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Excession, Page 2

Iain M. Banks

  ‘Something,’ Amorphia told her, without irony.

  Dajeil smiled thinly. ‘Which you won’t tell me about.’

  ‘Which I can’t tell you about.’


  ‘Because I don’t yet know myself,’ Amorphia said.

  ‘Ah.’ Dajeil thought for a moment, then stood up and went to one of the holo screens, where a camera drone was tracking a light-dappled school of triangular purple-winged rays across the floor of a shallow part of the sea. She knew this school, too; she had watched three generations of these huge, gentle creatures live and die; she had watched them and she had swum with them and - once - assisted in the birth of one of their young.

  Huge purple wings waved in slow motion, tips intermittently disturbing little golden wisps of sand.

  ‘This is a change indeed,’ Dajeil said.

  ‘Quite so,’ the avatar said. It paused. ‘And it may lead to a change in your own circumstances.’

  Dajeil turned to look at the creature, which was staring intently over the couch at her with wide, unblinking eyes.

  ‘A change?’ Dajeil said, her voice betraying her in its shakiness. She stroked her belly again, then blinked and looked down at her hand as though it too had turned traitor.

  ‘I cannot be sure,’ Amorphia confessed. ‘But it is possible.’

  Dajeil tore off her hair-band and shook her head, setting free her long dark hair so that it half covered her face as she paced from one side of the room to the other.

  ‘I see,’ she said, staring up at the tower’s dome, now sprinkled with a light, drizzling rain. She leant against the wall of holo screens, her gaze fixed on the avatar. ‘When will all this happen?’

  ‘A few small changes - inconsequential, but capable of saving us much time in the future if carried out now - are happening already,’ it said. ‘The rest, the main part of it . . . that will come later. In a day or two, or maybe a week or two . . . if you agree.’

  Dajeil thought for a moment, her face flickering between expressions, then she smiled. ‘You mean you’re asking my permission for all this?’

  ‘Sort of,’ the ship’s representative mumbled, looking down and playing with its fingernails.

  Dajeil let it do this for a while, then she said, ‘Ship, you have looked after me here, indulged me . . .’ she made an effort to smile at the dark-clad creature, though it was still intently studying its nails, ‘. . . humoured me for all this time, and I can never express my gratitude sufficiently or hope even to begin paying you back, but I can’t make your decisions for you. You must do as you see fit.’

  The creature looked up immediately. ‘Then we’ll start tagging all the fauna now,’ it said. ‘That’ll make it quicker to round them up when the time comes. It’ll take a few more days after that before we can start the transformation process. From that point . . .’ It shrugged. It was the most human gesture she had ever seen the avatar make. ‘. . . there may be twenty or thirty days before . . . before some sort of resolution is reached. Again, it’s hard to say.’

  Dajeil folded her arms across the bulge of her forty-year-old, self-perpetuated pregnancy. She nodded slowly. ‘Well, thanks for telling me all this.’ She smiled insincerely, and suddenly she could not hold in the emotions any longer and looked through tears and black, down-tumbled curls at the long-limbed creature arranged upon her couch and said, ‘So, don’t you have things you must be doing?’

  From the top of the rain-blown tower, the woman watched the avatar as it retraced its steps along the narrow path through the sparsely treed water meadow to the foot of the two-kilometre cliff, which was skirted by a rough slope of scree. The thin, dark figure - filling half her field of view and grainy with magnification - negotiated a last great boulder at the base of the cliff, then disappeared. Dajeil let muscles in her eyes relax; meanwhile a set of near-instinctive routines in her brain shut down again. The view returned to normal.

  Dajeil raised her gaze to the overcast. A flight of the box-kite creatures was poised in the air just under the cloud surface directly above the tower, dark rectangular shapes hanging still against the greyness as though standing sentinel over her.

  She tried to imagine what they felt, what they knew. There were ways of tapping directly into their minds, ways that were virtually never used with humans and whose use even with animals was generally frowned upon in proportion to the creature’s intelligence, but they did exist and the ship would let her use them if she asked. There were ways, too, for the ship to simulate all but perfectly what such creatures must be experiencing, and she had used those techniques often enough for a human equivalent of that imitative process to have transferred itself to her mind, and it was that process she invoked now, though to no avail, as it transpired; she was too agitated, too distracted by the things Amorphia had told her to be able to concentrate.

  Instead, she tried to imagine the ship as a whole in that same, trained mind’s eye, remembering the occasions when she had viewed the vessel from its remote machines or gone flying around it, attempting to imagine the changes it was already preparing itself for. She supposed they would be unglimpsable from the sort of distance that would let you see the whole craft.

  She looked around, taking in the great cliff, the clouds and the sea, the darkness of sky. Her gaze swept round the waves, the sea-marsh, and the water meadows beneath the scree and the cliff. She rubbed her belly without thinking, as she had done for nearly forty years, and pondered on the marginality of things, and how quickly change could come, even to something that had seemed set to continue as it was in perpetuity.

  But then, as she knew too well, the more fondly we imagine something will last forever, the more ephemeral it often proves to be.

  She became suddenly very aware of her place here, her position. She saw herself and the tower, both within and outside the ship; outside its main hull - distinct, discrete, straight-sided and measured exactly in kilometres - but within the huge envelope of water, air and gas it encompassed within the manifold layers of its fields (she imagined the force fields sometimes as like the hooped slips, underskirts, skirts, flounces and lace of some ancient formal gown). A slab of power and substance floating in a giant spoonful of sea, most of its vast bulk exposed to the air and clouds that formed its middle layer and around which the sun-line curved each day, and all domed with the long, field-contained pressure vessel of ferocious heat, colossal pressure and crushing gravity that simulated the conditions of a gas-giant planet. A room, a cave, a hollow husk a hundred kilometres long, hurrying through space, with the ship as its vast, flattened kernel. A kernel - an enclosed world inside this world - within which she had not set foot for thirty-nine of these forty unchanging years, having no desire ever again to see that infinite catacomb of the silent undead.

  All to change, Dajeil Gelian thought; all to change, and the sea and the sky to become as stone, or steel . . .

  The black bird Gravious settled by her hand on the stone parapet of the tower.

  ‘What’s going on?’ it croaked. ‘There’s something going on. I can tell. What is it, then? What’s it all about?’

  ‘Oh, ask the ship,’ she told it.

  ‘Already asked it. All it’ll say is there’s changes coming, like as not.’ The bird shook its head once, as if trying to dislodge something distasteful from its beak. ‘Don’t like changes,’ it said. It swivelled its head, fixing its beady gaze upon the woman. ‘What sort of changes, then, eh? What we got to expect? What we got to look forward to, eh? It tell you?’

  She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, not looking at the bird. ‘No, not really.’

  ‘Huh.’ The bird continued to look at her for a moment, then pivoted its head back to look out across the salt marsh. It ruffled its feathers and rose up on its thin black legs. ‘Well,’ it said, ‘Winter’s coming. Can’t delay. Best prepare.’ The bird dropped into the air. ‘Fat lot of use . . .’ she heard it mutter. It opened its wings and flew away on an involute course.

p; Dajeil Gelian looked up to the clouds again, and the sky beyond. All to change, and the sea and the sky to become as stone, or steel . . . She shook her head again, and wondered what extremity of circumstance could possibly have so galvanised the great craft that had been her home, her refuge for so long.

  Whatever; after four decades in its state of self-imposed internal exile, navigating its own wayward course within its sought-out wilderness as part of the civilisation’s Ulterior and functioning most famously as a repository for quiescent souls and very large animals, it sounded like the General Systems Vehicle Sleeper Service was again starting to think and behave a little more like a ship which belonged to the Culture.


  Outside Context Problem


  (GCU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119)

  [swept-to-tight beam, M16.4, received @ n4.28.857.3644]

  xGSV Honest Mistake

  oGCU Grey Area

  Take a look at this:


  (Signal sequence #n428855/1446, relay:)


  1) [skein broadcast, Mclear, received @ n4.28.855.0065+]:



  2) [swept beam M1, received @ n4.28.855.0066-]:



  xFATC @ n4.28.855.


  3) [swept beam, M2, relay, received @ n4.28.855.0079-]:

  xGCU Fate Amenable To Change.

  oGSV Ethics Gradient

  & as requested:

  Significant developmental anomaly.




  4) [tight beam, M16, relay, [email protected]]:

  xGCU Fate Amenable To Change,

  oGSV Ethics Gradient

  & only as required:

  Developmental anomaly provisionally rated EqT, potentially

  jeopardising, found here c9259969+5331.

  My Status: L5 secure, moving to L6ˆ.

  Instigating all other Extreme precautions.


  5) [broadcast Mc lear, received @ n4.28.855.01.]:

  *xGCU Fate Amenable To Change,

  oGSV Ethics Gradient

  & *broadcast*:

  Ref. 3 previous compacs & precursor broadcast.

  Panic over.

  I misinterpreted.

  It’s a Scapsile Vault Craft.

  Ho hum.


  Full Internal Report to follow immediately in High Embarrassment Factor code.



  (End Signal Sequence.)


  xGCU Grey Area

  oGSV Honest Mistake

  Yes. So?


  There is more.

  The ship lied.


  Let me guess; the ship was in fact subverted.

  It is no longer one of ours.


  No, it is believed its integrity is intact.

  But it lied in that last signal, and with good reason.

  We may have an OCP.

  They may want your help, at any price.

  Are you interested?


  An Outside Context Problem? Really? Very well. Keep me

  informed, do.



  This is serious.

  I know no more yet, but they are worried about something.

  Your presence will be required, urgently.


  I dare say. However I have business to complete here first.


  Foolish child!

  Make all haste.


  Mm-hmm. If I did agree, where might I be required?



  (glyphseq. file appended.)

  As you will have gathered, it is from the ITG and concerns our

  old friend.



  Now that is interesting.

  I shall be there directly.


  (End signal file.)


  The ship shuddered; the few remaining lights flickered, dimmed and went out. The alarms dopplered down to silence. A series of sharp impacts registered through the companionway shell walls with resonations in the craft’s secondary and primary structure. The atmosphere pulsed with impact echoes; a breeze picked up, then disappeared. The shifting air brought with it a smell of burning and vaporisation; aluminium, polymers associated with carbon fibre and diamond film, superconductor cabling.

  Somewhere, the drone Sisela Ytheleus could hear a human, shouting; then, radiating wildly over the electromagnetic bands came a voice signal similar to that carried by the air. It became garbled almost immediately then degraded quickly into meaningless static. The human shout changed to a scream, then the EM signal cut off; so did the sound.

  Pulses of radiation blasted in from various directions, virtually information-free. The ship’s inertial field wobbled uncertainly, then drew steady and settled again. A shell of neutrinos swept through the space around the companionway. Noises faded. EM signatures murmured to silence; the ship’s engines and main life support systems were off-line. The whole EM spectrum was empty of meaning. Probably the battle had now switched to the ship’s AI core and back-up photonic nuclei.

  Then a pulse of energy shot through a multi-purpose cable buried in the wall behind, oscillating wildly then settling back to a steady, utterly unrecognisable pattern. An internal camera patch on a structural beam nearby awakened and started scanning.

  It can’t be over that quickly, can it?

  Hiding in the darkness, the drone suspected it was already too late. It was supposed to wait until the attack had reached a plateau phase and the aggressor thought that it was just a matter of mopping up the last dregs of opposition before it made its move, but the attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was such an important part, could only anticipate so much, only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do; there was no brilliant plan you could draw up or cunning stratagem you could employ that would not seem laughably simple and unsophisticated to a profoundly more developed enemy. In this instance they were not perhaps quite at the juncture where resistance became genuinely without point, but - from the ease with which the Elencher ship was being taken over - they were not that far away from it, either.

  Remain calm, the machine told itself. Look at the overview; place this and yourself in context. You are prepared, you are hardened, you are proof. You will do all that you can to survive as you are or at the very least to prevail. There is a plan to be put into effect here. Play your part with skill, courage and honour and no ill will be thought of you by those who survive and succeed.

  The Elench had spent many thousands of years pitting themselves against every kind of technology and every type of civilisational artifact the vast spaces of the greater galaxy could provide, seeking always to understand rather than to overpower, to be changed rather than to enforce change upon others, to incorporate and to share rather than to infect and impose, and in that cause, and with that relatively unmenacing modus operandi, had become perhaps more adept than any - with the possible exception of the mainstream Culture’s semi-military emissaries known as the Contact Section - at resisting outright attack without seeming to threaten it; but for all that the galaxy had been penetrated by so many different explorers in all obvious primary directions to every periphery however distant, enormous volumes of that encompassing arena remained effectively unexplored by the current crop of in-play civilisations, including the Elench (quite how utterly that region, and beyond, was comprehended by the elder species, or even whether they really cared about it at all was simply unknown). And in those swallowingly vast volumes, amongst those spaces between
the spaces between the stars, around suns, dwarfs, nebulae and holes it had been determined from some distance were of no immediate interest or threat, it was of course always possible that some danger waited, some peril lurked, comparatively small measured against the physical scale of the galaxy’s present active cultures, but capable - through a developmental peculiarity or as a result of some form of temporal limbo or exclusionary dormancy - of challenging and besting even a representative of a society as technologically advanced and contactually experienced as the Elench.

  The drone felt calm, thinking as coldly and detachedly as it could for those few moments on the background to its current predicament. It was prepared, it was ready, and it was no ordinary machine; it was at the cutting edge of its civilisation’s technology, designed to evade detection by the most sophisticated instruments, to survive in almost unimaginably hostile conditions, to take on virtually any opponent and to suffer practically any damage in concentric stages of resistance. That its ship, its own manufacturer, the one entity that probably knew it better than it knew itself, was apparently being at this moment corrupted, seduced, taken over, must not affect its judgement or its confidence.

  The displacer, it thought. All I’ve got to do is get near the Displace Pod, that’s all . . .

  Then it felt its body scanned by a point source located near the ship’s AI core, and knew its time had come. The attack was as elegant as it was ferocious and the take-over abrupt almost to the point of instantaneity, the battle-memes of the invading alien consciousness aided by the thought processes and shared knowledge of the by now obviously completely overwhelmed ship.

  With no interval to provide a margin for error at all, the drone shunted its personality from its own AI core to its back-up picofoam complex and at the same time readied the signal cascade that would transfer its most important concepts, programs and instructions first to electronic nanocircuitry, then to an atomechanical substrate and finally - absolutely as a last resort - to a crude little (though at several cubic centimetres also wastefully large) semi-biological brain. The drone shut off and shut down what had been its true mind, the only place it had ever really existed in all its life, and let whatever pattern of consciousness had taken root there perish for lack of energy, its collapsing consciousness impinging on the machine’s new mind as a faint, informationless exhalation of neutrinos.