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

Mistaken Identity

Lemahr found himself a simple lodging for the night, as befitting his assumed character, in a tiny garret over the taproom where he had previously drunk a modest quantity of weak beer, eaten a generous portion of simply-cooked food and engaged in a certain amount of banter with others in the bar. He had paid extra in order to have both room and bed to himself, which gave him amble opportunity to closely review the material which the Partial Arbitrage had dumped in his head earlier. The report contained little in terms of concrete information and much speculation and inference, although it did spell out in slightly tedious detail why the GCU and the Neat Solution Overall considered the possibility seriously. After that, he shut his eyes, glanded a little shush and immediately fell into a deep dreamless sleep which left him feeling refreshed and alert and ready for a new day exploring the dubious delights of Brunanburh.

Like the overwhelming majority of Culture citizens, Lemahr's body contains specialised, congenital drug glands, capable of creating any one of hundreds of sensory- and mood-altering drugs on command; drugs which could bring on sleep or remove the need for it entirely; drugs which would speed up a person's awareness so that a second would feel like a minute, or increase concentration and focus so that one's entire awareness could be concentrated on a single problem; drugs which would promote mental dissociation or waking-dreaming states of mind. If Hy-Golten was on this planet, or indeed any other Culture citizen - ex-Culture, perhaps - they would have had their glands removed, along with a vast array of other genetically-determined physical and mental capabilities. Drug glands were widely regarded as a marker of Culture genes and would have been one of the first things that the ship would have been looking for when it first scanned the planet.

Lemahr emerged from the brew house blinking in the sunshine and made his way through the already-busy marketplace, watching the stallholders and hawkers and general passers-by closely. The square was bustling with activity, the air ringing with shouted offers and energetic haggling, barrows and wagons trying with limited success to push through the crowds. And the people! Even as a person from the Culture, familiar with almost every variation on the humanoid body plan, Lemahr found the cascade of humanity indescribably fascinating: here, a wrinkled hunchback polishing the skin of her coloured fruits on the grubby hem of her skirts; there, a midget so fat that he might have measured the same horizontally as vertically, carrying a tray of freshly-baked pies on his head, the pastries protected from any light-fingered individual by some no-doubt venomous and obviously fanged reptile whose head could be seen emerging from a basket in the centre of the platter.

Lemahr could not help himself. He bent down to the short-statured pie vendor and waved a hand in front of his face, his fingers grasping enough small copper to easily cover the advertized price of any of the comestibles on display.

"One of your finest pies, if you please," he demanded, waving the metal under the dwarf's nose.

The little man used one hand to grab the money - the other still holding the tray aloft - which disappeared without trace into the depths of his jerkin. Without setting the tray down, he reached up a deftly grasped a large and enticing pie - the reptile clearly recognising the scent of its owner and made no attempt to sink its fangs into his hand - which he then proffered to Lemahr, who accepted it graciously.

As the pie-vendor stalked away, Lemahr took the opportunity to inspect the pastry closely. The casing was made from a coarse wholemeal flour, the grains ground by heavy millstones driven, in this part of the world, by waterwheels. The filling consisted of chunks of meat from a widely-reared animal on this planet, one also prized for its fur, and padded out with root vegetables and a thick gravy.

Lemahr tried very hard not to think about the contents of the pie while he took his first bite.

Almost all food in the Culture was created as required using synthesizers, capable of constructing almost anything from a stored pattern. Sure, the patterns were based - sometimes fairly loosely - on foodstuffs which, once upon a time, were grown on one of the dozen or so worlds which could fairly claim to be the home planets of the eight or nine species which came together to form the mongrel society now known as the Culture. The synthesizer patterns encoded the structure of many plants and quite a few animals of various kinds, and dishes based on any of these could now be created without harm or distress to any living thing.

As a matter of course, Lemahr had had his intestinal flora altered by the Partial Arbitrage to allow him to consume and digest all of the locally available foodstuffs. His Contact training - intended to make it easy for him to blend in with the locals wherever he happened to be, for as long as he needed to be there - had a specific section on the consumption of 'natural' food, which basically focussed on the mental attitudes required to not think about exactly what it was that one was consuming.

Consequently, Lemahr was casting around for a distraction from his breakfast. His eye was caught by a woman demurely dressed in dark clothing and a hat with a heavy veil accompanied by a hire-guard and a porter. The woman was obviously a familiar presence to many of the traders, stopping to chat and gossip in between careful purchases, admixed with the occasional more serious conversation held in whispers in places which might not be easily overheard. Despite her respectable appearance, she moved with a certain poise and instinctive elegance which suggested that she was somebody who earned her living using her body. A dancer, perhaps; Lemahr could not be sure.

Still, Lemahr's own opinion - augmented by autonomous intelligence from his neural lace - strongly indicated that this woman was not the Absconder they were looking for. Being female was not the issue - a Culture person like Trista Hy-Golten could have taken the time to enable the retrovirus changes which would turn a man into a woman - or vice versa - in a little under a year, and do this before employing their implants to alter their genetic makeup to become indistinguishable from the locals. No, if Hy-Golten was really hiding here, he would have wanted to conceal himself as quickly as possible - since he could not know when a Contact unit might show up - and so he would have started aging in a normal human-basic way from the point where his genes were reworked. So, this woman was just too young to be Hy-Golten; Lemahr would have to carry on looking.

Breakfast completed and any traces of incipient nausea brought on by the thought of what he had just eaten swept away by a glandular release of settle, Lemahr continued his examination of the town and its inhabitants. The market square and its surrounding network of streets and alleys was the principal area in which supplies of all kinds - foodstuffs, for example - were to be had in Brunanburh, so it stood to reason that - if Hy-Golten were actually here - he would from time to time appear at the market.

He moved gracefully amongst the passing trade, neatly avoiding collisions with others nearby. The locals seemed much less reserved about accidental body contact: cheerfully apologising or just waving when a wayward body bumped into their own. Of course, some of these collisions were engineered, attempts at larceny and pocket-picking, but any prudent local would keep their purses and possessions buried deep within their clothing. And some, like the elegant lady he had spotted earlier, sported scary guards with obvious sharp weapons just to keep such unwanted interactions at bay.

Another person in the teeming crowd suddenly caught Lemahr's attention, flagged up by the smart but not sentient AI in his neural lace and almost immediately remotely reinforced by the ship. The lace highlighted a man in middle age, still strong and fit-looking, who was moving through the crowd almost like a ghost, avoiding any kind of physical contact by using some kind of elegant ballet movement which must have required him keeping track of the movements of dozens of other people.

He was dressed much like anybody else in the market and his genetic makeup, as remotely confirmed by the ship, was parameter-centric in the admittedly wide spread of human genome on this little planet. But he moved like nobody else in the market, he acknowledged almost nobody and spoke only minimally to the very few vendors with whom he conducted a transaction.

~Is that him? Lemahr asked the ship via the neural lace in his head.

~Could be. Best candidate we've had so far. But there's nothing definitive to say its Hy-Golten.

~So what should I do?

~Go and talk to him. Address him in Marain.

~In Marain? Surely he could just pretend he doesn't know the language?

~Actually, no. If he understands what you're saying, even if he tries to hide it, the changes in his physiology will be immediately visible to the sensory apparatus in your lace. And if he does not understand, the confusion will similarly be apparent.

~Fine. I'll get over there right now.

Lemahr slid his way through the market on a parallel path to the odd individual he and the Partial Arbitrage had spotted. The possible alien seemed entirely unaware of Lemahr, right up to the point where he swung around the corner of a vegetable stall and the two men suddenly came face to face.

"Greetings, fellow traveller," Lemahr said in Marain, using a conventional salutation and holding up both hands amicably, "What brings you to this fair town?"

The expression of confusion and dismay on the man's face did not really need any interpretation by Lemahr's lace.

"Who you? How find?" the other man said in fractured, barely-understandable Marain, then switched to the local language, "What do you want with me?"

~He's not Hy-Golten, the ship announced in Lemahr's head, Not a local, but not Culture either.

"Actually, nothing at all," Lemahr said to the other man, smiling broadly, "Wrong man. Mistaken identity. Forget I was ever here."

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1311]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
Well, it seems my suspicions do have some basis. [Report attached.]

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1311+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Well, certainly right about there being more aliens in hiding on that planet.
Not necessarily that the planet's population was genetically engineered to make it easy to hide such aliens.


Agree, of course. I think the latter proposition may never be provable.
And I'm still no closer to locating this elusive Mister Hy-Golten.


Indeed. Keep looking.

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