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

Escape Route

Technically, it was a branch of metamathematics, usually called metamathics. Metamathics; the investigation of the properties of Realities (more correctly, Reality-fields) intrinsically unknowable by and from our own, but whose general principles could be hazarded at.

Metamathics led to everything else, it led to the places that nobody else had ever seen or heard of or previously imagined.

It was like living half your life in a tiny, stuffy, warm grey box, and being moderately happy in there because you knew no better… and then discovering a little hole in one corner of the box, a tiny opening which you could get a finger into, and tease and pull at, so that eventually you created a tear, which led to a greater tear, which led to the box falling apart around you… so that you stepped out of the tiny box's confines into startlingly cool, clear fresh air and found yourself on top of a mountain, surrounded by deep valleys, sighing forests, soaring peaks, glittering lakes, sparkling snowfields and a stunning, breathtakingly blue sky. And that, of course, was not even the start of the real story, that was more like the breath that is drawn in before the first syllable of the first word of the first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book of the first volume of the story.

Metamathics led to the Mind equivalent of that experience, repeated a million times, magnified a billion times, and then beyond, to configurations of wonder and bliss even the simplest abstract of which the human-basic brain had no conceivable way of comprehending. It was like a drug; an ultimately liberating, utterly enhancing, unadulterably beneficial, overpoweringly glorious drug for the intellect of machines as far beyond the sagacity of the human mind as they were beyond its understanding.

This was the way the Minds spent their time. They imagined entirely new universes with altered physical laws, and played with them, lived in them and tinkered with them, sometimes setting up the conditions for life, sometimes just letting things run to see if it would arise spontaneously, sometimes arranging things so that life was impossible but other kinds and types of bizarrely fabulous complication were enabled.

Some of the universes possessed just one tiny but significant alteration, leading to some subtle twist in the way things worked, while others were so wildly, aberrantly different it could take a perfectly first-rate Mind the human equivalent of years of intense thought even to find the one tenuously familiar strand of recognisable reality that would allow it to translate the rest into comprehensibility. Between those extremes lay an infinitude of universes of unutterable fascination, consummate joy and absolute enlightenment. All that humanity knew and could understand, every single aspect, known, guessed at and hoped for in and of the universe was like a mean and base mud hut compared to the vast, glittering cloud-high palace of monumentally exquisite proportions and prodigious riches that was the metamathical realm. Within the infinities raised to the power of infinities that those metamathical rules provided, the Minds built their immense pleasure-domes of rhapsodic philosophical ecstasy.

That was where they lived. That was their home. When they were not running ships, meddling with alien civilisations or planning the future course of the Culture itself, the Minds existed in those fantastic virtual realities, sojourning beyond into the multi-dimensioned geographies of their unleashed imaginations, vanishingly far away from the single limited point that was reality.

The Minds had long ago come up with a proper name for it; they called it the Irreal, but they thought of it as Infinite Fun. That was what they really knew it as. The Land of Infinite Fun. It did the experience pathetically little justice.

The Tell It To The Jury promenaded metaphysically amongst the lush creations of its splendid disposition, an expanding shell of awareness in a dreamscape of staggering extent and complexity, like a gravity-free sun built by a jeweller of infinite patience and skill.

There was only one problem with the Land of Infinite Fun, and that was that if you ever did lose yourself in it completely - as Minds occasionally did, just as humans sometimes surrendered utterly to some AI environment - you could forget that there was a base reality at all. In a way, this did not really matter, as long as there was somebody back where you came from minding the hearth. The problem came when there was nobody left or inclined to tend the fire, mind the store, look after the housekeeping (or however you wanted to express it), or if somebody or something else - somebody or something from outside, the sort of entity that came under the general heading of an Outside Context Problem, for example - decided they wanted to meddle with the fire in that hearth, the stock in the store, the contents and running of the house; if you had spent all your time having Fun, with no way back to reality, or just no idea what to do to protect yourself when you did get back there, then you were vulnerable. In fact, you were probably dead, or enslaved.

It did not matter that base reality was petty and grey and mean and demeaning and quite empty of meaning compared to the glorious majesty of the multi-hued life you had been living through metamathics; it did not matter that base reality was of no consequence aesthetically, hedonistically, metamathically, intellectually and philosophically; if that was the single foundation-stone that all your higher-level comfort and joy rested upon, and it was kicked away from underneath you, you fell, and your limitless pleasure realms fell with you.

It was just like some ancient electricity-powered computer; it did not matter how fast, error-free and tireless it was, it did not matter how great a labour-saving boon it was, it did not matter what it could do or how many different ways it could amaze; if you pulled its plug out, or just hit the Off button, all it became was a lump of matter; all its programs became just settings, dead instructions, and all its computations vanished as quickly as they'd moved.

It was, also, like the dependency of the human-basic brain on the human-basic body; no matter how intelligent, perceptive and gifted you were, no matter how entirely you lived for the ascetic rewards of the intellect and eschewed the material world and the ignobility of the flesh, if your heart just gave out...

That was the Dependency Principle; that you could never forget where your Off switches were located, even if it was somewhere tiresome. It was the problem that Subliming dispensed with, of course, and it was one of the (usually more minor) reasons that civilisations chose Subliming; if your course was set in that direction in the first place then eventually that reliance on the material universe came to seem vestigial, untidy, pointless, and even embarrassing.

It was not the course the Culture had fully embarked upon, at least not yet, but as a society it was well aware of both the difficulties presented by remaining in base reality and the attractions of the Sublime. In the meantime, it compromised, busying itself in the macrocosmic clumsiness and petty, messy profanity of the real galaxy while at the same time exploring the transcendental possibilities of the sacred Irreal.

A sub-sentient sub-program running in a tiny sub-core of the hyperspacial substrate which formed the computational core of the Mind of the Tell It To The Jury awoke, triggered by a regularly-scheduled hyperspace scan of a region of the surface of a little planet known as Epsilona, and pondered for a few microseconds before pinging the Mind itself.

The attention from the Mind snapped from the glorious splendours of the Irreal to the sordid mundanities of the Real, the realities whose absolute existence could be confirmed by experiment and observation, rather than the endless inference and speculation provided by Metamathics. It examined the scan results minutely, although the contents were clear enough; there were no signs of tampering or fakery of any kind. Time to go, the Mind of the Tell It To The Jury thought; it's been a long time coming, but it was inevitable.

The Culture's picket ships - mostly but not invariably disarmed warships - spent much time just hanging around waiting for something to happen. Some were stationed aboard General Service Vehicles - the Culture's mobile marshalling points and high-speed transports - others in hangers underneath Orbitals and other large habitats; yet others were concealed in out of the way places - wandering asteroids, for example, of which the galaxy had a great many - and still others simply waited quietly in the swallowingly vast spaces between the stars.

The Tell It To The Jury had been loitering, off and on, in quiet contemplation for several hundred years. Several possible - although very unlikely - events might have occurred to cause it to leap into action: a war or other sudden threat to the existence of the Culture which required an immediate military response; an unanticipated supernova or other stellar explosion which threatened the lives of people in nearby Orbitals or other habitats. But the event it was actually waiting for was a message, delivered in a distinctly low-tech way at the far end, from Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle.

A microsecond for a full systems check - not that it was really needed, since any incipient malfunction would have brought itself to the ship's attention automatically - then its engine fields extended, reaching deep into hyperspace to engage with the four-dimensional pseudo-surface of the energy Grid, that impenetrable boundary between universes which also provided the vast energies which were required to propel a starship at speeds many thousands of times that of light on the skein. The engine fields deployed, the ship dove into the lesser hyperspace, then Inducting, flittering between the inferior and superior hyperspaces, and accelerating smoothly over a few tens of milliseconds to reach its Terminal Acceleration Point - top speed, effectively - heading in the direction of Epsilona.

*

"Welcome back," the urbane voice of the Tell It To The Jury said in Marain, then switched to the language commonly spoken in the region of Epsilona around Brunanburh, "Goodwife Yasline, welcome aboard."

Yasline stood, eyes wide. She had been sitting companionably on her husband's lap when, without warning, the chill wind and blue sky of the high plain was suddenly replaced with what looked very much like a well-lit sitting room or salon, albeit one with rather more pale-coloured fabrics than she was used to and an astonishing lack of ornaments of any kind.

"Where am I?" she demanded, "And who is speaking? Show yourself!"

"Perhaps I should explain," he said, unfolding himself from the soft mat where the Displace had deposited the two of them, somewhat unceremoniously, a few moments before.

She spun around, taking his offered hands for all the reassurance that might give.

"First," he said gently, "You are safe. Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine a place safer than where you are now."

"But where is it?" she insisted.

"I once told you that I had been to other worlds, around other suns," he said, "And to travel to such worlds, one needs a ship, a ship of space. Right now, you are aboard such a spaceship."

Yasline looked around, obviously confused.

"I thought ships had sails and rigging, or oars," she said plaintively, looking wildly from side to side, "And crews."

"Ships of the sea do," her husband replied, "But ships of space, they are their own sails. And their own crew, too."

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