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

"The Gap, if I can call it that," the Avatar went on, again looking out over the garden, "Was during a critical phase of the war. It was towards the end of that period where we were concentrating on disrupting supply routes and right at the start of our efforts to push back the Idirans on a number of fronts."

Wollay nodded.

"Go on."

"So, this was against an enemy whose supplies of munitions and materiel were already disrupted, with a significant - although probably not overwhelming - reduction in the number of war craft they could field in any particular volume. So I thought I was, perhaps, in less danger than previous missions."

"But you were wrong?"

"Yes. As it it turned out, the Idiran's simming/dispositioning abilities were better than our most recent intelligence suggested and I found myself being drawn into what might have been a carefully configured trap. At the maximum range of my extensively enhanced sensor sweeps, I detected three formations of Idiran craft, many of them with engine emission signatures suggesting heavy cruisers or better, bearing down on my path."

"So this was completely unexpected?"

"Yes. I could not let all three battle groups close in on me - far too much risk of being overwhelmed - so I decided that I had to split my forces and engage each group separately."

"But you were just one ship!" Wollay demanded, "How did you manage that?"

The Avatar smiled just for a moment.

"It is true that there was just one of me," the silver being said, "And indeed the relative tactical inflexibility of very large units was beginning to be deeply understood by the strategic planning groups. Nonetheless, a very significant fraction of my firepower, if I can use such an archaic term, was embodied in semi-autonomous weapons platforms and hyperspace-capable single-use missiles."

"Ah."

"So, I split my forces. In one direction, I sent the bulk of my weapons pods escorted by a few missiles; in another, the remainder of the pods and the majority of the missiles. To engage the third and largest group, I accelerated to a speed well beyond my nominal maximum - inducing certain engine damage and a non-trivial risk of catastrophic engine failure, I might add - and readied my Effector capabilities and Remote-Displacement delivered AM, CAM and nanohole weapons."

"Didn't that leave you significantly weakened?"

"It did. It was a long shot, perhaps. Later, I suspected that the Idrians had not expected to be detected at such extreme range - which was quite definitely a degree of luck on my part. And they were slow to react - so slow, indeed, that animal brains were still part of the decision-making process until they were already under attack."

Wollay was well aware that the AIs of advanced civilizations like the Idirans were extremely capable - although not perhaps as advanced as a Culture Mind - could perform lifetimes of cogitation in a single second. Nevertheless, the Idirans - mainly for religious reasons, it seemed - chose to keep themselves in control, while the Culture had long ado turned over all significant decision-making to the Minds.

"By the time they had managed to turn over their tactical military responses to proper smart AI systems," the Avatar went on, "I have already destroyed more than a dozen of their ships with my own Displaced munitions, and the semi-independent pods and hyperspace missiles had taken a great toll on the other two battle-groups - even if the pods turned out to be rather more expendable than I would have liked. It was a rout: the remainder of the craft engaged in what they would probably have termed a 'tactical retreat', although 'running away' might have been a more accurate description."

The Avatar stood up suddenly and stepped to the patio doors, again seemingly studying the garden.

"I was just about to congratulate myself on my unlikely success, entirely amazed by my own survival," it said softly, almost as if talking to itself, "When I picked up a distress signal, an Idiran distress signal."

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