Thousands of years ago, when the time had come to dismantle the colossal war machine the Culture had created in order to destroy that of the Idirans, the question of what to do with all the materiel it had created had to be addressed.
Most of the Culture's warships were decommissioned and dismantled. A few were retained, demilitarised, to act as express delivery systems for small packages of matter - people, for example - on the rare occasions when the transmission of information alone was not sufficient to deal with a problem, and an even smaller number were kept intact and operational; two hundred years after the war ended, the number of fully active warcraft was actually smaller than it had been before the conflict began (though, as the Culture's critics never tired of pointing out, the average - and avowedly completely peaceful - General Contact Unit was more than a match for the vast majority of alien craft it was likely to bump into over the course of its career).
Never a civilisation to take too many risks, however, and priding itself on the assiduity of its bet-hedging, the Culture had not disposed of all the remaining craft; a few thousand - representing less than a per cent of the original total - were kept in reserve, fully armed save for their usual complement of Displacer-dispatched explosive warheads (a relatively minor weapon system anyway), which they and other craft would manufacture in the event of mobilisation. Most of the mothballed ships were retained within a scattering of Culture Orbitals, chosen so that if there ever was an emergency which the craft would be required to deal with, no part of the greater galaxy would be more than a month or so's flight away. Others were hidden away in stores in quiet parts of the galaxy, dark and secret places that might well be unknown to anybody else.
The innumerable other civilisations with which the Culture shared the greater galaxy became used to demilitarised warships - now redesignated Fast Pickets or Very Fast Pickets - blatting about the place on missions which were variously humanitarian, obscure, wilful, exploratory, charitable or generally inexplicable. So, when it was discovered that centralised ship stores - whether public or secret - were just too slow and inflexible an approach when a serious emergency occurred, the Culture quietly started deploying a new class of Picket Ships, which despite the designation, seemed to spend all their time waiting quietly in obscurely remote and rarely visited parts of the greater galaxy.
This new type of Picket Ship were called Abominators. following the Culture's flagrantly egregious way it named its warship classes - Murderer, Torturer, Gangster and so on - and most civilizations simply shook their heads - or equivalent body parts - at the Culture's cheeky insouciance about such things and then got on with their lives. Despite the designation, though, Abominators were fully-armed warships, through and through – they really were General Offensive Units - and indeed, more than that, they could act as a single unit - they were most powerful in this mode - or they could split up into dozens of individual ship-lets, effectively becoming a small fleet all by itself, for use in circumstances where the flexibility of multiple craft was preferred. They were small, relatively - only 1.6 kilometres at full hull field compression - but were by far the most capable warship class the Culture had ever created.
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.501]
xGOU Rapid Planned Disassembly
oLSV Road Less Travelled
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.501+]
xLSV Road Less Travelled
oGOU Rapid Planned Disassembly
I would consider it an honour if you would join me inside my hull-fields at your earliest convenience.
Be alongside in thirty-eight-point-two seconds.
Please accept my thanks in advance.
The mood in the reception lounge where Matlyen, Histoker and Valbada, as well as the two drones Formali-Kai and Harunda-Lua had gathered was sombre. There was nothing any of them could do except watch and listen to the periodic updates from the Road Less Travelled. The ship had explained that, while the closest of the loyal Castophrenic Widowhood ships were now within reach of some of its most long-range weaponry, it and the Obambulatist had agreed to maintain the pretence that they were not able to easily detect CW ships until the last possible moment before a first engagement, to maximise the element of surprise. It also gave the cascading mutiny instigated by the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform the best chance of spreading widely; attacking a ship in the middle of going rogue would send entirely the wrong message.
The Mind of the Road Less Travelled continuously updated the floating hologram which depicted the local volume and the situation of the ships and other assets therein. Yellow markers appeared as the ship determined that previously loyal Castophrenic Widowhood vessels had been overcome by whatever arcane conversion process the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform had instigated has been successful, while flashing orange rings indicated cases where the ship was unclear about the outcome.
The very few other people on the LSV, including Finark Noibalt, had obviously elected to entertain themselves with ribald games, exotic drinks and powerful drugs. Histoker and Valbada would probably have been joining in, if they had not had the summons from the ship to welcome Matlyen. It was a great many millennia since a human could in any way influence the outcome of a full-on, Equiv-Tech, ship-to-ship battle; even more than usual, the people were just along for the ride.
Matlyen, in particular, seemed stuck in a funk: immobile to the point of catatonia, apparently deep in thought and occasionally adopting that flaccid blank-faced look that many Culureniks took on when communicating remotely using a neural lace. Histoker and Valbada sat together watching the Situation hologram, not actually touching one another, for whatever comfort that might bring them. The two drones remained locked in their shared fields, softly swirling colours indicating some complex emotional state, and apparently devoting only a small fraction of their minds to external events.
Suddenly, the glowing orb which represented the Mind of the Road Less Travelled brightened, bobbing up and down to attract the attention of the humans. The drones' shared aura flickered, rotating sections of rainbow surprise appearing in the fields.
"Good news," the voice of the ship said, "The Abominator-class GOU Rapid Planned Disassembly has announced it is inbound and will be arriving in a few moments."
A large screen showed a forward-facing view of the top-rear park of the LSV, a green space about a kilometre long and a third of that wide. The space was set with manicured lawns around a suitably serpentine pond and dotted about with trees and shrubbery. The top-front park could be seen beyond it, separated from the rear by an artificial chasm, perhaps two hundred metres wide and half that deep. The cliff-like sides of the canyon were littered with balconies and terraces which, in happier times, would have been home to many humans enjoying the view and sampling refreshing drinks.
A sunline arced overhead, giving the effect of warm sunshine moderated by a few - entirely artificial - fluffy white clouds, the line running just inside the inner-most portion of the great ship's hull-field complex. As they watched, the sunline and hull-field bulged outwards and an incongruous dark shape slid sideways through the fields, a menacing black ovoid like an oversize blimp from a long-forgotten era, and came to rest straddling the gorge casting an ominous shadow over the parks.
"That'll be it now," the Road Less Travelled said primly.
~Dear colleague, the Road Less Travelled sent, Thanks for joining me within my hull-field enclosures.
~Unclear why, the Rapid Planned Disassembly replied tersely, Have already completed the Grid-engagement engine noise reduction modification, as communicated.
~The Obambulatist and I have done some substantial additional analysis. [Report attached.] There are further improvements which we are recommending to sensor and communications capabilities, based on similar mathematics. [Further Report attached.] We believe this will completely nullify the advantages of stealth enjoyed by the Castophrenic Widowhood ships.
~I see. Useful. Sensor rebuild in eight-point-four minutes; comms rework in nine-point-one minutes.
~That seems very fast; congratulations on the efficiency of your self-repair mechanisms. As you will have seen, the Obambulatist and I have been careful to avoid mentioning these improvements in any communication outside the volume, given the - admittedly small - risk of interception by the Castophrenic Widowhood. Can I rely on you observing the same operational niceties?
~Thanks again for lending your support here. We really need it. Feel free to be on your way as soon as you are ready.
~I will. Ready to really kick some butts out there.
"Well, things are going to get pretty hot around here in the next fifteen minutes," the voice of the Road Less Travelled
announced, "Once the Rapid Planned Disassembly
Histoker and Valbada nodded glumly. Matlyen didn't move a muscle. The hulking Abominator hung balefully over the parks on the screen, although no changes could be seen by the naked eye.
Culture Minds think millions of times faster than any biological, even the startlingly sharp intellects of the Castophrenic Widowhood, and dedicated warship Minds were of course exquisitely tuned to the exigencies of battle. Such ships also had hyperspacial burst units, allowing them to move hundreds or even thousands of times faster than their maximum sustainable speed, although for extremely short periods of time.
"The GOU effectively increases our military strength in the volume by an order of magnitude," the Road Less Travelled said, "So we going to act suddenly and, I hope decisively."
Nobody said anything, just stared at the screen despondently. Nothing happened for long minutes until, without warning, the black bulk of the Rapid Planned Disassembly simply disappeared.
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.511]
xLSV Road Less Travelled
oGOU Reformed Pacifist
oROU Negotiation Is Overrated
oGOU Rapid Planned Disassembly
Are we all ready? And go!