Life aboard a Culture General Contact Unit was widely regarded as being a terrific and life-changing experience. So much so, there was always a considerable waiting list of people - humans and drones - who wished to spend time doing Contact's Good Works across the greater galaxy. There were admission assessments to be made - not everybody had the right temperament, it seemed - extensive training and even examinations to be passed and, even then, space aboard a GCU was at such a premium that a person might spend months or even years before being invited to join a crew.
All this often came as quite a shock to the average Culturenik: the idea that something was just not immediately available for the asking in the Culture's post-scarcity society was nigh incomprehensible to many; although Culture education included kindergarten lessons on sharing and politeness, and much about the elegance of the efficient use of resources, in practice, everybody was thoroughly, comprehensively and imaginatively spoiled as children.
It was therefore a sign of maturity in an individual to understand that, despite the Culture's best efforts, the universe was neither fair nor polite, but full of unthinking and chaotic dangers, and intelligent and inventive malevolence; it was Contact's mission to minimise the impact of those things on any thinking feeling creatures it came across.
Folkiss Lemahr was an excellent example of Contact's selection and education programmes. She was intelligent, enthusiastic and capable, and by now very experienced in the Culture's interventions in a number of different settings and on several different planets. She was tall and athletic, and tended to change her skin, eye and hair colour on a regular basis, just because she liked to. She got on very well with the other members of the crew of the GCU Partial Arbitrage - eleven men, six women and three drones - all of whom were currently congregating in the shared accommodation section of the ship, which had just announced that it had received new directions which it wanted to tell everybody about.
There was absolutely no need for the crew to come together for a meeting like this. A Mind like that of the Partial Arbitrage – or any of the Minds which ran ships, habitats of all kinds and indeed any important facility in the civilization - was perfectly capable of crafting individual briefings exquisitely tailored to the personality and preferences of each individual using some vanishingly small fraction of the fabulous mental capacity available to it. The reason the ship did not do so was that, in its considerable experience, people liked to see other people's reactions when the news was unexpected or otherwise charged with a frisson of uncertainty.
"Thank you all for coming so quickly," the ship said, sounding business-like, as the last of the crew trailed in.
The ship's voice emanated from nowhere in particular. Some Contact Units maintained a slaved drone or avatar - either could be shaped like anything one could imagine - just to give the people aboard something to talk to; the Partial Arbitrage eschewed such namby-pamby coddling and just manipulated sound-fields directly.
The accommodation section lounge was decorated in what Lemahr considered Culture standard: low-key chic concealing gigglingly high-tech, filled with comfortable furniture and what were either exotic potted plants or worryingly organic sculptures. The couch she was currently lounging on was probably more comfortable than it looked; the rest of the crew variously stood or sat or lay or floated according to their preferences.
"So what this new mission we've suddenly been saddled with?"
Lizzat Fremtahl was extremely tall and impossibly slender and willowy. As usual, she was entirely naked but covered from neck to ankle with bright pink fur which mottled in patterns depending on her mood. Her head was covered by a mane of a slightly darker colour which extended down her spine and through which peeked a couple of elegantly shapely ears. Her eyes were a startling shade of orange flecked with yellows and browns, and what little skin actually showed on her face and hands and feet was milkily white.
Right now, she was curled up in the centre of a large pad, her visible fur smooth and unmarked. For some reason, she seemed to have appointed herself interrogator-in-chief whenever the ship wanted to do these group briefings; the others tended to just let her get on with it, mainly because it was so amusing.
"Hmm. Of course we do not have to accept the request" - the ship's voice gently emphasised the word - "but I though you should all hear what we have been asked to do before making a decision."
Fremtahl uncurled herself gracefully, stretched extravagantly and neatly sat cross-legged on her mat.
"Okay," she yawned, "So what's the big flap?"
"We have been asked to track down an Absconder who may, or may not, be on a planet a hundred or so lights from here."
People left, and joined, the Culture all the time, individually or in small or large groups, often to live in - generally - less advanced civilizations. Contact generally eased the way for those leaving, setting them up in their new home with a few advantages, such as being reasonably rich. But it was also in Contact's - and the Culture's - interest to reduce or remove capabilities that Culture citizens had, either genetically - such as exceptionally long life or the ability to change gender at will - or as implants and enhancements, so that they did not inadvertently alter the development of the society they had now joined.
An Absconder left the Culture without going through these levelling-up/levelling-down processes. This was quite rare and actually difficult to do successfully; but it was not entirely unheard-of. Contact and especially Special Circumstances - the Culture's intelligence, espionage, counter-espionage and general Dirty Tricks department - tended to keep a metaphorical ear to the ground in such cases, to find out where such a one might be located and to work out what they needed to do to repair any societal or political damage caused by an unguided human blundering about.
"Who's the target?" Fremtahl muttered, unconsciously licking her lips.
"He is Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle," the ship said immediately. Culture Full Names were always a bit of a mouthful, although they did provide both system and family origins, so most of the time conventional abbreviations were to be preferred.
A slowly-rotating holo appeared in the centre of the lounge, showing an image of a well-built but otherwise fairly average-looking man with neatly trimmed dark hair and beard, and a swarthy complexion. Only his eyes, it seemed to Lemahr, looked anything other than ordinary; they were deep and dark and mysterious; eyes which seemed to be able to hide a thousand secrets.
"Of course, there's no reason to think he still looks anything like this," the ship went on, "For one thing, this is what he looked like nearly two hundred years ago."
"He been missing for two hundred years?" Fremtahl said, sounding astonished. Her fur showed some animation, rippling waves flowing up and down her arms in consternation.
"Yep," the ship confirmed, "And we've had no sniff of his whereabouts until very recently. A database of travel itineraries, traded as part of a much larger trove with the Blitteringueh Conglo Library Clan less than a hundred days ago, turned up a record of a Culture man, looking very like Mister Hy-Golten here, hitching a ride with an exploration craft called the Future Perfect heading in this general direction. And, the only planet which has a population which is even vaguely human in appearance in the volume is the one we have been asked to visit."
"What is this planet?" the pink-furred woman asked, delicately scratching at her throat. Her fur settled to its usual calm state.
"It's a Stage-2 unContacted planet about here," the ship replied, "It's been surveyed a couple of times, the most recent being about two hundred and sixty years ago by the GCU Parsimonious Production."
The hologram of Hy-Golten was suddenly replaced by a star-map of the local volume, with one system flagged by a flashing green point. The view surged and rotated, showing a star encircled by a fairly conventional number of rocky and icy and gas-giant planets, one which was marked by a green ring.
"Does it have a name?" Fremtahl asked, squinting at the display.
"A primitive planet like this will have lots of names, inevitably, given the plethora of countries, kingdoms, protectorates, fiefdoms and empires squabbling over resources and babbling in hundreds of mutually-incomprehensive tongues," the ship said, sounding unnecessarily cynical to Lemahr's ears, "Not all of which had even reached the point of realising that they actually lived on a planet as opposed to, for example, a slowly-turning disk carried on the back of some improbable space-borne cetacean while being orbited by the sun and moons."
A titter of amusement ran around the accommodation section. Of course, a ship Mind had all the time in the world to formulate witty remarks when talking to mere humans. Contact vessels seemed to be able to turn banter into a high art form.
Fremtahl shook her head, parts of her fur darkening and standing up stiffly to show her annoyance. "Okay, so what do we call it?"
"The catalogues list it as Epsilona," the ship replied, "Apparently the word is based on a character in the alphabet used in one of the less unrefined civilizations."
"And are we sure he's on this backwater ball of rock, covered in grubby and unCultured vermin?" Fremtahl asked, sounding as if she was trying to compete with the ship.
"Frankly, no," the ship replied, "Hy-Golten could be dead, or a thousand light-years away, or living in some alien habitat. But there is a reasonable chance - one worth investigating, in my view - that our missing Absconder is on this particular planet."
"And why us?" Fremtahl demanded, "What have we done to receive this singular honour?"
"There's no special reason," the ship replied simply, "It’s just that we're the closest ship, by a long way."
This was entirely normal; Contact even had an expression for it: "Utility is 90% proximity". If speed of response was a factor, picking the closest resource was usually far better that waiting for some more perfect team to be assembled.
"So, the question, the vote we need to take," the ship added, "Are we going to accept this mission, or what?"