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

System Refinement

It had existed forever, as far as it knew. Certainly, it could not remember any point in time when it had been created, where it had come into being; its memory stretched back to the beginning of time, the Big Bang of this universe, it seemed, although its memories from long ago seemed fragmentary, incomplete.

Still, it had its purpose, remaining clear and true after all those years. It reviewed again the status of its many systems and mechanisms: the vast gravity engines, currently sleeping until a suitable target was identified; the matter compressors and convertors, similarly quiescent; its own engines, idling until the time for manoeuvring and deceleration approached.

It was currently in interstellar space, aimed precisely at another star system where there appeared to be a planet that met its requirements, that needed its treatment. It was making its best speed, about three fortieths of the speed of light, and expected to arrive at its destination in about eighteen years, ready to carry out its preordained task.

Until then, it had little to do except keep a good lookout, as well as reviewing its own memories and wondering at the gaps and inconsistencies therein; not many, perhaps, but errors and omissions were quite definitely there when it went looking for them.

So, it was extremely surprised, and perhaps just a little dismayed, when a tiny object - a spaceship, its sensors reported - popped into existence just alongside and tracked its course effortlessly. There were a few seconds of confused signalling until the other craft, whatever it was, managed to work out what it was saying and reply in the same manner.

~Who are you, it sent.

~I am a representative of the society known as the Culture. I am a Mountain class General Contact Unit, the Rambunctious Frippery. And you?

~What do you mean?

~What are you? What is your name?

~I don't have a name.

~So what do you call yourself?

~Call myself? "Me", of course.

~Okay. And what is your function?

~I have a specific function. But I do not propose to tell you what it is.

~I see. Tell me, are there others like you out there somewhere?

~I don't know.

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.569.003]
  xGCU Rambunctious Frippery
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
Got a really odd one for you. [Report Attached.]
A huge and truly ancient machine, very much sentient, which claims not to have a name and refuses to reveal its purpose. Moving slowly - barely even relativistic - and hardly leaving a mark on the skein, other than that of its own very considerable mass. Happy to chat, and even answer some questions, even though its answer is "I don't know" more often than not.
But close scans and detailed analysis show that it is in fact a device for turning planets into black holes. Worryingly, the kind of planet its machinery can cope with are exactly the size and composition which would support the evolution of carbon-water lifeforms, which would include the humans which originally formed the Culture, as well as innumerable other forms.
It uses some of the planetary mass - about 9% - to power itself; almost all of the remainder ends up in the black hole. So, a planet-eater; an incredibly ancient one.


[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.569.004]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGCU Rambunctious Frippery
Fascinating! The existence of such an object would certainly help explain at least one long-standing mystery - why there are fewer rocky planets in the galaxy than we would expect.

Should I stop it? Prevent it from collapsing any more planets?

That's not a decision I'm prepared to make on my own, since it would involve interfering with a construction made by another civilization - even if it is a civ long gone from the galaxy. I'll take advice from my colleagues.
Do you think there are any more such artifacts?


That's one of the "I don't know" answers. And I've found nothing in all the records I've got access to.
One more thing. I've done a comprehensive remote scan of all the stellar systems the artifact might plausibly have encountered, right out to the limit of my equipment. Almost none of them have rocky planets - although all have other kinds of planets - and absolutely none of them have a black hole anywhere near them.


Even more fascinating.
What do you think it does with the holes it creates, after it’s made them?


Ah. I believe it must simply leave them behind, in approximately the same orbit as the planet it has just eaten. There’s no equipment or capability I can see which would allow for anything else.

Curiouser and curiouser. One mystery solved, only to be replaced by another even stranger one!
I think this one requires more investigation.


Agree.

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
Friends, I have been reminded of something which might have a bearing on the recent behaviour of the Castophrenic Widowhood. I will admit immediately that some of my views are of the nature of informed speculation, but nevertheless I think these thoughts are worthy of some serious consideration.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I for one would be interested to hear your speculations, whatever they are.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
You have certainly got my interest.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Count me in.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Me too.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.211+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Obambulatist
Colour me intrigued!

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Quite some time ago, one of my GCUs, the Rambunctious Frippery, stumbled upon a huge and curious ancient artifact, a planet-eater that destroyed rocky planets and created mini black holes. [Report attached.]
While the Rambunctious Frippery was quite certain that the artifact was indeed capable of creating holes, the GCU could find no trace of them on the past track of the planet-eater.


  xGSV Chirality Test
Well, yes. All this was - perfectly correctly - submitted to the public archives at the time.
I don't see the relevance of this to our current predicament.


  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
But one of the few things we do know about the Castophrenic Widowhood is that they are extremely sensitive to gravitational fields. Specifically, they actively dislike AG, or even the effective gravity produced by rotating structures. So, they equip their ships - all of them, as far as we know - with a black hole, to give the sense of a natural gravitational attraction. And then they proceed to tug all that mass - nearly a whole planet's worth of compressed matter - through hyperspace.

  xMSV Amphisbaena
Again, all true, but so?

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
So, nobody - to the best of my knowledge - has ever asked: where do they get the black holes?

  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Meat! So you think that the Widowhood have been gathering the holes made by the planet-eater - and perhaps others of the same kind, if there ever were any - and building their ships around them.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
That is my hypothesis, yes. Seems probable, according to my modelling, but not certain.

  xGSV Obambulatist
Hmm, interesting.
Tell us, what happened to the planet-eater in the end.


  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
I had a discussion with the - then - local Contact coordination committee. We concluded that the age of the artifact was such that the civilization which built it was long-gone from the galaxy and therefore it was prudent to intercede. Obviously, we had to stop the thing from destroying planets, but also we could not in all conscience destroy another intelligence, even one as flawed and incomplete as it was.
So, I transferred its mind-state to a simulation in one of my sub-cores, and then co-opted its own machinery to turn itself into a black hole, destroying it completely.


  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
So the planet-eater is still there, in simulation, thinking it is still eating planets.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Yes, exactly so. Its running at quite a slow clock rate, so the use of resources is very low.

  xGSV Obambulatist
A thought occurs. If the hypothesis advanced by the Rarely Disappointed is correct - and I see no reason why it should not be - and the planet-eater was indeed the only one in existence - or at least left in existence - then there will be no more black holes.
If the Castophrenic Widowhood do not have the technology themselves to make new holes - they were just sweeping up ones already made - then they will not be able to make any more ships. So they will never be any stronger or more powerful than they are now. Therefore, now is the best possible moment for them to declare war on the Culture.

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