A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Cunning Disguise

When Folkiss Lemahr finally entered the shared accommodation section of the Partial Arbitrage, he found it was entirely deserted.

"Ship, where is everybody?"

"All those who volunteered for investigation are already on the surface, except you," the ship said promptly, "Everybody else seems to be asleep for some reason."

Lemahr nodded. He had left Lizzat Fremtahl fast asleep, curled up luxuriously on his bunk; he himself had napped, then glanded a little Snap to help him fully wake up while he showered and dressed.

Apart from himself, the only thing moving was a view of the planet slowly rotating below them on a vast screen set into one end of the room. Lemahr watched it for a few moments.

"Ship, a question," he said eventually, "How could a human, even one as fully-augmented as a Special Circumstances agent, manage to evade your senses?"

"Hah," the ship exclaimed, "If he was relying on SC implants to hide himself, even if they were modern ones rather than being half a millennium out of date, I'd have spotted him in a millisecond, even with the unusually high level of genetic diversity on this planet. Even if he was just an ordinary unaugmented Culture citizen, it would only take me a minute to scan the few hundred million humanoids on this planet. No, there's only one way he could disguise himself so that I cannot easily find him."

"And what's that?"

"He used those implants to completely rework his body, right the way down to the cellular level, before instructing those same devices to dismantle themselves," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage said, with a highly convincing sigh, "He will be biologically indistinguishable from any of the natives by now. Assuming he actually is down there at all, of course."

"So he'll have no particular abilities, now?"

"Correct," the ship confirmed, "Not even the genofixed enhancements a Culture person would naturally have from birth: no drug glands, no extended lifespan, nothing. Just the contents of his head, of course."

"But he's been an Absconder for two hundred years," Lemahr protested, "Without that Culture genetic background, he must be dead by now, surely?"

"If he had been here all that time, then, yes, you would be right," the ship said, "But that Blitteringueh travel itinerary data is from a little over twenty years ago. And he was quite definitely an augmented human with Culture genetics when he took that trip. The Blitteringueh wouldn’t have got anything like that wrong."

"Ah," he said, nodding, "So we're looking for a man apparently in early middle age, in good physical shape for his years, and with intelligence and knowledge and wisdom beyond his peers."

"That's it."

"So, only a small haystack, then."

While Lemahr's body was being reconfigured in the medical pod, the ship had briefed him extensively on the language and culture - such as it was - in the region he would be investigating. The ship did so via his neural lace: an intricate pattern of ultra-fine fibres, even thinner hairs and microscopic threads which had been grown in place within his head in a matter of months, surrounding and interacting with his own brain cells in the most intimate way possible.

Many Culture citizens chose to have a neural lace, to communicate with, well, almost anybody in the society - although distant contacts would require the equivalent of messages, or letters, given the speed of HS light - to access any part of the famously immodest reservoirs of information the Culture had gathered over thousands of years, to plunge into any of an infinite number of immersive simulations and virtual worlds, or just to talk with the local Mind.

By now, Lemahr had a very good working knowledge of the various local languages and dialects, an understanding of the society and social mores and what persons of different classes and genders could be expected to wear. So, he was garbed in hard-wearing clothes of linen and leather, stout boots, a light pack of essentials and the kind of warm cloak that might be worn by carters, shepherds and those who might expect to be outdoors for days at a time in all weathers.

Oh, he was not a perfect facsimile of a local, he knew: teeth too white and even, hair and beard too clean and well-trimmed, no moles or scars or marks of any kind on his body. But all those aspects would be covered up, in the normal course of events; he was, he considered, ready to fit in when he arrived.

"So, ready for the final touch?" the ship asked.

"Err, maybe," he replied dubiously, "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, obviously, I'll be keeping in touch with you via your lace," the ship said reasonably.

"Okay. But don't try and talk to me too often," Lemahr replied, "It's really distracting."

"Agree. But can you set it so that I get to see and hear what you do?"

"Yep. Doing it now."

"Thank you. And I'd like you to take a stick with you."

"A stick?" Lemahr exclaimed, "What for?"

"A walking stick. A staff," the Partial Arbitrage said, "For support on difficult paths and protection when necessary."

Lemahr frowned.

"If you think it will be necessary," he said sceptically.

"I do," the ship said firmly, "And here it is now."

A collection of several dozen curious flying silver objects appeared around a corner of the shared accommodation section. Each was about ten centimetres long, a couple of centimetres across and semi-circular in cross-section. As he watched, the objects neatly formed themselves into a man-high pole, the exposed surfaces changing to resemble a smoothly-grained wood. Fully assembled, the staff toppled forward so that he could catch it neatly.

"That's a lot of knife missiles," Lemahr exclaimed, "I didn't think this planet was actually that dangerous."

"Hah! There really isn't anything now there to worry us," the Partial Arbitrage replied, sounding mildly amused, "But the components in this device have a rather broader range of capabilities than the average knife missile. I doubt we'll need to use even a tiny fraction of those, but I think it's good to have some local advantage, don't you think?"

Lemahr's staff looked and sounded as if it was made of solid wood as he passed it from hand to hand and then tapped it on the floor. As he did so, the staff introduced itself politely via his neural lace, which he acknowledged but asked that the device keep its communication to a minimum unless there was something extremely pressing that absolutely required his immediate attention.

"Okay," he said, smiling, "I like it. Anything else you think I need?"

"Not at all. Are you ready to go?"

"Sure. So how am I going? A Displace?"

"No. I have a module ready for you."

Lemahr could have been instantaneously transported from the Partial Arbitrage to the planet surface using a Displace, rather than a rather leisurely transfer by vehicle. Displaces used a remotely induced singularity via hyperspace, widely regarded as a mature technology as far as the Culture was concerned. Nevertheless, there was an unfinesseable risk, a one-in-many-millions chance of catastrophic failure to the process, and Culture Minds tended to shy away even from that admittedly miniscule peril.

"Fair enough," Lemahr said, "Show me where to go."

A standard Culture module - a GCU might have two or three of these aboard at any one time - was, by the standards of many other civilizations, an extremely capable craft. It was able to support a handful of people in modest comfort indefinitely, it could travel in space at two hundred lights - faster than the battlecruisers of many an Aspirant society - or traverse pretty much any atmosphere and most liquid environments. It could make itself effectively invisible, conveniently camouflaged by a projection of the view of the other side in every direction, and move silently at great speed in almost all conditions.

So using a module to travel the few thousand kilometres from the elegant powered orbit occupied by the Partial Arbitrage to the planetary surface, and taking nearly an hour to do so, was perhaps a gross misuse of the craft's abilities. Still, the GCU did not seem to mind the waste; perhaps it had some other function in mind for the module to perform while in transit.

So it was early on a fine late-spring morning that the module deposited Lemahr and his staff on a high summer pasture a stone's throw from the road. An observer in the field - and there were absolutely none of those, the module having been extremely careful to make sure its actions were entirely unseen - would have seen a section of apparently empty space fold itself open in an impossible way to reveal a cloaked stranger who stepped onto the grass and then take a long look down the hill to the seaport and docks just visible through the haze. The impossible hole in the air closed itself silently while the stranger, leaning on his staff, strode across the turf, wetting his boots on the heavy dew, and effortlessly vaulted the rustic gate which separated field from road.

Privately, Folkiss Lemahr always enjoyed this part of a Contact assignment on a new planet: the look and sound and smell of the flora and fauna around him - always different, it considered, on every planet - the freedom from responsibility just at the moment - there would be plenty of responsibility for him later on, he did not doubt - and the feeling of being out and about with opportunities everywhere. He hitched up his pack to a more comfortable position and, smiling, set off down the hill.

Streoneshalch, the little fishing village and minor port for which he was now heading would be a nexus for travel. In this kind of stage-2 civilization, goods would be transported by boat wherever possible, either on the open sea or by navigating rivers and lakes. Transport by road was slow and limited by the weight of the wagons capable of being pulled by teams of even the strongest beasts, and really only used to get produce from farm to local market. It was a place where strangers such as himself would be common enough; it would be on a popular trade route, meaning on a river or the sea; it was the kind of place where a stranger from much further afield might be expected to turn up from time to time.

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