Yep! You read it right! I am going to try some fan fiction today based on the excellent Culture Series by the sorely missed Iain M. Banks. A little background, I am setting this story before the time of the novel Consider Phlebas during the early stages of the Idiran Culture War. If you want to know more about this highly entertaining series, please check on the links. It goes without saying that all of the rights to this universe go to the estate of Mr Banks. Anyway, Enjoy.
x Be’dril system defence task force
o GCU Casting a line to see if God bites
M8 wide beam
Sorry to be the barer of bad news but one of our listening posts has detected that a section of the main Idiran advance has broken off and is heading your way. Numbers estimated from Skein signatures are1000 (±100) capital ships (Sensor logs attached). We estimate their arrival in your system within the hour. Make plans accordingly. Good luck.
Far out in the depths of space, close to half a year from the Be’dril Sun, the cliff class superlifter Beast of Burden was doing a pitch-perfect impression of a piece of cometary debris. Casting it’s passive sensing systems sunwards it could see the active sensors of the thirty GCUs in defensive array. Behind them was the orbital itself in all its splendor, two Plate class GSVs keeping station alongside, the skein alive with displacer activity as the final evacuation was being conducted.
That was the Beast of Burden‘s and the task force’s mission. To delay the Idirans long enough for the GSVs to get every living thing and mind off the orbital and away to safety. With the war only four months in the enemy had been beyond the worst fears of the Culture in their viciousness. Dozens of orbitals and other habitats, many not active at all in the war effort, had been destroyed in what was clearly an attempt to get the Culture to sue for peace.
It was not working. Instead of despairing the Culture were consolidating their production capacity. All orbitals within Idiran strike range were being evacuated, those with the capacity were being moved but others were just abandoned, its people, Mind and all useful material stripped, and the orbital itself destroyed to prevent them falling into enemy hands. That was the plan for Be’dril. Once everything was loaded onto the civilian GSVs. They would make best speed deeper into Culture territory while a third GSV, an Ocean class hiding somewhere in system would then dust the orbital with Gridfire and CAM, reducing it to atoms, useless to the Idirans.
The Idirans would surely try and prevent that and if they arrived before the orbital could be evacuated then even the GSVs might be captured. The thirty GCUs were no match for a thousand plus enemy ships but they were only a diversion. The Beast of Burden and another eighty units were hidden in the volume beyond the system along with wide assortment of mines, booby trapped modules, intelligent missiles and a thousand other instruments of annihilation each more inventive than the last. When the Idirans arrived simulations had them diving straight at the defending GCUs giving the hidden units and their assorted toys the chance to deal a very damaging blow. They may not stop them completely but in a war at this civilizational level, even seconds gained mattered greatly.
The superlifter was preparing for the fight, making last minute adjustments to its weapon systems, optimising field management, and simming as fast as its hyperspacial substrate would allow. It was so engrossed that it was almost a shock when there was a signal from another seemingly innocuous comet an hour down-orbit.
o Superlifter Beast of Burden
x ROU The Pointy End
M8 tight beam
I can’t stand the waiting. This must be the worst part of war.
The beast of burden spent a nanosecond considering sending a detailed set of recordings, saved mind states, and similar experiential evidence that proved the worst part of war was in fact, the dying. But it decided against it. The Pointy End, like all the Culture’s dedicated warships was young. Less than a month old in this case and while for a Mind age meant very little in terms of knowledge available and intelligence to process it, experience still counted for something. It decided instead to respond simply.
o ROU The Pointy End
x Superlifer Beast of Burden
M8 Tight Beam
They’ll be here soon enough. Shouldn’t you be preparing like the rest of us?
No need. Every system is in tip-top shape. I was built for this remember. Meat! Even my crew are staring to get restless.
You have crew aboard?
That was unexpected. Most of the holding forces, even the GCUs acting as bait, knew full well that they had less than a 30% chance of surviving the coming engagement. For a Mind that baulks at displacing fragile humans that would have been insanely high. Most of the fleet had made arrangements to leave their crews with one of the GSVs. It not only prevented unnecessary worry but also enabled them to use their full maneuvering capabilities without having to secure fragile lifeforms inside. It was pointless having them aboard anyway, it was not as if they did anything useful.
The Idirans were expected within less than five minutes and the preparations were almost finished. The GSVs offered to take updated mind-states from the defending ships, so that they may continue on if they did not survive the engagement. The Beast of Burden sent another inquiry to its neighbour.
o ROU The Pointy End
x Superlifter Beast of Burden
M8 Tight Beam
Did you at least save their mind states?
I offered. But they declined. They figured that since I wasn’t going to save mine we should all be in it together.
You what? Are you crazy? Why have you not saved your mind-state?
I’m only a month old. Not much to save. I have sent a couple of universal constructs and IFS programs that I am proud of to Be’dril Hub for safe keeping. If I can’t make use of them hopefully others will.
Not saved its mind-state? The machine was insane. The Beast of Burden went through its memories of other warships it had met in the course of the war. They all took a laissez-faire attitude to death, part of the job description. But still, most took the precaution of saving their mind-states when they were at risk of destruction. Either it was very confident of living through the battle or it just didn’t care about dying. Both attitudes highly troubling for a Mind. Warship or not.
It was going to ask The Pointy End in more detail what it was thinking when its sensors detected incoming ripples in the Skein. The rest of the fleet also starting pinging what they had detected confirming its own reading. The Idirans had arrived.
The intelligence from the other Culture units was largely correct. The Idiran force appeared to number in excess of a thousand units and they were diving straight into the system towards the orbital, GSVs, and the defending GCU screen. Simming wildly the Beast of Burden carefully adjusted some of its ordinance to better capture the approaching enemy and waited, hoping the ruse would work.
It almost did. The Idirans teared through space heading right where they were expected to go, track scanners pointed straight ahead. The microseconds counted down to the best time to spring the trap. Ten, nine, eight, seven…
Then all hell broke loose. One of the Idirans must have spotted something and transmitted a general alarm. The enemy forced started to evade hard, breaking heavily against the Grid. The moved quickly but not quick enough. NOW! Transmitted one of the Culture ships. The beast of burden set off its hidden store of death.
More energy than an entire star would release in a million years was pumped into the space on the edge of the system. Over a hundred enemy ships were just gone, their elementary particles smeared across spacetime. Three time as many were converted to hulks, their control systems, and presumably any biological crews, smashed to oblivion. The rest, with response times determined by the extent of damage each had received, swerved recklessly to avoid the onslaught and started searching frantically for anything to engage.
They did not have to wait long. The hidden defenders, the Beast of Burden and The Pointy End included, Turned on their track scanners and drive-fields to maximum the microsecond after the ordinance had detonated. They charged straight at the Idirans, every weapon they had firing at maximum. Many more of the most damaged Idirans were blasted into nothingness.
The Idirans however, soon spotted the approaching defenders and started to return fire. Many GCUs were caught in the massed energies of multiple Idiran weapons and were destroyed. It was chaos. Existence depending on microsecond-scale actions.
The Beast of Burden, as one of the faster ship classes. Had been assigned to assault the Idiran flanks, keeping them tightly bunched and less likely to break through. It tore down on the scattering enemy force, firing as soon as its weapons came to bear. It passed within ten thousand kilometers of one of the hulks. With no energy emissions or life signs detected it was probably beyond being a threat but to be safe the superlifter fired a plasma burst at the hulk and it vaporised.
Like everything the Culture did, the progress of the battle was highly organised. The ships moved in concert, aiming to maintain pressure on the Idiran advance as each unit succumbed to superior enemy number.
The Beast of Burden showed no sign of being done just yet. With The Pointy End it scythed through the Idirans bringing destruction in its wake. Though moderately slower than the superlifter the ROU was much more maneuverable. It made a random three dimensional zig zag pattern through the Idiran lines. Firing its weapons as it went and then veering away before any response could be made.
This was not from lack of trying. The Idirans were constantly re-deploying their forces in an effort to trap these flies in their ointment.
For one microsecond, the Beast of Burden thought they had finally succeeded when multiple missiles converged on The Pointy End‘s signal, exploding furiously. The signature was all wrong however. Not nearly enough mass. The Beast‘s doubts were answered when a fraction of a second later an Idiran light crusier, clearly under effector attack, veered into its companion, destroying both, and a piece of random flotsam, by all appearances a dud missile from the Culture ship, turned on its drive fields to maximum and spiraled away to continue its assault.
o Superlight Beast of Burden
x ROU The Pointy End
M12 Tight Beam
Pretty good. Don’t you think?
The superlifter silently agreed.
The battle raged for well over a minute, very long by the standards of the war. The defenders were joined by the thirty GCUs from sunwards and the hidden GSV offered long-range fire support by peppering Idiran concentrations with Gridfire. Still the Culture numbers were dwindling. It was only a matter of time before the Idirans broke through.
Then it all changed. There were two heavy ripples in the Skein as the two Plate class GSVs accelerated away at full power. Less than a second later the orbital lit up as it was coated in Gridfire. It was quick and messy but effective. The structure melted away in seconds.
There was a third, smaller ripple in the Skein followed by a transmission.
o Be’dril defence task force
x GSV More Power Than I Know What To Do With
Mclear wide beam
All culture units. Full retreat. Get out of there.
The Beast of Burden did not need to be told twice. It immediately about faced and headed out to open space.
Suddenly to its horror it noted a flight of Idiran missiles heading towards it. It frantically simmed through as many escape routes as it could but none seemed likely. It was done.
A microsecond later The Pointy End swung by, heading in the direction of the missiles. At its closest approach, the ROU released a largish module and transmitted a short message.
o Superlifter Beast of Burden
x ROU The Pointy End
M16 tight beam
Here! Catch! Turn off your rear sensors and accelerate hard.
The Beast of Burden did as asked. Enfolding the module in its fields it rocketed to maximum acceleration, deactivating its rear-facing sensor units as it went.
Two microseconds later the Beast‘s rear fields registered a massive energy spike behind it. It cautiously reactivated its rear scanners and took a look.
It was as it had feared. The Pointy End had destroyed itself in an annihilatory burst of energy, all its mass converted to destructive power. The explosion had taken out all the missiles as well as several pursuing Idirans. In addition, the rest of the enemy forces were maneuvering blindly, their sensors overwhelmed by the tremendous energies deployed. They would soon repair them but the Beast of Burden would be long gone by then.
As it watched, the radiation from the explosion began to take on a form. The seemingly random pulse of energy shaped itself into Idiran characters that said.
I am the Culture ROU The Pointy End. You may have destroyed me but I will return to fight again. I will have many siblings and together we will make you pay for what you have done, every fucking last one of you. You fight the Culture at your peril. We will continue to fight and we will win.
As the Beast of Burden thought about this there was a transmission from the module still nestled in its fields.
A bit much maybe?
The Beast of Burden in its shock finally turned its sensors to the contents of the module. Inside were eight humans, stored inside high-G suits and one Mind, crammed in the back.
So you managed to survive after all?
In a manner of speaking. I’ve asked ahead and there is a ROU body in the GSV No Gravitas Here that needs a Mind emplaced in it as soon as possible. Care to give me a lift?
So it had lived, the Beast of Burden thought, it had faced the jaws of destruction and saved not only itself but this admittedly crazy Mind and its rather delicate charges. These new warships may have been a major shift for the Culture. But if they could all be as skilled, as resourceful, as that little Mind had been. They they would be in with a chance.
It knew one thing, it thought, as it watched the Idirans consolidate their hold on the rapidly receding system, occasional explosion indicated they had uncovered yet another booby-trap.
It was going to be a long war.