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The Hydrogen Sonata

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The Hydrogen Sonata

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Author: Iain M. Banks
Publisher: Orbit, 2012
Series: The Culture Cycle: Book 10
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
Artificial Intelligence
Galactic Empire
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Synopsis

The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, provably, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization.

An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they've made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Amid preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted - dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago.

It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilization are likely to prove its most perilous.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

(S -24)

In the dying days of the Gzilt civilisation, before its long-prepared-forelevation to something better and the celebrations to mark this momentous butjoyful occasion, one of its last surviving ships encountered an alien vesselwhose sole task was to deliver a very special party-goer to the festivities.

The two craft met within the blast-shadow of the planetary fragment calledAblate, a narrow twisted scrue of rock three thousand kilometres long and shapedlike the hole in a tornado. Ablate was all that was left of a planet destroyeddeliberately two millennia earlier, shortly before it would have been destroyednaturally, by the supernova within whose out-rushing sphere of debris, gassesand radiation it remained, like an arrowhead plunging ever downwards into therising, roiling heat and sparks of a great fire.

Ablate itself was anything but natural. Roughly hewn as though sliced from somespherical cake, its tip and the first few hundred kilometres of its narrow endhad, originally, been made up of the metallic material which had formed the verycentre of the now-defunct small planet while its wider end -- a roughcircle a couple of hundred kilometres across -- looked like a gently curveddome and had been part of the barren globe's rocky surface. Kept pointed --aimed -- into the supernova's blast front by engines keeled withinhyperspace, all of that original tip and most of those next few hundredkilometres of layered metallic ores had abraded away over the last nineteenhundred years, boiled and scoured into oblivion by the still-expanding fires ofthe exploded star's nebula.

The multi-coloured skies around Ablate, filled with the vast glowing clouds ofstellar debris and the gasses and dusts resulting from its own slow wearing-away, were some of the most calculatedly spectacular in the civilised galaxy,and that was why Ablate was a place of special significance to the people whocalled themselves the Gzilt. The Gzilt had rescued this portion of world fromthe annihilation of the supernova and they had anchored within it the stardrives and field projectors which kept it respectively stable and -- just,in the centre of that rough circle of what had been the planet's dusty surface-- habitable.

The alien ship was an irregular, fuzzy-looking bubble of dark spheres, measuringbarely a hundred metres along its principal axis. It was lit from around andabove by the spectrum of colours radiating from the clouds of the supernova, andfrom below by the gentle blue glow of the world-fragment's only obvious non-natural feature: a scooped, domed bowl a handful of kilometres across that layon that fractured, unshadowed surface like a slightly too perfect crater. Thebowl was an oasis of warmth, moisture and atmosphere on that cold, dry, airlesssurface; within its gauzy layers of containment it held the sort of parks,lakes, carefully proportioned buildings and lush but managed tracts ofvegetation favoured by many types of humanoids.

The Gzilt ship dwarfed the alien one; it looked like a thousand dark broadswordsgathered into a god's fist and brandished at the skies. It crossed the boundaryof glowing, outflowing dusts and swirling gasses at the periphery of Ablate'scircular outer surface -- allowing its own fields to create a series ofbrief, tearing, billowing folds within the curtains of light there -- thenmoved slowly towards and over the glowing bowl and the collection of darkbubbles that was the alien ship, until its spiny bulk hung directly above both,occluding a large part of the supernova clouds and draping its bristled shadowover the ship and the dome below.

The smaller ship waited for some sort of hail from the larger one, as was onlypolite, but nothing appeared to be forthcoming. It decided to make the initialapproach itself:

~Greetings. I am the Zihdren-Remnanter Ceremonial Representative Carrying ShipExaltation-Parsimony III. You, I understand, are the Gzilt IR-FWS8*Churkun. I am honoured to be invited here and to make youracquaintance.

~That is interesting, came the reply. ~A Zihdren-Remnanter CeremonialRepresentative Carrying Ship, you say?

~Well, indeed I am. Somewhat obviously.

~Somewhat obviously?

~Indeed. And, if I may so claim, both in outward form and unshielded emissivesignature.

~Again, interesting.

~Indeed ... May I make an observation?

~You may. We await it.

~You seem -- how might one put this? -- a little less welcoming andpolite -- especially formally welcoming and polite, as it were --than, I confess, I was expecting and, indeed, had been led to expect. Am Imistaken, or, if I am not, is there a specific reason for this? ... Also, Icannot help but note that the crater facility here at Ablate, which I was led tobelieve would be at least staffed if not in full ceremonial welcoming mode, doesnot in fact appear to be so. Indeed, it appears to be effectively empty, both ofbiological and non-biological sentient presences. There are a few sub-AIsubstrates running, but no more ... Obviously one is aware that these arestrange times, even unprecedented times for the Gzilt; times of disruption and,one would both surmise and expect, quiet but purposeful preparation as well asanticipation. Some degree of formality might, therefore, be expected to bedispensed with in the circumstances. However, even so, one--

~As you say, strange times. Times that bring uninvited guests and unwelcomeattentions in the shape of those who would exploit our reduced numbers anddistracted state.

~... We may have experienced a degree of signal outage there, or at leastsignal protocol disruption, unlikely though that may seem ... However, withregard to what you say regarding the unwelcome attentions from others, that is,sadly, to be expected. The preparations for Sublimation tend to bring such-- happily, relatively minor -- consequences, as those whose memory Iam honoured to represent would be the first to agree. The Zihdren--

~There was no signal outage or protocol disruption then, nor is there now. Iinterrupted you. I am doing so again.

~Ah. Then I was not mistaken. Might I just check; am I addressing the captain ofthe 8*Churkun's virtual crew?

~You are.

~Ah. Well, then -- Captain -- we appear to have started out frompositions involving inharmonious premises. That is unfortunate. I would hopethat, nevertheless, you might appreciate my disquiet -- one might evencharacterise it as disappointment -- at the fact that we appear to haveinitiated our association here on such an unfortunate tack. Please; tell me whatI might do to help bring us back onto a more agreeable course.

~The preparations for our Sublimation have encouraged those of a parasiticalnature. Alien presences wishing to profit from our abandonment of the Real,appropriating what treasure we might leave behind. They circle.

~I understand. I am, of course, aware of those you talk of. It was so with thosewhose memory I am honoured to represent: your flattered mentors and barelyrequired civilisational guides, the Zihdren.

~Whom you claim to represent.

~I do indeed. And indeed I do. Represent them, I mean. This is scarcely a matterfor dispute. My provenance and--

~This is a warship.

~Another interruption. I see.

~A warship.

~Patently. I must say that I was in no doubt regarding your ship class andmartial status. The eight-star, Indefinite Range, Full Weapon Spectrum Gziltcontemporary ship-type you represent is entirely familiar to us.

~Things have changed, formalities slipped, protocols been relaxed. This vesselis four point six centuries old and yet has never fired a shot in anger. Now,with most of our kind already gone, preparing the way ahead in the Sublime, wefind ourselves defending the disparate items of our about-to-be legacy fromthose who would use the fruits of our genius and labour to cheat their wayfurther along the path to this point, a point that we achieved entirelyhonourably and without such opportunistic larceny.

~Well, I'm sure that does you credit, too. Wait! Good grief! Do you mistakeme for such a vessel? Do you suspect I represent such primitive,aggressive forces? Surely not! I am a Zihdren-Remnanter craft, the CeremonialRepresentative Carrying Ship Exaltation-Parsimony III. This must beobvious; I have nothing to hide and am transparent, all but completelyunshielded; inspect me as you will. My dear colleague; if you wish for helpconfronting those who would steal any part of your legacy, you need only ask! I,rather, represent a link with those who only ever wished you well, and who, tothe contrary--

~Part of the deception such entities employ is impersonating the vessels andbeings of others. I am deeming you to be doing so at this moment. We havescanned you and determined that you are carrying something which is entirelyshielded from honest view.

~What? My dear Captain, you cannot just "deem" me to be employing any deception!That is absurd! And as for the only fully shielded substrate within myself, thatis my cargo, my complement of precisely one Ceremonial Guest, our singlehumanoid expression of respect, expected and invited by the Gzilt peoplespecifically to celebrate their upcoming Sublimation! Of course this entitybears a message from the Zihdren-Remnanter to the Gzilt which I am not privy to!There can be nothing strange, unprecedented or worrying about such a thing, canthere? The Gzilt have been party to the relevant diplomatic and ambassadorialprotocols for millennia, without a flutter of complaint. A tiny scrap of theReal bids farewell to you while at the same time representing those who wouldmost happily welcome you to the Sublime!

~There is deceit here, something hidden. We can see it even if you cannot.

~What are you talking about? I am sorry. I have had enough of this. Yourbehaviour and demeanour goes beyond even the most cautious and watchful warship-normal and frankly risks slipping into outright paranoia. I am withdrawing; youwill have to excuse me. Farewell.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~... Have you put a signal containment around me? Have you any idea of theconsequences--?

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~I cannot. Quite apart from anything else, there are diplomatic niceties--

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~I heard you! And I cannot and will not. How dare you! We are yourfriends. Neutrals would be appalled and insulted at such treatment! Thatthose who have long thought themselves your friends and allies--

~Release in full the information--

~There! You see? Two may interrupt! I refuse to do as you ask. Drop the signalcontainment around me immediately. And should you make any attempt to block orprevent my moving off under--

~... contained within the shielded substrate. Release in full the informationcontained within the shielded substrate.

~This is outrageous! Do you ...? Are you mad? You must know what and whoyou are choosing to quarrel with here! I represent the Zihdren-Remnant,you lunatic! Fully accepted and accredited heirs to the Sublimed Zihdren, thespecies many of your people acknowledge as little less than gods; those the Bookof Truth itself proclaims to be your spiritual ancestors! I must warn you thatalthough I am, to all intents and purposes, unarmed, still I am not withoutresources which--

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~Enough. Goodbye. Out.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~... Drop the signal containment around me immediately! And desist from jammingmy engine fields at once! I am about to initiate a full-power high-acceleration pull-away manoeuvre irrespective of your current interference, andany damage accrued either by myself or you will be your responsibility,not mine! The Zihdren-Remnanter and the Zihdren themselves will hear of this actof barbarism; do not make it worse for yourself!

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~... That my drive components have not just exploded thanks to your unwarrantedbarbarism is due more to my ability to finesse than your brutal use ofoverwhelming power. I am, as is now abundantly clear to both of us, effectivelyhelpless. This is a result and a situation that does you no honour whatsoever,believe me. I must -- with utter reluctance and under extreme protest, bothpersonal and formal -- ask whether, if I do release in full the informationcontained inside the shielded substrate within myself, you will then drop thesignal containment around me and desist from jamming my engine fields, allowingme both to signal and to depart.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~And I will be allowed to signal and to depart?

~... Yes.

~Very well. Here.

~Scanned. We present the results.

~... Interesting, as you might put it. I see. That is not a message that Iwould have anticipated. I now appreciate, as I am sure you do, too, why therewas a degree of secrecy regarding the contents. While it would not normally beany part of my responsibility to make comment on such matters, I would, speakingpersonally, argue that said contents themselves constitute a kind of apology.This is a type of admission, even a confession. I understand that such ...accountings are often a part of the business of species and civilisationsSubliming; matters are settled, lines are drawn under certain proceedings ...However, be that as it may, it was my mission only to deliver this CeremonialGuest entity while being kept entirely ignorant of the content, substance andimport of its message. Accordingly, I consider that I have, albeit in mostunexpected and trying circumstances, discharged my duty, and so would ask to beallowed to communicate this bizarre turn of events to those who tasked me so,and to withdraw from Gzilt jurisdictional space to await further instructions. Ihave held up my end of our bargain and duly released, in full, the informationcontained inside the shielded substrate within myself. If you'd be so kind, Inow require you to fulfil your promise by dropping the signal containment aroundme and ceasing to jam my engine fields.

~No.

The Gzilt ship 8*Churkun -- a battleship in all but name --kept the tiny alien vessel effectively crushed underneath it as it directed firefrom a pair of its close-range, medium-power plasma chambers into the vessel,and -- beneath it, beyond it -- into the emptily glowing blue bowl ofthe crater facility, destroying the ship utterly and blowing the crater facilityapart.

The weapon-pulse was so strong it continued into the surface of the planetaryfragment to a depth of several kilometres, blasting a brief, livid tunnel ahundred metres across vertically into the rock. A torrent of lava splashed outaround the ship's outermost protective fields as the tunnel collapsed, thespattering, cooling rain of molten rock following the pulverised, atomiseddebris of the Zihdren-Remnanter ship and the centre of the blue-glowing bowl asthey too flew into the colour-wild skies above Ablate.

At the boundaries of the world's truncated horizon, some larger parts of theobliterated dome, still whirling away from the initial explosion, burned brightas flame as they plunged into the surrounding curtains of light.

Deep beneath its assaulted surface, automatic systems sensed the blast and theresulting wobble in the tiny world's course, and corrected for it.

Where the little blue oasis of light and life had been there was now a larger,deeper crater, glowing white and yellow and red from its boiling centre to itsragged edge. By the time the crater surface had cooled sufficiently to show howit would look once it had solidified completely, the 8*Churkun was longgone.

Of the other ship, apart from a new set of already fading folds of light in theskies above Ablate, there was no trace whatsoever.

Copyright © 2012 by Iain M. Banks


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The Hydrogen Sonata

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