outlaws of neptune
by
robert gibson

Part I


The untimely death of the Neptunian mathematician Arr Hocor occurred swiftly and without warning on the 267th day of Ssen, Year 1172 of the Mrakallon Era.

In keeping with this golden age of the Ocean World's history, the murder was peaceful, tidy and swift.  Arr Hocor never knew what hit him, and his house remained for some minutes a scene of quiet.  Only the ubiquitous lazh crystals which are worked into the corners and jambs of every Neptunian building filled the silent ether with their eternally rebounding, ghostlike messages.  Those "voices" do not count as "noise" except when a sensitive is around to "hear" them.

During this hushed interval the balance of probability, as Arr Hocor himself would have put it, remained in favour of the murderer's escape.  Then, however - as he would likewise have put it - a new element was added to the equation.

The study door slid open.  A stocky woman stepped confidently across the threshold, with no inkling of the surprise that awaited her.  Perceiving the slackness of the form at the desk, she drew a sharp breath, and clutched the door-handle.  Then she quivered in annoyance at her own discomfiture.

A doctor would have pronounced her overweight, a plastic surgeon would have sought to moderate the built-in sneer, a beautician might have de-emphasized the jawline - but Interrogator Eyol Mnand found it useful to have an overbearing "presence" which nonetheless left her rule-breakingly attractive.  Not that she had come here to intimidate Arr Hocor.  She would not have traversed half the continent of Pezreem just for that.  On the contrary, she had journeyed here in the respectful hope that she might consult the man... 

A pity, perhaps, that she had come unannounced, but it was well known that it was no good trying to make appointments with the savant, who never answered letters; so instead she had relied on the reputation he had of responding to casual callers who shared his dedication to the mysterious abstractions of number... and now, she guessed, he would respond no more.

She padded towards where Arr Hocor sat slumped at the desk.  The mathematician's lean face was elderly, austere, a mask of severity.  A few inches to left and right a couple of crystals, like globular fruit halves the size of a hand, rested on the desk's surface.  Grimly the Interrogator reconstructed in her mind what must have happened, but in order to make sure she felt for the body's pulse.  None.  Wrist still warm, though.  The killers (they must have worked as a pair, one wielding each crystal) might yet not be far off.

Not much I can do about that.  I'm not an Enforcer.  Still, her glance swept hopefully across the papers which lay scattered over the desk.  Endless columns of random figures - yes, she had expected that.  Also, sheets of notes on the intervals between the figures - intervals themselves necessarily random.  Plus more notes on the intervals between those...

Maddening!  He had been at work mere minutes ago.  She could picture his stern face scanning the digits.  Hocor had run out of luck while on the track of it; he'd tried to probe beyond apparent chaos to find, if possible, the non-random lurker, the recurrence-pattern which would prove the random non-random...

Interesting, in a dry sort of way, this quest for contradiction.  Not something to kill for, surely?

Too late to put that rhetorical question.  Too late now, to ask the man whether his latest researches had uncovered aught which an Interrogator might do well to know.  The body was the silent answer: he had found something, or had been close enough to doing so, to seal his own doom.

*

Eyol Mnand went out the way she came in.  She disdained to search the house.  Let the Enforcers do that, as they eventually must.  She was an Interrogator, and she would stick to her vocation. 

In the mathematician's garden she paused a while under the royal blue sky of Neptune, pondering her next move.

The garden was vast, the size of a self-supporting farm.  Its yellow-green lawns and shrubs, dusted with spatterings of lazh, twinkled and glittered mildly in that far sunlight which seems bright enough to the huge-eyed Neptunians.  A peaceful landscape, almost unoccupied. 

However, in the middle distance, a slim young girl in heavy shoes, soiled jacket and trousers, was bending and weeding.  The girl straightened at Eyol's approach and her face acquired that alarmed look to which Eyol Mnand was sadly accustomed.  The price of an Interrogator's success.

Eyol asked bluntly, "Who are you?"

"My name is Nambl Ae."

"Are you a gardener?"

"I am."

"Did you know that Arr Hocor has been killed?"

The girl blanched.  "No."

"But you saw people enter his house a short time ago?"

"I saw, yes, two men, heavy-coated, helmeted.  I have never seen them before.  I do not know who they are.  I know nothing about all this.  I have no conscious involvement with the crime."

Well, that was that, thought Eyol.  She had not expected anything more from this bystander who, like most people, could, at need, draw upon a form of words to eliminate herself from suspicion.  Much of a murder investigation was like this: routine, boring, standard stuff.

It was with her next and final question to the gardener, that Eyol Mnand showed her expertise. 

"You have informed me that you know nothing about all this.  Is it also true, that you do not wish to know?"

The girl gave a little gasp.  She knew, they both knew, that she had betrayed herself; and her silence set the seal on the datum.

Satisfied with this, Eyol walked away.  Her eyes roved further afield, as far as the the suburbs of Twull that reared like a greater garden of magnified climbing plants supported by the silver poles which were residential towers, soaring aloft three miles further along the path that led out of the property of the late Arr Hocor.

And, closer than the city, a spikier kind of tower reared above a rotunda where, Eyol knew, cowled figures awaited the next client for the elite transport system, the squend

Eyol had no idea how the squend worked, any more than most Terran drivers know how their cars work.  She simply used it when necessary as a mode of getting from A to B.  It was necessary at this stage for her to do her duty and alert the Council to what had happened; no point in someone of her rank applying to the local Enforcers - she'd be expected to go straight to the top.

Within minutes, Eyol had entered the squend rotunda.  The four cowled squenders bowed to her, and one of them silently waved in the direction of the central spiral staircase.  She began to climb.

Attaining the departure platform she pressed a button to select her destination, while the squenders down below frowned in their concentration.  Suddenly, in a tingle of alliance with the crystal network, the force of laterojection squirted Eyol's force-matrix along the well-worn privileged route from Twull to the greater city of Alxem, and then from Alxem to the greatest city of all, Mrakallon.

*

Neptune is known as a water-world.  Its land-area is only about ten per cent of its surface.  However, ten per cent of a giant world's surface is quite a lot, and the planet's three main land-masses are each considerably larger than the entire land area of Earth.  

Pezreem is the most advanced continent, the only one upon which a technological civilization has developed. Its capital city has given its name to the planet's golden age.  Mrakallon at that time was at its physical, intellectual, social and artistic height, an inspirational mound of blazing metallic and crystalline beauty, laced with winding bridges and shimmering, branching towers, and bustling with an energetic, capable population numbering over four million.  It was amidst this context that Interrogator Eyol Mnand materialised at the transport hub's receiving-platform to pursue what would she was beginning to suspect might turn out to be the most challenging investigation of her career.


Part II

Picture the great city of Mrakallon at the height of its eponymous era.

A shallow mile-wide river, the Fwaath, flows through the Pezreeman capital.  The waters at the city's centre are obstructed by an eyot, and upon this urban river-island (linked by two short bridges to either bank) rears the fantastic Diffomand.

The uniqueness of this building does not simply lie in its architecture, though its trio of concentric halls resembles no other structure on the planet Neptune.  The comparison with a beating heart is almost literal.  A combination Parliament building, police headquarters, judgemental court and Council Palace, the Diffomand is in constant, heaving motion. 

Powered by underground links to the ocean currents thousands of miles away, the palace's foundation invisibly churns, to raise, every ten minutes or so, a different hall to its full height.  Within half an hour therefore, each hall, representing each class of the population, has taken its turn to loom over the other two, to symbolize its own arguable supremacy, to exalt its own representatives; and so, every half hour, every member of the Diffomand is pleased. 

Even the wretches who are permitted to watch from afar, as they sprawl on the south-west bridge, derive comfort from the prestigious sight.  These members of the "fourth class" are convicted criminals who have had their limbs weakened so that they cannot stand or earn their living, yet they are not so utterly cast out from Pezreeman society as to be banned from appreciating the up-down up-down pistonlike pump of the Diffomand.

This slow majestic cycle, amid the wider scintillations of the urban panorama, has an inexorably reassuring effect, even upon the condemned.  Defeat - if it must come - is easier to endure when meted out by greatness.  Just as, in a literal physical sense, the highly devloped spatial awareness possessed by all Neptunians furnishes them with the ability to visualize a scene from other viewpoints than their own, so in a moral sense the crippled victims of justice are as overwhelmed as was Job in his final vision of the unanswerable All.  The pitiless honesty of the Neptunian mind does not allow much scope to grumble. 

Old before his time, his useless legs stretched out before him, and his back propped against one of the pillars of the safety-boundary, Fnumbanoll sat at his customary place among the mendicants ranged along the margin of the south-west bridge.  With much puffing and panting he had placed himself obliquely, so that he could watch the river-bank end of the bridge, yet maintain peripheral vision of the Diffomand's cyclic heaving.

His wife Nafasal sat beside him.  She shared his fate, mostly in silence.

Today, though, guessing, from his bitter smile, that he was watching for someone, she presently said to him, "You admit that life is not over."

"I can't remember ever having exactly said that it was." 

Fnumbanoll spoke edgily.  He was furious with her whenever he recalled her decision to become his partner in crime.  Far, far better for both of them if she had remained innocent and hale!  And why had she partaken of his doom?  Out of love?  She had never exactly said so; perhaps love had combined with ego in her mixture of motives.  The whole matter was desolating for him.

He drove his mind back to the task of surveillance.  He sought to keep watch in two directions at once.

*

When the outermost ring of the Diffomand gets to the top, the representatives of the vnurn - the peasantry - can literally look down upon those of the other two classes, and congratulate themselves, "We are the essential class: we feed them all."  When the middle ring gets to the top, its members - the somarra - can look down both outwards and inwards, and congratulate themselves, "We are the ones who supply the bulk of the technicians and builders; we and we alone are fused with the lazh crystals which supply the power for our entire civilization; we are the mainstay of the advanced economy."  And when the inner ring gets to the top, its members, in turn, can enjoy an awareness expressed in the words:

"We are the rarest category.  We are those who have risen to independence from the links to the lazh.  It is we who have the peasantry's personal freedom, combined with the power of the middling folk, plus our very own personal genius..." 

Except... that this inmost class, the rutudu, take their supremacy so much for granted, that their conscious minds hardly ever need to indulge in self-congratulation.  This annoying degree of modest arrogance especially applies to those experts, arising from the rutudu class, who are termed the domathmunn - the Interrogators.

Fnumbanoll noted that the inner ring of the Diffomand had begun once more to descend.  Soon, its entrance would once more be at ground level.

This was when a rutudu would be most likely to arrive. 

Fnumbanoll grasped the pillar beside him.  Desperately clenching his weakened muscles he tried to sit up straighter, while intensifying his watch upon the shore-end of the bridge.  Meanwhile his wife was tiresomely arguing, "Hmm, I seem to remember you saying, 'One may well reflect, that since one's life is over...'"

"I used an impersonal construction, didn't I?" he snapped.  "Look!  Here she comes!"

He was proud of himself at that moment: proud that he had made the correct deductions from recent charitable dribblets of news from passers-by.  Tasting the momentary tang of self-respect, he awoke to a blaze of longing.  Thirst for recognition consumed him: a craving to be adequately noticed by the person who had condemned him.  And lo, the chance was approaching. 

By ancient right, the condemned who waited on this bridge ought to be addressed by those who had put them here.  The custom was, indeed, one of the rituals which governed entrance to the Diffomand. 

"Ah," he muttered, "this is going well!  She's slowed her steps..."

His wife said, "That needn't mean she's seen us.  She has to slow; there are so many of us, she has to pick her way..."

But then came the downward glance, the recognition, the smirk from a full-lipped U of a mouth, and within seconds the walker had planted herself firmly in front of the cripple who had angled for audience.

He duly opened his gambit:

"Have you stopped here to gloat, Interrogator Eyol Mnand?" 

Then, seeing the pitying smile which overspread her face, and realizing the feebleness of his ploy, he hurriedly added, "No, I retract that question - "

"You're not very good at this, are you?" the Interrogator remarked.  "Too late to retract.  You have given me the opportunity to answer.  And the answer is: No: it is not in order to gloat, but rather from curiosity that I have stopped here, to gauge your ignorance.  Tell me, Reject, do you know why criminals are punished?"

"For breaking the law," said Fnumbanoll in a tone of (he hoped) insulting simplicity.  But it was no good at all, he knew as he mopped his brow.

"Yes, yes - but what leads you to break the law?"

Nafasal intervened: "That question has as many answers, as the number of crimes committed."

"You say so," said Eyol.  "I say: No: there is only one deep reason in every case.  It's always the same.  Ego-bias.  Laws and rules, you think, are all right for other people, but aren't good enough for you."

Fnumbanoll echoed: "You say so."  But he was stumped, inevitably.  The professional had spoken, and therefore must believe her own unanswerable answer, and this left him with no remaining option but to follow suit while picturing, helplessly, the look of defeat which his own face must wear.  "Blunnuk," he muttered (the Neptunian equivalent of "Damn").

The Interrogator nodded: "You get what I mean?"

Absolutely no riposte available.  Oh, if ONLY there were a way of evading a question, apart from the feeble option of silence.

Fnumbanoll closed his eyes and said, "Go your way, Interrogator.  You win, as usual.  Go on, off with you - if you linger any more you'll miss the next entry."  But his wife said -

"Wait just a moment, Eyol, please!  Tell us if you can, about Arr Hocor..."

The Interrogator had turned to go, but she halted, and swung her gaze back to the condemned. 

Nafasal spoke again, persisting: "You are investigating the case, Eyol, are you not?  Can you tell us, please... was he close to his finding?"

"Finding?" echoed the Interrogator with raised brows.

"Something to give us... room," said Fnumbanoll and Nafasal together, and then smiled at their synchronicity.

"I'm no mathematician," the Interrogator said, now smiling too, with kindly gentleness.  "But as a guess I would say that if he had not been close to some important result he would not have been killed."

That was her largesse, her donation to the needy: let them hope. 

"And now, if you will excuse me," she added, "the sooner I tackle the Council regarding this matter, the sooner we'll get justice for Arr Hocor.  Justice which you'll want too, eh?"  Thus silenced, they watched her proceed to the Diffomand.

TO BE CONTINUED