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

Missed Encounter

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1776]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
Is there another Culture craft in this volume?

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1776+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Not to the very best of my knowledge. Why do you ask?

Because something that very much resembled the emission signature of a Very Fast Picket just came barrelling through here at a very considerable speed, snap-Displaced something from the surface of the planet at a range I could not hope to match even if relative-stationary, ignored all my hails and demands for explanations and disappeared out of the range of my sensors into the depths of the galaxy without acknowledging my presence in any way.
I have a feeling that there's something going on here that nobody is telling me about. [Report attached.]


I can assure you that I am as completely in the dark as you are. This supposed Culture ship is not part of any agreed plan or engagement that I am aware of.
I will of course make urgent enquiries among my contacts in Contact and my few acquaintances in Special Circumstances.


Thank you.
In the meantime, I have a horrible feeling that Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle has just left the planet.


Me too.
Somebody is playing their metaphorical cards very close to the chest here.

*

"So who was that guy, anyway?"

Lizzat Fremtahl was once again curled up on Lemahr's bed, talking softly with a rather depressed Folkiss Lemahr.

"Huh. It turns out he was a scholar, a postgraduate student of xeno-anthropology on an extended field trip, from the Exobiology Clan of the Blitteringueh Conglo. Name of Phostrian Calgo."

Fremtahl's pink fur rippled gently.

"Is he legit?" she asked.

"It seems so. The ship's checked with the Conglo authorities and confirmed that this Calgo person is indeed registered with one of their universities. Apparently, he's not the only student on the planet."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Epsilona is not so very far from several important Blitteringueh centres, so it is used as a sort of training ground for the Conglo's version of Contact."

"That's a bit crude, isn't it?" Fremtahl said, sounding slightly shocked, "Not to mention the risk of cultural contamination if they get it wrong."

"That's what the ship said," Lemahr replied, "At quite some length, as it turned out."

"Oh."

"The Clan was a bit peeved that we have disturbed their experiment," he went on, "Although the damage was minor, since my interaction with this Calgo was short and out of the sight of most people, and it was his first visit to the market. Besides, when I pointed out what he was doing to stand out from the crowd, he was actually thankful for the advice. Said he would do better in future. He was even happier when I told him I would be leaving the planet in the next few days, so he could practice his skills in peace."

"So now you're an educationalist, too," Fremtahl suggested archly, wriggling closer, "Is there no end to your talents?"

"Well, perhaps not," he replied, smiling and rolling over to face the pink-maned woman, who kissed his face enthusiastically.

"Mr. Lemahr, Ms. Fremtahl," the voice of the ship came from nowhere in particular, entirely ruining the moment for both of them, "Sorry to interrupt, but there are several matters I think you need to know about right away."

Fremtahl grimaced, folded herself neatly into a cross-legged sitting position and wait attentively for the ship to complete its announcements. With rather less grace, Lemahr pulled himself up just enough to slump against the headboard.

"What up, ship?" he asked wearily.

The ship made a noise which sounded very much like a sigh.

"There have been two separate developments," it said, "Which might just be a coincidence, although frankly I don't believe it for a microsecond."

"So what are these developments?" Fremtahl demanded, taking on her usual role as ship's-interrogator-in-chief.

"Well, in no particular order, it seems that Mister Lemahr's visit to Brunanburh was rather less inconspicuous than we might have thought. In the period since he arrived, a little over a week ago, no less than ninety-seven people left the town suddenly, on foot, by boat, riding various beasts, or in wagons and carriages of various kinds."

The two humans nodded. The ship could make bugs and camera platforms so small the principal limitation on image stability was Brownian motion. No doubt the town of Brunanburh - and many other parts of the planet - were saturated with little spies constantly being reviewed by the vast intelligence which was the ship's Mind. The only way to hide in the face of such a superabundance of surveillance was to display no characteristic which was statistically different from the general mass of the population - unlike the unfortunate Phostrian Calgo, who had stood out like a sore thumb as soon as he was in a crowd - and Trista Hy-Golten - if he actually on the planet - must have perfected long ago if the ship had been unable to spot him by now.

"Surely people must be coming and going all the time?" Fremtahl said, "After all, Brunanburh is a market town, a regional centre for commerce and the distribution of goods. It's full of travellers."

"True, of course," the ship said immediately, "But a statistically unlikely number of those people leaving were not regular travellers - carters and waggoners and so on - but those who had hitherto been long-term residents. Settled townsfolk who just upped-sticks and left on the flimsiest of pretexts."

"And it was me that triggered this exodus?" Lemahr asked, looking worried.

"I believe it was," the ship said, "To be fair, I had hoped that your presence would be noticed in the town."

"Wait!" Lemahr shouted, scrambling to his feet, "You hoped I would be spotted? Why?"

"To flush out Trista Hy-Golten, of course," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage said placatingly, "That's why I talked to you using your lace from time to time while you were out and about. For one who knows what to look for, that distracted expression that almost everybody gets when communicating via neural lace is a dead giveaway."

"Huh! So I was a sort of lure or decoy?" Lemahr demanded.

"Well, I wouldn't put it exactly like that," the ship said gently, "But our best bet was for you to show some subtle sign of being an alien which Hy-Golten might recognise and react to."

Lemahr subsided on the bed looking annoyed.

"What I had not expected," the ship went on, "Is that there were ten or more individuals - almost certainly all aliens - in that one little town who would recognise that particular facial expression and respond urgently."

"Why were so many aliens resident in this one little town?" Fremtahl asked disbelievingly.

"Well, quite possibly the same reason that we thought Trista Hy-Golten might have chosen it," the ship replied, "The reason that you suggested Brunanburh as a place where he might take up residence. It's simply a safe place to live. At least, by the standards of most societies on this planet."

"Are there really lots of aliens down there?" Lemahr demanded, "Why so many on this planet?"

"I don't know how many aliens there might be," the ship said, sounding slightly peeved, "And as for why, well, I have a private theory that somebody long ago set up this planet, designed the population, just to make it easier to hide all kinds of humanoids, at least those from a reasonably advanced civilization."

"A sort of retreat for undesirables and fugitives?" Fremtahl suggested, "A holiday camp for retired clandestine operatives and political embarrassments."

"Perhaps," the ship agreed, sounding mildly amused, "Originator unknown, but the place is almost certainly now run by the Blitteringueh Conglo for their own benefit. I shall be making more enquiries in this regard, you can be sure."

The two humans nodded. Even now, they both suspected, messages would be rattling back and forth through the galaxy-wide gossip network which the Minds used to talk to one another.

"So what happened to these residents who did a runner?" Lemahr asked.

"Well, this leads us to the other matter I need to talk to you about," the ship replied, "It seems that, a few minutes ago, something which looked like an ex-Rapid Offensive Unit came through this system at high speed, Displacing something from the surface on its way."

"What? Are you sure?" Lemahr exclaimed, jumping off the bed again.

"Yes, unless somebody's doing a remarkably good job of pretending," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said, with what might have a tinge of resentment in its voice, "The maximum amount of energy a ROU's heavy-duty Displacer can bring to bear is fairly well-known. Those old warcraft were built to the limits of the technology at the time, to within a percent of the power level which would rip the craft apart. And this particular snap-Displace was exactly at that level."

"And what was it that was Displaced?" Fremtahl asked.

"I don't know for sure, of course," the ship said, "But the Displace took place at a location not very far from the last known position of two of the people who unexpectedly left Brunanburh shortly after Lemahr arrived there."

"Two people?" Fremtahl demanded, her fur rippling in confusion.

"Yes. And that looks like being yet another mystery," the ship said, "But, given the involvement of what was almost certainly a Culture ship, I think we have to accept the possibility that Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle has left the planet."

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