Topaz had forgotten his brother. That was sad, but the reality is that life moves on, and some people forget more easily than others. Still, if Topaz's memory lapse had become public knowledge, it would have been thought shameful. Unpardonable. Unbelievable, even. How could he possibly have forgotten his brother?
While Topaz had forgotten, others had not. Ibrahim Chess had been thinking of Topaz's brother recently, because the discovery of the wheel, the discovery of his own death, had caused Ibrahim to start thinking about death in general, and about all the people he knew who had died. And about how they died.
But Topaz had forgotten.
Unbelievable? Perhaps. Unpardonable? Certainly. But if human beings were restricted to that which was both pardonable and believable, then that would be the end of newspaper headlines.
Trauma possibly had something to do with it, this act of elision. The shock of his brother's passing had been mind-demolishing. Additionally, nostradaganglia, the tranquilizer he had ended up using for six months, was notorious for the memory blockages it caused. Whatever the reason, suppression had been achieved. But it was potentially reversible.
If Beria Dag had dug a little deeper into the Topaz Atatangle story then he would undoubtedly have discovered, without much difficulty, the newspaper headlines about Ishingate, Topaz's late brother, yet another astral youth who, in a show of legal delinquency, had rejected the name bestowed upon him at birth. But, once Beria believed he had Topaz nailed down -- delinquent student, jellyfish defendant, and what more did you need to know? -- he researched no further. Rather, his thoughts turned to sleep, and the cauliflowers claimed him.
How are astral fanatics created? Beria Dag had never given any thought to that question. Problem people -- and he had various categories of "problem people", including astrals and Gorleth scum and all those perverted fans who mutilate their faces with face paint before they head off to sports arenas -- were like cockroaches. If you had cockroaches, you didn't sit around wondering how or why the Creator of Cockroaches created them. You extirpated them.
As Beria Dag slept on his cauliflowers, dreaming of a conveyor belt that was bottling mewling kittens, no thoughts of cockroach creation came to him. Certainly his dreams did not reveal to him that he had become the Creator of Cockroaches, and that his impact on Topaz Atatangle, feckless jellyfish destroyer, would be to turn him into an astral fanatic, an annihilation enemy, a boy bent on the extirpation of the norms. But that was what Beria was going to do: to create, unwittingly, an astral fanatic.
When the time for divorce draws near, it often happens that both husband and wife realize that their marriage has served as an engine for doing something which they did not plan to do, that being to create the person whom they hate more than any other living human being, the person with whom they are now at war on a take no prisoners basis, the person who is bitterly contending with them over, amongst other things, the question of which of them will walk away with the larger piece of the family cat, Tiddums, who, five years old and still innocent, has no idea what is in store for her, and does not understand why dinner is somewhat delayed.
That was not the plan when first they kissed, but that was what happened.
The boy Topaz, who had not yet met and kissed Beria Dag, had no consciousness of being a potential astral fanatic, just as he had no consciousness of being, potentially, at least, a hitman, a stand-up comedian, a professional wine taster, a flight attendant, the owner-operator of a brothel or the diligent employee of a debt collection company. Though he did have the potential to be any of those. Or even more improbable things. A cop, say. Or, to push right into the world of the truly unbelievable, the world of "this can't be happening to me", a father.
Unaware of the manifold potentials which were latent within him, Topaz worked on into the night.
Though hard at work, Topaz found his thoughts drifting, time and again, in the direction of the jellyfish dynamiting videos. His lawyer didn't know about them. His lawyer, like the prosecutor, thought there had been only one jellyfish-blasting incident. Had no idea that there had been twelve.
Those tapes ... did they have market value? If so, then when would it be safe to hold an auction? Also, when would his publicity be likely to peak? In celebrity terms, how much juice was there in being one of the jellyfish defendants? Was he just at the start of a curve that would take him to fame and fortune, or was his public image destined to burn no brighter than it already did?
Harmlessly occupied by a combination of work and daydreaming, Topaz Atatangle had no idea that the secret police were on their way to arrest him. Completely unaware of the fate that was in store for him, he labored on at Cholesterol Heartbeats, Mao Fats's hamburger establishment at 79 Iguiff Road, in Koala.
The secret police? Topaz had never even remotely imagined becoming an object of the attention of the secret police. He was, after all, an innocent man, as his lawyer kept telling him. Fragmenting a few jellyfish? They're never going to put you in jail for that.
Innocent, yes. A fresh-faced twenty-two, always looking energetic thanks to the visual impact made by his spectacularly bright red hair. Truly innocent. And not just innocent, but clean-shaven, too, because his boss, Mao Fats, had told him he would be fired unless he lost that scraggly chin fungus of his, and lost it permanently.
In objective analysis, Topaz was (in comparative terms, when he was compared with some of his friends, like Vodka Sam and Neps the Dealer) an upright, clean-living young man with, leaving aside the occasional bit of high-spirited fun with dynamite, no bad habits apart from a licorice addiction and a tendency to be late returning library books. He had led a more or less blameless life, the last six months of which had been (if jellyfish are not sacred to your religion) entirely free from sin, if exception be made for a certain incident involving a large plate glass window and a beer bottle. Oh, and having sex with an underage girl, too, an offence which was technically punishable by twenty years in jail.
The underage girl was Topaz's girlfriend, Rebecca Zakaresh, who, like him, was only twenty-two. In Oolong Morblock, the age of consent for unmarried people was age twenty for a boy and age twenty-four for a girl.
If you got married, then things were different. For people entering into the sacred state of matrimony, the age of consent was sixteen for a boy and twelve for a girl. That was for heterosexual liaisons. For marriages between male homosexuals, the age of consent was eighteen. Lesbians? The law did not acknowledge any such thing as girl-girl marriage.
The precise rationale for this mishmash of different ages was nowhere stated in the relevant legislation, but obviously there must have been a logical reason for it. Somewhere. To think otherwise would be to think that the state's sex laws were arbitrary, which would be insulting to the sacred dignity of the law.
The law must be obeyed.
This is one of the fundamental requirements for the survival of civilization, and it was very wrong for Topaz (not once but repeatedly) to have gotten as drunk as a garbage rat and to have gotten as naked as a needle with his girlfriend, and then to have gone a good deal further than just kissing her fingernails.
True, the Topaz-Rebecca liaison was at least partially legal, in that they had been through the mandatory counseling course required to get a boyfriend-girlfriend license, meaning that they were legal not just for hand-holding but for ear nibbling, mutual nose stroking and tongue-to-tongue kissing. But that did not license their indulgence in the certain of the practices outlawed by the Unified Code of Sexual Conduct, the precise practices concerned being those covered by clause five, clause twenty-five, clause ninety-two, and clause seven hundred and sixty of the Code.
Topaz, as the man, was the party who would get hammered the hardest by the law if the Topaz-Rebecca relationship ever came to the attention of the courts. But Rebecca could get a criminal conviction for the offence of unlawful compliance. And, additionally, if all the details came out, she could be convicted of a criminal environmental outrage because of her habit of flushing her used vaginal condoms down the toilet. (Something the Omblock Sewage Corporation explicitly begs its customers not to do.)
Although Topaz was a sex criminal, and although Rebecca was, legally, a criminal delinquent because she let him get away with his outrages against chastity, neither of these two young people, unfortunately, saw anything wrong with their bedroom behavior.
In Rebecca's case, the one issue concerning their relationship which had exercised her mind recently was the question of how all that chewing gum had gotten into her hair on the night of the Happy Cheerhop beer bash. How? Good question. Topaz certainly had no answer. He didn't remember much about that night at all. He kept trying to tell Rebecca that the chewing gum was the chewing gum of love, but she had shown no inclination to believe that story, and she was still sore about it, even though the incident was six weeks in the past.
Untroubled by his sex criminal history, and completely unaware of the danger which was approaching, then, Topaz was at work flipping burgers, serving up hamburgers, bacon burgers, cheese burgers, grease pods, wet budgerigars and tango munchers.
As he worked, his mind drifted, and he began sorting through the disconents of his life. While studying at Nash Olish University, Topaz had earned a bachelor's degree in marriage dynamics. This year, he had hoped to have been working on his thesis for his master's degree. But, much to his surprise, his proposal to do a thesis on wife swapping had been rejected.
Professor Norleen Grace, a very dominant woman, had attempted to force Topaz to get to work on one of her pet subjects, the issue of how different attitudes toward interior decorating influence the relationships between men and women. But Topaz, who had never really paused to notice the fact that interiors are decorated, had adamantly refused to do any such thing.
Still keen to pursue his original idea, Topaz had tried to beg funding from a leading condom manufacturer, meaning to work on the research topic outside the academy, but he had been rebuffed there, too. Or, more exactly, had been met by silence: he was not significant enough to rebuff. When you're not worth even enough for the kick of a rejection, that's a real slap in the face.
In disgust, Topaz had entered the ballot for a place on a course in astronomy, which was popular because it came with philanthropic funding. And he had won. It meant starting over again, and it also meant that he had to brush up his math, but the good part was that he would still be able to keep his student ID card and all the beer hall concessions that went with it.
His tuition costs were fully funded and winning a place on the astronomy course allowed him to thumb his nose at Professor Norleen Grace.
Reality changed abruptly for the daydreaming beer hall fan when a car pulled up and parked illegally. It was a black car with shimmering windows which looked green. Four guys got out, all wearing dark suits, and moved purposefully in Topaz's direction. Something wrong here. Not for the first time in his life, Topaz wished he had a shotgun under the counter.
"Ideation Control," said Benji Wing, leader of the Practical Squad, flashing a badge.
This was a no-no. If you were the secret police, you weren't supposed to declare yourself. But Benji liked the dramatic effect you could achieve if you did. Unfortunately, he didn't get the reaction he wanted from Topaz. Topaz interpreted the badge, briefly seen, as a flash of bright metal, a weapon, maybe, and Benji's words were masked by a motorbike going past. Still, Topaz was conscious that something anomalous was happening.
"You guys ordering?" said Topaz, anxiously.
"No," said Benji.
And sprayed him.
Five minutes after Topaz had been abducted, the burger patties he had been cooking for that big Ortorgelman phone-in order started to smoke. But Topaz, ignorant of this development, had other things to worry about.
After a long and uncomfortable journey, Topaz was poured out of his sack in an underground carpark, a big one, the distinctive feature of which was that three battle tanks were parked in Topaz's view. He had seen plenty of underground carparks in his life, but never one that featured battle tanks.
Someone slapped him, someone spat in his face, then someone said, "Hey, hold up, remember what the boss said!" And then a door was closing on him and he was in an incarceration unit, and it was moving, an elevator, that's what it was, hurtling upwards, his stomach rising, and he was slammed through doorways, bars of fluorescent light bent over him, and someone stabbed him, again, how many times had they stabbed him? Needles, hate needles. Then he was seated at a desk and someone was telling him his coffee was going cold and demanding to know why he hadn't drunk it.
"Drink it," said the man seated opposite him.
Obediently, Topaz picked up the drink but spilt it, coffee going all over the desk. His hand jerked convulsively and the cup flew out of his fingers. It dropped, smashed. Nobody said anything. Wherever he was, it was somewhere outside the etiquette zone, and fractured coffee cups quite simply didn't count for anything.
Topaz momentarily thought of asking for another cup of coffee, then abandoned the idea. This did not look like the kind of place where it would be a smart idea to start asking questions, innocent or otherwise. You might start something which you would thereafter be unable to stop. Topaz had no idea where this experience was going, but of one thing he was sure: he had no wish to get there any faster than he absolutely had to.
"Look at me, boy."
Topaz looked directly at the man who was seated across from him. A man who projected an aura of ruthless executive efficiency. The slabs of his cheeks were close shaven yet suggestive of prickly blackness, assertive masculinity. His necktie was frivolous, laughing dragons on a background of flowers, but this did not look like the kind of man who valued either cheap giggles or flowers.
Behind the man was a wall lined with cardboard egg cartons, an improvised form of soundproofing, the same as they had in the studio at Radio Q, the student radio station where Topaz sometimes hung out. A soundproof room. Bad sign. It was all too easy to start thinking of that horror comic series, Stories from the Soundproof Room.
The man was seated behind a stainless steel desk, very practical. Strong, hard-wearing, easy to clean. The desk was bare but for three items, set beyond the puddled remnants of Topaz's spilt coffee. One was an apple, red, shiny, waiting there for what terrifying purpose Topaz could not even begin to guess. It was an obscene apple, hard, potent, swollen with purpose. The second item was a picture of a pig, a very large pig with prominent dugs clear in the photograph, a very happy pig, a pig which, plainly, had not yet seen the dictionary definition of bacon. Someone had stuck a little pink love heart to the glass which protected the photo of the pig. The third thing on the desk was a paper knife. Silver. Very shiny. Very clean. This room did not look like the kind of place where much use was made of paper, and, when Topaz saw the paper knife, his estimate of his survival chances went way down.
"Do you know why you're here?" said the man.
"No," said Topaz.
"Well, do you know who I am?"
"No idea," said Topaz.
"I," said the man, "am Beria Dag."
Obviously the name was meant to mean something, and for many people it would have signified. But Topaz generally paid little attention to what was going on in the world. He would have failed to recognize the names of the Governor of the Reserve Bank, of the CEO of Conflux Consolidated and of the chairman of Central Resource Management. And, similarly, he drew a blank with the name Beria Dag.
"Okay," said Topaz.
"You really don't know who I am, do you?" said Beria.
"Uh ... are you from the Star Chamber?" said Topaz.
While Beria did not come across as a man with a sense of humor, he did have one, and Topaz had tickled it. Beria laughed, heartily, happy as a cannibal who has just pried the plum of the pituitary gland from the core of the brain.
"The Star Chamber?" said Beria. "No, boy. No place so innocent."
No place so innocent. Bad news. Topaz's lawyer, the public defender Bella Okada, had told him that the Star Chamber was the most dangerous thing in the city state of Oolong Morblock. That it was a hideous death machine that Olive Valise had found down in one of the unvisited basements of history. And that, by finding it, and by setting it in motion, Olive Valise had begun the process of transforming herself into the dark lord.
"I'd like to make a phone call to my lawyer, please," said Topaz.
Of the many telephone numbers which Topaz had occasion to use, he had memorized just three. The phone number for Maggot Pizzas, home of the red chili caterpillar pizza. His girlfriend's phone number. And his lawyer's. Put a phone in his hand and he'd be ready to go.
But Beria laughed again. Then leaned forward, reached out and took Topaz's flinching forearm in his hand. Beria's fingernails were a little long and Topaz felt their sharpness. Predatory fingers. Beria was possessed of desire, and his desire was that of a vulture, a raptor, a flesh-killer. An eater of bones and an eater of everything to be found upon bones.
Releasing Topaz, Beria sat back in his chair and worked his shoulders, releasing tension. He was a man who spent too much of his life sitting in chairs and not enough of it working out at the boxing gym.
"Ibrahim Chess is your godfather."
"Yes," said Topaz, guardedly.
"What kind of man is he?" said Beria.
It had to be a trick question. Topaz was not sure exactly where he was, but he was definitely not in the carnival hall at Big Fun. Everything was booby trapped, and the booby traps were lethal.
A trick question. This was a house of trick questions. But he had to answer it.
"He's pathetic," said Topaz, going with the truth, reluctantly, because he couldn't figure out what kind of lie it would be expedient to tell. "He's got this, this, uh, dream -- get him on the rum, you'll hear about this dream of his. But all it is, it's these boring old boats, it's kind of a, a business, that's what it's supposed to be, but it's not. It doesn't make money. It's eaten all his money, and he can't face facts, ought to go back to killing bugs, only he sold that business to his brother. No money to start over. My godfather, he's the guy who roadwrecked his life. A businessman, like, but his business doesn't work."
"It doesn't work," said Beria, "because it's not a proper business. It's a front for a terrorist organization."
Ordinarily, this would have been unbelievable. But, if you have been mugged into a sack and transported to a building which has battle tanks in the carpark, then your powers of disbelief take a real kick in the teeth. So Topaz, yielding to the assault of the information which had been forced upon him, believed. And was flabbergasted. Yes, Topaz was flabbergasted, just as the jellyfish had been when he had dynamited them. In practical terms, his response to Beria's revelation was exactly the same as that of the mouse after the mousetrap slammed home on it: nothing.
"Your godfather, Ibrahim Chess," said Beria, "is implicated in a terrorist plot to overthrow the rule of law in Omblock."
The response which automatically formulated itself in Topaz's head was "Cool!" But, face to face with Beria, he found his Older Generation alarm racketing away at full force, and so had the sense not to express his true feelings. Still! Ibrahim? A terrorist? Way cool!
"You're not as frightened as you should be, are you?" said Beria quietly.
The words had the desired effect. They got Topaz's total attention as he focused on Beria, wondering fearfully what was coming next. Acid? Baseball bats? A pair of scissors?
Answer: none of the above. Instead, information.
Taking his time about it, repeating himself on occasion in an effort to be clear, Beria methodically laid it on the line for Topaz. The facts. Ibrahim was the mastermind behind an astral plot involving the late Egon Turow, the Parkes Pilkem decoy guy, a journalist by the name of Sable Tauranga and a couple of consultants and Ibrahim himself.
When Beria had finished, he paused. Was Topaz supposed to say something? Maybe. He was out of his depth. This was like the time when he had got to the examination room, late, had scribbled his ID details on one of the waiting papers, and had found himself plunging into a world of incomprehension. He'd accidentally walked into the wrong room and was facing the bafflements of the exam paper for the Introductory Gynecology elective that everyone joked about but which almost nobody signed up for.
"Uh," said Topaz. "Um ... how do you fit into this? You're Ibrahim's boss?"
"No, idiot," said Beria. "I am the government, or as near to being the government as makes no difference."
That was the answer Topaz had been afraid of. If you were in the hands of a shadowy terrorist organization, you might have a sporting chance of survival. But if the government had reached out for you ... well, that's something that only happens to other people. Isn't it?
"Uh, me ... I cook burgers," said Topaz, trying to excuse himself from Beria's reality.
"That's what Om Druze was doing when he was scouted for that first movie of his, War of Bloodlines," said Beria. "You see that movie? No? Before your time, I guess. You follow what I'm saying, I hope. You, Jellyfish Boy, have been plucked out of your grease burger world, just like Om Druze. Your mission, Jellyfish Boy -- which you have no choice but to accept -- is to help me to sort out this astral threat and deal to it, big time."
Then Beria explained to Topaz why he must do what he was told. Topaz had done wrong. The indictments could be drawn up easily. Theft, improper use of explosives, terrorism. Criminal conspiracy. No need to break bones in dark corners, not on this one, no. Beria could hammer Topaz into a prison cell for most of the rest of his life, and could do so legally, through the mechanism of the court.
Listening, Topaz realized that what he was hearing was not exactly new news. Yeah, his lawyer had laid it out for him. Keep a low profile and don't do anything else bad, because all these charges are waiting in the wings, just waiting for someone with initiative to lead them out on stage to do their act. Well, now he was in the presence of Mr. Initiative himself, a man who knew how to make his initiatives sit up and sing.
A scene flashed into Topaz's mind: the famous xylophone scene from the movie House of Gouged Eyes, the scene in which you realize that the white stuff in the flour sack is starting to turn red, and you finally know why Jackal Man is laughing. It was that kind of scene: everything is suddenly two levels more catastrophic than you thought it was.
Beria explained Topaz's legal vulnerability to him in painful detail, making it clear that there was no way out, no escape. Topaz was in a jam.
"You, boy," said Beria, "have entered the world of consequences. Let me give you a hint as to what that means."
A threat. Something was about to happen. But what?
Since being brought to the soundproof room, Topaz had begun to imagine many things. Multiple horror movies had background him. Yes, and that interrogation game, the one he used to have on his laptop before it got stolen -- what was the name of it? Autopsy Room, that was the one.
In anticipation of his own destruction, partial or total, Topaz had begun to develop scripts for the things which might be going to happen to him here in the soundproof room. But he entirely failed to predict the two things which were to happen next. They took him by surprise and found him unprepared, internal resistance at zero.
First, Beria stood, leaned across the desk, grabbed Topaz by the hair, wrenched him onto the top of the tea-splattered stainless steel desk, twisted him so he was face up, then inflicted upon him a kiss, a full-scale kiss, lips to lips, tongue to tongue, saliva to saliva. Then threw him backwards.
Topaz squawked back into his chair, shuddering. Something clattered, and he had the terrifying notion that maybe the pig photo had spilt off the desk, had broken, the pig photo was precious, plainly, guy wouldn't be happy if his pig photo got broke. But, no, whatever had clattered, it was not the pig photo, which was still on the desk.
Topaz waited for the next move.
And Beria ...
Beria picked up the apple that was sitting on his desk. Topaz flinched, tensed, remembering what happened to those little kids after the apple showed up in that movie, Happy Clown Faces. And Beria, with those huge teeth of his, bit into the apple, bit deep, bit ruthlessly, and severed. And tore loose what he had severed. And chewed. Beria made Topaz watch as he ate the apple, as he ate the whole thing, pips and all.
There are many ways of breaking a person's will to resist, and some of these methods take weeks, and require a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. But sometimes, as Beria knew, it can be as simple as eating an apple.
"Your instructions, Jellyfish Boy," said Beria. "You will go to your godfather and you will penetrate this terrorist conspiracy of his. You will find out all the details. Names, passwords, telephone numbers. When I am ready, I will give you a phone call, and I will expect you to be genned up and ready to report. Understand?"
"Understand," said Topaz.
"Good," said Beria.
And pulled out a gun. A handgun with a bulbous barrel, a gun of black metal which sprouted into a curious orange protruberance. Beria pointed the gun at Topaz and pulled the trigger. Heat flowered. Blood suffered summer. The desk, the room, the man with the slab-sided jowls, all became blurred and liquid. Then gray. Then black, as Topaz lost consciousness.
When Topaz recovered consciousness, he found himself out in the big wide world of night, lying on gritty gravel under a flyover somewhere. Alone. No sign of Nubbles the fist, his familiar, which he hadn't seen for a couple of weeks now. Nubbles, who, when present, was usually under Topaz's control, could have been useful when the guys in the dark suits came to kidnap Topaz. But that's the thing about having a familiar. You never know when it's going to be standing by for service and when it's going to be off on the lam.
On the underside of the flyover, which he was staring up at, illuminated white words were writing themselves -- a graffito in action. Which made him realize he hadn't seen one for days. Omblock had been going through one of its occasional graffiti lulls.
A graffito, writing itself. Striggle, striggle, on the wall, what is the meaning of it all? Topaz tried to focus on the message up above, but the words were blurred and incomprehensible. Something wrong with his eyes. Still, he could see well enough to make out that he was in a street person colony -- squattersville, one of Omblock's makeshift cardboard box housing estates. Everyone asleep, because it was either late, late night or very early in the morning.
"Where the hell am I?" said Topaz.
He had no idea. Wake up one of his snoring fellow citizens? Probably not a good move.
Down the road, there were bright sodium lights, glaring security illumination. Wandering in that direction, Topaz found himself confronted by something he recognized. He was at one of Omblock's incineration complexes. Not Olkrash, he'd been there. And not that one in the east of Woosung Shanghai, the name of which he couldn't remember. He'd been there too.
Maybe he'd lost track of how many incineration complexes there were, but he didn't think so. Unless he was badly mistaken, this must be Xgadriver. The third of the three.
And why had he been parked here?
Well, that was an easy question, right near the start of the intelligence test. He had been parked here as a warning. This time, you get almost as far as the gates of the incineration complex. Next time, you might find yourself going much, much further.
"God," said Topaz.
And wondered what he was going to do now, stuck out by Xgadriver, that was on Conflux, a long way home, no money, wallet gone, no wristwatch either, and Rebecca would kill him if he made a collect call from a phone box, but what was the alternative? Hitchhike?
Topaz walked right up to the security fence, hoping to find a guardhouse where he might get either advice or the use of a telephone, but what he found was an automated barrier of huge, confrontational dungeon gates, no human being to beg from and no rational way to get past those gates.
Topaz turned and set off in the direction that he guessed was west, hoping to find an arterial road on which he could hitchhike, or a call box from which he could phone someone, or, maybe, a subway station, where he could jump the turnstile and so bootleg his way home, smuggling his criminal corpse through the subway system to liberty.
As Topaz trudged through the streets, he kept revolving the Ibrahim thing in his mind. Godfather Ibrahim, a terrorist mastermind? The guy behind the Egon glorst? This was revelational. Ibrahim, maybe, was the man who could explain to him the place with the battle tanks, who could tell him where he could find the paper knife man and his building, so he could make good use of all that dynamite he still had buried in the Swampwader Sanctuary Park near Big Fun, out on Irian Ko. Find out all about paper knife man, yeah. And take him down.
The shock of Topaz's ordeal was starting to wear off and he was beginning to take stock. He realized he had entered a new world, a world in which astrals were organized, in which astrals were powerful. Up until this point, he had thought of the glorsting Egon Turow, the media star of the moment, as a disorganized crazy, a pathetic sap who had wasted himself in blunder mode.
But, no, no, it was not like that at all. Egon's death was part of a plot, part of a plan. The astrals had a scheme, a conspiracy, a movement, and he, Topaz, he was going to be part of it. He was an astral in need, and the movement was going to help him fight back.
Topaz remembered his father talking about the time the organized crime figures came calling for protection money. The police couldn't help, so dad took steps. Went to the exorcist guy, Danzburg, that's the one, Danzburg Tosterburger. Did a deal. And Danzburg took those crime guys down, took them right off the map. How did he do it? Better not to ask. Better not to know. Key point was, dad fought back. And won.
This was a part of the Topaz Atatangle story which was unknown to Beria Dag: the heroism of the father, the strength of the family mythos, the hero father role model, the all-compelling example set for the son by dad.
Looking at the son's life, you would find no trace of the influence of that example, since Topaz's life, to date, had involved nothing much more challenging than flipping burgers.
But now, unexpectedly, Topaz Atatangle found himself being put to the test, and he found, to his surprise, that he was ready for this war.
"Dad fought back," said Topaz.
Well, that's what he would do. He would get the help of this organization he had been tasked to infiltrate. How? Don't worry, he'd figure it out. Once he had the organization behind him, he would seek face time with the paper knife guy. He would work it somehow so the terrorist organization was behind him when he was teaching that face a different configuration. They would take down this paper knife guy -- what was his name? Had he introduced himself? Didn't give out business cards, certainly. Anyway, that guy, the guy with the apple, the paper knife and the pig photo, they'd take him down but good, and he'd never get up again.
"Astral power," said Topaz.
It was a whisper. Then, finding his voice, he shouted, yelling defiance to the empty streets:
"Glorst for glory!"
A great thing to say. He was not going to glorst, was not himself a capable. But he was in a world in which capables existed. And they were on his side and he was on theirs. United by the conspiracy which had been masterminded into existence to fight against the oppression of the norms and the dominance of the state.
Having shouted his defiance to the world, Topaz was feeling strong and coherent. He did not have a grip on the depth of his own shock. If he had not been so profoundly shaken by his kidnapping and interrogation, then he would have been embarrassed about how ridiculous he must look, traipsing down the street still in his cooking whites, still wearing those clunky gum-soled safety shoes mandated by OSH. He wasn't aware that he was still wearing his tea-stained Hippy the Hungry Cockroach apron. One more index of his state of shock: Topaz had not yet started thinking about his brother, the late Ishingate. He would, in time. But not yet.
At last, Topaz found a phone box, complete with a set of telephone books, all five of them. It was outside Soapy Coin, a coin laundry which never closed. At this hour, the coin laundry stood empty, the washing machines and dryers silent in the neon light. Someone had left a purple plastic bag sitting on one of the brown plastic waiting chairs. Food? No. Jigsaw puzzles for kids with labels saying they had been borrowed from the Thomas Fagin Memorial Library.
No food. It was not breakfast time yet. It was phone call time. Time to make his collect call. To Rebecca? No, she really would kill him. His lawyer? Well, the number he had for his attorney was just her business number. What about his own apartment? Winston might still be there, might not have gone back to his own place. A long shot, but worth a try. Only he didn't know his own number. The phone was in Pitsy's name, it had never been changed after Topaz took over the apartment, and Topaz couldn't remember Pitsy's surname.
"Godfather Ibrahim!" said Topaz, at last, seeing the obvious.
Ibrahim would be as angry as hell to be woken up but it would be a starting point -- a way for Topaz to get started on the business of penetrating this astral conspiracy which he was going to join, take over, and use as a weapon to kill, waste, eliminate, terminate and liquidate that thug who had zapped him into unconsciousness with that weird death ray gun of his.
In one of the phone books, Topaz found the page with the number for Marine Charters. But there was something still wrong with his eyes, they hadn't quite come right yet, and the number blurred into incomprehensibility. Losing patience, Topaz ripped out the page and took it inside the coin laundry, where the brightness of the fluorescents helped sharpen his vision enough for him to get the number. Then he went back to the phone and dialed the operator. It was exciting, kind of. It wasn't just a phone call. It was his first step toward joining the astral conspiracy.
Talking to the operator, Topaz realized he had already forgotten the Marine Charters number. No problem. The operator inputted "Marine Charters" and the number came up on her computer screen. Sometimes things are simpler than you think.
The operator tried to get Ibrahim to come on the line so she could ask him if he was prepared to pick up the charges, but an answer phone took the call. Would the operator let him speak to the answer phone? Maybe.
That was when a convoy of huge garbage trucks started to rumble past, truck after truck, so many that it was easy to lose count, and there were more still coming when you had lost count, all heading for Xgadriver, the noise of their passage making Topaz plug his one free ear with a finger to try to hear what the answer tape was saying.
Damn! He had lost the connection. Had the operator disconnect him? No way to tell.
The eastward migration of the trucks was still underway, and the massiveness of the rolling steel trundling by commanded his attention, forcing him to become conscious of the hugeness of the world, the iron of it, the furnaces of it, the endless replications of its streets, railway lines, utility poles and coin laundries.
And the vision, momentarily, overwhelmed him.
"Dad fought back," said Topaz, stubbornly.
It was becoming a motto to live by.
Giving up on the phone call, Topaz resumed his march to the west, while the army of trucks rolled on remorselessly toward the all-consuming fire maws waiting in the east, a small foretaste of the ultimate incineration which awaits in the future, which awaits at the end of the world.