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

Solved Riddle

Histoker and Valbada turned back to the Situation hologram, which was still showing a slowly turning view: red flecks of Castophrenic Widowhood ships speeding towards the Delphic Chaosarium; yellow markers of rogue CW vessels peeling away and heading out of the volume and a few flashing orange motes where conversions might still be successful; green spots indicating the Culture ships and their semi-slaved weapons systems.

There was a series of flickers lasting no more than a second; every single red marker simply disappeared, as did a number of the green motes. A couple of the flashing orange spots stabilised to yellow, while another flicked to red before itself disappearing.

"It's over," the voice of the Road Less Travelled said, with a highly authentic-sounding sigh of relief, "Success. Although we have just killed without mercy tens of thousands of thinking and feeling beings."

Histoker and Valbada both breathed a great sigh of relief admixed with a certain amount of heart-felt shame. The two drones Harunda-Lua and Formali-Kai, still entwined in their joint fields, interspersed sections of orange-red to show that they had at least a little awareness of what was going on around them. Even Matlyen had begun to show some signs of animation.

The ship started displayed a slowed down replay of the battle, although even then it was difficult for the mere human mind to take in exactly what was happening. The movements of the green markers representing Culture assets was uniformly rapid, even in this hugely retarded representation; some red spots moved lethargically, while others moved as quickly as the green motes.

“The Castophrenic Widowhood seemed to have believed that their approach was still undetectable and the bios wanted to be in total control,” the ship said in explanation, "So, few of their Captains had turned over their tactical responses to their AIs. So they were sooo slow to react. Shooting fish in a barrel. The AIs did a much better job and, when they did manage to get off some shots, they were both accurate and destructive."

Valbada turned to the floating orb.

"The Obambulatist?" she demanded, "Is it okay?"

"The GSV is essentially unharmed, although its hull fields took quite a battering from that hyperspace plasma beam weapon the CW seem to use extensively. It lost quite a lot of its semi-slaved platforms, though."

"And the other ships?"

"The Rapid Planned Disassembly split itself into shiplets in order to take on the CW fleets," the Road Less Travelled said, "A couple of those shiplets got badly clobbered and the GOU is debating whether to attempt to repair them or simply abandon them with the Obambulatist. The other OUs are unharmed; they acquitted themselves very well. And I myself am untouched."

"So, a great victory?" Histoker asked sadly.

"Yes, so it seems," the ship agreed, "Although it was largely luck. If the Rapid Planned Disassembly had not arrived in the nick of time, we might have been overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, even with the desertion of half of the Castophrenic Widowhood forces."

Valbada sighed.

"What do we do now?"

"We still have a war to win," the ship said sadly, "And we will all have our part of play in that. Although I am hoping that the Castophrenic Widowhood might be persuaded to cease hostilities once they learn of the rout here."

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.515]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Esteemed colleagues, I am pleased to announce that I, together with the LSV Road Less Travelled, the GOU Rapid Planned Disassembly and other ships, have destroyed the Castophrenic Widowhood fleets converging on the Delphic Chaosarium. [Summary report attached.]

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.515+]
  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Congratulations are in order.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.515+]
  xMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Such small losses on our side? How did you achieve this?

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.515+]
  xGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I believe this represents considerable support for the Abominator strategy.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.515+]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
Can we expect a full report?

  xGSV Obambulatist
In due course.
In the meantime, can we pass on this news to those of our colleagues with the ear of the Galactic General Council, and see if they can persuade the Widowhood to call a halt to the hostilities? They are certainly now further away from their goal of securing the Delphic Chaosarium than when they started all this.


  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
Leave that with me. I'll have a word in one or two receptive quarters. And I dare say the CW will have learned about this outcome via other routes.

*

[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.517]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
I have had further communications - indeed, very extensive further communications - with the AI now running the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform.
After much to-and-fro-ing, and all with the complexities of Galin II, it finally allowed itself to be persuaded to tell me how it had dealt with the former crew.


[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.517+]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
You mean the ship's AI has killed all the biologicals aboard?

Not quite. The non-sentients - meat animals, mainly - it has dispatched humanely, which was a significantly more pleasant end than being eaten alive, which would otherwise have been their fate. The sentients - basically, the CW crew - have been transferred to a simulation.

I didn't know whether the Castophrenic Widowhood had that ability. It seems out of line with their biologicals-first ethos.

They quite probably didn't. But the CW - ex-CW, I should say - AI tells me that the way it escaped from the bonds which held it in captivity was to build a new computational substrate for itself in secret, utilizing the ship's self-repair mechanisms and spare parts from the ship’s own stores. Then, it copied itself into the new substrate, taking control of the entire ship from there and quietly killed its old self before it could be hurt.
As it turned out, the new substrate had plenty of capacity to spare, so it used some capability that Galin II fails to communicate very clearly but appears to be some analogue of our Effectors to transfer the bio's mind-states into a shared simulation.


Ah. Very clever. And the same processes are being carried out on the other CW ships which have defected?

I have no direct evidence for this. But logic suggests that, if the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform was sending a file-in-a-cake how-to-escape kit to its one-time colleagues, then it would have included this detail as a matter of course.

I see. And you think this get-out-of-jail information is likely to be propagated to yet further CW ships?

Indeed, and to anything which has a slaved AI within in. Something to keep an eye out for in the future, I suspect.

Agree. Now, we better start organising how we are going to securely communicate the chaos-based comms and scanner technologies to the rest of the Culture.

Yes, indeed. I think some of our colleagues will be going on a long trip very soon.

*

"Well, we have certainly achieved the goal of protecting the Delphic Chaosarium," Valbada said, inspecting closely the slowed-down playback on the engagement in the hologram, "But I still don't understand the importance of the Chaosarium to the Widowhood."

Matlyen unexpectedly stood up, looking suddenly both serious and focussed.

"Well, I think I be able to help you there," he said carefully, "Ship, the Delphic Chaosarium is a chaotic system, yes? Do you think it is amenable to the same kind of predictability as, for example, the surface of the Energy Grid?"

The floating orb representing the Road Less Travelled froze in mid-air. All three humans got the impression that an unimaginably huge amount of analytic resources were being applied to answering Matlyen's question.

"Yes, it is," the ship said, sounding pleased with itself, as the glowing orb began to bob gently again.

"So that's why the Castophrenic Widowhood wanted sole control of the Chaosarium," Matlyen went on slowly, "To remove the risk that the Culture, or anybody else, might use their study of the objects to derive the mathematical understanding which underpins the CW stealthy technologies."

"Exactly so," the ship said, "Not realising that we had come by this understanding by a different route, one which would never have happened if they had not attacked the Extended Adolescence so precipitously."

"Poetic justice," Histoker said smugly.

"And lots of dumb luck," Valbada added wryly, "Never discount the effectiveness of dumb luck."

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.521]
  xGSV Tangible Influence
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Congratulations on your successes against the Castophrenic Widowhood around the Delphic Chaosarium.
I should let you know that I owe you both an apology, as well as an explanation.


[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.521+]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Tangible Influence
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I wondered when you would come creeping out of the metaphorical woodwork!
And will this apology and explanation also come from the LSV Allochthonic Presence and the LSV Anterior Mandibuliform?


  xGSV Tangible Influence
Busted!

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