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

Spatial Orientation

With there being over a hundred billion stars in the galaxy and another thirty-odd billion in the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, the volume of space as small as that around the Delphic Chaosarium - a volume containing less than a hundred stars, according to the generally accepted definitions - ought to have approximately zero spacecraft in it at any given time. That there were two Culture vessels - the LSV Road Less Travelled and the ROU Negotiation Is Overrated - around was of course easily explicable by the anomaly which was the Delphic Chaosarium; that several thousand Castophrenic Widowhood were now known - thanks to the GSV Reformed Pacifist's most recent scans - to be converging on the space suggested that it was the same unexplained incongruity which was drawing them in.

"This is all real, isn't it?" Matlyen asked Obby, "Not some artifact of the GOU's newly reconfigured sensors?"

"Oh, it’s real enough," the Avatar answered gloomily, "I've reconfigured my own sensors now, so I can independently verify the reports from the Reformed Pacifist. The GOU and I agree that there are at least two thousand ships out there - perhaps many more."

"So what do we do now?"

"I'm running for the Delphic Chaosarium as fast as I can, while refitting all the ships remaining in my bays with revised communication and sensor configurations, on top of the engine field work I did previously. I expect I will help put up some kind of a defence, but it might well not be enough."

"How long will it take us to get there?" Matlyen asked, sounding depressed. Once again, it seemed to him that he was being rushed into a war zone with neither choice nor warning.

"Less than an hour," Obby replied, "I've signalled the Road Less Travelled already, so it is expecting my imminent arrival."

"Okay," Matlyen said, "And the GOU?"

"I've agreed with the Reformed Pacifist that it will make its own way to the Chaosarium," the Avatar replied, "Although it will be several hours behind by the time I arrive. It has agreed to engage with the Castophrenic Widowhood fleet, if needed."

Matlyen sighed.

"So I'm just a passenger, again, on a ship which is rushing towards a potential battle situation. Nothing I can do, except sit. And maybe have another drink."

"Actually, you've already done a lot," Obby said, looking at the man kindly, "Your thoughts on the sensors and communications problems has already made my job a good deal easier. So don't be hard on yourself. Oh, and I'll rustle up that drink, too."

The Culture had been building General Service Vehicles for a long time. The original prototypes for the Very Large Self-Sufficient Ship concept had been produced nearly five thousand years before and were just a few kilometres in length. These early GSVs were supplanted by increasingly large models over the subsequent millennia and these preliminary models were progressively downgraded to Medium Service Vehicles and, latterly, Limited Service Vehicles. A modern GSV like the Ocean-class Obambulatist was fully eighty kilometres in length and proportionally bigger in width and height, and it was far from the largest class; alongside the Obambulatist, an ancient LSV like the Road Less Travelled would seem like a minnow next to a barracuda - and just as likely to be swallowed whole.

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.571.401]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Dear friend, I am delighted to be able to report that I will be with you within the hour.

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.571.401+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
That is excellent news indeed. I will feel very much better with a proper level of effective support.

I certainly hope to be able to provide that for you.
But, in the meantime, I have a slightly strange request to make.


Colour me intrigued.

I wish to make a physical rendezvous with yourself. I would like you to accommodate yourself within my hull fields, just for a little while.

Surely that would be ill-advised, from a military point of view. If a squadron of Castophrenic Widowhood ships were to suddenly appear, I am certain that we would be better able to fend them off if we were able to move separately?

Your analysis is of course perfectly correct.
Nevertheless, I would be grateful if you would accede to my request. It really will be for only a short time.


Very well. I will accept your invitation.
You know my present location, of course. I look forward to you appearing alongside very soon.


Be with you shortly.

*

The Road Less Travelled made a few fine-tuning adjustments to the already berserk pace of its manufacturing systems, which had been throwing out a dazzling array of semi-slaved weapons pods, autonomous hyperspace-capable gun platforms, militarized drones and even a few proper GOUs and ROUs, choosing to re-activate a fraction of the Minds which it held in storage against just such an eventuality; Minds who, at the end of the Idiran War, had indicated that they would be willing to be awakened and re-emplaced in a warship in the event of a major threat to the Culture. The current declared war, the Road Less Travelled had concluded, certainly counted as just such a threat.

In the meantime, the LSV instructed a couple of the softly glowing orbs which was one of the forms it used for its Avatars to seek out Qu-el Histoker, Foklane Valbada and Dn Formali-Kai.

Since the debacle in the Cathedral and the discovery of a hidden conspiracy within the Culture itself, both the drone and the humans had found themselves very much at a loose end. Formali-Kai had taken to seeking out quiet places, of which there were many aboard the accommodation sections the great ship - especially since a large fraction of the human crew had left some time ago - as well as the many Bays of different sizes in the manufacturing levels. Despite the furious activity in almost all of the bays, they too were completely silent; to facilitate the rapid movement of components and materials, they were almost all open to the vacuum of space.

When one of the orbs arrived, Formali-Kai was in a Mainbay, watching another ROU taking shape: huge slabs of material which looked smoothly, glossily black and featureless to wavelengths accessible to the unaided human eye - although the drone could make out the fabulous whorls and flounces at the atomic level and below - floated across the bay supported by naked forcefields, and placed gently and seamlessly next to other slabs of a similar composition, fitting so closely that atomic bonds themselves were enough to fuse the surfaces together.

There was a brief exchange of signals between orb and drone; as one, the two machines turned and sped away in the direction of the nearest tubefield which would whisk them both up to the inhabited levels of the ship.

Since there was really nothing very secret on a Culture vessel - except the contents of one's head, of course - tracking down the humans took no effort at all. Histoker and Valbada had thoroughly enjoyed the company of Finark Noibalt and his party companions on the evening before their ill-fated expedition to the Delphic Chaosarium and - in the absence of anything better to do - the two SC agents had continued their association with Noibalt. When the Avatar orb arrived, the three of them were playing a complicated game of chance which seemed to require a lot of physical forfeits, most of them ribald or worse, accompanied by raucous cheering from a small group of onlookers.

The orb waited quietly for a few moments until the end of the current round, which appeared to result in a victory for Valbada - although nobody really seemed to care much about the actual outcome. When the participants had finished catching their breath and topping up their refreshments, the Avatar floated forward.

"Sorry to interrupt," the shining Avatar said politely, "But I need to drag Mr Histoker and Ms Valbada away."

Histoker and Valbada glanced at each other, then looked at Noibalt, who shrugged expressively.

"I guess we'd better go, then," Histoker said sadly.

There were a few moments of hugs and kisses all round, with solemn promises to come back soon, then Histoker and Valbada followed the shining orb, both humans furiously glanding a potent cocktail of sobering drugs to quickly counter the effects of the alcoholic drinks and pharmaceuticals they had been ingesting.

"What's happening?" Valbada demanded, when her head had stopped spinning.

"The GSV Obambulatist will be arriving very shortly," the Avatar said immediately, "There are even fewer people aboard it than me, but there are a couple I want you to meet and greet. Along with Dn Formali-Kai."

"Okay," Histoker said, "Who are these people?"

"A human, one Llyfith Grabouldsa Xavyer Bryoni Matlyen dam F'seuch, who seems to be belatedly - and rather surprisingly - making a name for himself as a Referer."

Culture Minds could out-think a human at almost every level; this was the reason that people had long ago turned over effective control of the society to the Minds. But, every now and then, an individual appeared who could do things which the Minds found inexplicable: a Referer was one of those thirty, maybe forty, people out of the thirty-eight trillion who could give you an intuitive idea of what was going to happen, or the direction of a solution to an impossible problem, or tell you why they thought that something which had already happened had happened the way it did, and almost certainly turn out right every time.

"Wow," Valbada said, impressed, "And who's the other?"

A light appeared in front of them; the other orb with Harunda-Lua in tow. As they approached, the two orbs met in mid-air and, quietly, without fuss, merged together, the single resulting orb being neither brighter not dimmer, larger nor smaller than either orb before.

"The other," Harunda-Lua said slowly, "is Dn Roosh Formali-Kai Za-Handraden Xato Roul. It is an old comrade of mine."

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