The headquarters of Tolstaple, the federal outfit also known as the Inner Police, was in Telescope Tower, the tallest building at Ming Taxis, up in the north of the island of Glud Hurgus. Right at the top of the building was the Pearl Enclave, the penthouse suite from which Don Trash, the head of Tolstaple, ruled his secret police outfit.
As the aftermath of Egon Turow's glorst unfolded on TV, Don sat drinking whiskey in the company of Vicky Glark, his instrumental assistant, and Wi Carnaby, the Mayor of Glud Hurgus, the democratically elected ruler of the entire island.
The focus of media reports had already shifted from the glorst at the Garden of Innocent Smiles at Sekigahara, and the tragedy of Paffita Strong, which had earlier succeeded in winning the spotlight for all of sixty seconds, was slipping from memory. Baby Paffita was fast becoming forgotten. Not by her mother but by everyone else. Our meatiest crisis is just a small fraction of someone else's working day, the agony of a shattered tooth just one segment amongst many in the dentist's calendar.
The news of the moment was the firebombing of a restaurant on the island of Gorleth. This eatery had been in operation for ten years, trading under the name of Glorsting House, which advertized itself with the slogan "Eat till you burst!" In the current context, both the name and the slogan proved to have been ill-chosen, and the riot outside the restaurant, the riot which had led to the fire bombing, had been precipitated by the perceived outrage that the restaurant's name and slogan represented.
As Don and his drinking companions sat watching TV, the restaurant was still burning. The proprietors, a married couple by the name of Plingon, were missing, together with their adult son, possibly inside the burning building. It was not known if they were ethnically astral or not.
"I don't know where all this ends," said Wi, sipping his whiskey.
There were a number of astrals on Glud Hurgus. An uncomfortable number, in his opinion. All through his mayoralty the astrals had been a nagging source of worry, a potential cause of disruption. If he could have annihilated the whole lot of them with a single magic wish, he would happily have done so.
"I can tell you where it ends," said Don. "It ends with chattel slavery."
"With what?" said Wi.
Don's comment had the hint of a cumbersome joke about it, but Don Trash was not the sort of person who made jokes. He was a careful, controlling man, and the spillage of laughter was a wasteful indulgence in which he almost never engaged.
"Chattel slavery," said Don. "People as property. Or, more exactly, astrals as property. It's the only way. We can't have the state invigilate the whole astral community. It would be prohibitively expensive. They should have owners. Then the owners could keep an eye on them, make sure they stay grogged up, keep them from grouping in conspiracy clutches."
"So what's the payoff for the owner?" said Wi.
"You're a man," said Don. "Top executive, busy job, wife, two kids. Unfortunately the wife works, and where can you get decent childcare in this city of ours? So you wander down to the local slave auction and you buy yourself a girl, she's almost thirty, getting a little old to be working in the local slave brothel, but still reasonably juicy."
"I don't think the wife is going to go for this idea," said Vicky. "Knowing what guys are like, I can see your buyer ... what? Card evenings, I guess. Him and his buddies at home with his play girl. What happens next? I think that's easy enough to guess. When the wife gets home from the movies, she's not going to like what happened."
"No problem," said Don. "The man just lies to the wife, says nothing happened. Besides, it'll become the standard social pattern. All the guys will be doing it."
"Nice fantasy," said Wi, "but it'd never happen. You can't sell the city on the idea of slavery."
"You don't try," said Don. "You sell it as supervision. It starts, this is my image, as an extension of the probation service. People have done crimes, so they get supervised, and you, the needful citizen, you enrol as a citizen parole officer, showing your support for the system by making a donation. You make this donation at the donation house. Various parolees are on display, and you donate to get the one you want. A slave market, but that's not what we'd call it. We'd call it the compatibility center, maybe. You're not buying a slave, you're seeking a compatibility match between you, the supervisor, and the criminal you're going to supervise."
"Isn't that a little transparent?" said Vicky. "Won't people see the truth?"
"The truth is the last thing people want to see," said Don. "Everyone wants the astrals gone, and nobody has the balls to do the logical thing, which is to kill the whole lot of them. Well, if we're such a bunch of custard puffs that we don't have the guts to do what we should, a little institutionalized supervision is the way to go."
Don paused to allow a comment. But neither Wi nor Vicky seemed to have anything to say.
"Mark my words," said Don. "This is coming. It will start with an organization called Supervision Central, we'll run it right here, out of Telescope Tower. It'll organize something we'll call community supervision. The probation service on steroids, that's how we'll sell it."
"You'd never even get started," said Vicky, who did not have the habit of acting in a subordinate manner to her boss.
"Oh yes we would," said Don. "We'd start with pedophiles who are also astrals. That's the easy way in, you see. Child rapists let out of prison, walking around these fair islands of ours - you know how that plays for the public. You want volunteers to burn them alive, you'd have no shortage. We start by supervising them. Then we expand. Want peace of mind for your kids? Who could say no?"
"So your vision is that the hard core criminals get enslaved," said Wi.
"No," said Don. "I'll be angling for the whole astral community."
"But there's a problem," said Vicky. "Most astrals don't commit crimes."
"Everyone commits crimes," said Wi.
He had good reason to say so. In the last three months, he personally had committed three road rage crimes, the last of which had resulted in a punch-up in which his nose had been broken. There might be one or two entirely innocent people walking around on the planet Lox Oxberg, but Wi had yet to meet one of them.
"Yeah," said Vicky. "People do stuff. But catching them at it, that's another thing."
"You give me the budget," said Don, "and we'll define the crimes and we'll do the catching."
Wi Carnaby was not one of the world's fastest thinkers. His job did not require him to be one. But things did tend to filter through to his mind. Eventually. And what had filtered through to him, finally, was that his good friend Don Trash was totally serious about this. A little mad, really, this demented notion of covertly reinventing slavery. But one of the things you learn as you grow older is that sanity is not the ruling force in the known universe.
"When you buy yourself your first girl," said Wi, raising his glass for a toast, "remember to invite me round to that first card party of yours."
But Don Trash, who had taken an oath of celibacy in early manhood, and who, shortly afterwards, had paid good money to have himself chemically castrated so he could focus his mind on building his career, made no effort to raise his glass to Wi's.
"You don't get it," said Don. "Sleazy sex is just a payoff, one of a bunch of payoffs, to get the average slob taxpayer to go along with this. But what it's all about, Wi, it's not about your drainpipe, it's about power. Unlimited power."
On the TV screen, someone was being hacked to death with fire axes, live on TV, somewhere in the city, maybe on Gorleth. But the three people in the Pearl Enclave had stopped paying attention to the TV some time ago. Don had drawn them into his reverie. A little mad, true. But it had a certain kind of warped fascination about it.
"The will is free," said Vicky, "therefore all things are possible."
On the TV, a camera housed in a circling helicopter was bringing live pictures of a building, one of those old-fashioned Blagartha-style brick buildings so common on the island of Gorleth. It had the flat roof typical of that style of architecture, and there were people milling about on the roof. Doing what, exactly?
The camera zoomed in, and the situation on the roof was explicated.
The little mob of excited people on top of the roof were busy throwing other people off the roof, one by one.
It was about ten floors down.
Well, maybe it was not the case that all things were possible. But, evidently, to judge from what was being shown live on TV, the will was most definitely free.