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Prologue
The summit of Finrifin stood at the apex of the long sinuous Varden range.
Though it was one of the youngest mountains on the continent, it was also
one of the oldest landmarks recognized by the people who had settled there
and made the place their home for the past few tens of thousands of years. A
great toothlike spire among spires, known in legend for its vivid gradient from
verdant foothills to gleaming snowcapped point, it endured the current ice-age
bedecked entirely in the snow that shone dazzling in the sun and inherited
the chilly dull grey-green of the low leaden sky when in shadow. Now around
midday, the whole range at this altitude was a stark unrelenting white that
could give the unprotected eye an ache within minutes. All the covered crags
and gullies reflected so much illumination together that even a sense of surface
and texture was lost in the brilliant wash of the sunlight.
Many kilometers from the summit, atop a lesser promontory of snowcovered rock levered out by tectonic energy from a much older, now subducting mountain, a tall woman wearing a trim environment suit watched the high
peak and its white environs in the company of a very gently skewed rhomboid
prism roughly the size of her forearm square which floated, bobbing slightly
in the steady chill wind, out over the drop before which she stood.
“It’s lucky this range has been relatively inaccessible for so long,” the
woman said to the drone.
The drone, who although not human was often considered the lively and
vivacious one of the pair among their mutual acquaintances, was uncharacteristically quiet as it swiveled around slowly to face her. Perhaps it was putting
itself in the mood of deferential sobriety that (some would claim) their task demanded; more likely it was mulling over much less charitable feelings toward
their target, and was working out how just how acerbic it could get away with
being before she started firing at it out of pure annoyance.
“Eh? Sorry?” it said eventually.
“Because of the ice. Nobody has really been up this way for decades. So we
don’t really have to worry about collateral damage; it’s just our boy, puttering
away at his dastardly little workshop. Good fortune for us.”
“Ah yes. Right.” The drone paused. “Well. Shall we?”
Half-way up the near side of the enormous mountain, invisible from their
distant lookout without magnification and largely hidden anyway under a
sweeping drift of dry light snow was a very old prefabricated outpost formerly employed as a climate observation and monitoring station and lately
retrofitted to some enigmatic purpose in ostensible secrecy by the man they’d
been sent here to kill.
Whatever he was developing the Culture wanted permanently stopped.
And what the Culture wanted, if the vaguely ambassadorial/diplomatic Contact section failed to obtain it through negotiation, cajoling, wheedling, and
all the other recognized forms of authorized above-the-table statecrafting and
game-playing that you did when you wanted to be seen by everybody as a good
sport and a positive, stabilizing, order-nourishing and fair-play-enabling in-

1

fluence, Special Circumstances usually just went and got. It was at this stage
in the proceedings that Mleu Chashenduli and her drone compatriot Lnifftur
Brenwe-Ku got involved in things.
She looked out over the broad valley across the snowpack to the little collection of stacked chamfered cubes making up the prefab outpost. Her suit
helmet filtered the overwhelming glare from the huge snowscape and cooperated with directions from her neural lace so that the subtlest corneal tension
could be used to slide her effective optical zoom up to 200 times and sustain it
for hours without uncomfortable strain. She found it much preferable to the
retinal inlays and corneal microservos that had been in style among SC operatives prior to her last Storing, and she could now see the kilometers-distant
structure, just peeking a few edges and corners out of the snowdrifts, as though
it were within reach.
The building was hardly more substantial than a child’s play-house, its
meager size made all the more outrageous by its colossal location. A mite on
the back of a giant. A few hundred tonnes of snow and rock would wash it
away with ease. The mountain would shrug, slough a bit of its skin, and rid
itself the pest.
“Okay.” She blew out a breath which her helmet’s recirculating field effectors intercepted and dehumidified before it could fog the faceplate. “Let’s
make us an avalanche.”
Without an outward sign, Lnifftur triggered the detonation.
A bubble seemed to form in the surface of the mountain between the old
research post and the summit. The blister grew as snow was flung uniformly
outward from the point where the drone had Displaced one of its complement
of unguided munitions: a microwarhead, subsidiary, anti-matter-tipped. As
the dome of perturbed snow began to fall back onto the mountainside and
begin a rushing cascade of rapidly growing breadth and tumult, the shockwave
from the blast rocked the little prefab, knocking free in a confetti puff of madly
glittering powder the snow that had enshrouded it.
Then Mleu’s vision went entirely white. She thought for a centisecond
that her suit’s image processing had given out, and her eyes were scrambling to
adjust to the all-pervading snow glare of the Varden range. But the filters were
still running; they’d simply been maxed out. What she was seeing was brighter
than the snow, brighter than the sun. With an ancient reflex she’d never before
experienced, so slow that it couldn’t have come from any Contact genofixing,
SC augmentations, or her own personally devised pseudo-conscious lace coroutines, she threw her arm across her face and twisted away from the infinite
brightness.
In less than a second the insane light was gone.
The mountain was airborne; shattered. For an instant, its shape was recognizable, a mocking smashed jumble emulating the old monumental silhouette,
jumped up a half klick from its foundations. Then the crumbling shell began
to rain down exposing a guttering, geysering core of molten rock, spewing
elongate gobs the size of starships kilometers into the air. These fell like meteors, carving searing trails through the drifts and pre-glacial snowpacks into

2

which they crashed, melting and smashing their way to the bottom of steamspewing, glistening ice-walled tunnels.
Red-hot rock sloshed to and fro where the center of the mountain had
been. What snow there had been on the peak itself had vaporized, cloaking the
entire scene in a dingy dust-laden mist. Kilotonnes more, falling in avalanches
from the near faces of the more intact adjacent mountains, poured into the
fiery crater all the time, sending a ring of titanic plumes of fresh white steam
exploding skyward. Further from the centre, melted snow mixed with pulverized rock in a slurry that flowed down and inward toward where the remnants
of the mountain slumped into the crater.
From the collapsing mountain issued a gargantuan groaning, smashing,
grinding cacophony. Based on a few centuries of paying occasional attention to the more poetically-inclined humans in its charge or company, the
drone judged that a sentimental person might have likened the sound to the
anguished roar of a wounded god.
In Lnifftur’s experience, its partner was not, exactly, a sentimental or poetic person. The drone, with polite discretion, turned fractionally toward her.
The woman was quite still. The dull green of the sky reflected in her suit’s faceplate now mingled with the orange-red glow of the geographic wreck before
them. Her right glove was clenched in a tight fist.
“What the fuck was that?” she asked.
“Unknown.”
“I mean what could have possibly done that?”
“I too am trying to work that out.”
Mleu sounded suddenly cold. “We didn’t put them all … all in the same–”
“No.”
“And you weren’t, say, off by six orders of magnitude on your AM calculations, were you?”
“Humble enough as I am to admit in the hypothetical abstract the remote
possibility of an error of that scale, I assure you with the certainty of innumerable internal process audits and checksummed instruction records that I have
made none such in this instance.”
“Mmm.”
“He must’ve been a whole lot further along with his little science project
than we thought.”
“Must’ve been.”
“Interesting.”
All but the finest dust had mostly settled over the ruin and the surrounding valleys and slopes, shading the snowscape grey to black in places. Steam
was rising from just about everywhere in the vicinity of the former mountain.
What mass was left was mostly molten slag in which chunks the size of city
blocks tumbled and slid ponderously down into the center of the crater. The
sound of the mountain’s fall still echoed off the northern expanse of the range
behind them.
“We should probably go,” said the drone.
“I think so, yes,” the woman agreed.

3

The debriefing lounge, a room that only existed aboard the MSV Too Many
Coincidences when there was debriefing to be done and as such had to be conjured out of available resources and assembled on hours’ notice in the auxiliary
bay so as not to impede the important business perpetually being attended to
in the Main bay, was comfortable but spare. Plush buff-colored fabric adorned
the six walls of the room under a low, plain ceiling inlaid with gently calibrated
lumorbs which rolled very slowly in overlapping elliptical tracks inscribed
within the room’s hexagonal perimeter. A square glass-topped table of about
knee-height stood in the centre of the space amid an array of three dark red
pneumatiform chairs and bore tumbler and bottle that were each filled with a
viscous-looking green liquid that fluoresced softly under the lamps.
Seated, reclining cross-legged on one of the red chairs in her light trousers
and blouse, Mleu was sure she looked more comfortable than she felt. Beside
her, Lnifftur, who did not object to and in fact frequently insisted upon being
afforded the courtesy of a human seating device that it could employ or ignore
according to its often fickle discretion, was glowing a subdued cerulean and
volunteering nothing to the Ship’s avatar that sat across the table from them,
waiting with the staid monolithic passivity so often favored by the human- and
drone-interfacing representatives of the Minds.
Though its thin, strong-looking, unclothed, and featureless golden body
was held entirely motionless, its face was alive with incessant and itinerant little proto-smiles, wry twitches, and knowing lip-pursings. The flitting, dancing golden lips, cheeks, jaw, and eyes were androgynous and aggressively, imposingly beautiful. In all their centieons of cooperative genofixing, guided microevolution, autoneurological modifications and elective instinct engineering, Culture humans and Minds had never conspired to remove from panhumanity the particular unease one tended to feel when faced with a set of
human-like features so supernaturally alluring on a being that was, at least in
its present configuration, utterly asexual.
Mleu thought it was a deliberately unsettling move about which several
Minds were indelicately and conspicuously unapologetic. Anyone in the Culture could choose to make themselves as ideally gorgeous as they liked, but
coming from a Mind, so proudly and evidently beyond biological concerns, it
always seemed to her to read as some kind of taunt.
The avatar Omnipathie continued to stare at exactly the midpoint between
the hovering Lnifftur and the seated woman. The slowly orbiting ceiling lights
threw soft rotating shadows that mingled and spun about the axes of the objects that cast them.
After a time, Omnipathie said, “There was a rather large explosion down
there, was there not?”
Mleu looked from the green drink on the table to the drone beside her,
then at the avatar. She hadn’t touched the tumbler.
“There was something down there that we were not expecting.”
“Equiv-tech?” asked Omnipathie.

4

“For us maybe; for them, absolutely not. Decent-sized nukes, some kind of
gridfire thing – whatever it was it ought to be decades or more beyond them.”
“Indeed.” The avatar sat impassively for a moment.
“It is rather unfortunate that it needs to be said, but the utter demolition
of major geographic formations is not ordinarily within the bounds of what
are considered ideal solutions to Special Circumstances’ problems.”
Mleu shook her head minutely. “As I recall, our assignment was to discreetly locate and eliminate Bradnuu Glinzprot. Lnifftur and I concocted
what we both continue to think was a very elegant plan to orchestrate the externally plausible, complete, irrecoverable destruction of the target and most
of his assets. This objective has been carried out, without extraneous casualties, in full compliance with the parameters we were given, and in spite, I might
add, of some seriously powerful shit that profoundly exceeded both those parameters and the extent of the intelligence we were supplied in order to plan
this thing.”
“Be that as it may, you elected to deploy anti-matter weapons in an area at
risk of cascade-detonation.”
“That’s unfair. We were given absolutely no reason to suppose such a stipulation might exist,” she said stiffly.
“Reason or no, the use of such weapons, particularly when more moderate avenues to accomplishing the same ends exist both in principle and in
fact within your very casing,” Omnipathie said, looking pointedly at Lnifftur,
“demonstrates eminently questionable judgment.”
Drawing its golden legs into the lotus position, it continued.
“Holding aside issues of overkill, negligence, over-zeal, or what have you,
the information-death, the sheer entropy of the environmental injury alone
is enough to warrant serious scrutiny.” Omnipathie contrived to produce an
expression of ancient, weathered sadness. “Deciaeons of tectonic history encoded in the upfolds, lost. The fine finishing work of centiaeons of wind and
ice, obliterated. There is a case to be made that the two of you have wrought
abhorrent damage.”
Lnifftur said nothing. It had sunk down into the red cushion, disabling its
AG fields completely and showing an indigo aura of glum contrition. Mleu sat
up and squared her shoulders.
“In the first place, it wasn’t actually us. Our ordinance could not have dealt
anything in the same universe as that much damage. Whoever is responsible
for emplacing whatever the hell it was under that mountain is also fully guilty
of its destruction. Unforeseen or not, we can’t be accountable for something
so impossibly unlikely. And secondly,” she took a deep breath, then reached for
the tumbler on the table and took a slug of the green drink. “What’s a few cubic
kilometers of metamorphic rock, really? This fucking guy was going to singlehandedly precipitate and ecological and economic catastrophe and plunge his
poor hapless planetmates into a social and ethical dark age. I saw the sims.
Even in incarceration, (which would never have lasted given his connections
and ingenuity), there was convincing simming showing that his continued influence was going to entrench the money economy beyond all ability of in-

5

ternal processes to dislodge, accelerate class animosity and sectarian grudges
that had been abating under our covert nudging, and in all likelihood corrode
public conviction in the universality of human rights to the point of normalizing exactly the kinds of horrific abuses their ancestors weaned themselves of
millenia ago. We have seen this shit happen before.”
“Not to mention whatever fucking doomsday machine he was somehow
building under that damned mountain,” groused the drone while the avatar
watched to two of them, its head tilted slightly.
“Exactly. I’m sorry we couldn’t prophesy this confounding factor, and I’m
not insensitive to the tragedy of losing that mountain. But it had to be done.
You’re the one who kept on harping to me about how important this was! You
yourself gave me the damn sims.”
“Nevertheless, this outcome rates severely undesirable.”
Mleu sat back heavily into the pneumatiform plastic.
“At least it wasn’t any worse,” the drone muttered.
Mleu clunked down the tumbler abruptly and glared at the machine. The
avatar looked across at each of them evenly in turn. It smiled.
“Explain,” it asked pleasantly.
“Oh. Uhm.” The drone turned away from Mleu and floated steadily at
the avatar’s eye height. “Yes well, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, right? No
big secondary quakes, mass wasting confined ninety-two percent to the crater
itself, watershed topology beyond three klicks entirely unaffected within tolerance for seasonal variation. Barely a blip, really, in the scheme of things.”
Mleu closed her eyes and let out a tiny sigh.
“I gather that’s not quite what you originally meant,” said the avatar, speaking to the drone but looking squarely at Mleu. “You were, having learned of
this mysterious explosion-compounding force in the Varden mountain range,
prepared to expect even greater devastation than what occurred as the consequence of actions, transpired or hypothetical, that you might have taken.
Please explain.”
“We only …” she was looking very carefully at the bulkhead a half meter above the avatar’s golden head. “Ultimately we only detonated one of the
charges.”
“Only one, eh?” The avatar put a statuesque hand deliberately to its chin.
“You had contingency munitions emplaced at the neighboring substations.
And possibly elsewhere as well,” said the creature, stretching its arms wide
and then lacing its long fingers behind its neck. “Apocalyptically destructive
charges that have been lately known to interact cataclysmically with elements,
not fully understood by you, that still may exist within your mission’s area of
operations, which, because of your desire to effect an unobtrusive and hasty
exfiltration, you have not retrieved and therefore remain, unmarked and
unknown, buried in the crust of Ncharrells IV.” The avatar paused a moment.
“One of how many?”
“It was her idea,” the drone grumbled. Its aura glowed sullen yellow-green
and it began to float slowly downwards, into the cover of the low table away
from the sight line of the avatar, whose face had frozen completely. “I told her

6

one was enough but she said there might be tunnels, and, we couldn’t know
for sure which–”
“Tunnels, shit!” Mleu blurted. She pointed accusingly at the descending
box. “You wouldn’t stop banging on about engineered supermatter grown into
the mountains, or wormhole shunting or some other adaptive E-flux countermeasure, that you thought for some reason they might have gotten from the
bloody Idirans of all people, and wouldn’t it be a mess if we didn’t finish the
job because of some unforeseen defense mechanism, and if we’re going to do
something we’ll damn well do it through and through, isn’t that the SC way,
and a whole load more of what I can now clearly see was just the latest relapse
of your old spark-brained maniacal explosion-mongering!”
The drone was fully under the table, plainly visible under the glass tabletop,
projecting a camofield that began at its top vertex and flowed slowly down
over its casing like a viscous splatter of chameleon paint.
“We got ’im didn’t we,” it mumbled.
“How many charges?” asked the avatar again.
Mleu meant to answer him, but instead she coughed and had to take a second to – consciously, on top of the ignominy of all the rest – swallow her own
spittle. How her shitty damned stupid neural lace could let her make such an
idiot of herself in front of an SC Ship avatar she’d sort out later. The explanation was probably as obvious as it was infuriating. She examined the avatar,
which was still looking, stony faced, eyes sparkling, straight at her. Bastard
anyway, she thought.
“Ah,” she said. “Thirty-two.”

“I mean honestly, do you believe this?” The drone had come to her quarters to commiserate. “I’m thrilled. Always fascinated by capitalism-adjacent
human customs. My very first vacation.”
“Oh leave it off, would you.” She was puttering, pacing with her neural
lace’s infolink switched to minimal passive, now and then jumping up on the
balls of her feet and punching the walls and ceiling.
“Paid leave, darling. Suspension with benefits. Indefinite retainer backup roster. It’s relaxation per mandate for us. Fun by force.”
She groaned and launched into a back handspring. “How quintessentially
Cultural”.
“Is it?” said the drone dubiously, zooming suddenly toward her flushed
face. “Is it? I wonder. Is it Cultural to bemoan so sorely a bit of geological
ephemera that one inflicts such abject indignity upon one’s subordinates and
friends as we are bound to presently endure?”
“The abjectitude of this indignity is entirely up to speculation at this point
and you know it,” she replied, waving off the rose-fielded drone. “Unless
you’re holding out on me? Has the Ship told you where we’re going?”
The drone ignored her.
“Have you ever heard of anything like this? The Ship is taking us itself. No
transfer at an Inner Rock, no sling displace to a slavering ROU, or caravan of
7

sympathetic Involved buddies ferrying us to a monstrously be-engined Eccentric.”
“It’s unusual,” she said, picking up her environment suit and running a
hand over the sleeves.
“It’s absurd,” said the drone. “Lhak Orbital, by the way.”
Mleu stopped inspecting the suit and looked up. “Oh?” She allowed a
couple of her lace’s information retrieval processes to awaken. “They say it’s
where Minds retire. That doesn’t exactly portend an exuberant time for us.”
Lnifftur was wreathed in a yellow aura field of bitter disgust. “Where old
Minds who are too lazy to bother with running a Ship, too timid to Sublime,
and too unimaginative to do anything else go to lay about in Infinite Fun Space
until someone less senile comes along to subsume or decommission them.”
It wasn’t getting any better; she wished she had left the lace off. “You’re
talking about this Lhak, where a comet from outsystem showed up one time
and nobody predicted that it would come within three whole lightyears and
that was exciting? The very same Lhak Orbital which the AhForgetIt Tendency’s Recreational Amenities and Stimulating Attractions Index–”
“Oh, I didn’t know you kept up with the Index,” said Lnifftur, brightening.
“–rated the ‘Most Stultifying O in the Mainland?’ Hell, that sounds like
the kind of award those hilarious loafers would give to a person’s biological
progenitors rather than an actual Orbital.”
“Oh, they do. It’s an old, inconsistently satisfying joke. In and out of fashion, you know. It’s there and then it’s gone, so to speak. Comes and goes.”
She stared at the machine with no expression for a long moment. Then
she swung at it fast with the convex faceplate of the suit helmet. The drone
dodged easily and chortled in a high voice.
Mleu sighed. “Anyway, you’re sure there isn’t some other Lhak? We are as
we speak en route to this specific scintillating place?”
“Afraid so.”
Mleu threw the helmet at the wall of the module and plonked down hard
onto the bed.
“Aw, shit.”

8


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