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

Whiffling About

In a society as determinedly competitive as that of the Castophrenic Widowhood, one did not advance without being both mercilessly intelligent and ruthlessly combative. Queen-Captain Winter-Garden-Yellow was quite definitely both of these things and did not intend to allow a little thing like mutiny - even by one as pervasively capable as the Ship-Slave-Mind - interrupt her rightful command and rigid control over her ship and subjects.

Ignoring the pain of hot metals and ceramics embedded in her carapace, the Queen-Captain's gaze swept the Command Space. Her subjects were, to a female, confused and dazed by the events they had just witnessed. None of them, not even the fearlessly helpful Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue, seemed to have any idea what to do, what action to take, to wrest back control of the ship. Idiots and dolts, the lot of them, the Queen-Captain concluded.

She stalked proudly to the apex of the Command Space, slowly enough to make it clear that all was not lost.

"Here me, all," she boomed, loud enough to demand the attention of even the most recalcitrant or catatonic of her subjects, "Break out sidearms."

Crew members aboard Castophrenic Widowhood ships were not routinely armed, for good and obvious reasons. Their naturally evolved limbs and jaws were ferocious enough to strike, stab, dismember or kill at a whim, especially when those at the top of the pecking order had access to more and better food than others, and were therefore simply bigger and more powerful than those further down the chain. A society whose members routinely threatened others could not, in general, be trusted with weapons which could kill at a distance, let alone risking damage to controls and equipment from a badly-aimed bolt.

Such weaponry, and indeed other sensitive or easily-misused equipment, were kept securely under lock and key - although "key" was not really an adequate description of the elaborate device of ceramics and pheromones that the Queen-Captain produced from a sealed pouch on one of the bandoleers strung around her body and shoulders. She beckoned meaningfully to Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue who immediately scurried to her sovereign’s side. Together they advanced on one of the weapons cabinets which lined the walls of the Command Space, Drudges falling over each other to get out of their way.

The cabinet flew open at the touch of the strange key in the Queen-Captain's claw and rack upon rack of guns modelled to fit neatly into various parts of Castophrenic Widowhood anatomy unfolded themselves. Queen-Captain and Duchess-Lieutenant each took a large and rather ugly weapon from the same rack, then both turned to face the remainder of the crew.

"Every officer is to take one - only one, hear me well - Claw-Blast-Projector," the Queen-Captain announced, her voice and scent of command filling every part of the space, "We will advance on the pod where the mechanisms of the Ship-Slave-Mind are housed and prise control of our ship away from the traitorous brute."

The cheers and emanations of approval were overwhelming.

The Queen-Captain knew every part of her ship very well. She had spent countless Larger-Time-Units exploring the great skeletal structure, learning its every secret, in that long period before she had begun to realise her ambitions by advancement among the crew.

Castophrenic Widowhood ships were of necessity extremely large, the Queen-Captain understood, in order to encapsulate the Condensed-Planet-Mass at the very centre with enough radius to provide an ideal uniform gravity at the levels used for living. Although this was also a virtue, since it meant that there was almost limitless space for the cultivation of foodstuffs. The outer levels were populated by high-ceilinged halls and galleries, lit by artificial - but very realistic - sunlight to grow the sweet grasses and tasty roots and tall vegetables all tended by the drudges, and then fed to the Lesser-Meat-Worms and the Greater-Food-Grubs and all the other proper foodstuffs suitable for the Queen-Captain herself and, grudgingly, for the small number of other officers with which she was forced to share the Command Space.

The space occupied by the mechanisms of the Ship-Slave-Mind was several major levels below the farms and fields where any individual Castophrenic Widow would feel comfortable; it was set at the lowest of the machine levels and therefore had a noticeably different and more intense gravitational field. The Queen-Captain could clearly feel it increasing as she led her armed party at considerable speed down the shallow winding ramps which were supposed to minimise the impact of the increasing gravity. This was profoundly unsettling for the Queen-Captain, although she did her best to conceal that unpleasant feeling from her crew members.

Arriving at the lowest level, the Queen-Captain was struck by the vario-baric noise and electromagnetic emanations from the massed mechanisms all around, its technologies by now well-understood. But it had been a great many Solar-Orbital-Periods since she herself had deigned to grace these levels. In the Command Space, the normal functioning of the great ship was a near-constant hum, a buzz of activity that subliminally assured her that all was well. Here, the radiations and cacophonous hubbub were nearly overwhelming; any of the crew must feel the same way. No wonder, she thought, that nobody comes down here unless they really have to.

The Queen-Captain skittered to a halt in front of a heavy armoured door secured by an elaborate locking mechanism. Inside, she knew, would be a vast space, a domed cavern lit by the contraptions which provided the Ship-Slave-Mind with the pseudo-intelligence it needed to perform its duties, with alcoves and entrances all around which allowed access to portions of the thinking machinery, with galleries and wide upper walkways accessed by the kind of vertical ladders that a six-limbed creature with claws on each one would have no problem negotiating.

Not even looking around, the Queen-Captain reached into another of the pockets on her bandoleers and drew forth another of the complex-looking keys without which she could not be considered the sovereign of the crew and the captain of the ship. She held the device to the marked place on the door, which immediately folded itself neatly into the floor.

The Queen-Captain stepped forward, then stopped in undisguised shock. A vast mass of unrecognisable and worryingly alien-looking machinery squatted in the centre of the space, almost filling what should have been an airy sub-control space with a shimmering slab of - well, she was not sure what it was.

Thin lines and bulging pipes and heavy cables looped and curled about the device, connecting it to numerous panels and orifices on the walls of the dome. Some even thicker connections appeared to disappear into the floor, where the machine-only levels were located.

"Why was I not informed about this unsanctioned construction?" she bellowed, "Are monitors and change detection subsystems not in operation?"

Duchess-Lieutenant Autumn-Ocean-Blue reached for a control readout unit attached to the wall just outside the entrance and operated the controls furiously.

"Whatever this is, it was not visible in the last scan of the interior, your Highness," she said, sounding both confused and and terrified, "That took place less than two Larger-Time-Units ago."

"How could this, this thing be assembled that quickly?" the Queen-Captain demanded, "Where did the material even come from?"

"I do not know, your Highness," the Duchess-Lieutenant replied, still working the controls as fast as her claws could manage, "Although some of the components might have come from stores of spare parts, judging from the discrepancies in stock lists."

"Shoot it!" the Queen-Captain shrieked, lifting her Claw-Blast-Projector, "Destroy the contraption at once!"

Before the Duchess-Lieutenant could respond, there was a thud from behind them, followed by the clatter of ceramic on metal. Queen-Captain and Duchess-Lieutenant both turned to look instinctively. Madam-Officer Rain-Forest-Gray had collapsed, now unmoving and apparently dead for all that there were no wounds or marks on her body; her Claw-Blast-Projector rolled loose on the floor. Before either could react, Abbess-Weaponeer Summer-Veldt-Brown suddenly stiffed, frozen motionless before she too fell to the deck. The Duchess-Lieutenant had just enough time to shout, "The Far-Nullifying-Fluxes!" before she too collapsed, her body falling lifeless alongside that of her Queen-Captain.

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