outlaws of neptune
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, the murder was peaceful, tidy and swift.  Arr Hocor never knew what hit him, and his house remained a scene of quiet for some minutes after the deed was done.  Only the ubiquitous lazh crystals, which are worked into the corners and jambs of every Neptunian building, filled the silence with their rebounding, ghostlike messages, which count as "voices" only 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.  She lacked any inkling of the surprise that awaited her.  Perceiving the slackness of the form at the desk, she drew a sharp breath, clutched the door-handle, and then quivered in the indignity of 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 had always 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... 

Too late now, she guessed.  She ought to have arrived earlier.  She ought, perhaps, to have sent a message...  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 come unannounced, relying upon his reputation 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 globular crystalline fruit halves, each the size of a hand, rested on the desk's surface.  Grimly the Interrogator reconstructed in her mind what must have happened.  To make sure, she felt for the body's pulse.  None.  Wrist still warm, though.  The killers (they must have worked as a pair) 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 scattered over the desk.  Endless columns of random figures - yes, she had expected that - and also, sheets of notes on the intervals between the figures, themselves likewise necessarily random, plus yet 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.  He'd been trying to probe beyond apparent chaos to find, if possible, the non-random lurker, the recurrence-pattern which would prove the random non-random... a paradox at the very heart of reality.  And while thus on the track of luck, he'd run out of it.

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.  Arr Hocor 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; 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 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. 

"All right, 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.

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

And, closer than the city, a spikier kind of tower soared above a rotunda.  There, at all hours, cowled figures must await 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 alert the Council to what had happened; no point applying to the local Enforcers - someone of her rank would be expected to go straight to the top.

Within minutes, Eyol had entered the squend rotunda.  The four hooded 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.  In a sudden 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.  Another squirt and she was relayed 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.  Upon this urban river-island (which is 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 not only "alive" with crowds; it itself is in constant, heaving motion. 

Powered by underground links to the ocean currents thousands of miles away, the palace's foundation udergoes a convective cycle which 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.  Each hall in succession thus gets symbolically to argue its own supremacy, to exalt its own representatives; and so, every half hour, every member of the Diffomand is pleased. 

So are others: the satisfaction is diffused amongst members of the public.  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 own living.  Reduced to beggary, nevertheless 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, the slow majestic cycle which, amid the wider scintillations of the urban panorama, has an inexorably reassuring effect upon all, even 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.  Today he had angled his position with more care than usual.  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 guessed, from his alertness and his bitter smile, that he was watching for someone.

Presently she spoke.

"You admit that life is not over."

Edgily he replied:

"I cannot exactly remember ever having said that it was." 

Fnumbanoll 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, 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.  To have played the game and lost, as he had done, should have been his business alone.

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, next, 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, thirdly, the inner ring gets to the top, its members, in turn, can enjoy an awareness which might be expressed in the proud words:

"We are the rarest category, with the best combination of qualities.  Risen to independence from the lazh, we have recovered the peasantry's personal freedom, while we retain the power of the middling folk, plus our added personal genius..." 

Except... that this inmost class, the rutudu, hardly require such self-congratulation: they take their supremacy so much for granted, it becomes as quiet as humility.  Especially does this annoying degree of modest arrogance apply to those experts termed the domathmunn - the Interrogators.

Fnumbanoll was on the watch for an Interrogator.

Ah, 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 persisting with her abstract argument, still seeking, in her well-meaning way, to score a point against him, to get him to admit to having suffered more despair in the past than at present, and hence, by implication, to harbouring hope.  "Hmm, I seem to remember you saying, 'One may well reflect, that since one's life is over...'"

"Look!" he snapped.  "Here she comes!"

He was proud of himself at that moment.  From recent charitable dribblets of news dropped by passers-by, he could now be sure that he had made the correct deduction.  Tasting the momentary tang of self-respect, he awoke to a blaze of longing, to a craving that seized him, a consuming thirst for recognition, for being 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.  Members were obliged to give of their attention... 

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

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

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

Fnumbanoll 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 - "

But already he felt outplayed.

"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.  I am interested, professionally.  I wish 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.  In no time at all he had been outclassed in this psychological skirmish.

"Yes, yes, criminals are criminals, true, but - circularity aside - what leads you to break the law?"

Nafasal intervened.  "That question has many answers, surely!"  It was her aim to alleviate the pressure on her husband by means of generalization, abstraction, extension of ideas.  "As many answers," she stressed, "as the number of crimes that can ever be committed..."

The response was blunt and powerful.

"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.  He must believe her own unanswerable answer.  He pictured, 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?"

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!  Don't go just yet!  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 of Arr Hocor, 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?"  Silenced, they watched her proceed to the Diffomand.

Part III

To send a succinct message to the Council was easy.  One could do that even before entering the building: in fact, all visitors were encouraged to state their business at the outside message-panel.  A few taps on the keyboard and that was that - duty done, wheels set in motion.

Eyol's fingers blurred with speed and then she hit "transmit".  Now she could pause for an easy breath. 

But if one wanted to do more, to plead a case and steer events, sending that message was only the start. 

Eyol ducked her head under the arch.  In the murmuring dimness beyond, she unobtrusively took off her coat and hung it one of hundreds of pegs in the cavernous lobby.  In this thronged space abuzz with chatter, if she did not hurry along the length of its floor she might be caught... ah, too late!  Favour-seekers strode forward, blocking her path.

They were a middle-aged couple accompanying a husky young man with sullen, smouldering eyes who looked as though he must be their son.  An unrelated fourth member of the party, who gripped the end of the chain that held the youngster captive, was a gnarled old fellow whom Eyol recognized as the Enforcer, Bothwend.  He greeted her:  "See what I've got here for you, Interrogator!"

She saw; she guessed.  This was by no means the first time she had been lobbied here, to give special treatment to a suspect.

Confirming her thought, the Enforcer continued: "Now that this lad has been caught, his parents have, er, volunteered him to be Questioned by yourself."

"To make the best of a bad job?" grimaced Eyol.


Eyol sighed.  Snobbery, and naught else, was the motive of this couple's desire to have their son confess to someone pre-eminent, so as to salvage some pride from the moral disaster that had overwhelmed their family.  Well, she would allow them that crumb. "All right, Bothwend; what's the charge?"

"Murder.  According to the line of evidence it appears that Thint Minn, here, shot one Lyental Aer, a girl of his... er... acquaintance."

"Very well," Eyol wrinkled her nose and faced the accused.  Enunciating clearly, she spoke the words: "Thint Minn: did you kill Lyental Aer?"

The young man, hanging his head, emitted a growl of despair, whereupon Enforcer Bothwend gave the chain a jerk, which wrung no more but a hiss from the accused's mouth.  Bothwend insisted, "Answer intelligibly, lad.  Or keep silent and disappoint your family even more than you already have!  You might as well be man enough to say 'yes' out loud, since silence amounts to an admission, either that you have performed the deed, or that you know who has.  - Ask him again, Eyol."

"Thint Minn: did you kill Lyental Aer?"

"Yes," said the murderer.

"Phew!" snorted Enforcer Bothwend.  "That's a relief.  I couldn't be sure that he wasn't shielding someone else... in which case I'd have had to return to the hunt."

"Anybody can ask a simple question," remarked Eyol dryly.  "No need to involve me."

"Yes indeed, so I could have asked him myself," agreed Bothwend with a glare at the parents of Thint Minn.  Doing their best to appear nondescript, they were making shuffling motions.  "And you know how best to ask them, why they had to have it this way."

"I'm too busy right now," Eyol replied, and walked away.  Snuddaguff! ('blast!'), what a waste of her time! 

Oh well, at least the law was upheld, even if silly egos were upheld likewise.

Now for the Chamber.  Let there be no further interruptions.  Eyol stalked determinedly through the lobby till she reached the massive green doors at the end.  Sculpted in bas-relief, they depicted the 1,040 constituencies of Pezreem. 

The two door-keepers, recognizing her, swung the portals open with stately ceremony.  Glad to get out of the crowded lobby, she stepped through, onto the floor of the central shaft. 

Now, for her, the remaining route was short, since she was a member of the rutudu class, and hence of the innermost circle; such a person need not take the slanting ramps, which are the adits to the second or third concentric chambers.  She could rise by elevator into the first.

Her head and shoulders, then the rest of her emerged from what looked like a swamp of greenish mist surrounded by tiers of rock: a scene resembling that pool in the Sgraa region where representative government had begun.  The symbolic illusion wavered and faded when she stepped away from the centre towards the tiered seats.  She gained sight of the actual chamber, a circular immensity three-quarters filled with delegates from all over the continent: the innermost muscle of Neptune's beating political heart.

A coloured glow came from hundreds of heads: the delegates' luminous coifs, of  a fabric that attenuates as it haloes their foreheads and streams behind their necks.  Those comet's-tail cones of light swish incessantly, as the wearers turn in conversation, nod in assent or shake in dissent. 

Not everyone wore the coifs; Eyol Mnand herself, for example, did not.  Her voting and speaking rights arose from professional status, whereas the coif-lights are worn by geographical delegates.  Examined closely, coif-designs are revealed to be picture-banners of country landscapes,  consolation for those homesick members of the Diffomand who feel obliged to spend a hundred days or more confined in the capital territory.  Eyol, more fortunate, was not tied to a place.

Yet she must have patience, to wait to be called to speak.  She was not so arrogant as to expect immediately to catch the Instancer's eye.  Some novices developed cricks in their necks as they pleaded for his notice; Eyol however, with a hand on a newel, leaned back only slightly while she used a mirror to keep watch on Instancer Vix high on his Chair.  Way above the loftiest tier of seats, he juggled the mind-boggling number of calls on his attention, his view covering not only this chamber but the other two as they rose and fell concentrically around it: the Diffomand in its entirety was his to co-ordinate.  Fortunately he was not limited by a human attention-span: always, an Instancer is recruited from the fonang, a rare species from the continent of Ovava, reproducing by gradual endodyogeny, long-lived, indestructible, non-partisan and void of ambition.

To gain the notice of this being, and thus obtain a political hearing, was vital to Eyol's handling of her latest case.  It is necessary for an Interrogator to obtain a vantage from which the subject may be "cornered" - that's to say, subjected to dnamsag, that plight in which all avenues of evasion are cut off and you are left face to face with a demand for the truth.  Only then can the right Question effectively be put.  In the hardest cases involving powerful criminal combinations, State assistance is needed for the attainment of such a "corner" position: in the present example, no less an instrument than a warship of the Pezreeman sky-navy would (she judged) be required for a shot at dnamsag

To apply for aid at this level she must expect to compete with other serious claims upon the government's resources and time.  Faced with this challenge she sharpened her will upon the whetstone of a mental diagram: events ranged in a clear line which led to what she wanted.  She pictured that line as inevitable, unstoppable.  She would endure while the other debates went on, and then her turn would come.  Therefore she switched most of her attention away from the gabbity gab meanwhile.  Now the Chamber of the Somarra and this Chamber of the Rutudu happened to be passing at their closest approach with the one rising as the other descended.  At such a time, cross-chamber exchanges were possible.  The second-chamber somarra were keeping their end up, and Eyol wished them joy of the experience, for they were a worthy lot, that middle class, the folk who wore lazh crystals and worked with them symbiotically - doubtless able to understand each other as they got on with their usefully linked lives; a closed book to her, for she felt far more akin to the lowest class, the peasantry, represented in the Diffomand's outermost ring, invisible from where she stood, except when the intervening middle ring was down...

Wait a moment, what was this? 

A bright white light spread like spilled milk within the Chamber.

The brightness widened.  From a patch of dazzle it grew and sharpened into a picture, the detailed, vivid projection of a landscape - a show of evidence for some big debate.

Eyol scowled: more delay in her plans.  Unless she could turn it to her advantage.  Better pay some attention -

Her heart sank as she recognized the landscape portrayed.  There was no mistaking it; at this level of visual technology the experience was almost like being transported into the area shown.

Viewed from some airy height, the vista showed a broad plain cross-hatched with the furrows of planted fields, exposing the typical violet soil of Neptune, though this was obscured where patches of white mist drifted low.  It was, so far, a pretty scene, but what made it more than pretty, what made it dangerously beautiful occurred where the view included a sliver of horizon.  Oh no, not that again, thought Eyol Mnand at the glimpse of scarlet sky.  We're in for it now.  About to be dosed with a dollop of guilt...

Sure enough an immaculate golden-haired woman, in a white suit with puffy orange greaves and leggings, launched right then into her speech. 

Bettol Snovon, in the costume of a Compensator, was a frequent haranguer of the Diffomand.  Notwithstanding their intensity, her diatribles were remorselessly polite, and all the more effective thereby.  No one had ever dared to find fault with such utterly sincere championship of the victims of that atrocity dubbed the Smulksgurund.  The "Sky-Paint".

"...If we ever forget the deadly hue of that sky, the choked, huddled mounds beneath it will visit us every night in our dreams..."

Terrans of a far later date were able to liken the Smulksgurund to the Holocaust and the Holodomor: genocidal crimes which cost the lives of millions; but to the Neptunians back in Eyol's time, no such comparison was possible.  To them, the terrible event for which Bettol Snovon demanded an apology was (as yet) unique. 

In the eyes of many the demand for an apology was reasonable.  Why not show contrition for a hideous act that had been carried out by one's own land's rulers and many of its people?  Only one point could possibly be adduced to gainsay the proposal: namely, that the Smulksgurund had taken place about seven hundred and fifty lifetimes ago.

Seven - hundred - and - fifty - lifetimes...  Eyol toyed with the possibility that she might stop the flow of Snovon's rhetoric by uttering some snort at the pointlessness of crying an apology across such a gap of ages.

Yes, thought she, I might do that, only I won't, because I know how expert Bettol Snovon is at making people feel bad about what their distant ancestors had done.

"...Forever it will remain a salutary reminder," Bettol Snovon continued, "that you cannot take present standards of civilization for granted.  The perpetrators of the Smulksgurund - if considered apart from their action - were not monsters.  They became trapped in the wartime mind-set which regards victory as an aim to be pursued whatever the moral cost.  We are the same species, the same raw material as they; we are not necessarily immune from some future trap that might lead us to equal their evil..."  She spoke as if pre-empting the criticism which Eyol refrained from uttering, and Eyol nodded wryly: yes, it was clever not to suggest that today's Neptunians could commit the same crime as those who were responsible for that mass-atmospheric poisoning all those ages ago.  Instead, realized Eyol, the more effective, un-disprovable accusation was that we might do something different but equally bad.  The idea of the Apology was to make sure one was alert to one's deficiencies...

Suddenly she saw her way forward: I can use this! 

With a flash of insight it had become clear, how Bettol Snovon's guilt-gambit could be turned into a handle for Eyol.  It could be made to further her plan:

Acquisition of a warship.

Part IV

Eyol's turn came.

When you finally catch the Instancer's eye, you must stand up straight and fluently utter your first well-chosen words, in such a manner as to arrest the attention of the assembly.

Eyol took a deep breath, seized the moment and began:

"If and only if..."


"...If and only if!" the words bounced back at her two days later, with a laugh on the warship commander's lips.  Eyol, in the keel control blister, shared his breathtaking view of the pale-gold Pezreeman landscape as it scudded below.  Her mien remained calm but her nerves were runnels of excitement; her life had undergone several enjoyable turns.  One source of pleasure was the hearty expression on the face of Captain Tarven Namaksa of the Venjisk.  He continued, repetitiously, "If and only if, you said, and from that moment on you had them in the hollow of your hand, dnamsag-style: no escape; resistance crushed.  Great Ocean, you sure got them where you wanted them, Interrogator!"

Eyol threw him a sharp look.  He gazed back, innocently.  No, he wasn't being sarcastic. 

And yet, it wasn't like him to use her formal title, "Interrogator".  Not characteristic of Tarven at all, unless he was making some sort of a point.

(She shrugged.  Too late now to hope to understand this ex-husband of hers.  Had she ever managed to do so, he might not now be "ex".  Anyhow the present sight of him, sprawled mightily in his command chair, reassured her that his years with her had not stunted his ego.  And her heart warmed to his evident appreciation of her coup in the Diffomand.)

"And really, Eyol, it was high time," Tarven continued, "that someone made the point officially.  In fact, why isn't it done more often?  It ought to be child's play, for anyone who has heard a grumble, simply to squash it by some observation on the lines you used - I mean, reversing the roles; pointing out that if conditions had been the other way round, the grumbler would be the grumblee...  So that your grumble is valid if and only if you can be reasonably sure that you, in an equivalently reversed milieu - with you in the place of those you condemn, and with you thus subjected to the like background and temptations as they - would, in such conditions, have behaved significantly otherwise...  see, I can quote your exact words, Eyol."

"The timing," she observed, "was the key."

"Yeah, obvious.  The Diffomand has had plenty of time to get fed up with Snovon.  And you put it in a good mood by shutting her up."

"And so here we are," smiled Eyol.

"Here we are, indeed.  Headed for the Omedz.  What a break this is, for me."

Another word that rang unexpectedly from Tarven's lips.  Eyol, most sensitive to tone, recalled that in the old days he would have referred to the Omedz by its nickname - the Wobbly Mountains.

Yes, there was something newly serious about Tarven Namaksa, lurking beneath the man's satirical wit.  Eyol was intrigued. She did not altogether trust him.  But she trusted her own ability to keep him in order should the need ever arise.

She probed, "Well, it's a break for society, if we can smash the outlaws' den.  If we can actually locate the Heblis - "

"It should certainly justify the expense of an expedition," Tarven agreed dryly.  "Just as well that your prodding tipped the scales.  And of course, you may have saved Government money, if you've finally defeated Snovon's campaign for historic compensation for the Reea against the Joat.  The Joat themselves can't pay - seeing as they're all dead."

"For which reason, I personally doubt," said Eyol, "that any Government would be fool enough to compensate a party that claims to represent the victims of an atrocity that happened fifty lifetimes ago, inasmuch as the bloodlines of the perpetrators and of the victims have mingled thoroughly since then."

"Ah, there you go again, you logical woman!" twinkled Tarven.  "Poor, wretched  symbolizers don't stand a chance against you."

"Captain, if that's a dig against me, particularly if it's a dig about your life with me," she grimaced back, "I would have you know, that too much has been made of the supposed difficulties of living with a professional Interrogator.  After all, anyone can ask a question."

His brows shot up.  "Are you suggesting that you and I get back together, then?"

"No," she grinned.  "Although actually... we've made a start, have we not?"

Across his face flicked a shadow of regret, instantly smoothed away.  "We're back together as a team," he agreed, "on this journey."


Eyol had several reasons for being happy on the voyage, reasons which converged and pooled into a euphoric mood.  She sensed that she was on the track of the greatest triumph of her career, and the circumstances abetted and supported her hopes. 

For a start, on the personal side, it was not only pleasant, it boded well for the mission, that Tarven still liked her and was at his ease with her.  She'd had enough of guilty people who were afraid of her.  It was refreshing to be with someone like Tarven who obviously did not care what question she asked him.  The fellow was prepared to answer anything (a clever attitude, really, if you are thrown into the company of an Interrogator, for it tends to result in you not being asked).

Then there was the pleasure of transportation over regions not covered by the squennd network.  Matter-transmission was all very well, and convenient and necessary as a link between the populous areas of the heartland, but it was a tonic to be able to fly over the lands beyond the reach of instantaneous travel.  A breeze of real distance, real exploration, braced the mind.  Outer Pezreem was imperfectly known, its ouposts of civilization thinly scattered.  For many hours Eyol gazed at the vistas below, the golden fields growing sparser, the violet subsoil reaching increasingly to the surface, scattered with mops of occasional jungle, and the rarer but dominant mountain ranges with their axe-head formations.

Embracing the personal, the geographic and the detective aspect of her journey, the themes of her investigation were coming together.  Every time she checked her ideas, they seemed to converge towards a successful answer, as though fate itself were succumbing to her interrogation.  For instance:

Arr Hocor's killers must have known that he was on the trail of a "mathematics of contradiction".  They must have been concerned, not to steal his results (for he had not yet perfected them) but to abort them.  This strongly suggested that a rival genius existed among the outlaws, the Vsi.  Of course the argument was circular, as it was dependent upon the assumption that the Vsi were behind the assassination.  But it all fitted.  It stood to reason, or at least it chimed with Eyol's deepest intuition, that it was the Vsi - criminals who fled to the land of terror rather than submit to lawful interrogation - who must desire to monopolize the forces which Arr Hocor might have let loose.  And what kind of power might be involved?  Impossible to say.  Anti-gravity, maybe.  Any breakthrough in physics which relied on some apparent flouting of known laws, must have its key in the math of contradiction.  Eyol was no scientist, but she didn't have to be, to guess the motives of criminals.  What they all wanted was immunity from the dnamsag truth-trap - from being "cornered" by the likes of her...

A melancholy thought then came: that it was not only criminals who were reluctant to get close to her.  She sighed.  Her profession had gained her much status and the satisfaction that comes from essential service to society, yet it had also cost her  much.  It had cost her Tarven, above all.  And yet, she thought with a sudden smile, in that direction it seemed, unexpectedly, that all was not lost.

A buzz from her cabin door broke into her reverie.  She went to open, and when the door slid aside she was faced with a nervous junior officer.

"Interrogator Eyol, the Captain's compliments and would you care to view the Recast film?  It's about to be shown in Theatre One."

"The Recast?  Ah yes," she remembered.  It was the solemnly scientific documentary, designed to allay the age-old fears of those who ventured into this part of the world.  The film was cleverly designed to pre-empt every dark myth, so as to permit not one single particle of the horror of the Wobbly Mountains to harrow the minds of those who had to approach them.  "Thank him for me, but I've seen it many times," she replied. 

The lad saluted and took his leave. 

Watching him lope away down the panel-lit corridor, Eyol pondered this evident anxiety not to miss the start of the Recast.  She shrugged, turned and was about to re-enter her cabin, when second thoughts came to the fore: perhaps she would, after all, look in on Theatre One.  Not because she needed to on her own account, but in case it might be useful to observe the audience...

It turned out to be a wise decision.


"Tarven," said Eyol quietly, "I need a word with you."

"I guessed you did," he replied, equally softly.  They were the last two left in the auditorium.  "Was the film a success, do you think?"

"What do you think?"

"I'd say it was," he replied, "insofar as the this batch has watched it without asking questions, and they've filed out in good order, with faces that look subdued rather than scared.  That's how I assess the showing.  Of course, that's how I wanted it to go, so maybe I should get a second opinion - like, for instance, yours?"

"I am not telling you how to run your own ship, but my recommendation is that we move fast to let me corner a few of those whom we've just seen."

"You wish to interrogate members of my crew?  Why?"

"Trust me," Eyol said.  "Time is running out."


The girl sat straight and stiff, her thin face pale and drawn with the effort it cost her to suppress physical trembling and a panicky loosening of the tongue.  The two others in the room with her, the Captain and the Interrogator, formed a daunting enough combination but in addition there was the frozen scene on the paused film, from which Eyol Mnand had just replayed a dry yet formidable commentary:

"...the ghalazh, the 'slow sea', a surface tension effect of the Chonink Ocean's microcrystal spume laterojecting over the ages against Pezreem's north-east coast.  The spume hardens, encrusts, forms huge sacks into which more waves surge, and yet more, higher and higher, deflected upwards by the older Omedz Scarp, to form the more planetologically recent 'Wobbly Mountains'..."

"Dnamsag" - Cornering - is one principle, but knowing whom to pick on is another matter.  Eyol could be no more than reasonably sure of her target.  It was therefore all the more vital, that the confrontation be arranged so as to cover every outcome.  Even the placement of the chairs was chosen for maximum effect.  The hapless young rating, Linghin Neathe, sat facing not only the nearby projection screen, but a further screen showing the actual view outside the skyship as it approached its destination.  The two views, of the artful documentary and of reality, must steadily converge, heightening the pressure on Linghin Neathe, and to intensify the process Eyol Mnand maintained her flow of questions.

"You think you do not know, but if you focus on the next hour, you know you will have to choose...  Ask yourself if you admit you will have to choose... You can't deny it, can you?  Say no if you disagree."

The helpless silence of assent.

Tarven glanced at Eyol as if to say, Where does this get us exactly?

"Come, let us specify further," the Interrogator continued.  "We're in little-known territory, perhaps completely unknown: in rarely-visited lands, knowledge swiftly goes out of date.  And what we're headed for is not just any mystery.  As we approach the Wobbly Mountains, all the old fears pour into our closed little shipboard society, and someone like me, whose job it is to question, must read faces, must know when to tap - "

"All right!  All right!" sobbed the girl.  She clenched her fists and admitted, "I was going to do it, I realize now!"

Captain Tarven Namaksa impatiently said, "Do what?"

"Join the mutiny," breathed Linghin in a reduced voice.

Tarven shook his head in amazement.  He said to Eyol, "You certainly know your business.  You didn't even get to ask her..."

"Because she didn't know herself," Eyol explained.  "That's where it gets difficult, especially when time is so short.  What are you going to do with her?"

"That depends," said the Captain.  He turned to Linghin.  "What are your feelings now?"

"Horror," said the girl simply, "at what I was about to do."

"Good enough for me.  Give the Interrogator a list of names.  I want potential mutineers questioned, not punished.  Proceed with your duties."  He muttered, "I meanwhile shall proceed with mine..."

For the wall-screen now showed that the forward horizon had sprouted the grey shoots, the sky-clutching fingers of their destination.


The approach was slow, silent and without incident, as though the massif were calmly waiting for them, perhaps offering them the chance to reconsider and retreat.  Ah, retreat!  Such a move, guessed Eyol as her gaze passed over the crew at their posts, would have pleased many of those on board.  Mutiny was no longer on anyone's agenda, but some still doubtless yearned for a re-evaluation, for any modification, of their ominous trajectory.

Any such option of second thoughts was ignored by the Captain, who kept the Venjisk on course to pass between two pillar-like crags, the closest outliers of the Wobbly Mountains.

A pseudo-scaly skin of wet rock plates glinted with here and there a swaying flexion suggestive of that underlying fluidity which, so the explorers understood, must comprise most of the Mountains' mass.  In this region, what one's brain knew - that one was really floating amongst giant jacketed waves rather than solid peaks - was yet more eerie that the quivery surfaces which the eyes could see. 

The skyship probed deeper into the range.  One nervous monitor called out, "Captain - a shape at 0445 - "

"Wait it out," replied Tarven.

All eyes looked, all ears listened, and no enemy appeared.  The motion had merely been the quiver of a contour...

Tarven remarked to his officers and monitors, "Remember, the rock-shakes hereabouts are bound to affect our instruments.  We must 'raise the bar' of recognition of hostile activity.  Above all we must not fire any cannon-shots here, must not risk any piercing of the surface.  The resulting burst would make an ordinary avalanche seem pleasant.  Fortunately, our adversaries must be bound by the like restraint."

The second-in-command, First Officer Oren Xecal, said, "And yet, this would seem a good place for an ambush, Captain."

"But after all, what can they do?" demanded Tarven with a crooked grin.  He spoke rhetorically, deliberately loud, speechifying for the benefit of his crew.  "By our penetration this far, we've broken the fear barrier.  And the expense barrier, too; the Diffomand was bound to shell out the funds for this expedition, sooner or later.  If the outlaws hadn't murdered Arr Hocor..."

"And why did they do that, I wonder?" mused the First Officer.  "Why pick now?  Answer: because, somehow, the're ready!"

"I doubt it.  Ask the Interrogator what she thinks."

Eyol Mnand gave her reason: "The outlaws feared that the mathematician was closer than they were to whatever they were looking for."

"Mathematics!" scoffed Oren Xecal.  "That can't be it."

"Then I suggest you worry less," advised Tarven.

Thus went the conversation in the control blister, an exchange of thoughts and views in full earshot of the hunched monitors and other officers.  It was not quite rehearsed but still it was deliberate, Eyol sensed, this mundane verbalization, a taming of the enclosing mystery which, if left in untamed silence, might threaten to unnerve the crew.  Eyol admired Tarven's management of the skyship's morale.  She thought, It seems we can drift like this with impunity.  But we want more, don't we, and so perhaps do the enemy...


"Reduce speed," commanded Tarven.  "Here - stop - hover."

In a shallow bowl of ground which extended like the palm of a hand among fingerlike peaks, an angular grey jumble had come into view.  The skyship floated a couple of hundred yards above it while the Captain and his chief officers scrutinised the landscape with minute caution. 

"Looks like nobody's at home," observed Oren Xecal.  "If it is a home, that is."

Tarven Namaksa nodded.  If the jumble was a settlement, it did indeed appear to be a deserted one.  "That would suit us," he remarked.

"You're thinking of going down?"  It was said in a tone of some apprehension.  The mission had gone all right so far but this was, after all, the middle of the dreaded, storied Wobbly Mountains.

"Let's give us all a minute to get used to the idea - and then we'll do it."  Turning to where the seated Interrogator was witnessing the conversation, the Captain added, "I know what I'm about."

Eyol acknowledged with a remote smile, "I'm sure enough of that, but, if I knew what it was you were about, would I approve?"

Tension surged in the control blister; everyone present had overheard her words, which seemed by their veiled criticism to announce that the irresistible force of Tarven Namaksa's authority was about to be ranged against the immoveable prestige of Eyol Mnand.

And yet the Captain's responsive smile was wholly relaxed, innocent and cheerful.  It suggested to Eyol that the man had no inkling of her suspicions of him. 

"What I'm about to do is simple," he explained.  "Down there, apparently, is an abandoned base.  It may contain a clue to the whereabouts of the outlaw's HQ - the Heblis itself.  That would save us from having to quarter five thousand square miles of this peculiar country."

"And if it's a trap?"

"In that case how fortunate it is that I know my job!  Let me put it this way.  I guarantee that this ship is, and will continue to be, quite safe from attack."

"Or capture?"

"Or capture."

After this, Eyol Mnand felt satisfied that she had done her job too.  Her authority was vaguer; his, more precise.  She would have to leave the details to him.

"All right, that covers it, I reckon.  Proceed, then."

The Venjisk began to descend, with Eyol now restricted to the role of spectator, goggling like the rest of the crew as the fingers of rock appeared to rise and reach around them.

Part V

When the Venjisk had descended to within a couple of yards of the surface, the order was given to lower the land-anchors: wired weights which could, at a signal, fire oblique prongs into soil or rock; but since the wind was scant and the ship thus unlikely to drift at its mooring, Captain Tarven Namaksa deemed it safest to stabilise by weight alone, rather than risk what might ensue from piercing this terrain. 

For a similar reason, when he appeared at the exit hatch his right hand gripped a ceremonial sword rather than an energy or projectile weapon.  If necessary he could draw laser, but only as a last resort.  Where possible, ground-damage should be avoided amidst the Wobbly Mountains.

A rope ladder was paid out and he descended to the surface, followed by a dozen guards and investigators selected from the crew, including Interrogator Eyol Mnand - all provided with swords which they carried with varying degrees of self-consciousness.   

Then, having disembarked the captain and his party, the airship rose again, to an altitude of about seventy yards, from which the First Officer, Oren Xecal, could hope to stand sentinel against all comers.

Meanwhile the grounded personnel formed a circle, facing every way, watching out for signs of unusual movement.  The bowl-shaped depression in which they stood was a land of silence except for the barely audible creak of the swaying mountains.

After some minutes had gone by, Tarven said, "All right, time for some of us to do what we came for."  He detailed six guards to continue their outside watch while he would lead the balance of his group into the buildings.  "Eyol," he said to her, "will you come with us, or would you rather wait out here?"

"I'll wait out here," she said, seating herself on a boulder.  "I don't think you'll find anything in there." 

Do you consider yourself alert? she mocked herself as she spoke.  You can't even read the expression on Tarven's face.  But a hunch tells me to stay where I am.  Observing, intuiting?  Inviting, more probably - stuck here like a sitting tholp.  We may be ambushed.  We may be betrayed.   It doesn't bear thinking about... except, that's just what I'm doing, as I churn the thought over and over.

Wait, though - I must trust Tarven.  He helped me outface the mutineers, when he might have done otherwise - might have seized the opportunity they furnished, to abort the mission.  Though some high-placed traitor doubtless exists in Pezreeman society, it cannot be he.

It might be anyone deluded by revolutionary hopes.  The Vsi, the outlaws who haunted these mountains, were widely believed to be more than mere criminals.  Those guards, now... did they have dreams of a society which could dispense with Interrogators?  Pondering this, Eyol rose from the boulder, and watched the reaction of two of the men who had noticed her movement.  She noticed how they shifted uneasily, and that in some eyes flickered an instant's glare, a glimpse through a cultured crust to a magma of hate.

She told herself she understood the resentment aroused by her profession.  It had to be this way.  Society needed her services, but, human egos being what they were, considerable antagonism must ooze beneath the layer of respect and acceptance which supported her kind.

What now, though?  Would the crisis of this particular voyage grant her a safe return to her finely envisaged career path?

It was called following one's star, or pursuing a mapped and scripted outcome which, in her present case, required that Tarven and his group re-emerge without delay from those buildings, having learned the location of Heblis, the outlaw HQ, after which the entire expedition could sail on to triumph.

A minute later and she nodded, satisfied, as she saw that good old reality, dutiful as ever, was conforming to her expectations: for the captain and the others, reappearing from out of the dilapidated structures, returned with a spring in their steps. 

Her earlier hunch, that they would find no useful information in the abandoned settlement, she could now gladly shrug off -

Tarven's booted stride stamped to a halt.

"I have received a message from Oren Xecal," he announced.  All eyes glanced up to where the airship hovered.  "And he has just informed me," the captain rang out more loudly, "that he's received one from Illamarl Nao himself."

A gasp from the other guards - and from Eyol.

"Yes," Tarven continued, "it is the outlaw leader, the chief of the Vsi, no less, who gives us the word, that he is on his way to meet us." 

The fantastic news sparked a sussurus of murmurs, amidst which Tarven turned to look straight at Eyol. 

"This means that you, Interrogator, have achieved your aim.  You wanted to corner the leader of the Vsi, did you not?  And sure enough, he comes."

I was right after all, she thought dazedly, when I supposed that nothing was to be found in that dump.  This news is of a different kind, and Tarven, awaiting it, was just killing time in there. 

But though I must believe it, I am still amazed.  "Can it be?" she voiced her wonder.  "Illamarl Nao, in person, heading for this spot?"

"Yes, he and his party will be here within minutes."

"To parley?"

"To surrender!"


Assertive against her own doubts, Eyol Mnand determined to watch the event unfold, the event that must conform -

Tarven's communicator buzzed.  He exchanged words and then announced, "They've been sighted.  We need to face that direction."

Together with the men, Eyol spun hastily to confront the arrivals as soon as they might appear.  She looked upward at first, expecting a ship.  No - none in sight - the outlaws must be hugging the ground.  Which suggested that they hadn't thrown away all caution, despite coming to surrender.

They came into view!  One second, Eyol still saw nothing of them; in the next second she beheld a kind of river of junk flow dreamlike, sliding inches from the surface, over the hither crest of the facing ridge.  Transports, ground-effect machines patched together in a hotch-potch of all shapes and colours but drilled into uniformity of movement, poured into the hollow where Tarven and his landing-party awaited them. 

Smooth was their deceleration as each vehicle took its place in a spreading formation, ending in a halt in a semi-circle in front of the landing-party.  Doors opened and men got out, outnumbering Tarven's group by about three to one.  So, she thought, here are the great outlaws of the Omedz; the Men of the Wobbly Mountains.  Pale bleachy scarves were their only uniform; a motley bunch of thin, wiry figures, they looked a hard-bitten crowd.  And yet, so ready to submit to us.

Actually there's something wrong here, thought Eyol, reconsidering.  This doesn't look at all like a surrender.

She turned to Tarven.

"Captain, they're not carrying to swords.  And look how they're holding their lasers, straightly on grip."

"Don't worry.  They agreed the terms only minutes ago.  Too soon for opinions to change."

"One would think so, yes.  But..."

He clapped a hand on her shoulder, and uttered for her benefit the form of words, which a later Terran civilization would translate as: there is no catch.  "Canthero flaodao," he gave out in his most reassuring voice. ("You can trust the straightforwardness of this scene.")

Eyol, however, reminded herself that still had a choice.  Her status allowed her to take control of a military situation if exceptional circumstances warranted such a move.  She was in over-all command, after all.  Tarven had the right to run his ship but it was she, who had demanded the expedition, who had the right to set policy and safeguard it in accordance with mission objectives.

But could she make a solid case for interference?

Certainly, surrender terms can become obsolete if one side changes their minds.  But she ought to know better than to remind Tarven of that simple point; he must surely know all there is to know about how to implement the usual safeguards against backsliding... 

And he assured her that there was no catch.  Very well.  That shut the door on the possibility that he could be the traitor.  And since he was competent, she must give him credit for knowing what he was doing.  Therefore she ought to applaud, rather than undermine, what he sought to achieve. 

End of doubts.  Time for rejoicing instead.  She had, after all, won.  Her project to send a warship to the Omedz had turned out sufficient in itself to crack the case... all that was left for her to do was to interrogate Illamarl Nao, "cornering" the truth from him, doubtless in the form of a confession to the murder of Arr Hocor.

Her attention re-focused on the gathering. 

From the centre of the outlaw ranks there stepped forward a lanky fellow, belted and robed, distinguished by long pale features, a trim, russet beard, and eyes that appeared to glint with humour.

Halting a few paces in front of Tarven, he announced: "I am Illamarl Nao."  He proferred his laser, reversed.  "I confirm my surrender to you."

Tarven made no move as yet to take the weapon.  He asked, "You are still the leader of the Vsi?"

"I am."

"And you people are all included in the surrender?"

"They are."

(That covers it, thought Eyol admiringly.  I was right to trust him.)

Tarven then did stretch forth his hand, took the laser, reversed it again, and handed it back.  "You and all your people are now under my command.  You have returned to the societal family of Pezreem.  Welcome to the Venjisk, in whose crew you are now enlisted."

The former outlaw bowed, looking thoughtful, and remarked:  "The welcome is welcome, because there are times - "

Tarven cut in blandly, "I understand you, yes!  Times when sensible folk must do the same sum.  And now," - he lifted his communicator - "I shall call down my ship."

He did so and the Venjisk began to descend once more, ready to receive its enlarged crew.  What an efficient job that was, mused Eyol.  And no catch in it at all.  I can hardly wait to finish the case...


Thankfully casting away her ridiculous sword upon re-entering the ship, Interrogator Eyol heded immediately for her cabin in order to prepare the "cornering" questions.  An effective dnamsag was easy to arrange, once the likely culprit was in custody and the issue was clear.  Not that she would necessarily expect the outlaw chief to utter a single answer out loud.  That didn't matter.  Provided she framed the questions efficiently, his silences would be eloquent enough.

Just as a meal is tastiest when freshly cooked, an interrogation was most sharply effective when outlined shortly before the actual session, and so she preferred, in important cases such as this, to prepare at short notice.  A few minutes after setting to work with paper and pencil, she had her list of demands ready. 

She buzzed the bridge.  "Bring Illamarl Nao here."  No answer.  Some cursed wire must have frayed at the other end.  She went to the door, pressed and pushed.  The door did not move.  What was this?  Locked in??

Grimly, she sighed.  She returned to her chair.

Enemies, not for the first time in her career, had seized the initiative, and while she awaited their move, her contemplative defences took over her mind, in a manner which had successfully kept her functioning through previous crises: her intellect took on the aspect of a darting, leaping fish, lashing its way along the stream of consciousness. 

A tail-flick of thought pitched her glance onto a sparkle in the corner of the cabin ceiling and immediately she rode wave-trains of reflection along the topic of lazh crystals, not only the visible ones plastered in rooms' corners but also their microscopic cousins in the bloodstreams of all Neptunian beings, a geometric influence shaping the typical Neptunian soul and ensuring that the civilization of this world must be qualitatively supreme in the Solar System.  The macroscopes in every observatory confirmed that Neptunians had nothing to learn from the people of the seven inner planets, fascinating though they were:  half-scorched Valeddom, cloudy Nuzhryven, the Urom/Yyu double planet, red Zdakash, mighty Emorion, ringed Yimdi and ancient Ooranye; and as for the two outer worlds, Yorm and Yuzmur, they were too strange to count.  Doubtless, conceded Eyol, each world must have its own greatness, but the folk of this eighth world progress "on crystalback", as the saying goes, which is why Neptune is Neptune in every language.  As inevitable as mathematics!  Some sets are inherently elite and exclusive.  Just as there can only be five perfectly regular "Vozdennic" solids (tetrahedron, cube, octohedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron), so there can only be twenty-five necessary world-names in the Galaxy, the closest other example being the mighty Feranc, alias Vega Twenty-Four, according to the macroscopes.  So there you are, we people of NEPTUNE: when we speak, we speak what must be.  We can do no other.

A knock on the door...

Ha.  In a flourishy swirl, her expanded thoughts took position.  Intellectually, in a flaring ruff around her focused attention, they readied her, all set to dwarf the impertinence on the other side of that door.

She thumbed the door open and as it slid aside she was not surprised to see Tarven Namaksa standing there.  Nor did she feel any unease at the rather serenely quizzical expression on his face.  Doubtless he had his reasons to feel pleased with himself.

"Well, Captain," she said, "are you about to take over my job?  Starting, perhaps, with interrogating me?  Am I the one who is cornered, in a dnamsag of your own devising?"

For Tarven was not alone.  Standing behind him were two others.  One was the outlaw chief Illamarl Nao, apparently unguarded.  The other was the would-be mutineer, Linghin Neathe: the girl now seemed revitalized, lithe as whipcord, her lips quivering on the verge of a smile of triumph.

"Eyol, no one is threatening you.  I'm sorry about the locked door, but that's all over now.  It was just a temporary measure.  Now, your worries are over and you may enjoy the freedom of the ship.  May we come in for a chat?"

The Interrogator made no move to invite them into her cabin.  Instead, smiling crookedly, she shook her head.  "The clearest possible sign of danger," she remarked, "is when a thing which cannot be, nevertheless is."

"This thing that cannot be - " began Tarven.

Ignoring him for the moment, Eyol flashed a look at Illamarl Nao.  "You tell me," she demanded.  "Have you and your men taken over this ship?"

"We have," the man nodded evenly.  "We now occupy the control room, with the connivance of Captain Tarven."

"Tssk," reproved Tarven with a side-glance, "don't give her the full dose too quickly."

"Don't tell me, I can guess the rationale," said Eyol.  "Since they have wholeheartedly surrendered, you trust them so absolutely, that you have begun the training in responsibility which is meant to re-integrate them into Pezreeman society... starting with ship-handling skills."

Tarven exchanged looks with his two companions.  Illamarl Nao nodded impassively; Linghin Neathe for a moment looked fit to burst.

Then, turning back to Eyol, the captain said: "Now is the time to tell you, that we have made a great discovery.  I thought for a moment that you had guessed it, but it seems not - "

"Great discovery?" she echoed with acid in her tone.  "It's not a great discovery when somebody like myself has to admit that she has mis-heard.  I thought I had an affirmation from you, just as you thought, or think, that you had one from Illamarl Nao.  But people can be mistaken in what they hear..."

"No, no, no."  Tarven half closed his eyes as if preparing for a mighty effort.  "Listen, will you?  None of us has been mis-hearing.  Our ears are in working order.  The mighty fact is, we have found a way to defeat the dnamsag process.  No one can be cornered from now on."

Eyol could not believe it, not all at once.  But she knew she was not talking to a fool.  Some discovery had been made: so much was plain.  And no doubt Arr Hocor had stumbled upon it first, or had got so close that he had to be silenced lest he lose the revolutionists the advantage of surprise.  Some discovery... but what?  She tried to guess: "Hypnotism?"

"Bahhh!  Certainly not that!  Come, no hypnotism could defeat your interrogation, Eyol!  Let me try to tell you - "

"Some kind of mental power, then."

"In a way, but - "

"No, just a moment, just a moment," she pleaded.  It was suddenly of supreme importance that she show an ability to guess correctly.  Like a crunching of gears which almost click into a new mode, she felt so close to grasping what the thing must be, given the accumulated evidence that Tarven had been able to make statements which at the time were already known not to be in accordance with fact... yet the cogs of her imagination slipped, spun helplessly, still out of mesh with the reality.  Curses on that last unbridged gap!  So close to what must be a historic thing, she would have to be told, she would have to have it explained.  Here it came.

Tarven spoke the fateful words.

"We have learned," he said, "to speak what we know to be untrue."

His lungs wheezed as he said it, and then silence fell, the silence, at first, of incredulity, and then - in Eyol's tottering mind the gears of belief finally did mesh with the fact, forced to do so by the circumstance that no other explanation was possible for what had occurred.

She whispered, "Call it the kur-rosh.  The anti-truth."

"That's it," said Tarven.  "A good name for it, Eyol.  It will have to have a name.  We'll use that one.  Kurrosh."  He nodded.  "And so, this ship is not about to return to the capital.  Instead, we have set course for a string of provincial centres, from which we will broadcast our news: that it is possible to say what one likes.  One may choose to tell the truth - or not.  The world will never be the same again."

"Oh well," said Eyol with a fatalistic swing of her arms.  "You might as well come in and sit down."

They entered her cabin and found chairs.  Eyol was glad to rest her head and neck while her mind struggled back to some clarity.  She appreciated that the other two seemed willing to allow her some minutes of calm.  At last, eyes closed, she spoke.

"I'm trying it myself," she said.  It was so important to keep ahead, always keep ahead of the game, whatever the game might be.  Now that she had learned that this anti-truth process could be done and had been done, she realized that it must consist of a psychic excavation and re-alignment, a diversion of the stream-beds of expression by which fact and word had previously, naturally, holistically, automatically flowed in parallel.  They need do so no longer!  Just as ventriloquism demonstrates that speech does not need to issue by the usual route, so a kurrosher need not match match utterance with truth!

Go on, try, she told herself.  Decouple from truth.  Invent stuff.  You can do it.

"Two plus two equals five," she heard herself saying.  The words had to be wrenched from her lips but they came, they came!  She went on, "I am a Zdakashian in disguise.  I have an eye in the back of my head."  Easier... she was getting the hang of this...  Amazing herself, she went on: "I own a castle and extensive grounds in Tuzrem province.  You should visit me there some time, Tarven."

Catching the gleam in her eye, the others clapped their hands and cheered.  "You'll surpass me soon," Tarven grinned.

Eyol however was engaged in a struggle not to let go of honour, or as much of it  as could be retrieved. What a world it was going to be; what a morally vertiginous, chaotic world.  The power to invent statements was going to change life like nothing else had ever done.  The implications were limitless.  Taking them at random: fiction writers would no longer have to narrate in the conditional tense; they could fill their books with plain statements of what had never been true.  Actors could continue to act after they had exited from the stage, and no one need know...  For that matter, an Interrogator could fool and trap her quarry by means of kurroshes of her own... no, no, that I would not do; my vocation is ended.  But -

"I've thought of one consolation for the kurroshing," she remarked with a calm sigh.  "It's that when truth-telling becomes a matter of choice, rather than being determined by our natures, then its moral value must increase."

"Quite," agreed Tarven.  "You worked that out quick.  Yes, truthfulness is more to one's credit if one has the option of kurroshing instead.  So you see, we can still look up to you, Eyol."

"That will help to comfort me as I look around for another job," said Eyol dryly.  Her gaze wandered to the girl.  "Such as helping to organize mutinies, perhaps?  Could you be induced to carry out your original purpose, Linghin?"

Linghin Neathe thought a moment, as the captain and the Interrogator both focused their gazes upon her, intimating the start of a conflict of wills.  Then she brightened and, with the upwelling smile of one who senses that she is about to coin a maxim, she replied:

"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no kurroshes."

Tarven said, "There's a challenge for you, Eyol.  Don't assume that Interrogation has been invalidated; it has acquired a new dimension!"

It was said in a light tone, yet the words hung heavy in the air.  At length Eyol bestirred herself to reply.

"Honestly," she remarked, "I'm tempted."  And she turned to appraise the outlaw chief, who since his entry to her cabin had silently awaited her move.