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

Zero Result

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.771]
  xGCU xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
Another dead end. [Report attached.]

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.771+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Sorry to hear it. My contacts in Special Circumstances will be disappointed.
āˆž
Do apologise to your SC colleagues on my behalf.
I've covered all the highest-probability places now, so Iā€™m now starting to scrape the bottom of the metaphorical barrel.

āˆž
Indeed. But I should encourage you to continue your barrel-scraping for a while yet.
āˆž
Huh. I agree there's no other option. I just wish I could find some way of joggling the odds a little in our favour.

*

"So it was all a complete waste of time?"

Lizzat Fremtahl was curled up on Folkiss Lemahr's bed, watching him shed the clothes which had formed part of his disguise on Epsilona. As he discarded each item, it was whisked away by the Partial Arbitrage using small-scale Displaces, to be cleaned and reused, or recycled, or merely broken down into component molecules ready to be assembled into something different when the need arose.

"Well, mostly," Lemahr replied, sounding a little glum, "I mean, it was all good practice at fitting into the society. I made several silly mistakes in the first couple of days; things which got me some very strange looks and might well have alerted Hy-Golten if he had been around. Things that Contact training certainly taught me not to do, although it was hard at first to apply immediately and instinctively. I needed a couple of nudges from the ship, too."

"So you weren't very good, then?" Fremtahl suggested with a naughty grin on her face.

"I got better, very quickly," Lemahr said, scowling momentarily. For some reason, he found it hard to be cross with Lizzat Fremtahl for very long.

"What happened then?" she asked, smiling warmly and sitting up lithely, and wriggling into a comfortable cross-legged sitting position.

Lemahr eased out of the very last piece of clothing and dropped it; it disappeared with a barely-audible pop before it hit the floor. He turned to Fremtahl, returning her smile.

"Let me tell you all about it," he said, sitting down next to her on the bed.

"I'd be delighted," she purred, turning to massage his shoulders - so very tense, poor thing - with her small strong hands.

*

Lemahr had returned to the Partial Arbitrage aboard the same module that had deposited him three weeks earlier on the outskirts of Streoneshalch. He had sat in glum silence on the way back, watching the planet drop away on a screen. The module docked without fuss and the door opened onto a familiar transit lounge.

"Welcome back," the voice of the ship said softly.

"Thanks," he replied, stepping through the module door. The staff which had been his constant companion these last weeks jumped from his hand and disassembled itself, the components turning silver and flying off in loose formation. He had not noticed the staff doing anything particular while he was on-planet; of course, it was probably engaged in all sorts of active and passive surveillance, although he was as unlikely to notice that as any of the natives.

"How do you feel?" the ship asked solicitously, even though it almost certainly knew exactly his current state of mind.

There was a general Culture prohibition on the reading of minds of sentient creatures. This was politeness, really; a way of showing respect for the privacy of an individual's thoughts, whether drone or human or alien. Technically, it would be a very easy thing for a Mind like that of the Partial Arbitrage to scan the - slow, so very slow - mental activity inside the head of, for example, Folkiss Lemahr and deduce the precise state of his conscious thoughts as well as the many unconscious aspirations, drives, desires, cravings and feelings he might have. But, it was almost never done; the - very few - Minds which did undertake such things always found themselves ostracised from the society of their peers.

Still, any Culture Mind would have well established and highly reliable statistical models for the emotions and behaviours of humans in general, and it would have been the work of a moment to plug in Lemahr's most recent experiences and come up with a comprehensive summary of the man's mental state.

"Disappointed, really. And frustrated," he answered, "I really thought we had a good chance of finding this Hy-Golten character in Streoneshalch."

"I thought so, too," the ship admitted, "It was my best shot."

"Am I going to have to do all this again?" Lemahr asked.

"I'd like you to," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage replied, "If you wouldn't mind."

"Sure, I'll do it," he said, sounding more enthusiastic than he really felt, "So, where am I going next time?"

The ship produced a very plausible imitation of a deep and heartfelt sigh.

"Ah, I wish I knew. There are lots of places, of course, where he could be. But none of them seem particularly likely, stand out in any way. I think I'm going to have to think about this a lot more."

"Okay," he said dubiously, "What should I do in the meantime?"

"Oh, you should take some much-deserved rest and relaxation," the ship suggested, "You deserve it, really."

Just at that moment, Lizzat Fremtahl bounded into the transit lounge and wrapped herself around him.

"Folkiss!" she cried, kissing him extravagantly, "I've missed you!"

*

Unwinding a little after his back massage, Lemahr lay back on the bed. Fremtahl curled herself comfortably beside him. He regaled her with amusing and generally self-deprecating stories from his stint on the planet, poking gentle fun at some of the more obviously crackpot people he had encountered and a few of the near-miss confrontations he had escaped from: the drunk docker who had taken offense at some perceived slight at the bar in some port tavern and had taken several swings at him, but so slowly that he had no problem simply stepping aside, culminating in the drunkard tripping over a bench and knocking himself out cold; the handsome and obviously married young woman who he mysteriously bumped into - nearly literally - every time he visited the market and making her obviously carnal interest entirely plain - without actually speaking of it, of course - and who he had to tactfully dissuade from her pursuit by suggesting, again without words, that he was more interested in her husband.

Fremtahl oh'd and ah'd and giggled in the right places, snuggling close to him on the bed, her fur and, later, her hands moving sensuously over his skin. Lemahr's sense of failure retreated; his spirits lifted; much much later, he fell asleep incredibly relaxed and surprisingly exhausted.

When Lemahr finally stirred, he was a little surprised to find that Fremtahl was not still lying at his side. Blinking and squirming, he saw that she was sitting up at the other end of the bed, conversing quietly with a terminal bud attached to one of her elegantly pointed ears and prodding at a virtual screen that something - the terminal or perhaps the ship itself - was projecting in front of her.

Lemahr watched her silently for a few minutes, fascinated by the expression of intense concentration on her face. When he could resist no longer, he asked her what she was doing. She prodded at the screen a couple more times, then turned to him with a rather smug-looking smile on her face.

"I've been looking at the places that the ship thinks are possibilities - it's quite a long list - where this Hy-Golten character might be hiding," she said, "And I reviewed what we know - it's a lot - about Hy-Golten himself."

"Okay," Lemahr replied, pulling himself into a sitting position and glanding a little Snap to help shake off his slight grogginess, "Did you learn something?"

"Well, he was in Contact for a very long time, and even did some work for Special Circumstances," she went on, "And after he Absconded, he's managed to stay below the radar for ages, hidden away from the Culture for hundreds of years."

"Yes, that's all true," he said, "But does it help us?"

"So he must know something about how a Contact Mind would go about searching a planet for a single person who is physically similar to the native population, and where it is only his knowledge and experience - the stuff in his head - which is different from those about him."

"Well, I'm not sure any human really knows how a Mind thinks," he said dubiously.

"Well, obviously," Fremtahl replied huffily, "Not in any detail. But he must know the general approach. A Mind would build probability models, based on what factors determining what would make it a good place to hide. Plenty of people coming and going, a certain size of town - big enough so that not everybody knows everybody else - that sort of thing."

"I'm sure the Partial Arbitrage has some very detailed models," Lemahr replied, still sounding sceptical.

"And those models don't come up with many obvious candidates, and we've tried all of those now," she said, "So we're onto the second tier of possibilities. And the list of such places, even for a primitive planet like this, is very long. So, I've been trying to think of factors which the ship might not have considered, but might be important to a man like Hy-Golten."

"Did you think of anything?"

Fremtahl's smug smile flashed across her face again.

"I did," she replied, "Hy-Golten has always shied away from physical violence, avoided even the threat of it, in all the Contact and SC missions he undertook. Sometimes at considerable cost to himself and others. He can't stand the thought of it. It's moral anathema to him."

"Oh. I didn't spot that. But how does it help us?"

"We need to find a place which is well-policed, and so peaceful and friendly," she replied immediately, "Strong and effective law and order, were one is unlikely to be attacked in the street. There are couple of towns which might fit, but one really stands out."

She gestured at the screen, which politely spun about so that Lemahr could see what was displayed there: a map showing a many-gated walled town on a navigable river, with a large market, and roads and pack-trails in all directions. The map was heavily annotated, but one note that stood out - presumably because Fremtahl had made it so - was a comment on the firm hand of the local Constable in keeping the riff-raff at bay.

"So," she announced, "I'm going to suggest to the ship that the next place you are sent is Brunanburh."

"That sounds brilliant. Ship?" Lemahr said.

"I was listening," the voice of the Partial Arbitrage said immediately.

"Of course you were," Fremtahl admonished, sounding only very slightly peeved.

"It's an excellent idea," the ship went on, "I fully concur. It will be the next place I send Lemahr, as soon as he feels ready to go."

He bounced up and kissed Fremtahl full on the lips, then pulled away so he could look into her eyes.

"Of course it's a good idea," Fremtahl purred, looking irredeemably smug, "I'm not just a pretty face, you know."

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