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

Recovery Operation

Lieutenant-Captain Mathaclorian had not thought to ask how Trista Hy-Golten had travelled to the ambassador's function at the High Seat of the Safanariumal Empire. If he had made an enquiry to the Bhlan Orbital traffic management AI, he would have learned that the human had arrived and would shortly depart alone aboard a Culture-standard six-person module.

The module's outer door slid open silently when Hy-Golten approached it, waiting patiently in the port facilities on the underside of the Orbital.

"Thank you, module," he said politely as he entered, "Please feel free to depart as soon as traffic control permits."

The module did not respond, although its AI was at least as smart as the human and perfectly capable of holding a conversation at length. For obscure reasons, it had decided it was going to maintain a monk-like silence instead, which was entirely its prerogative, and it certainly did not affect its performance in any noticeable way.

The module lit up a couple of screens showing the view ahead and astern. The Culture craft was docked amongst a fairly motley collection of spacecraft, large and small, representing the technologies of the dozens of civilizations currently present. If he had asked, the module would have pointed out the Deluger Franchisement vessel, but he really did not need to know.

A large and comfortable chair malleabled its way out of the floor, facing both screens; Hy-Golten subsided into it. The view on the screens altered as the module eased its way from the space where it had parked and puttered gently towards the hazy shimmering curtains which represented the doubled forcefields which acted as an airlock. The module oozed through the first field - the haziness reducing noticeably - and the second a few moments later. The forward screen showed a starfield littered with brilliant points of light; the rear display showed the dark mass of the Orbital receding, its blackness so deep that it looked like a star-less gash across the universe. A minute or so later, the Orbital vanished abruptly as the module unleashed its real engines and dived into hyperspace; the screens switched seamlessly to a Realspace Adjusted View, showing the stars as they would have been if they had remained in the reality of the skein.

"That looks good," Hy-Golten said, sounding satisfied and glanding a little Hush to settle into a nap, "Wake me when we get to the VFP."

The module could have taken Hy-Golten anywhere he might have wanted to go, although it would take a very long time given the size of the galaxy and the fact that the tiny craft could not manage more than a couple of hundred times the speed of light. General Contact Units were a lot faster; General Systems Vehicles - especially the really huge specimens the Culture had taken to building in recent centuries - were even quicker, although their routes were scheduled months, even years in advance and consequently difficult to change. So, if you wanted to shift a small packet of matter - a human, for example - around the galaxy very quickly indeed, what you needed was a warship.

Many centuries ago, the Culture had built a huge armada of out-and-out warships to defeat the Idirans during that long and bloody distraction. After the cessation of hostilities, the Culture immediately - much to the surprise of at least some of the more suspicious or paranoid civilizations out there - started dismantling the colossal war machine it had built. Ships were dismantled, componentised, stored and deactivated by the tens of thousands. A few - mainly Rapid Offensive Units - were retained as operational craft, minus their main armaments, and re-designated as Very Fast Pickets, mainly to act as a hyper-quick taxi service when required.

Hy-Golten's module was currently heading for a rendezvous with the Psychopath Class ex-ROU, now VFP Tell It To The Jury which was standing off well outside the jurisdiction claimed by the Safanariumal Empire.

A few hours later, Hy-Golten woke up feeling refreshed, gently responding to a discreet vibration in the chair where he had fallen asleep. The forward screen showed a starfield only slightly different from the one displayed when they had left Bhlan Orbital, although there was a blinking red circle in the centre which presumably marked the location of the VFP. The module was obviously decelerating hard and a matt-black object rapidly expanded against the stars looking, as had so often been remarked, exactly like a dildo.

A few minutes later, the module was absorbed within the ex-warship and Hy-Golten was able to walk the few steps to the tiny - although thoughtfully laid out - space which constituted the accommodation section.

"Welcome back."

The voice of the Tell It To The Jury came from nowhere in particular.

"Glad to be here," Hy-Golten replied.

"How did the interview with Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian go?"

"He went for it," the human replied, sounding smug, "Hook, line and sinker."

"Excellent," the voice of the old warship sounded similarly pleased, "So let's go get this Dynastist's Foot thing, shall we?"

Trista Hy-Golten had learned about pan-humanity as part of his extensive schooling, about the great diasporic welter of human-like, human-ish and humanoid species scattered throughout so much of the galaxy. There were bogglingly large numbers just of these pan-humans (of which, of course, he was one), but they still formed less than a single per cent of all the aggregated life-mass of the greater galaxy.

Most citizens of the Blitteringueh Conglo were humanoid, by the conventional definition: head and arms and legs in approximately the right places, although the Culture - though it had plenty of extreme outliers in its population - would consider they had longer arms and shorter legs than the mean. There were a higher than normal proportion of humanoid robots: obviously mechanical constructions operated by embedded computational substrates, most running copies or representations of biological people rather than being synthetic intelligences. There were also plenty of smart machines who together coordinated larger-scale activities across planets and habitats, and cooperated in running the society, rather than the Culture's approach of relying on - usually - singleton Minds of enormous abilities for overall control.

"Sounds good to me," Hy-Golten said, flopping on a convenient couch, "How long will it take to get there?"

"A little over fifty hours, at my maximum sustainable velocity," the VFP replied, "We'll be targeting the Mattaringhalg Habitat, which seems to have specialised in the minutiae of the war with the Deluger Franchisement. They certainly have the largest collection of artifacts from those few weeks and their latest catalogues definitely list the artifact as present."

"Good. So, we're just going to ask nicely?"

"Frankly, it would trivially easy to just go and pinch it," the ship said, sounding worryingly gung-ho for a moment, "But, since the Conglo are not particularly interested in the relic any more and, to be honest, the Powers That Be are insisting that a negotiation must be tried and in any case is likely to be successful. So, yes."

"Splendid," Hy-Golten replied, "So I should expect to talk to members of this clan when we arrive?"

"Please. They seem to prefer 'real people', as they would put it. So, another polite interaction when we get there, if you would be so kind."

The Blitteringueh Conglo Library Clan had long maintained a large number of facilities, buildings and habitats scattered throughout the modest volume of space the society regarded as their home turf. It was not that the civilization as a whole particularly wanted sole access to this part of the galaxy; it was just that they wanted to have some say in the actions and intentions of others in the immediate region and insisted that other civs who wanted to make some change in the area should consult with them first.

The Library Clan had long since taken it upon themselves to be the guardians of history, as far as the greater Conglo was concerned. Most members of the society did not dwell very much on the mysteries of the past, preferring to concentrate on the pleasures of the present and the opportunities of the future. So, the Clan was something of an outcast organisation and tended to attract modest numbers of rather introverted and, frankly, weird individuals to its service.

"Okay," Hy-Golten said, adding, "We do have a permanent presence in the Blitteringueh Conglo, don't we? And they are expecting us?"

"Yes, and yes," the ship replied promptly, "There's a full Contact mission and actually quite a lot of tourists, for some reason. We have already made a formal request to the appropriate bit of their governance and received approval-in-principle. Apparently, it's up to the Library Clan themselves to make a final decision, although there's nothing to suggest that they won't agree."

"Okay, good. So nothing for me to do until we get there?"

"Well," the ship said, "I've invented a couple more of those games you like. Do you want to have a go at one of them?"

"Great!"

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.211]
  xVFP Tell It To The Jury
    oGSV Meddlesome Kids
Our Deluger contact seems willing to play along. [Report attached]
I am now on my way to the Blitteringueh Conglo now.


[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.211+]
  xGSV Meddlesome Kids
    oVFP Tell It To The Jury
Make the best time you can.
And keep your metaphorical eyes peeled. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or another of the parties tries some monkey business before the end of this.


All engines ahead full. Lookout telescopes on the poop deck.

*

Relations between the Culture and the Blitteringueh Conglo were profoundly peaceful but, as a matter of respect, the Tell It To The Jury did not just go barrelling into the middle of their territory at maximum speed and perform a crash-stop a light-minute from the habitat in question. This would certainly be considered rude, perhaps even provocative, and might result in the local Contact section representative receiving a stern telling-off.

Instead, the VFP stopped on the outskirts of the volume the Conglo treated as theirs and dispatched the same untalkative module with Hy-Golten aboard. The module would take half a day to travel the distance that the ship could cover in a couple of minutes, but the diplomatic advantages were considered to outweigh the time saving.

The module's forward screen showed a view of Mattaringhalg Habitat set against the sunlit side of a planet entirely covered by swirling clouds in various shades of muted grey. The habitat itself was a rotating cylinder with squared-off ends plugging the structure so that the internal atmosphere could not escape. It was at the bigger end of sizes for such structures with a large enough diameter that the curvature would not be too obvious from inside. It was spun at a rate to provide gravity to the preferences of the Blitteringueh, which was just a little less that the Culture regarded as standard.

As was conventional, port facilities for visiting spacecraft were in the centre of the plugs, where the movement of the habitat was minimal and therefore the rotational gravity was close to zero. Many visitors would find such micro-gravity inconvenient, unpleasant or even vomit-inducing, and so the builders of Mattaringhalg had provided AG in these regions to avoid any intestinal upsets.

"Go straight in," Hy-Golten said to the module, "As quickly as Traffic Control permits."

There was no response from the module, although the rate of approach of the habitat might have speeded up a fraction.

The habitat's apparent simplicity of form collapsed into a welter of pylons, towers, antennae and miscellaneous structures of uncertain purpose as the module approached its designated dock, all wheeling around dramatically. The visible rotation slowed, then stopped, as the module matched the spin; the designated airlock centred on the screen and marked by a completely unnecessary flashing light. The port door irised open; Hy-Golten watched the lock close again in the rear-facing screen. The module came to a halt exactly three millimetres above the hardened deck; presumably the lock had filled with what passed as the local atmosphere as the module's door slid open almost immediately.

Hy-Golten swung his legs off the couch where he had been taking his ease, stretched his shoulders then stepped down onto the worn concrete of the airlock. The inner door opened only very slightly jerkily; he stepped outside, where a very strange-looking little man was waiting for him.

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