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EXCESSION《无限异象》 / Iain M. Banks

发表于 2021-2-26 01:04:33 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式
本帖最后由 Reader86 于 2021-2-26 01:23 AM 编辑


https://library.uniteddiversity. ... cession%20v1.0.html

First published in Great Britain in 1996: Scanned by HugHug

ISBN: 1 85723 394 8

Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year old dying sun from a different universe.  It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing.  Then it disappeared.  Now it is back.

Silent, motionless, and resisting all efforts to make contact, the artifact waits.  The Culture ships, however, cannot.  For the artifact is something they need to understand first, before it falls into less understanding hands - and triggers a political and military crisis which will threaten everything the Culture has achieved.

One person who saw the artifact when it first appeared may have information concerning its purpose, but she is living out her death in the immense Eccentric ship, the Sleeper Service.  The Culture ships formulate a plan to retrieve her.  The Sleeper Service has other things on its mind.

A novel of extraordinary imagination, richness and energy, Excession is Iain M. Banks at his magnificent best.

1.        Outside Context Problem
2.        Not Invented Here
3.        Uninvited Guests
4.        Dependency Principle
5.        Kiss The Blade
6.        Pittance
7.        Tier
8.        Killing Time
9.        Unacceptable Behaviour
10.        Heavy Messing
11.        Regarding Gravious
12.        Faring Well



A little more than one hundred days into the fortieth year of her confinement, Dajeil Gelian was visited in her lonely tower overlooking the sea by an avatar of the great ship that was her home.

Far out amongst the heaving grey waves, beneath drifting banks of mist, the great slow bodies of some of the small sea's larger inhabitants humped and slid.  Jets of vapour issued from the animals' breathing holes in exhaled blasts that rose like ghostly, insubstantial geysers amongst the flock of birds accompanying the school, causing them to climb and wheel and scream, side-slipping and fluttering in the cool air.  High above, slipping in and out of pink-rubbed layers of cloud like small slow clouds themselves, other creatures moved, dirigibles and kites cruising the upper atmosphere with wings and canopies extended, warming in the watery light of a new day.

That light came from a line, not a point in the sky, because the place where Dajeil Gelian lived was not an ordinary world.  The single strand of fuzzy incandescence began near the far, seaward horizon, stretched across the sky and disappeared over the foliage-strewn lip of the two-thousand-metre-high cliff a kilometre behind the beach and the single tower.  At dawn, the sun-line would have appeared to rise from the horizon to starboard; at mid-day it would be directly above the tower, and at sunset it would seem to disappear into the sea to port.  It was mid-morning now, and the line lay about half-way up the sky, describing a glowing arc across the vault like some vast slow-moving skipping rope forever twirling above the day.

On either side of the bar of yellow-white light the sky beyond - the real sky; the sky above the clouds - could be seen; a solid-looking brown-black over-presence that hinted at the extreme pressures and temperatures contained within, and where other animals moved in a cloudscape of chemistries entirely toxic to that below, but which in shape and density mirrored the grey, wind-ruffled sea.

Steady lines of waves broke on the grey slope of the shingle beach, beating on shattered, ground-up shells, tiny fragments of hollow animal carapaces, brittle lengths of light-blighted sea-wrack, water-smoothed slivers of wood, pitted pebbles of foamstone like dainty marbles of porous bone and a general assortment of seaside detritus collected from a handful-hundred different planets strewn across the greater galaxy.  Spray lifted from where the waves fell against the shore and brought the salty smell of the sea across the beach and the tangle of scrawny plants at its margin, over the low stone wall providing some protection to the tower's seaward garden, and - wrapping around the stubby construction itself and scaling the high wall beyond - intermittently brought the sea's iodine tang to the enclosed garden within, where Dajeil Gelian tended raised carpets of bright spreadling-flowers and the rustling, half-stunted forms of barb trees and shadow-flowering wilderbush.

The woman heard the landward gate-bell tinkle, but already knew that she had a visitor because the black bird Gravious had told her, swooping from the misty sky a few minutes earlier to screech, 'Company!' at her through a writhing collection of beak-held prey before beating off again in search of more airborne insects for its winter larder.  The woman had nodded at the bird's retreating form, straightening and holding the small of her back as she did so and then absently stroking her swollen abdomen through the rich fabric of the heavy dress she wore.

The message borne by the bird had not needed to be any more elaborate; throughout the four decades she had lived here alone, Dajeil had only ever had to receive one visitor, the avatar of the vessel she thought of as her host and protector, and who was now quickly and accurately pushing aside the barb-tree branches as it made its way down the path from the land-gate.  The only thing that Dajeil now found surprising was that her visitor was here at this moment; the avatar had attended her regularly - entirely as though dropping casually by while on a walk along the shore - for a short visit every eight days, and habitually arrived for a longer, more formal call - at which they ate breakfast, lunch or supper, accordingly - every thirty-two days.  Going by that schedule, Dajeil ought not to be expecting a visit from the ship's representative for another five days.

Dajeil carefully tucked a stray strand of her long, night-black hair back beneath her plain hair band and nodded to the tall figure making its way between the twisted trunks. 'Good morning,' she called.

The ship's avatar called itself Amorphia, which apparently meant something reasonably profound in a language Dajeil did not know and had never considered worth studying.  Amorphia was a gaunt, pale, androgynous creature, almost skeletally thin and a full head taller than Dajeil, who was herself both slender and tall.  For the last dozen or so years, the avatar had taken to dressing all in black, and it was in black leggings, black tunic and a short black jerkin that it appeared now, its cropped blonde hair covered by a similarly dark skull cap.  It took the cap off and bowed to Dajeil, smiling as though uncertain.

'Dajeil, good morning.  Are you well?'

'I'm well, thank you,' Dajeil said, who had long since given up protesting at or indeed being bothered by such probably redundant niceties.  She was still convinced that the ship monitored her closely enough to know exactly how well she was - and she was anyway always in perfect health - but was nevertheless prepared to go along with the pretence that it did not watch over her so scrupulously, and so had to ask.  Still, she did not respond in kind by asking after whatever might pass as the health of either a humanly formed but ship-controlled entity which functioned - as far as she knew - solely as the vessel's contact with her, or indeed the ship itself. 'Shall we go inside?' she asked.

'Yes.  Thank you.'

The upper chamber of the tower was lit from above by the building's translucent glass dome - which looked up to an increasingly cloudy, grey sky - and from the edges by gently glowing in-holo'd screens, a third of which showed blue-green underwater scenes, usually featuring some of the larger mammals and fish the sea outside contained, another third of which displayed bright images of soft-looking water-vapour clouds and the huge airborne creatures which played among them, and the last third of which seemingly looked out - on frequencies inaccessible directly to the human eye - into the dense dark turmoil of the gas-giant atmosphere held compressed in the artificial sky above, where yet stranger beasts moved.

Surrounded by brightly decorated covers, cushions and wall hangings, Dajeil reached from her couch to a low table of swirlingly carved bone and poured a warmed infusion of herbal juices from a glass pitcher into a goblet of hollowed crystal contained within a filigree of silver.  She sat back.  Her guest, sitting awkwardly on the edge of a delicate wooden seat, picked up the brimming vessel, looked around the room and then put the goblet to its lips and drank.  Dajeil smiled.

The avatar Amorphia was deliberately formed to look not simply neither male nor female but as perfectly, artificially poised between maleness and femaleness as it was possible to be, and the ship had never made any pretence that its representative was other than completely its creature, with only the most cursory intellectual existence of its own.  However, it still amused the woman to find her own small ways of proving to herself that this seemingly quite human person was nothing of the kind.

It had become one of the small, private games she played with the cadaverously sexless creature; she gave it a glass, cup or goblet full to the brim of the appropriate drink - indeed sometimes full beyond the brim, with only surface tension holding the liquid in the container - and then watched Amorphia lift it to her mouth and sip it, each and every time, without either spilling a single drop or appearing to devote any special attention to the act; a feat no human she had ever encountered could have performed.

Dajeil sipped her own drink, feeling its warmth make its way down her throat.  Within her, her child stirred, and she patted her belly gently, without really thinking.

The avatar's gaze seemed fixed on one particular holo screen.  Dajeil twisted on the couch to look in the same direction and discovered violent action in a couple of the screens displaying the views from the gas-giant environment; a school of the habitat's food-chain-topping predators - sharp, arrow-headed things, finned like missiles, venting gas from steering orifices - were shown from different angles as they fell together out of some towering column of cloud and swept through clearer atmosphere down upon a group of vaguely bird-like grazing animals clustered near the edge of an up-welling cloud-top.  The avian creatures scattered, some crumpling and falling, some beating frantically away to the side, some disappearing, balled in fright, into the cloud.  The predators darted and spun amongst them, most missing their fleeing prey, a few connecting; biting, slashing and killing.

Dajeil nodded. 'Migration time, up there,' she said. 'Breeding season soon.' She watched a grazer being torn apart and gulped down by a couple of the missile-bodied predators. 'Mouths to feed,' she said quietly, looking away.  She shrugged.  She recognised some of the predators and had given them her own nick-names, though the creatures she was really interested in were the much bigger, slower-moving animals - generally untroubled by the predators - which were like larger, more bulbous relations of the unfortunate grazer flock.

Dajeil had on occasion discussed details of the various ecologies contained within the ship's habitats with Amorphia, who seemed politely interested and yet frankly ignorant on the subject even though the ship's knowledge of the ecosystems was, in effect, total; the creatures belonged to the vessel, after all, whether you regarded them as passengers or pets.  Much like herself, Dajeil thought sometimes.

Amorphia's gaze remained fixed on the screens displaying the carnage taking place in the sky beyond the sky. 'It is beautiful, isn't it?' the avatar said, sipping at the drink again.  It glanced at Dajeil, who was looking surprised. 'In a way,' Amorphia added quickly.

Dajeil nodded slowly. 'In its own way, yes of course.' She leant forward and put her goblet on to the carved-bone table. 'Why are you here today, Amorphia?' she asked.

The ship's representative looked startled.  It came close, Dajeil thought, to spilling its drink.

'To see how you are,' the avatar said quickly.

Dajeil sighed. 'Well,' she said, 'we have established that I'm well, and-'

'And the child?' Amorphia asked, glancing at the woman's belly.

Dajeil rested her hand on her abdomen. 'It is… as ever,' she said quietly. 'It is healthy.'

'Good,' Amorphia said, folding its long arms about itself and crossing its legs.  The creature glanced at the holo screens again.

Dajeil was losing patience. 'Amorphia, speaking as the ship; what is going on?'


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 楼主| 发表于 2021-2-26 01:07:42 | 显示全部楼层
The avatar looked at the woman with a strange, lost, wild look in its eyes, and for a moment Dajeil was worried that something had gone wrong, that the ship had suffered some terrible injury or division, that it had gone quite mad (after all, its fellows regarded it as being half-mad already, at best) and left Amorphia abandoned to its own inadequate devices.  Then the black-clad creature unfolded itself from the chair and paced to the single small window that faced the sea, drawing aside curtains to inspect the view. It put its hands to its arms, hugging itself.

'Everything might be about to change, Dajeil,' the avatar said hollowly, seemingly addressing the window. It glanced back at her for a moment. It clasped its hands behind its back. 'The sea may have to become as stone, or steel; the sky, too. And you and I may have to part company.' It turned to look at her, then came over to where she sat and perched on the other end of the couch, its thin frame hardly making an impression on the cushions. It stared into her eyes.

'Become like stone?' Dajeil said, still worrying about the mental health of the avatar or the ship controlling it, or both. 'What do you mean?'

'We - that is the ship…' Amorphia said, placing one hand on its chest, '… we may finally have… a thing to do.'

'A thing to do?' Dajeil said. 'What sort of thing to do?'

'A thing which will require that our world here changes,' the avatar said. 'A thing which requires that - at the least - we have to put our animated guests into storage with everybody else - well, save for yourself - and then, perhaps, that we leave all our guests - all our guests - behind in appropriate other habitats.'

'Including me?'

'Including you, Dajeil.'

'I see.' She nodded. Leaving the tower; leaving the ship. Well, she thought, what a sudden end to my protected isolation. 'While you?' she asked the avatar. 'You go off to do… what?'

'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 kpew 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 sprin�kled 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 expres�sions, 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.

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.
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 楼主| 发表于 2021-2-26 01:11:26 | 显示全部楼层
1. Outside Context Problem

(GCU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119)
[swept-to-tightbeam, 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 Ml, 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, received @ n4.28.855.0085]:
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 L6^.
Instigating all other Extreme precautions.


5) [broadcast Mclear, 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 Embarrass�ment 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.)
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 楼主| 发表于 2021-2-26 01:11:52 | 显示全部楼层

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 meaning�less 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 over�whelmed 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, pro�grams 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.

The drone was already moving; out from its body-niche in the wall and into the companionway space.  It accelerated along the corridor, sensing the gaze of the ceiling-beam camera patch following it.  Fields of radiation swept over the drone's militarised body, caressing, probing, penetrating.  An inspection hatch burst open in the companionway just ahead of the drone and something exploded out of it; cables burst free, filling to overflowing with electrical power.  The drone zoomed then swooped; a discharge of electricity crackled across the air immediately above the machine and blew a hole in the far wall; the drone twisted through the wreckage and powered down the corridor, turning flat to its direction of travel and extending a disc-field through the air to brake for a corner, then slamming off the far wall and accelerating up another companionway.  It was one of the full cross-axis corridors, and so long; the drone quickly reached the speed of sound in the human-breathable atmosphere; an emergency door slammed shut behind it a full second after it had passed.

A space suit shot upwards out of a descending vertical tubeway near the end of the companionway, crumpled to a stop, then reared up and stumbled out to intercept the machine.  The drone had already scanned the suit and knew the suit was empty and unarmed; it went straight through it, leaving it flapping halved against floor and ceiling like a collapsed balloon.  The drone threw another disc of field around itself to match the companionway's diameter and rode almost to a stop on a piston of compressed air, then darted round the next corner and acceler�ated again.

A human figure inside a space suit lay half-way up the next corridor, which was pressurising rapidly with a distant roar of gas.  Smoke was filling the companionway in the distance, then it ignited and the mixture of gases exploded down the tube.  The smoke was transparent to the drone and far too cool to do it any harm, but the thickening atmosphere was going to slow it up, which was doubtless exactly the idea.

The drone scanned the human and the suit as best it could as it tore up the smoke-filled corridor towards it.  It knew the person in the suit well; he had been on the ship for five years.  The suit was without weaponry, its systems quiet but doubtless already taken over; the man was in shock and under fierce chemical sedation from the suit's medical unit.  As the drone approached the suit it raised one arm towards the fleeing machine.  To a human the arm would have appeared to move almost impossibly quickly, flicking up at the machine, but to the drone the gesture looked languid, almost leisurely; surely this could not be all the threat the suit was capable of-

The drone had only the briefest warning of the suit's bolstered gun exploding; until that instant the gun hadn't even been apparent to the machine's senses, shielded somehow.  There was no time to stop, no opportunity to use its own EM effector on the gun's controls to prevent it from overloading, nowhere to take cover, and - in the thick mist of gases flooding the corridor - no way of accelerating beyond the danger.  At the same moment, the ship's inertial field fluctuated again, and flipped a quarter-turn; suddenly down was directly behind the drone, and the field strength doubled, then redoubled.  The gun exploded, tearing the suit and the human it contained apart.

The drone ignored the backward tug of the ship's reoriented gravity and slammed against the ceiling, skidding along it for half a metre while producing a cone-shaped field immediately behind it.

The explosion blew the companionway's inner shell apart and punched the drone into the corridor's ceiling so hard its back-up semi-biochemical brain was reduced to a useless paste inside it; that no major pieces of shrapnel struck it counted as a minor miracle.  The blast hit the drone's conical field and flattened it, though not before enough of its energy had been directed through the inner and outer fabric of the companionway shell in a fair impersonation of a shaped-charge detonation.  The corridor's lining punctured and tore to provide a vent for the cloud of gases still flooding into the companionway; they erupted into the depressurised loading bay outside.  The drone paused momentarily, letting debris tear past it in a hurricane of gas, then in the semi-vacuum which resulted powered off again, ignoring the escape route which had opened behind it and racing down to the next companionway junction; the off-line displacer pod the drone was making for hung outside the ship hull only ten metres round the next corner.

The drone curved through the air, bounced off another wall and the floor and raced into the hull-wall companionway to find a machine similar to itself screaming towards it.

It knew this machine, too; it was its twin.  It was its closest sibling/friend/lover/comrade in all the great distributed, forever changing civilisation that was the Blench.

X-ray lasers flickered from the converging machine, only mil�limetres above the drone, producing detonations somewhere way behind it while it flicked on its mirrorshields, flipped in the air, ejected its old AI core and the semi-biochemical unit into the air behind it and spun around in an outside loop to continue down the companionway; the two components it had ejected flared beneath it, instantly vaporising and surrounding it with plasma.  It fired its own laser at the approaching drone - the blast was mirrored off, blossoming like fiery petals which raged against and pierced the corridor walls - and effectored the displacer pod controls, powering the machinery up into a preset sequence.

The attack on its photonic nucleus came at the same moment, manifesting itself as a perceived disturbance in the space-time fabric, warping the internal structure of the drone's light-energised mind from outside normal space. It's using the engines, thought the drone, senses swimming, its awareness seeming to break up and evaporate somehow as it effectively began to go unconscious. fm-am!, cried a tiny, long-thought-out sub routine.  It felt itself switch to amplitude modulation instead of frequency modulation; reality snapped back into focus again, though its senses still remained disconnected and thoughts still felt odd. But if I don't react otherwise… The other drone fired at it again, zooming towards it on an intercept course. Ramming.  How inelegant.  The drone mirrored the rays, still refusing to adjust its internal photonic topography to allow for the wildly shifting wavelength changes demanding attention in its mind.

The displacer pod just the other side of the ship's hull hummed into life; a set of coordinates corresponding with the drone's own present position appeared flickering in the drone's awareness, describing the volume of space that would be nipped off from the surface of the normal universe and hurled far beyond the stricken Elencher ship. Damn, might make it yet; just roll with it, the drone thought dizzily.  It rolled; literally, physically, in mid-air.

Light, bursting from all around it and bearing the signature of plasma fire, drummed into its casing with what felt like the pressure of a small nuclear blast.  Its fields mirrored what they could; the rest roasted the machine to white heat and started to seep inside its body, beginning to destroy its more vulnerable components.  Still it held out, completing its roll through the superheated gases around it - mostly vaporised floor-tiles, it noted - dodging the shape spearing towards it that was its murderous twin, noticing (almost lazily, now) that the displacer pod had completed its power-up and was moving to clasp/discharge… while its mind involuntarily registered the information contained in the blast of radiation and finally caved in under the force of the alien purpose encoded within.

It felt itself split in two, leaving behind its real personality, giving that up to the invading power of its photonic core's abducted intent and becoming slowly, balefully aware of its own abstracted echo of existence in clumsy electronic form.

The displacer on the other side of the hull wall completed its cycle; it snapped a field around and instantly swallowed a sphere of space not much bigger than the head of a human; the resulting bang would have been quite loud in anything other than the mayhem the on-board battle had created.

The drone - barely larger than two adult human hands placed together - fell smoking, glowing, to the side wall of the compan�ionway, which was now in effect the floor.

Gravity returned to normal and the drone clunked to the floor proper, clattering onto the heat-scarred undersurface beneath the chimney that was a vertical companionway.  Something was raging in the drone's real mind, behind walls of insulation.  Something powerful and angry and determined.  The machine produced a thought equivalent to a sigh, or a shrug of the shoulders, and interrogated its atomechanical nucleus, just for good form's sake… but that avenue was irredeemably heat-corrupted… not that it mattered; it was over.

All over.


Then the ship hailed it, quite normally, over its communicator.

Now why didn't you try that in the first place?, thought the drone. Well, it answered itself, because I wouldn't have replied, of course. It found that almost funny.

But it couldn't reply; the com unit's send facility had been wasted by the heat too.  So it waited.

Gas drifted, stuff cooled, other stuff condensed, making pretty designs on the floor.  Things creaked, radiations played, and hazy EM indications suggested the ship's engines and major systems were back on line.  The heat making its way through the drone's body dissipated slowly, leaving it alive but still crippled and incapable of movement or action.  It would take it days to bootstrap the routines that would even start to replace the mechanisms that would construct the self-repair nano-units.  That seemed quite funny too.  The vessel made noises and signals like it was moving off through space again.  Meanwhile the thing in the drone's real mind went on raging.  It was like living with a noisy neighbour, or having a headache, thought the drone.  It went on waiting.

Eventually a heavy maintenance unit, about the size of a human torso and escorted by a trio of small self-motivated effector side-arms appeared at the far end of the vertical companionway above it and floated down through the currents of climbing gas until they were directly over the small, pocked, smoking and splintered casing of the drone.  The effector weapons' aim had stayed locked onto the drone the whole way down.

Then one of the guns powered up and fired at the small machine.

Shit.  Bit summary, dammit… the drone had time to think.

But the effector was powered only enough to provide a two-way communication channel.

~ Hello? said the maintenance unit, through the gun.

~ Hello yourself.

~ The other machine is gone.

~ I know; my twin.  Snapped.  Displaced.  Get thrown a long way by one of those big Displace Pods, something that small.  One-off coordinates, too.  Never find it-

The drone knew it was babbling, its electronic mind was probably under effector incursion but too damn stupid even to know it and so gibbering as a side effect, but it couldn't stop itself;

~ Yep, totally gone.  Entity overboard.  One-throw XYZs.  Never find it.  No point in even looking for it.  Unless you want me to step into the breach too, of course; I'd go take a squint, if you like, if the pod's still up for it; personally it wouldn't be too much trouble…

~ Did you mean all that to happen?

The drone thought about lying, but now it could feel the effector weapon in its mind, and knew that not only the weapon and the maintenance drone but the ship and whatever had taken over all of them could see it was thinking about lying… so, feeling that it was itself again, but knowing it had no defences left, wearily it said,

~ Yes.

~ From the beginning?

~ Yes.  From the beginning.

~ We can find no trace of this plan in your ship's mind.

~ Well, nar-nar-ne-fucking-nar-nar to you, then, prickbrains.

~ Illuminating insults.  Are you in pain?

~ No.  Look, who are you?

~ Your friends.

~ I don't believe this; I thought this ship was smart, but it gets taken over by something that talks like a Hegemonising Swarm out of an infant's tale.

~ We can discuss that later, but what was the point of displacing beyond our reach your twin machine rather than yourself?  It was ours, was it not?  Or did we miss something?

~ You missed something.  The displacer was programmed to… oh, just read my brains; I'm not sore but I'm tired.

Silence for a moment.  Then,

~ I see.  The displacer copied your mind-state to the machine it ejected.  That was why we found your twin so handily placed to intercept you when we realised you were not yet ours and there might be a way out via the displacer.

~ One should always be prepared for every eventuality, even if it's getting shafted by a dope with bigger guns.

~ Well, if cuttingly, put.  Actually, I believe your twin machine may have been badly damaged by the plasma implosure directed at yourself, and as all you were trying to do was get away, rather than find a novel method of attacking us, the matter is anyway not of such great importance.

~ Very convincing.

~ Ah, sarcasm.  Well, never mind.  Come and join us now.

~ Do I have a choice in this?

~ What, you would rather die?  Or do you think we would leave you to repair yourself as you are/were and hence attack us in the future?

~ Just checking.

~ We shall transcribe you into the ship's own core with the others who suffered mortality.

~ And the humans, the mammal crew?

~ What of them?

~ Are they dead, or in the core?

~ Three are solely in the core, including the one whose weapon we used to try to stop you.  The rest sleep, with inactive copies of the brain-states in the core, for study.  We have no intentions of destroying them, if that's what concerns you.  Do you care for them particularly?

~ Never could stand the squidgy great slow lumps myself.

~ What a harsh machine you are.  Come-

~ I'm a soldier drone, you cretin; what do you expect?  And anyway; I'm harsh!  You just wasted my ship and all my friends and comrades and you call me harsh-

~ You insisted upon invasionary contact, not us.  And there have been no mind-state total losses at all except that brought about by your displacer.  But let me explain all this in more comfort…

~ Look, can't you just kill me and get it o-?

But with that, the effector weapon altered its set-up momentarily, and - in effect - sucked the little machine's intellect out of its ruined and smouldering body.
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发表于 2021-2-26 09:44:38 | 显示全部楼层
I was looking for this book. Nice
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发表于 2021-2-26 10:12:56 | 显示全部楼层

Do you have the audio book
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 楼主| 发表于 2021-2-26 20:26:11 | 显示全部楼层
panda 发表于 2021-2-26 10:12 AM

Do you have the audio book

№, I hope to find it too.

But it was an old book, not a popular one.
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