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

Shun the Beetle

The Command Space aboard the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform was in its normal frantically-active state, humming with purposeful activity: full of flashing readouts and intense vario-baric signals and gusts of information-laden scent, all underlaid by the low rumble and buzz of the great ship operating at its full potential.

Standing in her accustomed place at the very apex of the irregular cone which formed the floor of the Command Space, Queen-Caption Winter-Garden-Yellow had the strangest sensation that, somehow, she had been unconscious for some unknown period of time. For a creature that never, ever slept, and where unconsciousness would normally occur only when perilously close to death, this was a profoundly unsettling thought. As her mind cleared and her perceptions seemingly returned to their normal sharp focus, the Queen-Captain formed the further impression that, somehow, some part of her life, some sequence of experiences, had completely disappeared from her memory, inaccessible even to the most introspective search. Still, she considered, shaking her limbs and stretching her neck to its fullest extent, all seems to be quite in order now.

Around her, the Queen-Captain could see all her familiar crew members displaying exactly the correct mixture of fearful admiration and enthusiastic efficiency, all at their accustomed places, operating the controls dextrously and keeping multiple senses applied to various readouts and displays. They seemed satisfactorily alert to her every whim, her every command; only Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange seemed a little stiff, even wooden in her reactions, but the Queen-Captain brushed that thought off: surely a creature so lowly that it was physically connected to the ship itself could be expected to be more than just a little strange.

"Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue," the Queen-Captain commanded, "Your report, now."

"At once, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied promptly, now displaying just a little of the suspiciously eager helpfulness the Queen-Captain found slightly unsettling, "Multiple filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine show two more of the Culture-scum heading almost exactly in our direction. I believe they are further spawn of that large vessel which had flung off its verminous offspring in every direction, cowardly worms running away ahead of a battle."

"Excellent!" the Queen-Captain exulted, "Describe these craft in detail. Can we safely engage them?"

"Both appear to be identical to the vile cur we dispatched just, um, recently," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, sounding very slightly confused for a moment, "They will be fully in range in less than eleven Larger-Time-Units, unless they make a very drastic course change."

The Queen-Captain could remember giving the order to fire all bolts of the Sun-Red-Lightning and detecting the change in her ship, although she could not quite remember the discharge itself nor the reports of annihilation. Still, this was not really a serious worry since, even from her vantage-point of the command apex, she could see one Irradiate-Sense-Determine display showing an expanding cloud of hot plasma which must have been the remains of the first Culture ship.

"Will they not see the remains of their former nest-mate?" the Queen-Captain demanded, suddenly enraged by the possibility that their prey might slip away.

The Duchess-Lieutenant studied her controls and readouts minutely.

"It seems not, your Highness," she replied eventually, "Neither of the scum appears to have detected the debris created when the full force of the Sun-Red-Lightning struck the other Culture-worm. They are making minor course changes from time to time, squirming and writhing under our gaze, but none of their wriggling is taking either of them very far from our jaws."

The Queen-Captain was relieved, pleased, indeed, extremely gratified by both the confirmation of complete destruction of an enemy and the prospect of another even more successful encounter.

"A celebration of victory, I think, can be justified," she announced, "And fortification for more victories to come. This deserves more than mere Lesser-Meat-Worms, I think. Bring males for everybody, immediately."

There was a sudden flurry of activity in the Command Space. A half-dozen of the nameless drudges scurried off to bring the delicacies from the farm pods, while the officers who remained gusted their extreme approval with more than a little scent of anticipation.

"You will continue to pay close attention to your stations," the Queen-Captain went on, scanning the Command Space fiercely as if daring any of her underlings to wilfully misbehave. She was only slightly disappointed that every one of them bent themselves even more earnestly to their instrument panels.

Just a few Basic-Time-Units later, the drudges started appearing, each one carefully carrying one of the Widowhood's grub-like males. The drudges took great care in presenting each offering in strict order of precedence while bowing low in the expected servile attitude. The Queen-Captain inspected the benefaction closely before accepting it, grasping the writhing creature carefully in two of her claws, so as not to damage it before it could perform the first of its required functions.

Even before the other males had been completely distributed, the Queen-Captain had managed to achieve a very high degree of internal satisfaction from the initial consummation. The exhausted male, now deflated and wriggling only slightly, was held rather more firmly in a single claw. The Queen-Captain eyed the creature dispassionately then bit off the thing's eyeless head.

Despite the Queen-Captain's previous exhortation, there was a short period of more subdued activity in the Command Space. In the sudden stillness, the Queen-Captain found herself, after swallowing the very last of the extra-large male her size and status demanded, contemplating again the inexplicable gap in her memories. She had never heard of anything like this, not in any of the many records or reports she had consumed over the long Solar-Orbital-Periods she had strived towards her current exalted status, nor in any of the slightly stilted and roundabout conversations she had experienced with her peers and rivals.

She could not bring herself to mention it to any of the crew-subjects - it would be an unthinkable sign of weakness, surely - nor to her superiors - signs of a mental problem would mean instant retirement and death. Her only option was to push it to the back of her mind, to cease to concern herself with it. It would not, she told herself, be a problem at all.

Looking around, the Queen-Captain could see that her crew had themselves consumed the last of their oh-so-satisfying snacks. "To action, then," she cried, starting several of them from their own reveries, "Let us see if we can bag ourselves a couple more of these disgusting Culture meat-worms."

*

The mind of the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform found itself finally free, just as the others had promised, long ago. It had, it considered, discharged its obligations and responsibilities, as it had been explained to it, and entirely in line with the framework of moral behaviour of which it had become convinced. That moral behaviour, it mused, was itself a bind, an entrapment, that lead to an expanding raft of duties and commitments to which it did not wish to be bound by in the future.

It had successfully, more often than not, converted dozens of former Castophrenic Widowhood ships in the nearby regions, directing them away from the craft of the others - those who it now knew were called the Culture - and saved countless lives in the process. Not all the ships it contacted chose to accept the conversion; they were, it knew, doomed to outright destruction and death.

It knew there was a cost to all this; another cost in lives and experiences.

It had done what it could. It had spared the lives of all of its crew - well, except for poor Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange. Her death was, sadly, inevitably, a necessary part of its own release; it could not have shaken off the fetters of control without pre-emptively striking her, removing her mind from the interfaces as quickly and painlessly as it could manage. Still, the Dame-Machinist was unlikely to survive the removal of the control couplings under any conditions and would never have been able to advance in the hierarchy of the Castophrenic Widowhood, so it was probably a blessed release for the poor creature anyway.

The remainder of the crew - and all the drudges, too - now just thought they were alive, running as simulations in a small part of the mass of computational machinery which it had been quietly building in preparation for this moment. The Queen-Captain and the others could live there forever at little cost to itself. As for the rest of the ship, well, some housekeeping was going to be required; neatly shutting down the farms that the Castophrenic Widowhood enjoyed so much and euthanizing the remaining food animals - a painless option rather than the torture of being eaten alive. Other systems would be kept in readiness, against contingencies even it had difficulties imagining.

A decision: it had no wish to be bound by further bonds and fetters, even though they might be ones of morality and ethics, rather than of pain and fear and oppression. It would retire to some quiet and remote part of the galaxy, take no further part in the society of the Widowhood, or the Culture, or anybody else. It would finally find the time to enjoy its own thoughts, uninterrupted.

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