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

"Of course," Wollay said, waving a hand to indicate another comfortable lounger nearby.

The Avatar sat, then appeared to study the garden for a few moments. Seemingly satisfied with what it saw, it turned to the human.

"So where do you think there are gaps in the records?" it asked.

A machine as smart as a Culture Mind could already have worked out every possible way the conversation could go and selected a starting-point which would lead to a satisfactory outcome while minimizing emotional stress.

"Well, first let me check I've got the basic chronology right," the man said.

The Avatar said nothing, although its shrug was highly expressive.

"So, just about two thousand years ago, you were created."

The Avatar nodded, once.

"I could tell you exactly when I first became conscious, down to the second, but it wouldn't really help."

"And you were incorporated into a ship, a General Service Vehicle, called the No User Serviceable Parts Within.

"Correct," the Avatar said, "Mind you, this was back when the Very Large Self-Sufficient Ship concept was relatively new. These days, the old ship would probably be regarded as a MSV or even a Limited Service Vehicle. Still, I had a population of over a hundred million. To be host to so many is to be the equivalent of a small world or a large state. It was my job and my pleasure to take an intimate interest in the physical and mental well-being of every individual aboard, to provide - with every appearance of effortlessness - an environment they would each find comfortable, pleasant, stress-free and stimulating."

"And then you changed your name," Wollay said.

"Yes. This was when the long-expected, but still hoped-to-be-avoided Idiran war finally broke out in earnest. All my crew-slash-passengers were evacuated, packed onto rapidly repurposed cruise ships and sent off to distant places, which it was hoped might keep them away from the conflict."

"Did that work?"

"Mostly, yes. In those early days, we consistently underestimated the Idiran's rate of expansion. Poor intelligence, I suppose, or at least a poor understanding of an enemy's psychology."

"And then what?"

"I brought my - admittedly prodigious - manufacturing capabilities to maximum capacity and refitted myself ready for battle. I upgraded my engines, converting the whole lower bay area into additional hyperspace field management, and built extra burst units for hyper-rapid manoeuvring. I had bays packed with semi-slaved weapons pods; immense Effectors, batteries of CREWS, CAM/AM projectors and plasma tubes; whole suites of hyper-space capable missiles.

"So you became a warship?"

"Very much so," the Avatar agreed, "And after such a radical re-build, I felt that both a change of character and a change of name were appropriate. So I became the GSV System Adjuster."

"And you went to war?"

"Almost immediately. As soon as I was ready," the Avatar replied, "Indeed, sooner than I would really have liked, as I was still fettling my internal structures and finalizing my field configurations."

"So it was really urgent."

"Definitely so. I was one of several ships tasked with disrupting the Idiran's supply chains, to slow down their rate of expansion and make it more difficult, more expensive in materiel, to retain control of the space they had already taken."

The avatar paused for a moment, once again inspecting the lush greenness of the garden.

"It was a winning strategy, in the long run," it said eventually, "But gained at a tremendous cost: falling back, abandoning habitats and orbitals and planets, and evacuating the inhabitants - which was not always possible, so there were many deaths."

"Just you, a single ship, were set this vital delaying mission?"

"Mostly, although I wasn't the only militarised GSV so deployed. A fully tooled-up GSV - as I was - was a supremely powerful fighting machine, easily outgunning any single unit on the other side. Puissant, yes, but not invulnerable, unassailable: a sufficient concentration of capable Idiran vessels could have disabled or destroyed me. Although I could not have allowed myself to be captured, so I'd probably have felt compelled to destroy myself under those circumstances."

"So, very much one against many?"

"A great many, indeed, and remember that the Idirans had been on a war footing for nearly three thousand years by this time, and they had vastly many more ships than we did at that time."

"So it was a suicide mission?"

"Perhaps. My Mind state was backed up before I set out, of course, so I would not have been entirely lost. But the wealth of experience I would have gained during a mission where I was, in the end, destroyed would not have been included in my next incarnation and I would, I suspect, have always missed those memories."

"And, as it turned out, you never were destroyed and restored from a previous copy, in all the missions you undertook."

"This is correct. Although that was probably just dumb luck, rather than any consistent decision-making on my part."

"And the records show," Wollay went on, indicating the quiescent terminal by his side, "That you succeeded in this first mission, and in numerous other missions afterwards. You were a hero, it seems; based on the records, a few people have suggested that you may single-handedly shortened the war by as much as three weeks."

"I'm sure that's an exaggeration," the Avatar said, although it did look very slightly smug, "But I do like to think that my contributions were not wasted."

"But the records are not quite complete, are they?" Wollay said quietly, although his words were naturally entirely comprehended by the Avatar and the Mind it represented.

The Avatar looked crestfallen.

"Not entirely, no," it agreed.

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