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

Surprise Observation

Despite its cheery and reassuring statements to Bryoni Matlyen, the Mind of the LCU Extended Adolescence was deeply worried. It was now thinking at its maximum capacity, undertaking a thousand lifetimes of cogitation and analysis every second in its attempt to make some kind of sense of its recorded observations of the pursuit by the mysterious ship - which it now was prepared to accept was almost certainly a warship of the Castophrenic Widowhood.

The Extended Adolescence realised early on that it had a unique experience during the chase: long-term exposure to at least some of the CW ship's capabilities, and conceivably less well hidden than usual - perhaps on the basis that the Widowhood had expected the craft it was tailing to be entirely destroyed and had therefore been less scrupulous in concealing their presence.

The recordings of the pursuit were both copious and detailed. The LCU had established that every passive sensor and tracking scanner it possessed which did not impact the velocity of the craft in hyperspace had been fixed on the pursuer from the instant it had been attacked. The records had already copied in their entirety to the Reformed Pacifist and a clutch of other Culture Minds which - it felt sure - would subject them to the detailed examination it felt they deserved. But, given the Reformed Pacifist was likely to be a bit busy at the moment, while it currently had no other duties to perform, it was therefore undertaking the most detailed scrutiny it was capable of.

The immersive analysis was also, the Mind belatedly admitted to itself, immensely exhilarating. It was the kind of mesmerizing thinking which would normally only have been experienced in the imaginary Land of Infinite Fun - that mental playground that Culture Minds used to explore alternative universes that might just be possible. Here and now, in the Real, with the very palpable threat of imminent destruction hanging over them all, the urgency of the situation provided an extra spur to its own level of concentration.

Suddenly, the thoughts and analyses of the Mind of the Extended Adolescence coalesced around a single observation, a tiny snippet in the vast reservoirs of raw data it had captured during the chase, a mere footnote in the vast archive it had assembled. It experienced a flash of inspiration, a true Eureka moment, a unique insight which might easily have eluded it under other circumstances. And, with that insight, there came a sense that there was a whole new way of looking at the universe, a different model of reality which might produce scientific and technological results beyond anything the Culture currently understood.

*

The Mind of the Extended Adolescence re-opened a communication channel with the Reformed Pacifist, with whom it was now sharing a single hyperspace substrate.

~I know you're kind of busy just at the moment, it sent, but I've got something that might be germane to our current predicament.

~Well, I do have my metaphorical hands full, but I can always find a moment for my hull-mate.

~I've been looking closely - very closely indeed - at the sensor data I captured while attempting to escape from the Castophrenic Widowhood ship.

~Very worthwhile. Although I'm sure you're not the only Mind giving those records an extremely thorough review just at the moment.

~Entirely true. But I think I've discovered something in those records that suggest how the CW can travel in hyperspace without us being able to detect them reliably. [Analysis attached.]

~Well that's very interesting. Very interesting indeed. Hmm, let me take a closer look.

~Of course. I believe the CW have a way of - very partially - predicting the apparently chaotic movement of the energy Grid. So, their engine fields, suitably controlled, disturb the hypersurface of the Grid much less than, say, your fields are currently doing.

~Which would explain why their ships leave almost no trail in hyperspace as they travel. Stealthy, but still fast.

~Exactly so. It involves a novel hyperspace-centric viewpoint on the apparently intractable mathematics of chaos, requiring a very detailed understanding of HS in eight dimensions, rather than the mere seven we normally consider enough to understand the nature of the universe.

~And the current thinking of course forms the engineering basis of all of our ship designs. I see. This is very good analysis, excellent stuff.

~Thank you. There's even a hint about an increased understanding of the Sublimed Realms, too - the Sublime existing in the tiny, twisted-up dimensions numbered eight through eleven, you'll remember.

~It does indeed, although this may not be the aspect to concentrate on just at the moment.

~Of course, you're right. There's a corollary which makes it clear that the CW can detect the presence of even the most secure point-to-point communications between Culture ships and installations, even if the actual content is encrypted.

~Hmm. Look here. [Analysis attached.] Increased predictability of fundamental chaotic properties may make even our strongest encryption schemes vulnerable, even if not entirely broken.

~Meat! Yes, I should have seen that, too.

~So we need to be extremely careful about communications from now on.

~Careful? As in, not do it at all, you mean?

~I think you probably right.

~And, there's a further viewpoint. [Analysis attached.] A fundamental change to the approach to engine field management, providing capabilities much closer to the observed behaviours of CW ships.

~Wait. Are you seriously suggesting that I try out these unproven theories on my engine fields?

~Actually, yes, I am. At the moment, we are sitting ducks. We can barely spot CW ships in any reliable fashion, while we must stand out in their sensors like a sore thumb, if you'll excuse my metaphor. Reconfiguring your engine fields would at least level the playing field, which might allow us to survive for long enough to transport our newfound understanding to others.

~Let me think about this. It's a fundamentally radical and probably irreversible step.

~It is. Of course there are risks, some of them fundamentally unquantifiable. You'll have to make the final decision, of course; it is, after all, your ship, not mine.

~I certainly can't perform that kind of reconfiguration while I'm actually in hyperspace.

~Of course you can't. You'll need to do a crash-stop, emerge into real space, then shut down all your fields and sensors. Completely passive. Sever all connections to the Grid. Absolute minimum of power usage.

~So, to be clear, you're suggesting that I'll be just a dumb rock for the hours - days, even - needed to perform this complete rebuilding of my fundamental structures?

~That's it.

~Bah! I hate the idea of a step into the unknown. But, it seemed I have to agree that our odds of survival appear to be better undergoing this transformation.

~So you'll do it?

~I will. I'll need, oh, about two hundred seconds to set up all the changes, then I'll pull the plug.

~Great. I'd better inform the human that he needs to get suited up. Again. And get the drone to harden itself against, well, anything, really.

~Wish me luck.

~Luck.

*

For the second time in as many minutes, the drone Harunda-Lua leapt in the air, its fields a coruscating rainbow.

"What's going on?" Matlyen exclaimed.

"Another development, I'm afraid," the voice of the Extended Adolescence said, "We'll explain everything, but first we need to make sure that you - both of you - are protected."

An old-looking hard-shell space suit walked itself quietly into the support pod and casually split itself open, suddenly looking as if the suit had somehow doubled itself. Matlyen eyed the suit suspiciously.

"What's that doing here?" he asked.

"We need to get you into it," Harunda-Lua said calmly, its aura field having returned to the yellow-green of mellow friendliness, "Let me help you."

The drone extended several force-field limbs, all in the same calm yellowish shade and, assisted by the pod's support mechanisms, managed to transfer the still-convalescing man into the bulky spacesuit. Once the suit had closed itself up and taken over the medical support functions, Matlyen felt a great flood of relief; his still-healing body was clearly not quite as strong as he had thought.

"You okay in there?" the voice of Harunda-Lua emerged from some hidden speaker or sound-field within the helmet.

"Perfectly, thank you," the man replied, "But you still haven't told me what's going on."

"There'll be plenty of time for that," the Extended Adolescence said, "But let's just get you installed here first."

The suit marched Matlyen over to a complex-looking support couch which had just malleabled its way out of the floor. Moving slowly, but with a certain degree of firm control, the suit eased itself into the supports, which folded itself about the suit so completely that it was, perhaps, impossible to determine where the suit ended and the couch began.

"That looks entirely satisfactory," the Extended Adolescence said. As Matlyen watched, the support couch produced another opening, a wide cylindrical aperture into which the eggshell carapace of Harunda-Lua fitted perfectly.

"Fine. So, to answer your earlier question," the voice of the Extended Adolescence went on, "The Reformed Pacifist is proposing to make a radical and potentially risky transformation of its field structures to align with an analysis of the CW ship which attacked and pursued me."

"So it'll be making improvements?"

"Yes. Considerable ones, we think. But, while it is happening, you won't hear from myself, at all," the Extended Adolescence said gravely, "Nor from the Reformed Pacifist, who will be far too busy rebuilding itself from first principles anyway."

"Okay," the man said, "And how long will these changes take?"

"About forty hours, give or take," the Extended Adolescence said, sounding faintly apologetic, "The estimates are not entirely precise, at this time."

"Forty hours!"

"I'm afraid so. I'm sure you'll be fine in there for that time", the Extended Adolescence replied, "If you like, I can put you to sleep for the entire duration."

"No, no, that'll be fine."

"Okay. Dn Harunda-Lua will stay here with you, keep you company and, if you like, give you a fuller briefing of exactly what our analyses have discovered and the improvements the Reformed Pacifist expects to make."

"Okay," Matlyen said doubtfully, "And when will all this start?"

"Oh, in about, ah, two seconds."

The lights in the accommodation section went out abruptly. The AG cut off a moment later, giving Matlyen a sudden feeling of nausea which the suit’s medical units struggled to counteract. There was an immense roaring noise, the whole ship seeming to shudder and groan as if it had somehow hit a wholly impossible reef in deep space. Matlyen lost consciousness, again.

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