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

A titanic surge shook the corridor which suddenly canted dramatically, throwing the two lovers to their knees. It seemed that Phage Rock really was able to manoeuvre; some vast engines hidden somewhere on the asteroid were now operating to throw the habitat into a new orbit.

~Get in here! Quickly!

Olivero indicated a door edged with hatched blue bands flashing urgently. He tugged it open, and both he and Seich tumbled inside the red-lit interior. Together they slammed the door and toggled the seal; there was a hiss as the independent atmosphere generator cut in, and the garish red lighting was replaced by a more subdued yellow-green which would have been close to daylight on Tursen.

"Alone at last!" Olivero announced, grinning widely. It was probably just shock that made them both hold each other and giggle uncontrollably.

Once Seich thought she could string a coherent sentence together and consider things rationally, she felt she had to know something about the current tactical situation.

"Phage. Please tell us what's going on."

"I am under attack," Phage said promptly, a calm voice in her ears, "by Hegemony forces."

~Ah, yes, I should have guessed. The bastards! Olivero exclaimed, evidently getting the same response in his own language.

The Hegemony was an unofficial, widely-used and basically pejorative term used to refer to the Tursen Varsal Unity - an uneasy union of several of the most powerful governments on the planet, supported - mainly because they could see no other option - by the very largest of the space-based conglomerates, corporations and companies. As is the very nature of such organisations, the Hegemony was adamant that they were the ones legitimately in control of the entire system, and it was their responsibility to manage the flow of resources and, of course, money everywhere.

This rather stuck in the metaphorical craw of the smaller and extremely numerous independent operators in space - identified under the umbrella banner of the Buhdren Federality - who felt that they had earned the right to a certain amount of independence: the ability to determine how they wished to manage their own affairs and distribute their own wealth.

These days, they rarely used any resources from the home planet - indeed, advanced space-based manufacturing and asteroid mining meant that they were a nett contributor of materials and manufactured goods, and the high birth-rate in space habitats meant that the outer system population was exploding even without immigrants from densely populated worlds.

The Buhdren Federality were on the verge of surpassing the intellectual output of the Hegemony, too, preferring to fund a vast amount of space-based research and development - with, understandably, a special focus on the physics of space-drives and the advancement of what was still, rather quaintly, generally referred to as artificial intelligence - rather than merely line the pockets of shareholders.

There had long been what was effectively an undeclared civil war between the two sides, somewhat tempered by the demands of commerce, or at least profit. The Buhdren Federality often has access to stuff that the Hegemony wanted, or found cheaper to buy rather than go and get it themselves, or indeed take by force of arms - the latter would have set an unconvincing precedent for an organisation which depended on convincing its population that its actions were always and entirely constrained by laws.

It was the Hegemony who had actually constructed a space-based Enforcement Agency with specialist armed ships, defensive emplacements and military command structure. Buhdren Federality ships were ostentatiously without dedicated weaponry, although there was a certain debate about just what could be achieved using, for example, an uprated signalling laser.

The alarmingly tilting floor was further shaken by a series of percussive bangs which sounded like blows from the immense hammer of some titanic god intent on forging an equally vast sword against the anvil which was Phage Rock.

~What the fuck's happening? Olivero shouted, uncertain whether Phage's sophisticated audio-processing capability would be able to hear him over the noise.

"I am manoeuvring to aim my Inner System Mass Launcher," Phage said primly, "To lay down a barrage of rubblized rock to intersect with the likely paths of the attacking ships."

This was the railgun which was normally used to launch targeted cargo pods towards the inner system for the delivery of semi-processed materials and manufactured goods.

~It doesn't normally make such a din!

"Well, I have upgraded it a bit. Quite a bit, actually."

Olivero pulled open a compartment set into the wall - a wall now in some danger of becoming the floor - and pulled out a couple of emergency lightweight space-suits. He handed one to Seich.

~Put this on! He yelled.

Olivero dressed swiftly and with practised ease, even in the tight confines of the emergency compartment, bracing himself against the wildly-tiling floor. Any experienced space-dwelling person would, of necessity, have practiced emergency drills on a regular basis. Siech, as an Outworlder, was unfamiliar with this model of suit, and struggled to understand the instructions through the buzz of the translator and to orientate the suit components.

~Let me help! He urged.

"I can manage," she replied, fumbling with the seals and latches on the gloves before reaching for the helmet.

The two lovers were in a sealed emergency shelter, well inside ten billion tonnes of nickel-rich iron rock and equipped with both an essentially indefinite air supply and functioning emergency suits. So it was only incredibly bad luck that a missile carrying a shaped nuclear charge - one of only two which actually impacted Phage during the entire engagement - which drove a clutch of super-dense penetrators - a design specifically intended to disrupt multiple air-tight volumes within a target through tens of metres of rock - one of which clipped the corner of the emergency compartment.

The sudden decompression caused by a decimetre hole to the vacuum of space blew the helmet out of Siech's hands and smashed it against the bulkhead, the shredded fragments disappearing with any other loose items. The last thing she remembered, before she passed out from asphyxia, was Olivero's panicked face through the transparent faceplate, struggling to block the hole.

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