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 imagine 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 sunlight which seems bright enough to the huge-eyed Neptunians.  A peaceful landscape, almost unoccupied. 

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

TO BE CONTINUED