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

Ready Equipped

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.299.107]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
I am now on the way to this planet called Epsilona. I should arrive in a little over two days.

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.299.107+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Good news. However, I think you should plan on a lengthy stay when you get there. This Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle seems to be quite a slippery character, by all accounts. [Report attached.]

Hmm, I see what you mean. Rest assured I will be looking under every loose stone and fallen tree when I get there.

Despite the logical impossibility of proving a negative, I would like you to be very sure that Mister Hy-Golten is not hiding on that dreary little ball of rock before you call it a day.

No further updates confirming or otherwise his location, then?

Nothing, I'm afraid. You'll have to do this the hard way.

I suspected as much.
I'll see if I can get a few of my human crew members to volunteer to investigate in person. Most of them seem game for a little adventure.

Good plan. I doubt there will be any other way to do this.
Keep the reports coming in.

Will do.


Living space inside a General Contact Unit was quite limited, at least by the standards of the Culture. A person living on an Orbital or other large-scale habitat could make use of an essentially unlimited volume of accommodation. Even a General Service Vehicle, typically home to hundreds of millions of people, was no more packed than a well-laid-out city, one with plenty of parks and gardens.

By contrast, then, the single cabin which was provided per person for sleeping, relaxing and studying might have felt cramped, even with the Culture's artful approach to interior design and the use of screens and holograms to provide the illusion of extra space. This was another thing which sometimes came as a shock to newcomers to Contact; still, it was explained, what's a little personal deprivation compared with alleviating the suffering of uncounted millions?

Folkiss Lemahr was lying on the bed in her cabin, quite naked, eyes closed, thoughts free-wheeling peacefully in her head and idly stroking Fremtahl's pink fur, who was curled up around her and fast asleep.

"Sorry, Folkiss, but I need to interrupt you," the voice of the ship said softly.

Lemahr opened her eyes but otherwise did not move.

"Consider me interrupted," she said languidly.

"I want you to be one of those who go down to the surface," the GCU said, "On Epsilona. To track down in person this irritating Mister Hy-Golten."

"Okay. I was going to volunteer anyway, probably."

"Well, that's good," the ship went on, "But there's a small problem."

"And what's that?"

"You are going to have to be male, I'm afraid."

Lemahr frowned.

"Why?" she asked.

The ship made a noise like a sigh.

"This is one of those societies with pronounced gender roles: every man is either a peasant, a priest, or a prince - well, a baron or noble, perhaps - unless they are a soldier, and every woman is a wife, a whore or a widow. No exceptions."

Lemahr thought that the ship was probably exaggerating for effect, but nodded anyway.

"I can't change that quickly, you know," she said.

Virtually every human in the Culture had been able to change sex for many millennia. It took anything up to a year to alter yourself from a female to a male, or vice-versa. The process was painless and set in action simply by thinking about it; you went into a sort of trance-like state; if you looked in the right place in your mind, there was an image of yourself as you were now. A little thought would make the image change from your present gender to the opposite sex. You came out of the trance, and that was it. Your body would already be starting to change, glands sending out the relevant viral and hormonal signals which would start the gradual process of conversion.

Within a year a woman who had been capable of carrying a child - who, indeed, might have been a mother - would be a man fully capable of fathering a child. Most people in the Culture changed sex at some point in their lives, though not all had children while they were female. Generally people eventually changed back to their congenital sex, but not always, and some people cycled back and forth between male and female all their lives, while some settled for an androgynous in-between state, finding there a comfortable equanimity.

"Yes," the ship agreed, "So I'll have to intervene myself if you are to be fully male by the time we arrive."

"So, into a medical pod for me, then?"

"I'm afraid so," the ship agreed, "Sometime in the next hour, ideally."

Fremtahl had woken up at some point during the exchange. She stretched extravagantly, and then curled up again with her head on Lemahr's belly.

"You're going to be a man?" she said, licking her lips lasciviously, "That could be fun."


[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.301.201]
  xGCU xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
I have arrived at Epsilona. A quick scan suggests there is nothing resembling Culture equipment anywhere on the planet. No implants or enhancements anywhere. [Report attached.]

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.301.201+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Are you quite sure?

I'm re-running the scans at the moment, and tweaking sensor configurations to make it harder for even sophisticated stuff to hide. Still nothing.
I have also done a scan of every human on the planet. They are all genetically the same, within plausible variances. Well, actually quite wide variances, but that seems to be a characteristic of this place. [Report attached.]

So, inconclusive. This Hy-Golten could still be down there, in extreme disguise.

Or, he could be somewhere else.
I will get some of my crew on the surface soon, in some of the most likely places. See if we can shake a few metaphorical trees.

Sounds good. Won't be quick, though.

I know. I will have to keep my crew entertained; I wouldn't want the little darlings bored, would I?

Good hunting. And let me know any updates soonest. My contacts in Special Circumstances seem especially agitated about this particular Absconder.

Will do.


Part of the wall in Folkiss Lemahr's cabin had turned itself into a full-length mirror. Another section alongside was now acting as a floor-to-ceiling screen, relaying the view from some so-small-as-to be-hardly-there-at-all camera currently slowly scanning the room. Lemahr stood entirely naked in front of the mirror admiring the new masculine body the ship had reconstructed for him.

As a man, he was a bit taller and much broader in the chest and shoulders than hitherto, much closer to the median sizes the Culture expected for males. He now had dark brown hair worn quite long and a well-trimmed beard and moustache in the same colour. He had discreet tufts of hair on his chest - not the hirsute bear-man appearance he thought he might be given - and a darkly olive-skinned complexion - all of which would fit in very nicely in many parts of planet Epsilona.

The camera view rotated again and Lemahr twisted this way and that, admiring himself, inspecting his tight arse and nicely formed loins. Even his calves seemed to be well turned out.

"Nice view," Lizzat Fremtahl said smirking from the bed where she had curled up, "Very nice. Think the ship did a good job?"

This was not the first time that Lemahr had been a man; although born as a woman, he had spent twenty years in the middle of his first century as male. However, that was nearly a hundred years ago and he had, something to his surprise, forgotten quite a lot of what the masculine form felt like, the kind of unconscious reactions his body would now be making.

"I'm very pleased with myself," he answered, smiling broadly in her direction and displaying an array of dazzlingly white teeth, "The Partial Arbitrage is to be congratulated."

Fremtahl uncurled herself sensuously from the bed and joined the man in front of the mirror. Even in his new male form, she towered over him, although she was so slight he could probably have picked her up with one hand. She bent and breathed in his ear, running one hand down his firmly muscled belly.

"Now, Lizzat, you know I'm going to be very busy," he said, putting his hand over hers, "I’ve got this complicated mission ahead of me."

"But surely," she purred, "Before you go, you will want to make sure that absolutely everything is in full working order?"

Lemahr looked down, at first surprised and then rather pleased with his reaction.

"Well, I think some parts are going to need a very thorough testing," he said, grinning from ear to ear.

"That," Fremtahl purred, dropping to all-fours in front of him, her mane rippling in excitement, "Was exactly what I had in mind."

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