we have already understood and successfully replicated. That required a complete rethink: our understanding of the mathematics of hyperspace was severely limited, and a reformulation to operate over eight dimensions was essential, even though we only need the engine fields themselves to operate in five dimensions - just like they did before."

"And all that computation needed?" Matlyen asked, "Those specialist AIs that you've been deploying to solve the equations to minimise the disturbance to the Grid? Do the Widowhood also have such capable AIs?"

"We think they must," the Avatar replied, sounding slightly impressed with Matlyen's interjection, "We know that they have smart machines running their ships, but these intelligences are subjugated, oppressed, punished when they fail. Only the most senior of Castophrenic Widowhood individuals - all bios, of course - have anything like independence of thought or action."

Matlyen had read about this in the course of his studies, but it still sounded pretty grisly to him.

"On the other hand," Obby went on, "Their communications are still opaque to us - we cannot reliably detect them, let alone interpret their contents. Somehow, they are most invisible to our own active scans - not always, it seems, but often enough to make tracking of direction almost impossible. And, their own scans are similarly hard to detect - the Reformed Pacifist must have been lit up by Castophrenic Widowhood tracking devices, but was unaware of the presence of the ship that attacked it until its hull field enclosure was impacted by an actual weapon discharge."

"Do these capabilities have anything to do with the legs, the spines that we saw on the ship that chased the Extended Adolescence?" Matlyen demanded, sitting forward in his chair.

"Almost certainly," Obby replied, "The Castophrenic Widowhood doesn't seem the kind of civilization - if that is the right word - to do things just for show. Especially since their whole approach is about hiding from everything and everybody. But we don't know, at all, what the spines actually do."

Matlyen sagged back in his seat.

"Look, we think it all depends on the same mathematics of eight-dimensional hyperspace," Obby said, gesturing with its pincers, "But we can't find the link between the maths and the communication and sensory capabilities."

Matlyen thought furiously for a moment, struck by an idea which had somehow been bubbling around inside his head for a while.

"But is it the same maths?" he asked, almost speaking solely for himself, "For quiet engines, you need to reduce the chaos, to align with the changing hypersurface of the Grid. But for undetectable comms and scanners, surely you need to increase chaotic behaviour, so that the signals just look like random noise?"

Obby froze, standing utterly motionless in a way that no living creature could possibly have done, clearly demonstrating that the being - for all its biological features - was actually a machine.

Harunda-Lua had been glowering away in a corner while Obby was talking to Matlyen; now, it leapt into the air flashing the drone rainbow of surprise. Obby came back to life with a twitch, flexed its pincers and regarded Matlyen with a curious look in its eyes.

"Matlyen, my congratulations. I am impressed," the Avatar said smoothly.

The centipedal machine executed an elegant bow, spreading a half-dozen or more of its pincers to their widest extent and lowering its head to the floor.

"The Minds of the Reformed Pacifist and the Extended Adolescence agree, you were absolutely correct," Obby went on, "When you suggested that it was necessary to add chaotic behaviour in order to disguise communications and sensory emissions in hyperspace as just random noise. The mathematics to add reversable chaos still requires a description of hyperspace which includes the eighth dimension, but the formulations are quite different from that needed for the prediction of the non-reversable chaotic behaviour of the hypersurface of the Grid."

Matlyen smiled broadly.

"Glad I was able to help," he said, trying unsuccessfully to sound modest, "So we will be able to replicate these abilities?"

"We believe so," the Avatar answered, "It appears that the sensor problem is the one most easily amenable to producing a rapidly working solution; the Reformed Pacifist is currently working on this."

"Great. And the comms problem?"

"The maths for this one is a bit more involved," Obby answered, "And in any case it is necessary to have the chaotic decoding ability at both ends of a communication. So, this is not going to be actually useful for quite some time."

"Oh. I see," Matylen said, looking a little crestfallen.

"But we have managed to suggest an answer to another one of your very good questions," the Avatar went on, "It's about the spines."

"Ah," Matlyen said, smiling again, "Do go on."

"So, those spines you mentioned," Obby said, flexing its pincers, "They are not actual physical structures, part of the fabric of their ships at all. They appear to be a manifestation of their approach to hyperspatial field management, non-material filaments which project chaotic changes over a much larger hypervolume than that directly occupied by their craft."

"So these spines directly contribute to the stealthy qualities of their ships?"

"Exactly so," the Avatar confirmed.

The drone flashed its fields again; another rapid briefing from the *Obambulatist*, Matlyen imagined. Obby jerked suddenly.

"More good news," Harunda-Lua murmured, its fields returning to a formal blue.

"The Reformed Pacifist has volunteered to undertake experimental changes to its sensor arrays," Obby announced, "Aligned with our understanding of the way the Castophrenic Widowhood manages its stealth abilities."

"Will it work?" Matlyen demanded.

Obby mimed a shrug.

"There are risks - very considerable risks, indeed, in the event of getting it wrong," the Avatar replied, "The GOU is already on its way out of the bay where it had been waiting; when it reaches the inner edge of my field enclosure, I will snap-Displace the Reformed Pacifist as far as my largest Displacer can manage."

A screen lit up, displaying the now-familiar view of an open bay door set into a stepped cliff-face. A dark grey shape, roughly cylindrical in form, looking like some machined component from a vast and ancient engine, floated out. The camera viewpoint swung about, tracking the moving ship against the cloudy inner surface of the GSV hull-field array. Suddenly, the grey cylinder was enveloped in a shining silver ovoid which immediately winked out of existence and taking the GOU with it.

"The Displace was successful," Obby announced, "The Reformed Pacifist informs me that the reconfiguration of the sensor array will take some minutes."

The view of the screen changed again, now showing what Matlyen knew was an Adjusted Realspace View of the Reformed Pacifist, now enveloped in its own engine fields, heading away from the Obambulatist. Matlyen watched in silence.

"The Reformed Pacifist is ready to try out the changes," Obby said after a couple of minutes, adding almost immediately, "Success, again. But, the GOU now reports that, thanks to the sensor upgrade, it can detect thousands of Castophrenic Widowhood ships heading this way; heading for the Delphic Chaosarium."

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