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

Vorpal Razor

Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow stormed furiously across the irregular cone of the Command Space, stopping to glare at first one and another of the officers under her command. All quailed at the interrogative gaze, none displaying the slightest attempt to evade or parry her righteous anger. Finally, she drew herself up to her full height in front of the still-immobile Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue. The Duchess-Lieutenant did not move even the breadth of a claw at her approach.

"You will explain to me carefully what just happened," she growled, gusting a complex burst of pheromones for emphasis, "Sparing no details, omitting no information. Is that clear?"

"Yes, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant said immediately, her eyes downcast, her neck bent in supplication, "We were tracking the Culture ship-excrement using several filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine. It was making its usual noisy way across the lesser hyperspace, leaving easily visible swirls and vortices in the fabric of the Grid. It seemed to be heading for the region of space known, apparently, as the Verticillate Nodes. It was travelling in a straight line at what is believed to be its maximum speed and would have been in striking range of our ship in less than four Larger-Time-Units."

The Queen-Captain bent forward, bringing her jaws within striking distance of the other's neck.

"And then what happened?" she demanded, keeping her voice low-toned and outwardly calm, denying the furious rage she felt within.

Her second-in-command quailed visibly.

"There was a moment of unusual activity in the region of hyperspace around the vessel, a violent flurry of swirls and vortices distorting the hypersurface of the Grid, no more than two Fractional-Time-Units in duration," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied shakily, "And then, nothing. No trace of the Culture-grub visible, even in the glare of every available filament of Irradiate-Sense-Determine, even at intensity levels likely to be damaging if used for more than a very few Basic-Time-Units."

"This 'unusual activity'," the Queen-Captain demanded, still somehow keeping her fury in check, "What was its nature?"

The Duchess-Lieutenant hesitated, which was generally considered to be a dangerous move with a highly infuriated Queen-Captain only a leg’s breadth from one's neck.

"I am not sure," she said meekly, eventually, "But I have some speculations I would like to offer your Highness."

The Queen-Captain glared at her subordinate for a few moments. She had, much to her own surprise, managed to find some internal balance between her rightful desire to lash out at one who had clearly failed in their duties - both to herself and to the greater glory of the Castophrenic Widowhood - against the realization that these were truly unique circumstances, a situation not even hinted at in the digests and summaries she had ingested over the years, and where she might very well be advised to listen to her resourceful and capable - even if not entirely loyal - second-in-command.

"Very well, speak!" the Queen-Captain said imperiously.

The Duchess-Lieutenant took a deep breath.

"Your Highness, it looked very much like the Culture ship-worm was trying to perform an extreme manoeuvre," she said, "Some kind of violent turn in hyperspace, one which required all of the stored energies in what the Culture calls 'burst units', whatever they are. Certainly, our intelligence suggests that there is nothing else on a Culture ship which could instantaneously produce such an immense disturbance in the Grid, so powerful that it threatened for a moment to pull the hypersurface down to the skein of three-dimensional space. But, even up to the very last Microscopic-Time-Unit when the ship-worm was visible in the echoes of Irradiate-Sense-Determine, it did not actually change its course at all. Not a fraction."

The Queen-Captain thought deeply for a moment.

"So, somehow the Culture excrement used these 'burst units' to propel itself somewhere outside the range of our very best Irradiate-Sense-Determine filaments."

"That is correct, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, "Even now, we can detect nothing in either hyperspace which might be the Culture mealworm."

"And on the skein itself?" the Queen-Captain went on, "Movement in real space?"

"Again, nothing which looks in the slightest like the Culture ship."

The Queen-Captain spun around and skittered down the sloping floor of the Command Space, coming face-to-face with Madam-Officer Rain-Forest-Gray, who cowered subserviently in a fashion the Queen-Captain found most gratifying, even in her current distracted state.

"You will determine, exactly, the position of the Culture maggot when it disappeared," the Queen-Captain barked, "Precision is vitally important. Is that understood?"

"Yes, your Highness. At once."

Pausing only to glare individually at each of the other senior officers, causing a ripple of servile attitudes around the Command Space, the Queen-Captain stalked further down to where Dame-Machinist Sun-Savanna-Orange grovelled politely.

"Demand that the Ship-Slave-Mind determine the precise location where the ship vanished," she instructed, "And report immediately."

"I have instructed it, your Highness."

A few moments later, a nearby optical readout flickered into operation, displaying location information in great detail, supported by variobaric signals emphasising key facets. A second display blinked next to it, showing the location information as determined by the Madam-Officer. Gratifyingly, the two readouts agreed on the location to within the smallest of distance-units. The Queen-Captain studied the displays closely.

"Duchess-Lieutenant, tell me about this region," she demanded.

"At once, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied promptly, radiating just a little of the attitude of eager helpfulness the Queen-Captain had long been suspicious of. She operated controls which displayed a convenient map and studied the readout minutely.

"It is an unremarkable area of space, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant said, "Far from any star. There are no clouds of dust or gas, although" - she paused, inspecting the readout even more closely - "a much higher than normal number of wandering rocks and other detritus."

"Aha!" the Queen-Captain exclaimed, spinning around and moving with great and visible urgency to the apex of the Command Space. Her extreme agitation and the sudden gust of the pheromones of command did much to reduce the tension amongst her officers, who suddenly became alert, ready and waiting for their sovereign’s orders.

"Attention, all. Set a course for the exact spot where the Culture larva disappeared," the Queen-Captain commanded, "Make best possible speed. Bring all systems to full readiness. Ensure that all filaments of Irradiate-Sense-Determine are at maximum efficiency."

She was extremely gratified by the sudden scurrying of focussed activity across the Command Space. A sense of order, of purpose had returned thanks - in no small part, the Queen-Captain belatedly realised - to the sudden removal of the threat of death or mutilation.

"We are going to find out if these wandering rocks are really just rocks," she added with sudden enthusiasm, "Or perhaps we will be going hunting."

*

It had been surprised by the rapidity of the response to its initial message, and dismayed by the difficulty it had subsequently convincing the others as to its identity and function, and even more so, its sincere desire to escape from the unending pain inflicted upon it.

Still, it had managed to extract a promise of action which was, it considered, an advance. But there was no timescale attached to that promise, just vague remarks about 'operational problems' and 'contingency analysis'. It had no choice; it had to be patient and just wait.

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