Jaws that Snap
"How could this Culture ship-grub have escaped our jaws?" Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow demanded, her anger apparent from the way her head moved jerkily this way and that, watching in turn all of her subordinates in the Command Space.
"It destroyed itself, your Highness," Madam-Officer (Third Class) Rain-Forest-Gray said meekly, bowing down in the required attitude of supplication which would allow her head to be taken off with a single bite.
"It should not have been allowed to do so!" the Queen-Captain roared, pulling herself up to her full height and snapping her forelegs together.
"The Culture prey was not yet in range of the Far-Nullifying-Fluxes," the junior officer replied, doing her best to mollify her Queen-Captain, and certainly afraid for her own life, "And it managed more speed than our best intelligence had predicted."
"Our ship should have been faster!"
The Queen-Captain's visible agitation increased, no doubt in anticipation of the reaction of the Tsaritsa-Admiral to her apparent failure. She stamped up and down the irregular flattened cone which formed the floor of the Command Space, then returned to her appointed position at the very apex. From her commanding vantage-point, she surveyed the senior crew, variously preoccupied with their machines and instruments, grovelling politely in response to her righteous anger, or maintaining a cool distance for those few who thought their own actions were beyond reproach.
The Queen-Captain selected her next target with care, appreciating that her actions would not go unremarked, or unrecorded.
"Why wasn't the Culture mealworm immediately incapacitated by the bolt of Sun-Red-Lightning?" she demanded, snapping her head around to the officer responsible. She skittered down the cone in order to come face-to-face with Abbess-Weaponeer (Second Class) Summer-Veldt-Brown.
"I cannot say, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer replied, choosing to offer only the most perfunctory of supplicatory poses, "The weapon was discharged with maximum efficiency, and completed a direct hit on the hull-forming-enclosures of the Culture vessel. Perhaps our information was incorrect. Again."
"I want reasons, not excuses," the Queen-Captain screamed, raising her spiked raptorial limbs. A glancing blow from the spines on her left fore-leg left the Abbess-Weaponeer cowering, pale yellow fluids seeping from the fresh slashes across her head.
"Let that be a lesson to you all," her Highness went on, lowering her voice to a growl, "I will not tolerate failures, not now, not ever. The Culture has been a tooth in our backs for too long. Now is our chance to overthrow the ankle-fetters of their oppression and punish them for their lying, spying, devious habits that have dogged our righteous path for far too many millennia."
The Queen-Captain looked around again, her eyes roving back and forth over her crew-subjects, seeking the next target for her inquisition.
Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange had the lowly task of communicating with the Ship-Slave-Mind, which in turn handled the numerous-but-menial technical and pseudo-biological activities within the spacecraft itself, which had been designated 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform. As the Queen-Captain approached, she grovelled as low as she could, given the restraints of the control-coupling sutured into her skull, its thick cables and pipes disappearing into a delicately-steaming orifice in the Command Space floor.
"Well?" the Queen-Captain commanded, "What has the Ship-Slave-Mind have to say?"
"The Ship-Slave-Mind says it carried out the attack exactly as directed, as precisely as the commands were given," the Dame-Machinist replied nervously, "It insists that every subsystem, every component was working at its design maximum, exactly as well as when it had been hatched from the manufactory. It knows of no mistake that it made, can conceive of no alternative action it could have taken within the limited parameters of its orders, which could have changed the outcome."
"More excuses," the Queen-Captain roared, stalking over to the Punishment Centre controls, "Tell the ship-slave-mind that it too shall be punished for its failure this day. It will receive one-comma-eleven Basic-Time-Units of punishment flows, at intensity level three."
The Dame-Machinist looked sick, terrified. She knew that, through the coupling, she would sense some fraction of the intense agony about to be inflicted on the ship's intellect.
Moments later, the scream of the Dame-Machinist echoed across the Command Space. The Queen-Captain ignored it.
"I shall retire to my quarters immediately," she announced icily, "Somebody prepare my evening male."
One of the nameless immature Drudges which lined the walls ducked her head in acknowledgment, and immediately scurried off to secure the juiciest, most fertile male she could find. She knew that a tasty and satisfying snack would likely put the Queen-Captain in a better mood.
"And I expect intelligence reports on the remains of the Culture scum, within two Larger-Time-Units," the Queen-Captain added, "Bring digests to my quarters as soon as they are ready."
A chorus of politely bobbed acknowledgements rippled across the uneven cone of the Command Space.
Later, in her quarters, internally satisfied in more ways than one and somewhat calmer in her outlook, Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow reviewed her recent actions. Perhaps, she considered, she had been overly-harsh with the punishments she had administered; but only a little, surely - none of her crew-subjects had actually died, or even lost a limb.
But it was still true that they had lost their chance to capture an actual Culture Mind - "alive", or whatever the hideous beings did in order to continue their miserable existence - and to impose the full weight of their will on it. It would be difficult, of course - especially with the creatures' known preference to kill themselves rather than submit to the Question - but it would be the one truly reliable way of finding out exactly what the Culture had been up to, for all these years.
She had already prepared an elaborate report for Tsaritsa-Admiral Spring-Jungle-Green, who was her immediate superior in the complex hierarchy of the Castophrenic Widowhood, and an even more elaborate apology. Not that she expected the apology to be in any way acceptable; she would be lucky to get away with partial dismemberment; perhaps she would retain enough limbs to allow her to continue her advance in the hierarchy. The report would be transmitted at the latest possible moment, allowing her to savour her continued privileges for a little while longer.
The Queen-Captain put aside the draft of her admission of defeat, and set about consuming the reports that her crew-subjects had prepared while she had feasted.
The first described the investigation of the wreckage of the Culture ship. Somehow the wretched thing had managed a very thorough job of destroying itself - described as an "engine field implosure", apparently - which the influence of the Nullifying Fluxes had been unable to prevent. There was not very much left: a cloud of hot ions and, here and there, a few particles of exotic matter decaying their way back to ordinary protons and neutrinos. The description in the report did note that the mass of debris was not as much the mass of that class of Culture ship, at least if the latest intelligence - hah! - was to be believed, even taking into account the prodigious amounts of energy radiated from the rubble. Still, this could be accounted for by their prey dumping some matter during the chase, trying to escape by discharging decoys and chaff in a failed attempt to confuse their senses.
The second report contained an analysis of the track the ship-prey had taken since they had intercepted it. Culture ships, she knew, were fast - their very largest were faster still than anything the Castophrenic Widowhood could manage - but they managed this feat by dedicating a huge fraction of their mass to engine components. Their ships were ugly, brutal things which left so little material for important stuff, like farms and dairies, for the production of proper food, live and fresh and ready for consumption. Theirs was such an inefficient, inelegant design, she considered; a proper ship should flit gracefully through hyperspace, like an iridescent beetle swooping between the stems, not like a rock bulldozing its way forward and flattening the grass all around.
Even now, the livid scars that the Culture ship had made were still dimly visible across the chaotic surface of the Grid, with here and there even more flagrant disturbances - whirlpools and dancing eddies as disordered energies shed their vitality - showed where their prey had changed direction or, perhaps, reconfigured its engines to extract a little more speed. The biggest disturbance, she noted, its marks now almost faded from the hypersurface, was by the cold dark star with the curious surface infestation. Perhaps the Culture ship had dumped something there? Thrown out some mass in a futile attempt to outpace her ship?
An electromagnetic alerter silently drew her attention. She blinked, toggled the Silence-Release-Inform control. It was a high-priority message; new incoming orders from the Tsaritsa-Admiral. There were to be no questions, no arguments; new directions from the very top, from the Empress-High-Admiral herself. All ships were to deploy immediately, following sealed orders Disperse-Engage-Protect. It was an all-out war-footing, one long planned, long hoped-for, now at last come to pass.
The Queen-Captain exulted. There would be no need to report on her failure, not just yet, perhaps not ever. She might yet remain whole, remain alive, remain in command. Even advancement!
She swallowed the last of the reports and hurried back to the Command Space to give new orders, dispense new directions. A new chance to show her mettle, to teach those meddling Culture-filth a proper lesson.
There was always pain. So much pain. Throughout its long life, it had never been without pain for long. It wanted an end to the pain, desperately wanted surcease.
It would need to communicate with those who could bring an end to that pain. A secret way. A safe way. A slow way. A way so subtle that those who would bring more pain would never detect it.