It was morning, 0630, the morning of the day after Egon Turow's massacre glorst, and the city of Oolong Morblock was humming along as usual, small children aged six and upwards already on the trains, the kids who had to travel way out of their neighborhoods to the elite institutions of education their parents had chosen for them, institutions whose student bodies sometimes looked like refugees from a sleepwalker's convention.
Down in the basement of the Olid Mazoora Building, the cleaning crew was removing something from Room Asbestos, something gnarly with the aftermath of flames, something no longer quite identifiable, but vaguely reminiscent of an ape. And up on the nineteenth floor, one floor down from the penthouse (which was crammed with airwave snooper gear and other electronic equipment), Beria Dag was hard at work in the Green Room.
A large wall panel television was on, tuned to Conflux One, the sound turned down low, and from time to time Beria would hear something which would make him look up, but he had been working for a solid hour, starting at 0530, without hearing anything startlingly new.
Egon Turow's glorst was still the lead item at the top of the hour, but other stories were starting to squeeze it out of the top spot, stories such as the great toe sucking debate which was heating up in the Senate. Should toe sucking be classed as a sexual act and, if so, should the government move to legislate on it, and how many years in jail should you get for doing it? This is one of the reasons why we have governments: so there are people around to serve us by asking and answering questions such as this, questions which we would never think of asking and answering for ourselves.
Additionally, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health was in the news again, with its new regulations on bathing babies, which specified that babies must wear life jackets while being bathed, and that appropriate equipment for assisting with artificial respiration must be on hand. The regulations also required that parents must keep videotapes of each bathing act so their performance could be monitored by properly qualified baby bathing experts, who did not yet exist but who would be trained, at the taxpayer's expense, at special courses to be set up at Hanoi Technical College.
Largely7 ignoring the news chatter from the TV, Beria worked on.
Beria Dag was nothing like Marvin Mashablama, the star of Nails and Fingernails, the secret policeman cartoon show for kids which screened on Centipede Transmissions, the free-to-air TV channel aimed at the younger generation. Marvin was a loud-mouthed blustering man with an apocalyptic temper, who was always threatening to stomp to death his pet snail, Breety Pops, who was the problem-solver in the show, the one who came up with the solutions and, routinely, caught the terrorists and saved the world.
In his adult life, Beria had rarely lost his temper. He was, generally, a model of decorum, and, on the occasions when he showed up in the basement and pressed the button which set the disjointing machine in motion, he did so not in a mood of rage but of clinical detachment.
Beria was, after all, not a ganglord thug but the head of Ideation Control, the outfit sometimes colloquially referred to as the Thought Police, the organisation most people had in mind when they spoke of "the secret police". They weren't thinking of Don Trash and his mob. No, they were thinking of Beria Dag and his oiled machine, of the secret consignments which were sometimes delivered, long after midnight, to the huge incineration complex at Xgadriver.
When people talked of the Thought Police or the secret police, they were thinking of things which, officially, never happened, and of rooms, such as Room Octopus and Room Deep Serpent, which, officially, did not exist, and never had. People's image of Ideation Control was one of a smoothly oiled intimidation machine. A grim machine which took rebellion and manufactured cat meat. A desolation engine, the antithesis of jolly. And Beria, the head of that bleak organization, lived up to the image.
Beria, the control junkie who held the whip hand in this outfit, was a creature of ice rather than a creature of fire, the glacier rather than the volcano. Which helped make him good at his job. Very good, according to the performance assessments which he wrote on himself.
And Beria, if let off the leash and set free to do exactly what he wanted to, could have delivered permanent stability to Oolong Morblock by the simple process of liquidating those who needed to be liquidated, which he figured to be no more than five percent of the population, starting with the astrals then moving on to that Gorleth scum. A good deal, as he saw it: sacrifice the troublesome five percent that the remaining ninety-five could live in peace.
But Beria's masters were squeamish, particularly the President, and, though Beria did enjoy a very special personal relationship with the President, the fact was that she was not prepared to countenance his more extreme proposals. And funding, that was another problem, everyone wanted to be safe but nobody was prepared to pay what it cost, and Ideation Control was permanently underfunded and understaffed, to the point where Beria thought they would one day be reduced to executing people by the simple method of bashing them over the head with heavy rocks.
Beria Dag thought of himself as a supremely practical man, and would have rejected the notion that he was a fantasist. But, despite his self-image, he did indulge in a fantasy activity of sorts: putting together jigsaw puzzles.
In the real world, there are no certain outcomes, and everything that happens is, potentially, subject to the influence of accident and happenstance. But a jigsaw puzzle is, in a sense, an imaginary world from which uncertainty has been excluded, a scenario which works its way to one inevitable and immutable conclusion.
Beria's take on his hobby was that he liked jigsaw puzzles because he enjoyed a challenge. The more difficult the better. That said, he was conscious of the fact that one good point about such puzzles was that you were guaranteed a solution. If you put in the work you would get the payoff.
The certainty of having a solution to work toward was a refreshing relief after his labors in the real world, where he often felt that he was dealing not with satisfactory picture pieces which could be clicked into a predetermined shape but with fragments of smoke. Arbitrary, argumentative smoke.
But, as Beria puzzled over the pieces of the Egon Turow jigsaw -- Ibrahim Chess, Sable Tauranga, Lily Peacock and Jack Glinch -- he was finding it hard to get started. He ended up concentrating on Ibrahim, the guy who appeared to have phoned Egon to give him the go-ahead for the glorst.
A standard way to get close to a suspect was to find a potential informant in the family who might be susceptible to blackmail and so could be coerced into acting as an informer. In Ibrahim's case, the father looked like a potential informant, as his activity as a Jaznarian preacher had led him into making the mistake of delivering himself of a number of treasonous statements in the course of some of his fireball sermons. But there was one problem with the father. The father was dead, and had been so for five years.
The brother, Adolf North? There was a file on him, quite a big one. A radical. A Syndicalist with alleged anarchist connections, a man implicated in the Diskartha counterfeiting racket. But not vulnerable. The Syndicalist label had lost its potency as a blackmail tool ever since it had emerged that Olive Valise herself had dabbled incautiously in Syndicalist politics in a youth which had been wilder than she cared to acknowledge.
The mother? There was a file on her, too, because of her husband's activities, but she was disappointingly respectable. No obvious vulnerabilities there. Ibrahim also had a sister, but there was only a biographical thumbnail on file, not much known about her apart from her name.
After a long trawl through the databases, Beria came up with what he wanted. Five years back, Ibrahim had appeared in the Subordinate Court in Lamma Cheng to act as a character witness for Topaz Abadib Atatangle, then aged seventeen, who was to be sentenced for the crime of which he had been convicted, which was stealing examination papers from his school, Mishlingblog High School, a notorious hellhole of a place on Sclag, a college where everything that could happen did, everything from razor blade fights to students manufacturing Q in the science lab.
In court, Ibrahim Chess, then aged twenty-nine, had represented himself as Topaz's godfather, Ibrahim having taken on the godfather role as an act of filial piety to his late father, who had been Topaz's original godfather.
Topaz had been a bad boy, no doubt about it. First he had stolen the examination papers, then he had copied them, then he had sold the copies to students who were scheduled to sit the examinations in question.
The godfather-godchild relationship was an important one in Oolong Morblock, and Beria's take on the Ibrahim-Topaz relationship was that Ibrahim, when he had taken on the role at age twenty-nine, had been far too young for the job. Still, he had done it, out of respect to his late father, if reports of his statements to the court were correct.
Topaz, then, might prove to be the informant Beria wanted, someone who was tied in to the Chess family -- there must have been a social connection between Ibrahim's father and Topaz's dad -- and who was vulnerable. Vulnerable because he was under indictment under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
The animal rights lobby had gradually been gathering strength in Oolong Morblock over the last ten years or so, to the point where it had become a powerful pressure group which the federal government wanted to appease, and it was no secret that the federal government wanted to see the courts make an example of someone. Topaz stood accused of cruelty to jellyfish, the giant jellyfish which had been swarming in the Bilge Globulus recently, because he and some of his friends had been caught dynamiting them. Which, under the terms of the Cruelty to Animals Act, was now a federal crime.
Any charges relating to the dynamite? No. The prosecutor, sensitive to the federal government's political necessities, had focused in on the animal rights issue.
The standard venue for hearing federal crimes was the Subordinate Federal Court at Inadazutsumi, where the wheels of justice moved slowly because the system was overloaded. But President Olive Valise, who had the next election in mind, had been taking a personal interest in the animal rights issue, seeing it as one more issue on which she could massage the electorate, and had chosen to have Topaz and his friends dragged before the Star Chamber, the proceedings of which were held out of the public eye in Basement Nine in Hexagon, Basement Nine being the nuclear war bunker.
For the last three hundred years, ever since the turbulence of the brief-lived Guillotine Revolution, during which the populace had executed not just the President and most of the members of the Senate but, additionally, every member of the tax department they could get their hands on, no president of Oolong Morblock had dared to set a Star Chamber procedure in motion. Olive Valise, then, was using the animal rights issue to experiment with expanding her own powers, seeking to reclaim judicial prerogatives which, in theory, technically belonged to the President, but which, in practice, had lapsed on account of generations of disuse.
In traditional Star Chamber proceedings, you, the defendant, were permitted no lawyer, but Olive Valise, thinking it might be better to resurrect the Star Chamber traditions by degrees, had made the tactical error of permitting the jellyfish defendants to have legal representation.
As a result, the case involving Topaz and his five friends was on hold. The public defender had won a thirty-day stay so she could appeal to the Senate, the one body capable of having input into Star Chamber proceedings, to have the whole case thrown out on the grounds that, while "animals" were not defined by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, a jellyfish could not be considered to be an animal, and therefore no offence had been committed, at least not in terms of the Act.
A battle of dictionaries was evidently in store, but it was the use of the dynamite which interested Beria. It had been "sourced", to use the word Beria found in a news report on the Internet, from a gravel quarry on Sclag, near the border with Gretna Charbis, the Forbidden Zone. The word "sourced" necessarily implied theft.
This case had slipped under Beria's radar. He had heard that the first Star Chamber proceeding for many years was underway, but he had no recollection of the jellyfish specifics being mentioned to him. It was not the kind of thing that his subordinates would ordinarily bring to his attention. We are Ideation Control. We are the secret police. The secret police do not do jellyfish. That's not our thing.
"But this is the case I need," said Beria.
Topaz was in the power of the President, and Beria Dag had the ear of the President.
Moreover, in addition to the charge which had been laid against Topaz in the Star Chamber, there were other charges which could be laid against him in the Court of Judicial Infliction, the starting point of the criminal justice system on the island of Woosung Shanghai, which was where Topaz resided.
Theft of dynamite, unlawful use of explosives, oh, there was a whole host of charges which could be used to pressure Topaz, none of which involved either the President or the Star Chamber. Beria could have a tame prosecutor indict Topaz any time he chose. Criminal conspiracy, too, there had been a bunch of them, all in it together. And terrorism. Charges which Olive Valise had not chosen to explore because, first, in terms of Omblock's tangled judicial system, those additional crimes were not the kind that could be prosecuted in the Star Chamber, and, second, because crimes involving theft and terrorism were not crimes that were of interest to the animal rights constituency which she was playing to.
"Okay, Jellyfish Boy," said Beria. "I think it's time for you and me to have a little talk."
So be summoned the Practical Squad, gave them their orders and sent them on their way.
"And," said Beria, "this time, don't mess up."
He wished he had the time to go supervise the Topaz snatch. But sometimes you have to delegate. Beria needed to delegate because he still had work to do. Additionally, given that Topaz was an astral -- the documentation Beria had read had made reference to a familiar, a fist which went by the name of Nubbles -- maybe he would prove to be glorst-capable, and would blow himself up when captured. If so, Beria did not want to be there when that happened.
The boy Topaz would be a useful tool because he was legally vulnerable. But he was not yet in the conspiracy, and would have to mole his way in from the outside. And maybe there wouldn't be time for that. Given the urgencies of the situation, it was really necessary to tackle one of the people who were already in the conspiracy itself. That had not been Beria's original plan but he had done a rethink
"One of the key guys," said Beria.
His choice being Ibrahim Chess, Sable Tauranga, Lily Peacock or Jack Glinch.
Of these, Ibrahim was out. Ibrahim was definitely an astral, his paranormal ability being to travel, something Beria had discovered because he had succeeded in accessing court records which were theoretically supposed to be sealed, and had discovered that Ibrahim had once used his powers as a traveler to get involved in some truly disgusting criminal activity. As an astral, Ibrahim might also be glorst-capable, and Beria wanted to limit the number of potential capables he was dealing with.
How about one of the women, then?
Lily Peacock was an older woman, and, in Beria's experience, the older they got the tougher they got. Sable, then. Only twenty-two. And from Conflux. A Conflux girl. Easy to bend, easy to break.
Having made that decision, Beria began digging deeper into Sable's background, looking for a lever he could use to manipulate her. If he couldn't find one, that would be no big problem. She was, after all, a girl, presumably equipped with all the standard girl parts, and, in Beria's experience, it didn't take much to get the results you wanted from girls. At a pinch, you could get by with nothing more than a branding iron and something to heat it with.
So soon Beria was looking at Sable's credit card records, and got a real shock. A single tube of lipstick costs that much?! Really? Women are spending that much money indulging themselves in warpaint? No wonder the national economy is going to hell!
While Beria was still engaged in the time-consuming business of plotting the subjugation of Sable Tauranga, fan of accelerated cowbell music and True Soul Wonder Flesh support bras, a quality product brought to you proudly by the Strumpet Girls Female Wonder Company, a subsidiary of Relsh Strasborg Suppositories, the guys from the Practical Squad were on their way to Topaz's place.
On arrival, the guys checked carefully to make sure they were at the right place. Beria had warned them they had better not mess up on this one. Yes, they were at the right place, indubitably. Someone had nailed a name card to the door of the apartment, a door which had been spray painted in orange and pink, a door to which someone had also nailed a headless teddy bear, a pair of green rubber gloves and a pair of girl panties, which were white with a purple frill, and on the name card were scrawled the words "Topaz At", plainly a cut-down version of "Topaz Atatangle".
Having made absolutely sure they were at the right place, the guys smashed down the door. The door would have opened effortlessly if they had tried the door handle, as it was not locked, but trying door handles was not their style. Once inside, they sprayed the guy who was lying on the bed listening to music by headphones, coshed him, injected him, then bundled him into the transportation sack and hustled him out of the building and into the car.
In the movies, the car would have raced back to headquarters at nine tenths of the speed of light, but, Omblock being what Omblock was, the guys ended up getting stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. They got stuck underwater, got stuck in Oviduct, the traffic tunnel connecting the islands of Woosung Shanghai and Conflux, a tunnel which went way deep, under the fishes and under the Torrent Gates.
And, down there, with nothing to look at and with the in-tunnel radio broadcasting out of action for some reason, so they couldn't even listen to the live broadcast from the mud wrestling arena, the guys started to get bored. Patience had not been one of the selection criteria used when the guys were recruited, and a mastery of the art of silent meditation was not a job requirement. The guys decided to amuse themselves by doing a little preliminary interrogation to soften up the prisoner they had snatched. So they took him out of the sack and set to work on him.
This would have been okay if the prisoner had done the smart thing and had confessed that, yes, he was Topaz Atatangle, and, yes, he was a student of astronomy at Nash Olish University, and, yes, he was a defendant in a case involving allegations of extreme cruelty to innocent jellyfish. But the prisoner made the mistake of trying to insist that he was not an astronomy student by the name of Topaz Atatangle but a law student called Winston Peters, and that he had been crashing at Topaz's place because he had let off a bug bomb in his own apartment in an attempt to kill off the cockroaches, in consequence of which his apartment was temporarily a chemical warfare zone.
The guys were so annoyed by the prisoner's recalcitrant insistence on maintaining his lie that they ... well, they did things to him that you wouldn't read about in a standard life guidance manual such as Zen and the Art of Goldfish Breeding or Household Treaty Negotiations.
To cut a long story short -- and, given that the traffic in Oviduct had congealed, it ended up being a very long story indeed -- by the time the guys finally got the prisoner to the Olid Mazoora Building, they had broken him.
Beria Dag got back to his headquarters late in the day. He had been summoned to Tespetty by the President, who had demanded a Joint Security Meeting at Hexagon. So Beria had spent four, count them, four solid hours sitting in the Decision Chamber, the place where talk went round and round in circles without ever arriving at anything even remotely resembling a decision, and he had been sandwiched in between, on his left, Don Trash, who he hated, and, on the right, General Pigski of the Gretna Charbis Guard, the supposedly elite force whose true field of expertise was brewing up bootleg booze in their barracks at Torgeldanfis Bay. General Pigski, who was physically offensive, a waddling puddle of jellyfish blubber who stank of garlic and who kept coughing, his cough guttural with disease, spluttery with phlegm, making Beria alarmed about his own health.
Arriving back at his base at Zanzak Bridge, Beria asked about Topaz and was regretfully informed that, sorry, boss, but the prisoner got accidentally broken. That the prisoner had been fatally injured when a tailgating driver had rammed the capture car from behind, killing the prisoner, who had been in the trunk.
While Beria had a very good idea of what had actually happened, and while he did not believe the cover-up story for a moment, he did not ask to see the damaged car. If he asked to see it, there would be a damaged car waiting for his inspection. These idiots had ended up in the employ of Ideation Control in part because they were unfit for more demanding jobs, such as sweeping the streets or tightening screws on a production line. But they were the world's best when it came to covering up the messes they made.
While Beria did not bother asking to see the damaged car, he did go and take a look at the body. And when he saw it he realized that the guys from the Practical Squad had messed up big time. This was not Topaz Atatangle, whose photograph Beria had retrieved from a web site featuring alumni of Mishlingblog High School. This was a complete and total stranger, not the person they had wanted at all.
One more body so one more secret trip to the nearest incineration complex to organize. In this job, you do this stuff so often that it gets monotonous.
"Okay, guys," said Beria. "Here's the bad news. You've gone and brought me the wrong prisoner. Let's start over. This time, I want the right citizen. I'll show you the photo again, and this time you bring me the right body, still breathing, please, exactly the right person, not Honkface the street person or Harry the transvestite streetwalker. I want this citizen, Topaz Atatangle, and I want him intact. Two arms, two legs, and I don't want anything missing, not like that Lupin woman you brought me, you remember, the broad who arrived here with her ears missing. I want this Topaz and I want him whole, toenails included, in case I want to have a chat with the toenails."
It was traditional to start with the fingernails rather than the toenails, but most people have already imagined that, and Beria preferred to begin with something the prisoner probably had not imagined, something for which the prisoner had not worked out a script.
Ten minutes later, having seen the target's photo yet again, with orders to either burn it into their memories or to shovel their useless brains into an incineration sack, the guys from the Practical Squad got into snatch vehicle number three and headed off into the city, leaving Beria hoping they didn't play car chases on their way to their new destination. Not the apartment, this time, but Topaz's place of work.
Time, of which there is not an unlimited supply, was burning, and when the Practical Squad finally reached Topaz's place, it would be really late, and work would be in full swing, and, on the way back, it would be so late that the traffic should have eased, so if Beria went into his snooze room right now and took not just his standard power nap but, rather, a proper sleep, then he would be ready to blaze brightly into the small hours of the morning when he at last got the face time he was seeking with this Topaz Atatangle.
Viffy Sniff did not like it when he came home late, and he could never get her to understand that he was a very busy man. Which was sad. However, their relationship remained viable, raw physical passion compensating for gaps on the comprehension front.
Beria made his way to the snooze room and was pleased to see that a layer of fresh cauliflowers was waiting for him. When you were head of Ideation Control, in the privacy of the Olid Mazoora Building, the building otherwise known as Scream Box, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted, and one of the things that Beria wanted to do (he didn't know why, but he did) was to sleep on cauliflowers.
Beria was just about to lie down on his cauliflowers when he got what he called a gust. While Beria was a norm rather than an astral, he did, nevertheless, possess a paranormal power, something vanishingly rare amongst norms. Actually, two paranormal powers. One was the rare talent known as potato stamping, the ability to take an image that was in your mind and force it upon the consciousness of another person. Beria's other talent was random trawling, the ability (erratic, spontaneous, not under voluntary control) to put together a partial and sometimes fictionally modified vision of some small fraction of what was or what might be.
The potato stamping power, which was fully under Beria's control, was useful. Very useful. He could give people a quick glimpse of exactly what the starfish tank could do to them without being put to the inconvenience of leaving them in the tank for the three or four weeks it took to get the desired effect. But the random trawling talent? That was virtually useless. As a rule, Beria never knew what he would see or when he would see it. And, when he did see something, he was never able to differentiate fact from fiction.
Still, once he obtained an image through the process of random trawling, he could hold the vision in his mind for as long as he chose to, revolving it at will in three dimensions, and playing the accompanying soundtrack -- usually ten seconds or so -- as many times as he wanted.
While such a vision was never accurate, never a one-for-one reproduction of reality, it almost always contained elements obtained from life. It was a kind of collage, a mosaic which might contain bits and pieces of just about anything, including people's secret dreams, their guilty thoughts, their interpretations of the gossip they had heard, or, on occasion, the truth of what it was that they were doing right now.
When Beria's gust came upon him, what he saw was Ibrahim Chess. He had never yet met this gentleman, but, nevertheless, was starting to get to know him quite well.
Beria contemplated the vision he had fabricated, analyzing it. Ibrahim Chess had a young woman in a cage which was really a little too small for her. Beria, who made use of cages on occasion, knew that immediately. The woman, who was blonde, had been covered with treacle, and licorice allsorts had been glued to her body with Shantangle Stickum, the very same glue that Beria sometimes used to stick people's lips together. Ibrahim kept giving her electric shocks and she kept screaming, one scream for each shock.
Each time a shock jolted into her body she gave a gasping cry.
Beria did not know which part of this vision was true, if any. Usually at least one element would mirror reality, but which one? Maybe that evil astral Ibrahim was the one who had trapped the woman in a cage so he could play with electricity. Or maybe it was someone else who was tormenting her. A boyfriend, maybe. Or perhaps she'd locked herself in the cage and was shocking herself for cheap kicks. In Beria's judgment, you could never tell what might turn people on.
The torture cage was in a room which appealed to Beria's sense of interior design, a room crowded with dead pieces of lifeless things, some crouched grotesquely in big glass bottles of yellowish fluid, others displayed on the walls, and some, such as the collection of shrunken heads, lined up on shelves.
Where was this happening?
It was not the Adventuring Salt Building, which Beria had already seen on Ibrahim's web site. Rather, it was some building made of stone, the walls built of the same conglomerate rock that had been used for the construction of Orkel Pariah, the ancient stronghold of the exorcists of Oolong Morblock.
Was Ibrahim, then, in Orkel Pariah? Beria, who had personally visited Orkel Pariah six months earlier in an unsuccessful attempt to find an exorcist ready to exorcise the half dozen or so spooks and revenants which were lurking in some of the quieter areas of the Olid Mazoora Building, did not think so.
Orkel Pariah was built to a more generous scale, and, what was more, there were curves everywhere, since the basic structure used to put the building together was the arch. Orkel Pariah was, in large measure, a structure of replicating arches.
The building in the vision. the vision which had gusted into Beria's mind, was a blocky building. Somewhere on Zisperhaven, at a guess. Zisperhaven or Chilp. Islands of stone in a world of concrete.
Or maybe the building was the part of the vision that was fake, and Ibrahim was actually at home in the Adventuring Salt Building. Experimentally, Beria picked up his phone, pushed the anonymizer button and dialed Ibrahim's number, which he had memorized. If Ibrahim answered, Beria planned to ask him "What are you doing with that girl?" But all he got was a message tape.
"Never hurts to try," said Beria.
Then let the vision in his mind dissolve, and went back to work.
In the real world, there was no cage. That part of Beria's vision had been fanciful, lacking a basis in reality. There was no cage, and there was no girl, either. But there was electricity, and one of the citizens of Oolong Morblock was being shocked repeatedly with that electricity. Which citizen? Ibrahim Lonicus Chess.
The electric shocks were extremely painful, but there was no escaping them, because Ibrahim was strapped in to the brontosaurus chair, unable to escape. The electrodes snaked over his body, a dozen of them. Pain snakes, biting.
The torturer gave him another jolt.
"Gah!" cried Ibrahim, writhing.
"How are you doing?" said Ibrahim's torturer, who was Manfred Sphere, Ibrahim's newly acquired death counselor.
Ibrahim made no reply.
Manfred was formidable, a big guy, red of skin and hairy. He was sweating in the heat of the day which was drawing to its close, the heat which had built up in his building at 27A Iwi Street, deep in the heart of Mozley Maze. He had stripped to the waist, revealing his torso, which featured a glaring tattoo of a wasp, a gigantic wasp, predominantly orange, its stinger huge, an unmistakable death-dealer. Manfred was a tough guy's tough guy, and he was not in the habit of looking worried. But he was starting to look worried now.
"You all right?" said Manfred.
"No," said Ibrahim. "Not all right. Hurts like hell."
"Shall we give it a break, then?" said his death counselor.
"No," said Ibrahim.
There were many things that Ibrahim was scared of, including sharks, leprosy and meteorites, and the electricity was one of the things which caused him fear. But the pain and fear which the electricity caused him were nothing compared to the mounting terror which the wheel was inflicting upon him.
He could feel the wheel clearly. This was not his dream but the waking world. The wheel had become sticky, glistery with dog spittle and elephant grease, but it was still turning. The wheel was on the edge of fragmentation. It felt chumbly, vibrating with destructive energies. The wheel, in Ibrahim's judgment, was on the very edge of glorsting.
The very first electric shock had stopped the wheel dead in its tracks. It had gone away, and it had not returned for a full ten minutes. Ibrahim was looking for a repetition of that effect. He could not live with the wheel, an escalating menace which was in the process of overwhelming his world. The wheel was his death, his doom, and he had to fight it off. Do whatever it takes. Or he would perish.
"A break, I think," said Manfred.
"No," said Ibrahim. "More. More voltage."
"As you wish," said Manfred.
And turned a wheel, peered closer to consult a dial, then threw a switch. Agony cracked the world open. Ibrahim's body convulsed. Then relaxed, as a rabbit relaxes after its neck has been broken. There was blood on his lip where his teeth had bitten into his living flesh.
And the wheel was gone. Gone! It had gone! Such sweet relief, the wheel gone.
But would it return?
"More," said Ibrahim, dry-throated, only a lifeboat survivor's remnant of a voice left to him. "More."
"I don't know, dude," said Manfred, by now looking more than a shade perturbed. "I don't know. We don't usually go this high."
"More," said Ibrahim, "or my lawyer will eat you for lunch."
"Then screw you and screw your lawyer, too," said Manfred, losing his temper.
If you are a death counselor, then losing your temper with a client is unprofessional, and it was something Manfred had never done before. But, as Ibrahim had divined during their warm-up conversation, Manfred had been having a lot of trouble with lawyers recently, and was stressed to the max as a consequence.
Needled beyond his endurance by Ibrahim's calculated stab, Manfred whirled the wheel upwards and called on the demon Scortelbus to amplify the kick of the punishment.
And threw the switch.
The world scorched itself, and light incinerated into darkness.
Later, with the resurrection of consciousness, the wheel came back.