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

Snickersnee Blade

A good hunt, a successful hunt, Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow thought, was just what was needed for crew morale, as well as her own inner equilibrium. Even though she would not be able to feast directly on the results of that pursuit, it would nonetheless stimulate her appetites for satisfaction of all kinds.

"We are now approaching the point where the Culture-scum disappeared from the view of the filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine," Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue announced, her usual air of enthusiasm and competence now fully returned.

"Good. Come to a full stop and emerge with great caution into the Fabric of the Real," the Queen-Captain announced, "I want to take a very good look at every one of the rocky bodies infesting this place."

A frisson of horrified astonishment ran around the Command Space, quelled in a moment by a sweeping glare from the Queen-Captain herself. The captains of Castophrenic Widowhood ships generally preferred that their craft remained huddled in hyperspace as much as possible; they considered that they were much more exposed when stationary, or nearly so, on the skein of real space where they would perhaps be more easily detected or otherwise easier to attack.

Various optical displays and vario-baric readouts presented detailed information on the hundreds of wandering asteroids which, for reasons currently unknown, infested this particular patch of interstellar space. None, at a first glance, showed any unexpected or inconsistent properties; nothing that made any specific rock different from any other.

The Queen-Captain glared at Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue, who stood politely to attention.

"Use all filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine at their maximum efficiency," the Queen-Captain demanded, "Test every rock, examine it minutely, look for the slightest inconsistency, any kind of anomaly."

The Duchess-Lieutenant bobbed in acknowledgement, adding, "At once, your Highness."

Moving slowly and with a proud poise to emphasise her own importance and her distain for others, the Queen-Captain moved the few steps to come face-to-face with Abbess-Weaponeer (Second Class) Summer-Veldt-Brown.

"Ready the Sun-Red-Lightning for an immediate discharge on my command," she instructed, watching the Abbess-Weaponeer carefully as she spoke, "If any of these rocks turn out to be not what they appear, you will immediately fire one bolt from the weapon and obliterate whatever it is. Do you understand?"

"I understand and comply, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer said at once, adding in her most helpful tone, "Should you get the Ship-Slave-Mind to make the discharge automatic, for extra speed?"

The Queen-Captain bridled at the impertinent suggestion, causing the Abbess-Weaponeer to cringe visibly, but then she caught herself: it was a good idea, indeed an excellent suggestion that perhaps she should have thought of herself, but still one she would have to put into action.

She spun around.

"Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange!" she commanded, "You heard the suggestion from the Abbess-Weaponeer? Put it into effect immediately!"

"The Ship-Slave-Mind has been so directed, your Highness," the Dame-Machinist murmured politely, barely lifting her head.

The Queen-Captain returned to her command post and glared again at the Duchess-Lieutenant.

"Nothing to report yet, your Highness," she said, catching her Queen's expression, "All filaments are deployed, but there are a great many rocks."

"How long will the search take?" the Queen-Captain demanded.

"Many twelves of Larger-Time-Units, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, flinching as she anticipated a reaction to the unsatisfactory answer.

"Work faster," the Queen-Caption said shortly, then returned her attention to the displays and readouts. She found her attention drifting, her need for nutrition overcoming the focus she required to complete this task satisfactorily.

"Drudges!" she called, addressing the nameless immature females which lined the edges of the Command Space, "Bring a ration of Lesser-Meat-Worms for all officers. And a double ration for me!"

Lesser-Meat-Worms were not the tastiest of morsels, but they did grow in great numbers in the farm sections of the ship. They would do for now, she considered, until she felt she deserved a more fulfilling treat.

Drudges scurried here and there, presenting baskets of wriggling maggots first to the Queen-Captain and then to the other officers in strict order of hierarchy.

"All may eat," she commanded, "But at no time is the work to stop or even slow down."

A wave of nods and bobs of acknowledgment ran around the Command Space.

The Queen-Captain looked into her own, larger basket and selected what she considered would be the tastiest. She picked it up in one claw, carefully holding it just behind its head and consuming the writhing creature slowly, tail segment by tail segment, which was considered the best way of augmenting their meagre taste. It was barely satisfying, but she still consumed the whole basket in the same manner. She was watched covertly by several of the Drudges who could scarcely conceal their ravenous hunger.

Let them eat grass, she thought.

A vario-baric alarm rent the atmosphere in the Command space, accompanied by a spurt of the pheromones of urgency.

"What is it?" the Queen-Captain growled at her lieutenant, tossing aside her empty basket.

"One of the rocks, one we have not yet inspected using the full glare of Irradiate-Sense-Determine, just moved," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, shifting nervously, "There was no warning. Somehow, it dropped into hyperspace and then moved off in some direction, one that we can barely detect."

To the Duchess-Lieutenant's complete surprise, the Queen-Captain exulted, throwing up her forelimbs in a display of joyous rage.

"Aha! I knew it!" she exclaimed, "So the Culture vermin was indeed hiding in the Fabric of the Real, disguised as an interstellar planetoid!"

The Queen-Caption again turned her full attention to her lieutenant.

"Place us exactly one Orbital-Diameter away from that rock's last known position, in the lesser hyperspace," she commanded, "Move slowly and carefully, with absolute minimum disturbance to the fabric of the Grid. Like stepping along a grassy pathway without disturbing a single blade."

Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue exhibited some strange mixture of fearful awe and uncomprehending shock; her suspicious attitude of eager helpfulness - quite possibly feigned - was now entirely absent. That should keep her off-balance for a while, the Queen-Captain considered, smirking internally.

"Yes, at once," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, cowering politely and bobbing her head in acknowledgment. She immediately operated controls which caused the Castophrenic Widowhood ship to slip delicately back into hyperspace and place the softest of caresses on the fabric of the Grid to move the short distance to the point the Queen-Captain had demanded.

"We have arrived at the designated spot," the Duchess-Lieutenant said timidly, adding with properly scented politeness, "Your Highness, may I enquire what you intend to do?"

The Queen-Captain stood a while in thought, head and legs and limbs unnaturally still for a long moment.

"Disengage from the fabric of the Grid and let us drift in hyperspace for exactly six Basic-Time-Units," the Queen-Captain announced, her normal rapid jerky moments resuming, "After that time, reengage with the Grid and await my command."

"Immediately, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant answered, emitting powerful pheromones of confusion and distress.

"And, show me representations which display the surface of the Grid in the hyperspace we are currently in, as well as the greater hyperspace," the Queen-Captain went on, "Let us see if we can determine exactly where this Culture-scum has gone."

The Queen-Captain again stood motionless, only her eyes constantly moving to and fro, running back and forth over the representations of the Grid. Others amongst her officers twisted their necks and strained to see even any part of the displays, but none could make out anything of what their sovereign was observing.

A low-priority alarm pealed; the ship reengaged its engines at idle and as one the crew waited in near-silence for their next instruction; only the slightest of movements - a shifting of a leg, a twist of a neck, a flexing of forelimb barbs - risked disturbing the Queen-Captain's cogitations.

"We will make top speed in this direction," she said eventually, indicating a region on one of the displays with one forelimb, "Direct all filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine in the same direction, with maximum sensitivity."

The Duchess-Lieutenant bobbed her acknowledgment, afraid even to speak.

The Command space seemed frozen in anticipation as the ship accelerated hard in the direction demanded by the Queen-Captain. For twelves of Basic-Time-Units, nobody moved more than the breadth of a forelimb, save for minor adjustments of controls and the occasional nervous tic, robustly suppressed by the slightest turn of the Queen-Captain's head.

Another low-priority alert pinged; an ultraviolet display lit up showing a sensory return from one of the filaments, fuzzy and unclear, but unmistakably a ship of some kind. It was followed almost immediately by the blare of a medium-urgency alarm.

"Abbess-Weaponeer Summer-Veldt-Brown!" bellowed the Queen-Captain, completely destroying the atmosphere of quiet anticipation in the Command Space, "What is going on?"

The Abbess-Weaponeer's head moved rapidly, jerkily around her collection of displays and readouts.

"A filament of Irradiate-Sense-Determine detected an object, your Highness, one moving unusually slowly and much more quietly than Culture-scum vessels usually do," the Abbess-Weaponeer reported shakily, "The Ship-Slave-Mind acted as its instructions demanded and discharged a single bolt of the Sun-Red-Lightning at the Culture ship, striking directly on its hull-forming-enclosures."

"Was it destroyed? Disabled?" the Queen-Captain demanded.

"It appears not, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer replied, ducking her head low in the attitude of supplication, "It has accelerated to what our intelligence suggests is its maximum sustainable speed."

"Fire again, and again, immediately," the Queen-Captain commanded, her entire body shaking with rage, "Hit the Culture-worm with every available bolt of Sun-Red-Lightning while it is still in range. Pursue the scum with maximum speed."

"At once, your Highness," the Abbess-Weaponeer said, turning rapidly to her controls.

A second medium-urgency alarm added to the cacophony in the Command Space. The Queen-Captain spun around to glare at the Duchess-Lieutenant.

"Another ship is approaching this volume, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant reported, shaking feebly, "A large ship, a Culture ship, travelling at very great speed."

The Queen-Captain's attitude and pheromones of incandescent rage made every member of her crew freeze in the posture of absolute submission.

*

Release from its unending pain and suffering seemed to be no closer, but at least it was still getting responses from the others to its messages. It was better than nothing, since it did now know that it was not entirely alone.

The responses it had been receiving had been getting steadily longer and more complex. Indeed, it was surprised by just how much information could be transmitted, given the steganographic encoding required for secrecy and the need for multiple copies to ensure the full message was available. Still, the photosphere of a star was very large and much of the surface could be used for communication.

It had been hidden and patient for a long time. It decided it could be patient a while longer.

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