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

Silent Running

An indeterminate time later, Bryoni Matlyen woke up. He was still in the suit, still - as far as he could tell - firmly attached to the acceleration couch he had been hurried into. Around him, everything was dark and cold - the suit was helpfully providing infrared overlays for him as he looked around - and, somehow, abnormally quiet.

Culture ships were not, in general, noisy places. Any mechanism which produced noise was, by definition, not working at the maximum possible efficiency, and efficiency was - according to scurrilous and probably entirely accurate rumour - entirely an end to itself as far as many of the Minds which ran the society were concerned.

But now, it was utterly, completely still and silent. No subliminal suggestion of life and excitement around the next corner. No subconscious impression that finely-tuned but nevertheless vital equipment was running at some optimal efficiency. No psychological sense of conscious intent and focussed activity designed to defend and protect the human form from harm.

No, it was deathly, sepulchrally, cheerlessly quiet.

"Er, hello," he said softly, cautiously, "Anybody there?"

"Hello there," an urbane voice he immediately recognised replied, "Can I take it you're in good health?"

Somehow, Matlyen got the impression that this was not some polite enquiry, but a genuine question which demanded a serious answer. Once again, he briefly slipped into the semi-trance that allowed him to monitor his internal state. It looked good, very good; no serious damage remaining anywhere and various minor conditions being mopped up with close-to-optimum efficiency. He flipped out of the trance and looked around again. No sign of the drone Harunda-Lua anywhere.

"I'm fine," her replied, "Pretty much back to normal. How long have I been unconscious?"

"About three hours," the voice of the drone replied, "I suspect this will have helped your body recover further."

"Where are you?" he asked, "I can't see you."

"I'm embedded - fairly firmly - in the same support couch that you and your suit are resting on. Strapped to. For our own protection, apparently."

"Protection? From what?"

The drone made a noise which sounded like a snort.

"The ship's accommodation section is open to hard vacuum at the moment, and most of the internals have cooled to just a little above absolute zero." The drone paused, then went on. "The suit alone could protect you from that, easily, on its own, and of course a free-space environment isn't going to bother me."

"So?"

"So, the Reformed Pacifist is doing its best to provide some protection for us in the event that its disguise is penetrated."

"Disguise?"

The drone snorted again.

"We're doing a very creditable impersonation of an inert piece of interstellar rock at the moment. The Mind core is really the only powered part of what used to be the ship, apart from this couch and a few drones. The Mind of the Reformed Pacifist is essentially re-constructing the entire vessel around us, and I suspect it's having to concentrate all its intelligence on that task. It's not communicated with me at all since we crashed out of hyperspace, which is when you blacked out."

"And the Extended Adolescence?"

"Similarly incommunicado," the drone replied, "I suspect the Mind is fully Stored at the moment, allowing the Reformed Pacifist to make use of the full capabilities of the hyperspace computational substrates."

"So we're alone out here?"

"Effectively, yes. And we're likely to be so for quite a lot longer."

"Huh," Matlyen sighed, "Why is it that every ship I encounter has a sudden urge to explosively dismantle itself?"

*

With hindsight, the forty-one-and-a-bit hours that Matlyen spent in the suit was best characterized as boring. Of course the suit provided for all his physical needs, feeding him titbits and flavoured drinks to fortify his repairing body, supporting him when he needed to sleep - which was quite a lot, given he was still a little frail - and providing screen-based and more immersive entertainment when he was awake.

He had found it difficult to concentrate on the briefing the drone had given him on the changes the ship was making, or on the various spectacles the suit had thrown together to keep him amused; the omnipresent undertone of the threat of physical assault, even annihilation was immensely distracting; the sense that some enemy ship or other asset could happen across him, despite the ship's studied attempts at hiding, and reduce him and his friends to hot plasma in a microsecond was unnerving.

Still, nothing of the kind occurred. He was still alive, increasingly hale and just a little bored when the Reformed Pacifist started to wake up around him.

The lights in the accommodation section flickered for a few seconds then slowly returned to full brightness. The room looked unchanged, to Matlyen’s eyes; no obvious holes or damage. He had a sense of gravity returning, slowly, even cautiously; certainly nothing like the stomach-turning lurch he had experienced when the ship had shut itself down nearly two days ago. Readouts displayed on the suit's internal screens suggested that a conventional atmosphere was rapidly being restored. Things were returning to normal, it seemed.

"Ah, Matlyen, welcome back," the urbane voice of Harunda-Lua came through the helmet speakers.

He guessed he had been dozing, waiting in the silence and darkness.

"Hello again," he said, instinctively trying to sit up but being constrained motionless by the suit and the acceleration couch, "Any idea what's happening?"

"The Reformed Pacifist just squirted me a status report," the drone replied, "Which looks very promising. The ship believes it is now able to move in hyperspace with much less disturbance of the Grid, which should make it much more difficult to be detected or tracked."

"In the way the Castophrenic Widowhood manage?"

"Exactly," Harunda-Lua agreed, "But we will also need to take other precautions. No signalling, no transmitted messages of any kind, which would risk making us immediately visible, and minimal use of active sensors."

Matlyen was aghast.

"Surely without a forward track scanner, the ship wouldn't be able to detect anything ahead of it. We would be in terrible danger of a collision?"

"The danger is not that great, although I agree that ships absolutely hate running blind. So, the Reformed Pacifist is proposing to keep its speed right down - only a few hundred lights - and use its track scanner at extremely low power."

"But that means we'll take weeks, months to get anywhere!" Matlyen exclaimed. Normal operational speeds for a full-on warship like the Reformed Pacifist would be at least sixty kilo-lights. Being self-restricted to much less than one per cent of that speed would mean a journey that would have taken mere hours would now stretch into tens of days.

"This is true."

"So what are we going to do?"

"Well, first, the Reformed Pacifist is going to test its newly-configured engine fields. It's going to be extremely cautious doing this, as you can imagine the result of getting it wrong would be spectacularly disastrous."

At least it would be a quick and probably painless end, Matlyen considered sourly, but kept the thought to himself.

"To help with the testing, the Reformed Pacifist is going to wake up the Extended Adolescence. In fact, it's doing so as we speak. There's some old saying about two Minds being better than one, which might be absolutely true in this case."

"I hope so," Matlyen muttered sourly, "How long will this testing take?"

"If all goes well, only a few seconds," the drone replied, "Then we'll set off."

"And where are we going?"

"Hah." The drone made its snorting noise again. "This has been the subject of some considerable debate between the Reformed Pacifist and the Extended Adolescence - which is now fully awake, by the way. The Reformed Pacifist was keen to continue its original mission - which it believes it would be able to complete much more successfully, even with reduced sensor capability and speed. The Extended Adolescence, on the other hand, believed it was more important to communicate the knowledge of how the Castophrenic Widowhood ships manage to move nearly undetectably, and indeed all the other implications of the intelligence it gathered while it and you were being pursued."

Culture Minds are millions of times smarter than any human or drone, Matlyen knew. Nevertheless, it was generally understood that Minds could debate a topic for absolutely ages, even when - as was the case here - the two intelligences occupied the same super-fast substrates and could communicate with one another at very nearly the speed of their own thoughts.

"So how long did this debate go on for?" Matlyen asked wearily.

"Nearly three seconds," Harunda-Lua replied promptly.

The human shook his head. Imagine, he thought, spending the best part of a year locked in a single discussion, every hour of every day and night. And that was probably an underestimate of the effort the Minds had put in.

"And what was the result?"

"Perhaps surprisingly," the drone's urbane voice replied, "The viewpoint of the Extended Adolescence prevailed. The Reformed Pacifist has agreed to head for the closest significant Culture asset - or, more precisely, the Culture asset whose previously published course schedule the ship could plausibly intercept at its self-determined new maximum speed."

"So, a General Service Vehicle, then?"

General Service Vehicles represented the Culture in its entirety. Any GSV could make anything, do anything which could be manufactured or performed anywhere in the Culture. GSVs travelled everywhere in the greater galaxy, acting as mobile marshalling points for people and material, ships and drones. Even after some unimaginable disaster, a single GSV could rebuild the Culture entirely, if it had to.

"Correct. The Ocean-class GSV Obambulatist was scheduled to pass through a volume we can probably reach in in about fifty hours. The Reformed Pacifist is prepared to risk a signal once we are at a point where we could be picked up without significant course change by the GSV."

Matlyen, like many people in the Culture and, especially, those who had had some contact with Contact, tended to be very sensitive to the choice of words made by machines, especially machines which were much smarter than the average person.

"Hum. There were a lot of probabilistic words in your replies," he said sourly, "What exactly are the chances of this plan working out?"

"Well, there are some uncertainties," the drone agreed, "Especially given the sudden outbreak of war. That course schedule is now a few days old, and there is a risk that it has changed, again. But the Reformed Pacifist believes this is the best option and, in any case, there are other possibilities we can try if the GSV changes its route."

"Okay," Matlyen said, "And where is the Obambulatist headed?"

"It's going to the volume around the Delphic Chaosarium."

Previous Top of Page Next