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

Upon the Scent

Folkiss Lemahr considered that he must have looked entirely unremarkable as he entered Brunanburh through the Brun Hamlet Gate. The guards, for want of a better word, seemed completely uninterested in him; just another plodding traveller in a worn hood and battered pack with his own interests and objectives, even if the first of those objectives was to get a decent hot meal, a large cold beer and a warm place to sleep.

True to type, then, Lemahr made his way along the broad but crowded thoroughfare which led to the market where, he knew, there were numerous hostelries catering for exactly the kind of individual he was pretending to be. He automatically scanned the crowd as he walked, not just to avoid colliding with anybody or anything but also to evaluate the passers-by for any trait or behaviour which might be considered out-of-the-ordinary, anomalous or even alien.

With the immense intellect of the ship looking at the scene through his own eyes, combined with the near-infinite records available to the Mind created by previous remote scanning and imaging, identifying the Absconder ought to be child's play. Still, it would be enormously improbable if he clapped eyes on whatever personal shape and appearance Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle had taken on so soon after he had arrived on the planet.


[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1209]
  xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
I've been closely reviewing the report on Epsilona prepared by the GCU Parsimonious Production.
One of the things that ship noted was the curiously broad range of genetic variability in the population of planet Epsilona. As you know, usually in the development of humanoid species, there is some kind of inflection point where the genetic variability drops to almost zero, as a result of some kind of environmental and evolutionary stress, before blossoming out as a rapidly growing population, albeit with very limited genetic diversity.

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1209+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Well, yes, of course this is all just standard Human Evolution 101.
So we find that this particular little ball of rock had a less severe evolutionary bottleneck than many others. A bottleneck which might very well have extinguished this particular population, as well as uncounted others in the history of the galaxy. But, so what? There's a huge statistical variation in these developmental nexuses. This one is certainly a statistical outlier, but random things just happen, you know.

Look, I fully accept that this level of genetic diversity could be just a random outlier. But, suppose that it is not?

Okay, let me humour you. Suppose not. Then what?

So, firstly it suggests that the huge range of genetic makeup in the inhabitants of this planet is the result of some conscious effort. Indeed, the effort of an intellectually powerful consciousness. A deliberate effort to construct a place where almost any humanoid could easily hide themselves.
This viewpoint is supported by the existence of very different racial groups in different parts of this world. People who are so different in terms of both physical attributes and social mores. Races of giants and dwarves and midgets, all drawn from the same wide genetic pool, all actually the same species. Or at least purporting to be so.

Hmm. Let me see if I have got this straight.
You are contending that this planet Epsilona has been set up, over a period of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, specifically as a place where almost any humanoid could fit in with a minimum of alteration. Basically, a place for people to hide?

Yes, exactly so. And, if the humanoid people in question had access to a reasonable level of medical technology - certainly at a level which we have had for ten thousand years - they could rebuild their own cellular structure to be undetectable as aliens even to us.
And then there's the recent history of this planet. They seem to have been stuck in a stable, and fairly peaceful, level-2 state for at least three thousand years, possibly much longer, based on our earliest scans and investigations. Admittedly, we were much less sophisticated, back then, when we did the first scans, so we can't be as precise as I'd like. But still, it is an unusually long time for a human society to be at this level, unchanging.

I admit your arguments are compelling. So you think there is some deeper plot encompassing the planet of Epsilona? Something your current mission is stirring up?

I don't know. This is all speculation at this point. As you noted earlier, this could be just a random statistical outlier in the vastness of the galaxy.
Although I certainly want to investigate the possibility of conscious intent, don't you think?

I do think so. And I believe I can help in this investigation. I have some contacts here and there. I'll give them a gentle prod or two. See if I can stir up a thought from Contact's collective memory.
But we do need to treat this as an unproven hypothesis for the moment. We need proof, or at least more than circumstantial evidence.

Agree, of course. I'll look more closely everywhere I can think of, while I'm waiting for anything on this wretched Trista Hy-Golten to turn up.
In any case, who could have constructed a planet designed to hide human fugitives? Who would have constructed such a thing?

At the moment, I have no idea.
But I'm pretty certain it's not us. The Culture has not been around long enough to have interfered in the evolutionary development of this particular group of humans. So I think we can be very certain this is not some secretive cabal of Minds or reclusive Interesting Times Gang playing out one of their what-if scenarios.

So, another civilization - presumably, a humanoid civilization or some close approximation thereto - set this all up? Aeons ago, at least? And may not still be in existence after all this time. The lure of the Sublime and all that.

We may never know who it was. I doubt even our records encompass every civilization who has Sublimed in the last ten thousand years. Let alone those whose societies whose final state is less fully defined.
But I have a strong suspicion that the Blitteringueh Conglo know all about this planet. It's right on the edge of the volume they regard as their home turf, and they are certainly active in exploring the galaxy. And they have a good track record of making sense of even the most abstruse and recondite of alien artifacts.

So, if the Blitteringueh Conglo discovered this planet and understood its potential, and shipped Hy-Golten off here to hide - which I accept is an unproven statement at this time - then Hy-Golten might not be the only alien, or even the only ex-Culture citizen hiding on the surface.

All this is worryingly possible.
Can I ask that you get your human agents on the surface looking out for other potential aliens, not just Hy-Golten?

Good call. I'll do it at once.


~Folkiss, the voice of the Partial Arbitrage sounded in his head, Sorry to intrude. But there's an update you really need to understand.

~Okay, ship, Lemahr responded in the privacy of his own mind, Do you want me to come back upstairs for this?

~No, there's no need for that. I'll prime your neural lace with a full briefing for you to study when you have a few quiet moments, away from the crowd in that public house I can see through your eyes. But, briefly, the GSV Neat Solution Overall and I suspect that this Trista Hy-Golten may not be the only alien in disguise on this planet. So we need you to be on the lookout for others, too.

~Other aliens? Are you sure?

~Frankly, no. But the probability is sufficiently high, and the implications sufficiently large, to take the suggestion seriously.

~Okay, so I'll keep my eyes peeled. As I'm sure yours will be. Are we looking for anything specific?

~Not really. Any other alien here will be at least as well disguised as Hy-Golten, so there won't be anything obvious, I suspect.

~Just keep looking, then?



Lemahr blinked and look around the crowded taproom where he had been standing, tankard in hand, while his thoughts were distracted by the conversation with the ship in his head. He took a long pull at his beer, smacking his lips for effect. Nobody seemed to be paying him any undue attention; there were several loud conversations going on all around him where men were expounding on several subjects with expansive gestures and much profanity while others shouted disagreement or doubt.

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