The Letter of the Law
In the garden:
“What is your true motive here?” asked Phaethon. “What is the meaning of this?”
“That same restriction which prevented me from first approaching you prevents me from bringing up the interdicted topic. Though my legal counsel parapersonality suggests that, if you and you alone bring up the topic, I may be able to answer questions about it without overstepping the letter of the law.”
“Very well. Does this have anything to do with the man I saw?”
“The tree artist? He is nothing. He escaped you by yanking down a low-hanging Advertisement and wrapping himself in it, cloak-like, and your sense-filter blinded you to him till he was gone.”
Phaethon thought such things happened only in comedies. Wryly, he realized that the tree artist, being a Puritan, had worn no sense-filter. He would have been exposed naked to all the clamor and commotion of the Advertisements, the roar of the music. Small wonder, then, that he had been in a testy mood.
“He implied I had done something shameful or dreadful, something showing hatred or contempt for the Golden Oecumene. Is this related to your forbidden topic?”
“Hm. It is well-known that the Neptunians love to test the boundaries of reason and good taste, and forever chafe and complain at the protocols and polite customs—one can hardly call them ‘laws’—with which we voluntarily bind ourselves. And before you used the obscure word ‘crime.’ Were we partners, you and I, in some criminal attempt?”
“Not criminal. Neptunians experiment with unusual mind forms, but we are not insane. And yet, you and I were partners in an attempt which was not well loved by your small-souled people here, not well loved at all.”
“Some Neptunian prank or trick or fraud, was it, then?”
“You repeat the slanders of our detractors. The Tritonic Composition explores the boundaries of mental effort, unhindered by the ponderous moral posturing of your leaden machine-minds! Allow me to transmit my stored compendia into your brain space. Time is short, and the Neptunian philosophy is complex, and is based on value judgments which only experience, not logic, can convey.”
“Load them onto a semipublic channel, and I will peruse them at leisure, without danger of mind-to-mind contamination or manipulation.”
“I am not permitted to undertake the insecurity or expense of placing valuable and private thought templates from my life experience into a public box.”
“Expense?” This was ridiculous. Why, the expense of shipping Phaethon to Neptune—or, saving on mass, of shipping Phaethon’s brain in a lightweight life support—was astronomical. Phaethon consulted an almanac in the Rhadamanthus Mansion-Mind. Neptune and Earth were not in favorable positions for any fuel-efficient flight paths. Phaethon calculated how the increased payload of his weight would affect the mass-energy costs of even a low-boost orbit. The cost in energy-currency was roughly equal to a several thousand seconds of time-currency. In other words, a small fortune. “The expense is nothing compared to what you’ve already offered in transportation costs.”
At first, it looked as if the iceberg shape were melting. But no, it wasflattening, the high crown dropping, and the wide base growing wider and wider. Fluid flowed from the base, thickening and freezing into leg pillars. Under the ice at each foot of these pillars, Phaethon could see, dimly, complex machines being quickly made out of neurocomposite crystal and ceramic. The bulbs and globes and insulated tubes seemed to be energy batteries and field manipulators.
“You have acted against my advice and signaled to your mansion. I must flee before I am discovered.”
Signaled? Phaethon had retrieved one almanac file and run a calculation routine, Almost automatic functions. Phaethon had thought the Neptunian had only not wanted him to talk to his mansion. “Don’t be absurd! No one would dare to listen in on my private communications.”
“Even your vaunted Sophotechs will bend their precious laws to serve a purpose they call higher. But I shall use their own laws against them. They allow you some privacy during the distractions and masquerades meant to appease you. Behold. I shall construct a masquerader for you; he shall hold the files you will not receive from me; when you are strong enough to face truth, strong enough to defy this world of illusions, my messenger shall come for you.”
Phaethon saw, in the depth of the armored crystal, a shape like a naked body floating to the surface. It was complete with bones, muscles, nerves, veins. Only the skin of the face and neck had not been wholly grafted on; and the skull was opened like a flower of bone, and strands and lines of nerve fiber were still being packed into place, with umbilicuslike channels still leading back to the main Neptunian brain-group. The lower body had a costume being woven around it, bulky and ill-fitting, but it was recognizable as the costume of Scaramouche, a character from the same period and operetta cycle as Phaethon’s Harlequin.
“Phaethon, come now. This is the final second.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I am not satisfied with your various mystifications and hints. I suspect a deception, for which your kind are notorious. You have not even yet told me your name.”
“How should I tell you my name when you do not even recall the meaning of your own!”