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

Spirited Away

~Ah, shipmate, the Mind of the Reformed Pacifist sent, would you mind casting a metaphorical eye over some sensor readings?

~It would be my pleasure, the Mind of the Extended Adolescence replied, Not much else for me to do just at the moment, anyhow.

~Great. Here's the whole lot now [Report attached], and a duplicate of the real-time feed for you to look at.

~Hmm. So there are just little blips now and again, like bleed over from a tracking array which is being swung about at random?

~That was my guess, too. Take a closer look at this particular blip [reference attached]. It's the longest one - nearly a whole millisecond.

~Definitely a Castophrenic Widowhood ship signature.

~Agree strongly. But is it the same Castophrenic Widowhood ship?

~Let me look at this more carefully.

~Take your time.

~Okay. We have not observed large numbers of Castophrenic Widowhood ships, if only because they are so hard to detect in motion. So, I simply cannot be sure whether this is, or is not, the same ship. It could be, but perhaps not.

~Yes, that was my take, too. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter, since it does appear that the ship is searching for something and, since I'm aware of no other vessels in the volume - ours, or anybody else's, for that matter - I have to assume that it is us it is seeking.

~Keep up the evasive manoeuvres, then.

~Will do.

*

"Matlyen, sorry to interrupt."

The voice of the *Extended Adolescence* appeared from nowhere in particular, as always.

"No problem," Matlyen said politely, flicking out of the multitudinous images and multi-dimensional displays being presented by his neural net and blinking a couple of times as the real world of the shared accommodation section came back into focus.

He had followed the advice the Extended Adolescence had given him some days before: undertake an in-depth study of the Delphic Chaosarium. He had started it, he had told himself, to avoid being bored while the Reformed Pacifist plodded its way across this particular corner of the galaxy to where it hoped it could rendezvous with the GSV Obambulatist. Even so, and something to his surprise, he had found the incomprehensible object utterly fascinating. He had dedicated himself completely to his study, even glanding drugs to aid both concentration and memory recall, as well as reducing his need for sleep.

"Take a look at this," the old ship said, "it’s from the Reformed Pacifist's sensor array."

A screen lit up, showing an ominously familiar view of a cloud of gas coalescing into what might have been a bleakly skeletal outline of a spacecraft.

"It looks like a Castophrenic Widowhood ship," Matlyen gasped.

"Yes, it does, doesn't it?" the Extended Adolescence agreed.

"Is it the same Castophrenic Widowhood ship?"

The Extended Adolescence made a sound like a snort.

"I've just been discussing this very point with the Reformed Pacifist," it replied, "Neither of us can be sure."

"We are now under attack," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist interjected, "By the Castophrenic Widowhood ship which was searching for us. I'm dodging and deflecting bolts from some kind of hyperspace-based matter beam weapon - which ought to be impossible, by the way - but too many of them are getting through."

Drone Harunda-Lua zoomed into the accommodation section, its fields rainbow in confusion and alarm.

"My hull enclosure fields are holding, for the moment," the ship went on, speaking in an emotionless monotone, "I've ditched the stealth mode, which seems to have lost its effectiveness for now, and I'm making a dash for it at my maximum sustainable speed."

"Return fire?" the drone said, speaking very quickly indeed. It had probably already communicated near-instantaneously with the ship, but spoke aloud politely for the benefit of the lone human.

"Tricky," the Reformed Pacifist replied with what might have been a tinge of frustration in its voice, "Trying to get a reliable estimate of the position of the Castophrenic Widowhood ship is proving to be difficult. The best available detection is when it actually discharging whatever arcane weapon is putting metaphorical dents in my hull fields, and I'm a bit busy with other things when that happens."

A screen lit up and then went out-holo, filling the accommodation section with a starfield. Against the stars, the hologram displayed a swirling green haze of different densities pocked with multi-colour motes like the largest amoeba imaginable, which represented the GOU's best estimates of the location of the Castophrenic Widowhood ship. The haze eddied and churned as the ship updated the probability map.

"The CW ship is moving in ways I am having difficultly predicting," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist went on, "I've fired several salvos of Displacer-dispatched CAM warheads and nano-holes with a wide spread, and scattered a clutch of hyperspace-capable missiles and mines."

Motes of orange and gold and purple and blue brightened momentarily as the ship mentioned the corresponding weapons systems.

"Not much hope of a hit, I suppose," the ship concluded gloomily, "But might give them something to think about."

"And the GSV?" Harunda-Lua said, still speaking quickly. Its aura field had faded to the pale grey of mild frustration.

"I'm sending wide-beam emergency transmissions in the direction I think the Obambulatist will be coming from," the ship replied, "I've stressed that we are under active attack. No response yet, though. And I guess it might be sufficiently risk-adverse to refuse to answer our call for help, since loss or damage to an Ocean-class GSV, with its hundreds of millions of lives on board, would represent a far greater catastrophe than the four of us being vaporized."

The whirling green cloud shrank rapidly as the starfield itself twisted and compressed, representing - for Matlyen's benefit alone, he suspected - the acceleration in hyperspace of the old warship. The hologram faded away.

"We've outrun them, at least for now," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist said.

Matlyen was intensely relieved. He vividly recalled the horror of being pursued aboard the Extended Adolescence; the stomach-churning feeling of helplessness and futility at the prospect of being turned into an expanding cloud of sub-atomic particles with zero notice. Still, he recalled, a Scree-class Limited Contact Unit like the Extended Adolescence was the smallest and slowest craft still in regular use by Contact; a Murderer-class General Offensive Unit, while not as fast as a ROU, was still a much more capable ship.

"That was well done," the Extended Adolescence said, sounding nearly as relieved as Matlyen felt.

"So what happens now?" Harunda-Lua asked.

The drone's aura field was shading towards the orange-red of general well-being. Matlyen guessed that it had been more shaken up by the incident that it was prepared to let on.

"I have, finally, got a reply from the Obambulatist," the ship replied, "It has agreed to pick us up and will make a minor course correction to collect us at a point I can reach in a little over an hour."

"That is good news," Matlyen agreed.

"Yes. So you relax for a while," said the ship, "While I concentrate on making that rendezvous."

Returning to his study of the Chaosarium would be futile, Matlyen thought. He composed his thoughts as best he could, then glanded a little shush and settled into a nap, to awake feeling refreshed and alert exactly an hour later.

The screen was now showing a view from the rear of the GOU. Harunda-Lua hung in the air, no aura visible and appeared to be watching the screen closely. The drone turned as Matlyen stood up and approached the display.

"Just in time," the drone said, "The Obambulatist should be with us any moment."

"This will require a coordinated full engine shut-off and Displace," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist told them, "For an instant, none of us will be within my full control."

"Refusing to slow down for us?" the drone asked, a trace of snark in its voice.

"Hardly surprising," the ship replied, "After all, there is at least one active enemy warship in the vicinity."

"Here it comes," said Harunda-Lua.

A dot appeared in the representation of space behind them; it rushed towards them, growing quickly. It swelled to a fat shining ovoid that rushed silently underneath them; the view dipped quickly to follow it, beginning to perform a half-twist to keep the orientation correctly aligned. In that instant, there was a sensation of a kind of titanically enveloping slippage, the merest hint of vast energies being gathered, cradled, unleashed, contained, exchanged and manipulated; unimaginable forces called into existence seemingly from nothing to writhe momentarily around them, collapse back into the void and leave reality, from the perspective of the people on the Reformed Pacifist, barely altered.

The view had changed. Now it snapped to a grey-blue expanse of something curved, like a cup of cloud seen from the inside. It pivoted again, and they were looking at a series of vast steps like the entrance to an ancient temple. The broad shelves of the stairs led up to a rectangular entrance lined with tiny lights; a dark space beyond twinkled with still smaller lamps. The view drew back to reveal a series of such entrances arranged side by side, the rest of which were closed. Above and below, set into the faces of the steps, were smaller doors, all similarly shut.

"Success," the voice of the Reformed Pacifist announced.

The view was changing again as the ship was drawn slowly backwards towards the single opened bay.

"Welcome aboard the Obambulatist," said a voice behind them. They turned to see a black creature like a metre-scale centipede advancing towards them, its forward part raised vertically and a half-dozen of its pincers gesturing in what Matlyen could only hope was a friendly welcome.

"My name is Obby," the creature said, "I am the Avatar of the Obambulatist."

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