On the day of Egon's glorst, Ibrahim had his interview with Sable Tauranga in the morning. Then slept, and dreamt of a wheel, the wheel of his doom. Later that same day, in the afternoon, he had a speaking engagement at Taris High School, at its new location on the outskirts of Taris itself.
There had been a lot of controversy about the design, which did not conform to the standards set by the Heritage Conservation Regulations which dominated architectural practice on Zisperhaven-Chilp. Property developers excepted, nobody on Zisperhaven wanted skyscrapers to march across the island as they had on Conflux, even though skyscrapers would have been economically rational.
The new high school was a replacement for the old building of pink granite which had been damaged by the Jorbel Eagle earthquake of 9721, so called because it had occurred at 2:47 p.m. while Jorbel Eagle, then President, had been addressing the nation live on television on the subject of, amongst other things, a wet cigar.
Ibrahim could see why the purists disliked the new school. It was a glittering place of glass and steel, one of the "laboratories of the mind" promoted by President Olive Valise, who had made education reform one of her missions, even though education was not funded by the federal government but, rather, on a state by state basis.
At Taris High School, Ibrahim gave a careers talk on the subject of running your own business. He focused on his previous enterprise, Ibrahim Exterminations, a practical business which was easy to understand, and something at which you could reasonably hope to make money.
Ibrahim said nothing about his yacht chartering business, and certainly did not confess that his speaking engagement at the school was generating more revenue than his yacht business did on the average day. In the past year, Ibrahim had given a number of talks on the small business theme at various venues, and public speaking looked as if it could possibly develop into a reliable source of extra income.
And certainly he needed the extra money.
That afternoon, however, Ibrahim's thoughts were not really on either the talk he was giving or his own financial difficulties. Rather, he kept thinking about the dream he had endured, the dream of the wheel. As the day wore on, instead of fading out of memory, the dream became progressively clearer and clearer. And, the clearer it became, the more ominous.
"Maybe I can glorst!"
Those were the words he wanted to shout but did not. If he was in fact glorst-capable, then that would be a kind of karmic catastrophe. To live with the knowledge that you could commit suicide at any moment by self-explosion -- and that was the direction in which Ibrahim's thoughts were taking him -- would be unbearable.
Although Ibrahim did not know for a fact that he was glorst-capable, he was already starting to understand, from the inside, why the suicide rate amongst glorst-capable astrals was so high -- about half a dozen a year in a population of only eight thousand or so capables, percentagewise very high. Knowing that you could so easily commit suicide put you under pressure to do exactly that.
When Ibrahim got home, he sat down at his computer and began researching the subject of glorsting, while the TV played in the background, telling, amongst other things, of how the terrorist Egon Turow had succeeded with his massacre glorst.
Ibrahim was particularly interested in finding out if there were any counseling services available for glorst-capable people, and he found that there were. Most prominent was an outfit he had never heard of before, Capables Communal, which turned out to have a coven -- that is to say, a support group -- right in the port of Taris itself. Regular meetings were held on Wednesdays starting at 6 p.m. in the basement of Prawn's Punchups, a boxing gym.
But, having discovered that counseling was available, and that support groups did exist, Ibrahim realized that he was enormously inhibited about using any such services. He was a man, and the notion of self-sufficiency was central to his concept of manhood. A man takes care of himself. A man does not whine for help. A man does not spend his life down on his knees, begging. If a man has a problem, like being stuck on the waters of the Bilge Globulus on a windless day and finding that his yacht's engine has packed up, then a man fixes his problem. By himself.
"Real men don't wear frilly knickers," said Ibrahim to himself.
It was a motto, one of the slogans that he lived by.
But he needed help. The wheel dream was becoming a matter of torment for him. Counseling, support - he needed someone to open a doorway to survival, a doorway to physical salvation. He needed a man-friendly service, something he could use without ending up feeling like an effete asparagus eater.
By diligent searching, Ibrahim finally found a place which might serve as an entry point into the world of therapy.
Deathcounseling.omblock was the web site which led Ibrahim to this find. It was the site of Manfred Sphere, who operated his business, Egrostic Rituals, at 27A Iwi Street in Mozley Maze, the ancient area built around Orkel Pariah, in the north-east of Zisperhaven.
"Fear is a flood. A flood, properly mastered, is a source of strength. Manfred will help you trap, tame and master the flood, placing its forces at your disposal. Manfred will help you channel your fear of death and build an iron soul. Capables counseling a speciality."
Ibrahim had what he wanted. Someone who was used to dealing with capables, who had reasonable charges -- twenty bucks an hour, dirt cheap compared to what professional shrinks were trying to hit you up for -- and who offered a free initial consultation.
And, prominently displayed on the web site, there was a philosophical dictum which, more than anything else, helped convince Ibrahim that perhaps this was the death counselor for him. It was the one that said "Reality is a cold beer."
Which made Ibrahim say to himself:
"I bet this guy doesn't wear pink socks."
In addition to doing death counseling, Manfred also sold whips, chains, collars, handcuffs and, additionally, high-quality girl-sized steel cages which were touted as being "ideal for the petal in your life". The cages were, Ibrahim thought, overpriced, to the point of being unaffordable, at least for him. But the counseling looked like a decent deal.
Ibrahim wrote Manfred's name, address and telephone number on his calendar to make sure he did not lose them. He realized that evening had arrived while he had been busy with his researches and that he was hungry. He switched on the light to dispel the gloom then made himself a healthy well-balanced meal consisting of a can of sausages and baked beans, half a loaf of stick bread and a dozen chocolate macaroons. Usually he rationed himself to only three chocolate biscuits daily, but he figured that the possible imminence of death was a good excuse to skip the diet.
To chase the food, Ibrahim opened a can of beer, and he was just getting to the end of the beer when a visitor showed up. It was Ibrahim's brother, Adolf North, who arrived at the Adventuring Salt Building with a six-pack of beer. It was Balimo Beer. An old and distinguished brand. But, today, to think of Balimo was, inevitably, to think of Egon Turow, a resident of Balimo, and of his glorst. Ibrahim, who had become more and more the businessman as the years went by, wondered what the Balimo Beer brand managers would be planning to do under the circumstances.
Adolf seldom visited, and Ibrahim wondered if he had come round to talk about Egon's glorst. Ibrahim did not ask, however. The relationship between the two brothers was a little distant, and always had been, in part because of the ten-year age difference, Adolf being the senior. A couple of beers down the track, when they both had loosened up, Ibrahim might ask, if Adolf had not already told him.
Although Ibrahim did not know for a fact that it was Egon's massacre glorst which had prompted Adolf to make the journey to Taris, it was reasonable to suppose that, around Omblock, many astrals would be touching base with friends and relatives, reaching out to each other in the aftermath of a tragedy which had implications for the entire astral community.
If a norm messed up, committing an outrage such as killing half a dozen customers in the course of a bank robbery gone wrong, then nobody said "evil norm". But an astral's error automatically acquired the "astral" tag, and ended up contaminating the image of the astral community as a whole.
"At least the whole thing looks like blowing over," said Adolf, wiping a little beer froth from his dark mustache. "That Glorsting House business may have been the end of it."
That comment came without preamble, Adolf evidently thinking that the meaning of "the whole thing" would be automatically clear, as indeed it was. Ibrahim supposed that Adolf's conversational initiative meant that they were going to discuss the massacre glorst. But apparently not. The glorst was evidently on Adolf's mind, but he was still in beer-drinking mode. Adolf's comment, though, did encapsulate the reality of what had happened.
Potentially, Egon's glorst could have provoked severe communal violence between the astral minority and the Xalbardoz majority. But the only significant act of violence against astrals had been that one fire bombing on Gorleth, a place where very few astrals lived.
The Gorleth fire bombing had sparked off a riot, but it had been a riot between Gorleth's two most fiercely antagonistic clans, a matter of norms fighting norms -- Clan Plotinus versus Clan Udan Hoy. "Only on Gorleth," as the old saying went. The rest of Omblock had outgrown its clan rivalries generations ago, but on Gorleth they were still caught in a bloody eddy of history, still unable to outgrow internecine hatreds.
"Gorleth will take care of Gorleth," said Ibrahim, citing a proverbial bit of wisdom which meant, really, "Who the hell cares what happens on Gorleth?" Gorleth was Oolong Morblock's ultimate slum, dominated by crime-infested tenement buildings, the place you would go for a holiday if boredom had convinced you that you wanted to experiment with getting your head bashed in.
"How are things in Fratpong?" said Ibrahim.
Fratpong, on the island of Glud Hurgus, was where Adolf had located himself after he had bought Ibrahim's pest control business, which was now called not Ibrahim Exterminations but Adolf Exterminations. That part of Glud Hurgus was a congenial place to live, with a fair few astrals in the local community. To visit Ibrahim, Adolf usually took the elevated railway from Fratpong to Styx Lethanus, then caught a ferry from there to Taris. A journey he did not make often.
It was not exactly a short journey, and, if Adolf stayed long, it would be extremely late by the time he got home. However, one of the good things about Oolong Morblock was that it was a twenty-four hour city, a city which never slept, and the transport links -- buses, ferries, the subway system and the elevated railway -- ran round the clock. If you liked sitting in traffic jams then you were at liberty to go out and buy yourself a car, but Omblock was a city where an automobile was an indulgence rather than a necessity.
The response from Adolf to Ibrahim's query was silence.
"In Fratpong," said Ibrahim, not sure whether Adolf had failed to hear or was simply taking his time in answering. "How are things?"
"Things?" said Adolf.
"Public reaction," said Ibrahim.
A journalist's phrase, he realized, once he'd used it. Not the kind of thing you'd usually say in a natural conversation. Maybe his use of the phrase had something to do with the influence of that blonde TV journo, the one who had interviewed him, and whose name he could no longer remember. Doreen? No. Doreen was that extremely fat schoolgirl whose school uniform skirt, a dark green pleated skirt, was so short that it was difficult to avoid catching sight of her panties, which were usually extremely gaudy. Yesterday, orange.
"How people felt," said Ibrahim, prompting his silent brother. "The, you know, the mood on the streets."
"I don't know," said Adolf. "I haven't seen us on TV."
A reasonable answer. If you want to know the mood of the nation, or of some fraction of the nation, then you expect to find it on TV. The "mood on the streets" was to be found there, on TV, not hiding out on the streets themselves, skulking behind a wrecked car or lurking in the doorway of the local coin laundry.
"I dreamt that there was a wheel inside me," said Ibrahim.
It came out, just like that. Unintended. Blurted. He had not been meaning to say it, but he did.
"Uh-huh," said Adolf.
Ibrahim's statement was not a standard conversational overture, so it was difficult for Adolf to know how to respond.
"A big wheel," said Ibrahim, because now he had started he did not want to stop. He wanted to confess. To confess the whole thing. "Very dangerous."
"And?" said Adolf.
"And I thought it might be my body telling me something," said Ibrahim.
"Telling you what?" said Adolf.
"Telling me that I've become glorst-capable," said Ibrahim.
"I don't see the logic," said Adolf.
"Neither do I," said Ibrahim. "But, even so, that's how I feel. Maybe the wheel vision was telling me I'm able to glorst."
"First it was a dream, now it's a vision," said Adolf. "Escalation, huh? Do you still have the Yandaviba?"
"That old wreck?" said Ibrahim. "No, I sold it two years ago. Guy paid four hundred dollars. Bought it for parts. I finally decided there's just no way I can afford to run a car."
"Well, if you still had it," said Adolf, "I'd say that maybe your dream was a sign that you should think about getting new tires. But, since there are no wheels in your life, my suggestion to you would be to forget about it. Now, if you started dreaming about a mouse, that's when it'd be time to start worrying."
"A mouse?" said Ibrahim.
"Yes," said Adolf. "Because of this glorst thing."
"I don't follow," said Ibrahim, frowning. "I don't follow that at all."
A mouse? A mouse and glorsting? What was the connection?
So Adolf explained. According to the doctrines of Jaznaria, the religion of the astrals, a massacre glorst undertaken in a spirit of martyrdom could liberate the Dreamer, the hidden messiah, into self-awareness. Once the Dreamer had been "found and wakened into rapture", to quote scripture, then the Dreamer would ascend to the Infinite Pinnacle of the astral realms.
"Yeah," said Ibrahim, "that much I know. But I don't understand where the mouse comes in."
"Then listen," said Adolf, "and be enlightened."
The Dreamer would reach the Infinite Pinnacle. And there, in the Garden of Pearl Grass, warm beneath the rays of the Watermelon Sun, the Dreamer would be greeted by the hashy mouse, a mouse the size of a cat, a mouse possessed of the most luxurious vermilion fur.
And the hashy mouse would lead the Dreamer into the presence of the fountain of rainbow, and there the hashy mouse would anoint the Dreamer with sugar water. And his tongue would be double in size.
"Say what?" said Ibrahim.
"His tongue," said Adolf. "It will double in size."
"But what's that supposed to mean?" said Ibrahim.
"The Dreamer will find out when he gets there," said Adolf. "This is holy scripture, Ibrahim, not a handbook on the art of motorcycle maintenance."
It was on the tip of Ibrahim's tongue to say that maybe the business of the doubling of the tongue meant that the Dreamer would get an erection, but he stopped himself. Holy scripture? Yes, Adolf was talking about holy scripture, and not, it seemed, in jest.
"So," said Adolf, "that wraps up my tale."
"And a very fancy fairy tale it is," said Ibrahim.
This statement was incautious in the light of Adolf's comment about holy scripture. But Ibrahim could not contain himself. The idea of the hashy mouse was totally ridiculous, something for little kids.
"It is scripture," said Adolf, somber and intense, his eyes focused on Ibrahim. "It is written in the Mizat Flare, a book which you, plainly, do not read as often as you should. It's in the Seventh Predictive Chronicle of the Prophet Mincha. This is Living Possibility, Ibrahim. It's something you have to take seriously."
In response, Ibrahim made no response. Living Possibility? Those were words he had never expected to hear from his brother's lips. They were the words of a fanatic. Someone who did not believe that some parts of the Mizat Flare were mere poetic metaphor. Someone who believed that the whole thing was literal truth, every word of it, hashy mouse and all.
Ibrahim was starting to remember a little about the hashy mouse now. The memory was associated with the smell of those waxy crayons he used to use as a kid. He had a coloring book. It had all those old stories in it, like the one about the moon and the Custard Emperor, and the one about the virgin and the cucumber. As a child, Ibrahim had not understood what a virgin was, so someone had explained to him that a virgin is a woman who does not like cats.
The hashy mouse with its vermilion coat -- he had spent a rainy day coloring it in. What day? Monday? Sunday? He could not remember what day of the week it had been. In fact, there was not one single childhood memory for which he could remember the day of the week. Was that unusual? Or was everyone like that? If it was true that he was glorst-aberrant, might it be true that he was aberrant in other ways?
"You do take scripture seriously, don't you?" said Adolf.
"I remember the hashy mouse," said Ibrahim. "I colored it in. As a kid. Yeah, a kind of red. And the eyes. I made the eyes a very bright green."
True. He had colored the eyes a very bright emerald green. Later, he had done something bad with that emerald crayon. He couldn't remember what but he did remember his mother being angry with him. Very angry.
"You were the religious one," said Adolf. "Always going off with dad to crypt. You are a believer, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Ibrahim, since that was the simplest reply.
He was very uncomfortable with the direction this conversation was taking. Religion was not a subject he usually discussed, certainly not with his brother.
While Ibrahim was nominally religious, he never manoeuvered himself into the position of asking "Do I or do I not believe?" If forced to take up a philosophical stance, he would not have said "I absolutely do not believe". He did believe, albeit in a vague and poorly defined way. And yet, that said, he found the extravagant particulars of his own religion too childishly picturesque to be worthy of adult credibility, at least if taken on the literal level.
"So you believe," said Adolf, "so you understand that if you were to start dreaming of a mouse, that's when you might be in trouble. That's how the Dreamer would start to discover himself. By dreaming of the Infinite Pinnacle, and of what is to be found there."
Was Adolf involved in a hideously cumbersome attempt to make a joke? Perhaps. But Ibrahim got the impression that Adolf was serious. Adolf had become a believer. A believer in the literal truth of the scriptures of Jaznaria. Which was hard for Ibrahim to credit, because, quite apart from anything else, if taken as literal truth then certain parts of scripture were, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Take this business of finding and waking the Dreamer, for example. At a metaphorical level, it might make a kind of sense. It could be argued that none of us are properly aware of our own lives, that we are all, to an extent, sleepwalking, never fully conscious of, to start with, our own mortality.
In that sense, the Dreamer myth could be seen as a primitive kind of group-help text, encouraging us to provoke our sleepwalking fellow citizens into true self-awareness.
But, plainly, Adolf did believe. He believed in the literal truth of the scriptures. Which came as a very considerable shock. This was an evolution which had happened -- when? Ibrahim could not begin to guess.
Yes, this was a real frog in the marmalade jar, to coin a phrase, discovering that Adolf was not just a true believer but, quite possibly, a religious fanatic, a would-be martyr, the living embodiment of the bogeyman astral whom so many norms feared and hated.
Making this discovery was a major jolt to Ibrahim's Adolf concept, to his theory of his brother. It was like discovering that your brother's increasingly lengthy meditative silences are not a function of his search for enlightenment but, rather, a sign that he has been mainlining heroin. It was like finding out that, while you were out of the country on business, your brother went through the process of gender reassignation. Like finding out that your brother's increasingly fragmented jigsaw conversations are not the product of a spry wit but, rather, evidence of a terrifying and incurable insanity.
Adolf the true believer was as preposterously unlikely as Adolf the male streetwalker. It was a perversion of expectations which revised the nature of reality.
Their father had always been the man of faith, and both sons had reacted against the dominant hammer of their father's religion in different ways. Ibrahim had responded, outwardly, with an unresisting compliance, but had permitted himself to have inward reservations. Adolf, by contrast, had left the family home at the age of nineteen. He had rejected the name bestowed upon him at birth, Roncy Quilliam Chess, and had gone through the legal process of formally renouncing his family vows, emerging as Adolf North, no middle name. On top of that, Adolf had declared himself to be both an atheist and a Syndicalist, one of those who believed that the traditional powers of Oolong Morblock should be overthrown and that power should fall to the workers of the city state, who, by rights, should "govern that which they enabled", to quote from Structural Destiny, the key text at the heart of the doctrines of Syndicalism.
Adolf, ten years older than Ibrahim, had always loomed in his life as the iconoclast, the rule-breaker, the intellectually subversive free thinker. To find him conforming to the traditional conservatism of his father's creed was a real shock to the system.
"Well, if I start having mice dreams, I'll let you know," said Ibrahim. "But why would it be bad news if I found I was the Dreamer? What's wrong with being the messiah?"
"It is written," said Adolf, "that the Dreamer's awakening to consciousness will be the salvation of the astral people but a doom upon the Dreamer. The Dreamer is a doomed man. As it says in scripture, the messiah will be a sacrifice for the people. We do not know who the Dreamer is but we do know that the awakening of the Dreamer will be a victory for the people but will result in the death of this man."
"Or woman," said Ibrahim.
"Scripture permits that possibility," said Adolf, in a manner which suggested that, holy writ or not, that was one thing he definitely did not believe.
"So," said Ibrahim, "tell me. How did Adolf the atheistic Syndicalist become Adolf the believer?"
"We learn as we grow older," said Adolf. "You, too, will learn as you grow older."
Then Adolf launched into a wholesale assault on Ibrahim's tepid religious state, urging him that he should boil with fervor, that he should seethe, that he should take the glorsting of Egon Turow as a sign, a sign of glory days soon to come.
Ibrahim, with dismay, realized that his brother had migrated all the way into the lunatic fringe, that he had escaped from the normative world of mail order catalogs and roll-on deodorants into a world of wide-eyed prophets and preachers drunk on visions.
Ibrahim's reaction was to encourage his brother to get drunk, drunk on alcohol rather than religion. One of Ibrahim's philosophies in life was that, if all else fails, you should open another bottle. And, although Adolf had only brought a six-pack with him, Ibrahim had beer to spare. But Adolf was not so easy to lead astray, and cleaved to his missionary purpose, until, at last, he took his leave. He had to be getting back to Fratpong, because he had work to do in the morning.
"Bed," said Ibrahim.
He was tired. He needed it. He needed his bed, his sleep, one vital necessity of life that the government (as yet) had not started taxing.
So soon Ibrahim was in bed, and, before long, he found himself thinking confused thoughts of hot coffee bubbling out of the tiles in a big white bathroom. He couldn't tell how it was that the tiles were exuding this liquid; hydraulic engineering was not his field. Then the scene shifted and Ibrahim found himself in the presence of a very hairy man, entirely naked, unless you counted his stone club and the bright pink socks he was wearing. The hairy man was trying to say something, but he had a problem with his mouth, and all that would come out of it was worms.
Then the air filled with a strong smell of ginger and the hairy man was gone, and, instead, Ibrahim found himself alone with a very blonde girl who was sitting in a stainless steel cage, looking up at him, her girl body entirely naked.
He still could not remember the blonde girl's name, but that did not matter. Girls in dreams do not need names.
By this time, Ibrahim, who was asleep and dreaming, had realized that he was asleep and dreaming. And he figured that, if you were dreaming, then the safe sex rules did not apply, and, what's more, you didn't have to pay taxes on the things you did, so, if he could just find the key and open this cage ...
But at that moment, skyrockets started blasting off from Pier Nine, where some of his neighbors were celebrating the approach of midnight with a little improvisational carnival, and Ibrahim found himself awake.
"Damn!" he said.
And hoped he could get back to his dream and to the blonde girl who was in his dream, and hoped that he would be able to smell her smell, her own private animal smell. Each girl has her own personal girl smell, her individual smell, unique to her and to her alone, and it was one of Ibrahim's pleasures to smell this girl smell on a girl's body.
So Ibrahim wanted to smell the blonde girl's flesh. And there were other things he wanted to do with that caged blondness, cruel things, heartless in their selfishness, imperial in their demands, desires never acknowledged in public, desires which rejoiced in the fact that the girl was trapped in a cage of steel. Very high quality chromium steel, guaranteed not to rust.
But if he could not get back to the dream of the caged blonde woman, that was no big deal. There would be other nights and other dreams. Really, he did not care what he dreamt of. As long as he did not dream of the wheel.