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

Plot Suspicions

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1841]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
My contacts in Special Circumstances - such as they are - have suddenly started behaving all cagey.

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1841+]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
Never a good sign when that happens!
Any idea why they are now so reticent?

None. Although, if I was to guess, now that it is probably the case that Mister Hy-Golten was on Epsilona, and it is also probably the case that he has now left, they are probably worried about how to explain how a Very Fast Picket (probably) could arrange to pick up an Absconder who disappeared two hundred years ago.

Hah! And our chances of getting a firm resolution to all those 'probables' doesn't seem to be very high at the moment.

Too right!
I've never been provided with a good explanation - and by 'good', I mean likely to hold up under a degree of additional thought or close investigation - for the desire to retrieve this Mister Hy-Golten.
The usual reasons for grabbing an Absconder are to do with the risk of them inadvertently - or even deliberately - changing the course of history on some otherwise-unContacted planet. But Hy-Golten was an experienced Contact Operative and, I strongly suspect, has undertaken at least one mission at the request of at least some SC Minds. He knows what he's doing.

I think he does.
I can find nothing anywhere on Epsilona that suggests the course of any of the many societies on the planet have changed unexpectedly in the last twenty years or so, assuming that Hy-Golten was actually down there. If he was, he's been entirely well-behaved, very carefully not altering anything either knowingly or accidentally.

And there's been no complaint from the Blitteringueh Conglo, at least until your recent interaction with Phostrian Calgo. If Hy-Golten had been blundering about down there, upsetting things, then I'm sure the Conglo would have noticed before now.
So why the sudden panic to locate him now?

Beats me.

And me.
Time to press my queries in various metaphorical ears.


The shared accommodation section of the Partial Arbitrage was busier than it had been for a long time, it seemed, when Lemahr and Fremtahl entered. It looked like every single member of the crew was present; everybody had been recalled back to the ship for some reason.

The two lovers greeted old friends and colleagues enthusiastically, with hugs and kisses all around. The crew of a Contact vessel were together in a relatively confined space for months at a time and, naturally enough, tended to get to know each other very well indeed. Being the Culture, this had naturally enough involved a lot of partying and quite a lot of sex, although - also naturally enough - the crew had tended to form closer friendships and bonds of affection as the mission went on.

"Thank you all for joining me at short notice," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage said, "Things have, as you will all by now be aware, changed somewhat, so we need to discuss what we should do in response to the current local situation."

The chatter in the accommodation section settled down very quickly; clearly the crew were keen to hear what the ship had to say.

"Another one of the PA's famous briefings-slash-debates," Lemahr whispered in Fremtahl's ear, although in the sudden near-silence the ship would be entirely able to hear his words if it chose to, "Ready to apply the thumbscrews to get it to tell us what's really going on, and not just around this particular ball of rock?"

"Ready as always," Fremtahl replied, her fur rippling in anticipation.

"So what choices do we have?" another member of the crew called out. The accommodation space was sufficiently crowded that Fremtahl was not able to identify who spoke, despite her being by far the tallest person in the room.

"Well, the ROU - or whatever it was - hurtling through here and Displacing something from the surface has left us with a number of annoying imponderables," the ship replied, "Obviously, I'm making urgent enquiries everywhere I can think of. I am not getting anything useful as a result, though."

"So, some Special Circumstances games-playing shit, then?" Fremtahl said nastily.

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

"It looks very much like it, I'm afraid. A number of Minds which I had previously thought of as being openly candid with me are now being coy or just plain uncommunicative."

"Bastards," Fremtahl muttered, her fur stiffening in anger.

"Indeed," the ship agreed, "So we have a few choices. Firstly, we could attempt to follow the ROU, to track it down - which is almost certain to fail. Even demilled, an ex-warship will have capabilities I cannot hope to match and is much faster than anything I can manage, so we would have to be impossibly lucky to find it. And, if if it was something capable of emulating both the performance and the engine emission signature of a Culture warship, then we are almost certain to be outmatched."

"So, that a hard no," Fremtahl said flatly, correctly echoing the sentiment in the accommodation section.

"Secondly," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage said, sounding amused, "We could return to the Neat Solution Overall and await further operational suggestions from the GSV and the local Contact group, which may or may not actually get useful input from anybody connected to Special Circumstances."

"Running home with our tails between our legs, then?" Fremtahl sneered, causing a titter of amusement around the room.

"Or, we could make the plausible assumption," the ship suggested in an earnest voice, obviously ignoring her tone, "That Trista Hy-Golten was indeed on Epsilona and was resident in Brunanburh until recently, and that he was one of the two people whose last known position suspiciously aligned with the Displacement by whatever vessel passed by."

"Plausible but unproven," Fremtahl said archly, the fur on her back rippling with piqued interest, "Okay, so what does this assumption mean for us?"

"Well, we can attempt to find out more about these two 'disappeared' people," the ship said, "I've reviewed all my surveillance footage, of course, so I know a bit about them. No names, though. So, my suggestion is that everybody with planet-side experience converges on Brunanburh and investigates the places where these two have been seen and find out everything they can."

"Won't that annoy the Blitteringueh Conglo Exobiology Clan?" Lemahr interjected, earning him a sharp look from Fremtahl.

"It might," the ship said, "But they already know we are poking about on their pet primitive planet. Our Ambassador has been talking to them about it, making placating noises, promising that we'll do our best to avoid significant disruption and be out of their metaphorical hair in no time at all. So I think the risk of provoking the Conglo into doing something rash is rather small."

"Managed levels of annoyance, then," Fremtahl said, sounding amused, "So, do we know anything about the two people who might have been whisked away?"

"Well," the Partial Arbitrage said, "I've captured enough footage to get a pretty good idea of what they look like, and of course they've been scanned for any traces of Culture or indeed alien genetics or technology. Both negative, of course."

The back wall of the accommodation section quietly turned itself into screens and started displaying a montage of images; everybody's eyes swung about to get a good view. One set of the screens showed a woman, tall and young-looking, who carried herself with elegant poise and a certain amount of detachment; the remainder showed a wiry but still strong-looking man with an air of intelligent observation, his hair flecked with grey and a certain ingrained wariness in his eyes. Neither of them looked anything like Trista Hy-Golten.

"You know," Lemahr said slowly, "I'm pretty sure I've seen both of these people in Brunanburh while I was down there."

"You did," the ship confirmed immediately, "Some of these images were captured through your own eyes, via your neural lace."

A pair of still pictures appeared side-by side on the wall-screens; Lemahr recognised the scenes immediately.

"You saw the woman in the marketplace while you were having breakfast one morning," the ship said gently.

Lemahr nodded. He did remember the rather striking young woman chatting amicably with the stallholders while he was wrestling with his meat pie.

The other picture was darker and crowded with people; Lemahr could see that it was the taproom of the tavern he had stayed at. A red circle appeared, ringing one particular hooded face in a shadowed part of the bar.

"Ah," Lemahr said, shaking his head, "So either or both of them could have seen me, might remember me from those encounters?"

"They might," the ship confirmed, "But, since I am certain that neither of them are still resident in the town, it matters little."

There was a rustling, fluttering noise from behind them. Everybody spun around. A low table at the other end of the accommodation section was suddenly covered by sheets of highly authentic-looking parchment with what could easily be mistaken for a charcoal drawing showing the face and upper body of both the man and woman Lemahr had seen in Brunanburh. Fremtahl scooted over and picked one up, studying the reproduction with evident approval.

"Let's get down there!" she cried, her fur standing up stiffly in excitement.


[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1977]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
Anything further from your tight-lipped SC contacts?

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1977+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Nothing, as yet.

I rather expected as much.
I am proposing a specific course of action, or rather inaction, given the recalcitrance of those I would have liked to think of as our colleagues.

Do tell.

I have a hunch, if I can demean my own intellect by the use of such a term, that this backwater planet of Epsilona might become a nexus of activities leading to a resolution.

A resolution of what?

That is part of the problem. There clearly is something out of the ordinary afoot which seems to involve SC - or at least some parts of it - the Blitteringueh Conglo and quite possibly other parties, and the presence of this Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle appears to be germane to the entire predicament.
So, I propose to remain in orbit about Epsilona for the foreseeable future. I will distract my crew with further in-person planet-side investigations, although I doubt that this will turn up anything particularly useful or relevant. But it certainly gives me a reason to stick around, should anybody enquire as to my purpose for still being here.

Sounds like a plan.
Do let me know of any developments.

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