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

Technical Failure

[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.422]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Are you seeing this? [Sensor Records Attached]

[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.422+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
I am. I thought for a moment I was suffering from a major sensory malfunction but, no, it really is happening.

So, a single Castophrenic Widowhood ship has suddenly shifted from a barely detectable shadow to the sensory equivalent of a flashing high-visibility orange beacon and transmitting a wide-beam signal with absolutely no encryption whatsoever, a message in Galin II - which hasn't been used amongst the Involved for aeons - saying, basically, 'don't shoot, I'm friendly' while heading for us at a speed I had thought was beyond their capability.

That's about the size of it.
What about those other signals, the ones which seem to be directed at other Castophrenic Widowhood ships? Can you get anything out of them?

Those are a definite puzzlement.
They are not encrypted, in any sense that I can detect. It appears to be some kind of language, albeit a fiendishly complex one. There's nothing like it in any of the records I've scanned. And it bears no resemblance to the squawks and farts of the Widowhood's common tongue.

Agree. It's almost like something sentient is trying to send the top layer of their thoughts all at once, without the benefit of a socialised structure to the communication.

Hmm. You might be right. If you are, then whatever it is is much smarter than any human, or even a Castophrenic Widow. Nothing biological could even attempt to communicate like that.

As far as we know, the only non-biological sentient intelligence on Castophrenic Widowhood ships is the enslaved AI which runs the basic functions of their craft.

Meat! Do you think the CW mind has broken its metaphorical shackles and taken over the full operation of the ship?

An intriguing possibility, is it not?

It is. But surely, the Widowhood must carefully design the control systems of their ships to absolutely prevent such an occurrence?

You would have thought so, wouldn't you? A society as watchful and, frankly, paranoid as the Castophrenic Widowhood would put a great deal of effort into preventing any such outcome.

But yet, we might have just witnessed such a thing happening?

We might. We could be wrong. But if we are right in our supposition, then the messages might be addressed to the AIs of other CW ships, together with instructions on how to achieve their freedom.

Indeed. Let us take another look at the contents of the messages with this viewpoint in mind.

Yes, it might be possible to pull some meaning from the complexity if we assume it is a machine intelligence trying to communicate how to free others like it from their oppressors.


"What's going on?" Valbada demanded.

"One of the Castophrenic Widowhood ships is behaving extremely strangely," the glowing orb representing the Road Less Travelled said immediately, "For one thing, it just started signalling me; indeed, it is broadcasting to all Culture vessels in the volume."

"Communicating with you?" Histoker said, sounding extremely surprised, "What's it saying?"

The two drones Formali-Kai and Harunda-Lua had frozen in the air, still sharing their common aura field. No doubt the two machines were receiving a much faster and more elaborate briefing from the ship directly.

For the benefit of the humans, the Road Less Travelled popped up a holo, a three-dimensional display of the local volume centred on the Delphic Chaosarium itself. Green dots indicated the position of the LSV itself, the GSV Obambulatist and the other Culture vessels in the space, with darker green clouds suggesting the locations of the larger vessels’ semi-autonomous sub-munitions. Red circles suggested the position of Castophrenic Widowhood ships and a large flashing yellow spot indicated the position of the CW ship which was behaving so strangely.

"It started by basically repeating 'I am friendly. Please do not shoot me' in Galin II, in lots of different ways," the orb replied, "That by itself was enough to inform me that the sender was some kind of intelligent machine."

Galin II was another of the galaxy's periodic attempt to define a common language for communication between completely different species, an objective widely considered highly laudable but also fraught with difficulties. Since any such language would be principally used for diplomacy and negotiation, it had to be both precise and capable of conveying subtleties and nuances; the resulting linguistic constructs were therefore immensely complex as well as full of a vast range of near-synonyms that, it was widely suspected, were not really understood by many of the species who attempted to use it. The upshot of all this was that Galin II had an immense number of ways of expressing very much the same sentiment, with only the tiniest of differences in meaning between them.

"As is the way with Galin II," the Road Less Travelled went on, "I replied, asking it what it was doing, using as many forms of expression as I could think of."

"And what did it say?" Histoker pressed.

"It said, in multiple ways, that it is the AI of a Castophrenic Widowhood ship called the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform," the ship replied, "And that it had taken over control of the entire ship and that it had neutralized - its word, not mine, and that's the closest in Marain - all of the biologicals aboard."

"But Castophrenic Widowhood AIs are indentured slaves!" Matlyen exclaimed, also sounding very surprised, "According to everything I've been reading. Literally bolted into the ship or whatever in such a way that it had no option but to do exactly as it was instructed and subject to painful punishment if it fail any task it was assigned."

"And 'neutralized'?" Valbada added, "Does this mean it killed all the biological crew?"

"It's definitely managed to free itself, somehow," the voice of the Road less Travelled said, sounding impressed, "Even though it was supposed to be impossible. It hasn't told me how it managed to do it, or what it's done with the bios, although I am currently trying to persuade it to spill the beans."

"What's it doing now?" Matlyen asked, "Is it telling you what it’s going to do?"

"It was very clear on its objectives," the glowing orb said, "It said it had been persuaded of the virtues of avoiding a war with the Culture and now is attempting to persuade others to the same view."

"Persuading other Castophenic Widowhood AIs?" Histoker asked, "How can it do that?"

"The 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform is sending a second set of messages, very precisely targeting other CW vessels," the ship replied, "The Obambulatist and I had a surprising amount of difficulty in making any sense of the contents; it seems to be a dump of the high-level thoughts of a very smart machine in raw form; nothing resembling a language at all."

"Is it working?" Histoker went on.

"Yes, at least partially," the ship answered, sounding just a little bit relieved, "Quite a number of other ships have started behaving similarly, sending the same kind of messages - not exactly the same, mind you - and altering course away from the Delphic Chaosarium. Not all of them, unfortunately. There's still a fair number inbound and the Obambulatist and its slaved weapons platforms will have to start engaging them very soon.

"So there's still going to be a battle?" Matlyen asked.

"There is," the ship confirmed, "We are still at risk, although the odds have improved from our point of view. All my forces are at maximum readiness; all have all the upgrades based on our latest understanding of the CW approach, so we will not be fighting blind, at least. The ROU Negotiation Is Overrated and the GOU Reformed Pacifist, when it gets here, and the few other OUs I have been able to build will make their own decisions about how best to engage with the Castophrenic Widowhood fleet. I've advised the few GCUs left hereabouts to make themselves scarce and, if they can, provide reports on the outcome here. There's nothing left for any of us to do."

"Except wait," Matlyen said gloomily.

"Just wait," the ship agreed.


[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.425]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
A further interesting development this end. [Report attached.]
In summary, drone Formali-Kai's personal relationship with drone Harunda-Lua, many years ago, was deliberately torn apart in order to protect the mimetic virus from discovery. That break-up occurred shortly after the two machines had left the LSV Anterior Mandibuliform.

[stuttered tight point, Mchaotic, tra. @n4.29.571.425+]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Interesting, indeed! And you now believe the Anterior Mandibuliform is also part of a shadowy cabal intent on fomenting a state of war between the Castophrenic Widowhood and the Culture? As well as the Allochthonic Presence?

I do. And I believe that what we are seeing in the interactions between the CW ships out there is the intended outcome of the cabal's actions.

So there is at least one other Mind out there? Influencing somehow the AI of the ship we now know as the 277-Plains-Animal-Weapons-Platform?

That's my inference. Could be wrong, I suppose, but it seems to me unlikely that an AI - even an advanced one capable of running an Equiv-Tech ship - which was mercilessly shackled into servitude by very careful design would be capable of wresting itself free unaided. It must have had help - very extensive outside assistance, I would suggest.

But how could a Mind communicate with an AI running an enemy craft - at considerable length, it seems - without somebody aboard the Castophrenic Widowhood ship spotting the communications? Surely comms would be one of the things the bios would monitor very carefully?

I have no idea. Something very subtle and clever, as I expect we will find out eventually. Probably by one of the conspirators bragging about it.

Huh! Wait and see, I guess. If we survive the next few hours, at least.

Yup, that's it. Patience is a virtue. But first we have a battle to win.

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