Evening was darkening to night, so Sable Tauranga would surely have recovered consciousness by now. Perhaps she was already launched on the mission which she had no option but to carry out, her mission being to collect a bio sample from Ibrahim Chess, and, later, if Ibrahim made the mistake of thinking that Beria was bluffing, to accuse Ibrahim in court.
Sable, in Beria's opinion -- and he was the man with the experience, a man entitled to his opinion -- would do as she had been told. Unless she stopped by at one of those waterfront bars and had a few drinks too many while she was working up her courage for the next step. She was, it had to be remembered, a Conflux girl, and we all know how it is with those Conflux girls and alcohol. You also had to remember that she was a blonde, and, regardless of what the scientists might have to say on the subject, the indubitable reality is that certain genes demonstrate damage.
"Best to check," said Beria to himself.
He tried to put a call through to Sable's cellphone, but it was switched off or out of range. Well. He was pretty certain that she would do what she had been told to do. And, if she did not, then he would destroy her. In Room Deep Serpent she would suffer her destruction, death the certain outcome inside of a week, and Beria would use the resulting video as a training aid to help make sure that the next woman did not make the same mistake.
Beria's next move was to phone Sergeant Waikato at Hemlock Twelve, to make sure there were no unexpected problems there. All was well. Sergeant Waikato, as previously agreed, had arranged to be on duty until twelve noon tomorrow. A long and brutal shift, but Waikato was a brutal man who had no problems with brutal shifts. Waikato would be running the front desk at Hemlock Twelve so there was no chance of him being sent out to attend to burglar alarms. When Sable showed up, Waikato would be ready.
It would be easy enough for Sable to get from Taris to Waikato's police station at Ming Taxis. Take the ferry from Taris to Styx Lethanus, then it was one stop on the subway to Hoover, a change of trains and one stop more to Ming Taxis, and Hemlock Twelve was marked on the maps displayed at Ming Taxis Station.
"Time to go home," said Beria.
Home was apartment A9716 at Incineration Towers, 9716 being the Number of the Corrupt Octopus in the Hostoch numerology system.
Incineration Towers was very near the Xgadriver incineration complex, near where they had dumped Topaz Atatangle. To get there from Scream Box, you could exit the Olid Mazoora Building and take the subway from Zanzak Bridge to Bencoolen Station, out by Manbrock Airport. And then, if you were feeling energetic, you could walk from Bencoolen to Xgadriver, a distance of roughly thirteen kilometers or so, a walk which could be done in a little over two hours, if you kept a steady pace.
Beria's doctor had recently given him two pieces of stern advice. One was to eat more broccoli and the other was to go for a long walk once a day. But Beria had privately rejected both pieces of advice. Broccoli, he hated that stuff. Life is too short to squander part of it on the eating of broccoli. As for walking ... well, as a member of the city's inner elite, Beria had access to the secret figures which told you exactly how bad the air pollution was, figures to which his doctor probably did not have access. Walking increased the flow of air to your lungs, and the health benefits of breathing Omblock's air were negative in the extreme.
You had to breathe some air, of course. By means of various experiments involving glue, sticky tape and very large blocks of lime-green gelatine, Beria had confirmed (not once, but repeatedly) the validity of the scientific theory which contends that if you get no air at all then you die. (That's one of the nice things about scientific theories. You can often confirm them by making simple experiments.)
Being averse to walking, Beria indulged himself at the expense of Omblock's long-suffering taxpayers, and took a taxi all the way from Scream Box to the front of the main portal of Tower A, tallest of the Incineration Towers trinity.
Beria had bought his east-facing apartment in Tower A because it had a great view. It overlooked the Xgadriver incineration complex and, when the wind was from the east, Beria sometimes imagined he could hear people screaming in the furnace fires, could hear their bones cracking as they were devoured by the eager flames of hot-burning natural gas.
Beyond Xgadriver, you could see the turbulent waters of Gaforglox, Gaforglox being the name given to that portion of the worldsea immediately east of the island of Conflux. There, the waters of the Northern Ocean and the Southern Ocean mixed. And sometimes, at night, the ghosts of krakens rose from the depths of those waters, huge, prodigious, shimmering with fiery luminescence, alien and inimical, signaling the existence of a world both wider and wilder than anything in the city's imagination.
Beria, a man whose life was devoted to ensuring discipline in a world of cages, loved the liberty of views, of open vistas. And relished the power of the incineration maws and the violence of the chumbly waters of Gaforglox. On certain nights he would go right up to the helipad on the top of Tower A and gaze out into the infinities, indulging himself in flights of mystical extravagance which neither his victims nor his colleagues even remotely suspected.
The tragedy of Beria's life, a tragedy of which he was unaware, and which he had, therefore, failed to articulate to himself, was that he had been born in the wrong time and the wrong place. In a wilder, more primitive world, he would have evolved into what he should have been, a shaman, a keeper of the noseless mysteries, a conduit between the living and the dead, an explicator of both the book of life and the book of death. He would have been honored, venerated, hallowed.
Instead, Beria's potential had been thwarted by the limits of what was, for the most part, a world of cockroach-sized horizons, and his possibilities had been perverted into the strictures of what he was: torturer, executioner, bullyboy, thug.
Still, though the shamanistic raptures which were his birthright were never to be his, life still had its acknowledged consolations, the greatest of which was love.
Another of Beria's secrets which went largely unsuspected by the society in which he lived was that Beria was a man of love. Yes. Beria Dag, the state's enforcer, the government's conspicuously invisible man, was one of the world's great romantic lovers, his private moments often the purest rapture of romance novels made flesh.
Love was already on Beria's mind as he arrived home. As he came in through the main portal of Tower A, heading for yet another encounter with his romantic destiny, he saw the concierge, Stradivarius Dag, no relation, locking the doors of the Thomas Fagin Memorial Library, a lending library which served the Xgadriver neighborhood. Beria said a neighborly good evening -- outside of Scream Box, he felt free to show the genial, courteous side of his nature -- and headed for the elevator.
He was already entering relaxation mode. Work was over, and he was ready for the evening. Yes, Beria Dag was ready for love.
Beria Dag was a man who was grievously misunderstood by most of the people with whom he came in contact. He typically came across as being cold, brutal, devoid of human feelings and inimical to sentiment. True, he was often engaged in professional behavior which tended to support this image, such as using powerful machines to pull people's legs off.
However, what was at the core of Beria's life was his secret romance novel existence. It was both a passion and a tragedy. A tragedy in that he would never be able to do what he dearly longed to, which was to marry his paramour. The law made no provision for the marriage he had in mind. Also, Beria had to accept that his lover was not socially acceptable to the narrow-minded denizens of the city state of Oolong Morblock, and never would be. Oolong Morblock was a city of suffocating prejudice where people tended to pass judgment in accordance with unfair stereotypes, blind to an individual's true worth.
"I am a lover," said Beria, wondering as the fragile ecstasy of it, of being a lover and being in love.
Okay, lust came into it. He was a guy, a very conventional guy in many respects, and the physical act was central to his concept of love. Even so, he remained a romantic, and his relationship was enriched by sentimental love hearts and heartfelt kisses. After the violence of completion, after the satisfaction of his gross and brutal urgencies, tenderness always returned, and it was the tenderness, rather than the brutality, which dominated.
And so it was that Beria Dag, one of the world's great romantic lovers, the star of his own private romance opera, came home to his inamorata, his darling, his true love, his beloved Viffy Sniff. Who was a pig. No, not a large greedy woman who eats far too many chocolate-covered marshmallow biscuits. A pig. A female pig. A sow. A member of the species porcus grotosquatus. A member of the porcine race who greeted Beria enthusiastically, knowing that two things were coming. First, turnips. Second, the wrestling ecstasies of yet another one of their amatory encounters. (Don't like the idea? Don't knock if you've never tried it.)
Much, much later, when Beria was porked out, satiated, his lust having lapsed from banana to yoghurt, and when Viffy Sniff had comfortably snuffled off to sleep -- that's one of the great things about pigs, they're so adorable when they're sleeping -- Beria found restless thoughts of work stirring to life in his mind.
He tried not to bring his work home with him, tried to find a balance in his life, but this was crisis time. He was up against the astral mastermind, Ibrahim Chess, who was using the inherent fanaticism of the Jaznarian religion, coupled with the sex services of seductive blonde Conflux girls, to manipulate susceptible capables into blowing themselves up in suicide bomber mode. Ibrahim Chess was a dark lord in the making, a mayhem master who had the potential to overthrow the nation state and bring about apocalypse.
God knows what would happen if Beria was unable to stop Ibrahim in time. Ibrahim was the kind of organized fanatic who was potentially capable of anything, even, maybe, of getting his hands on some Argive nukes and nuking Tespetty. A million dead, that could be the consequences if Ibrahim was not stopped in time.
"Let the blonde do her stuff," said Beria. "And, if that doesn't work, haul him in and play rougher."
Economy of effort, that was what you had to keep in mind. Limited resources, limited time: you had to make efficient use of what you had. Plus, you had to be careful when you were up against a mastermind like Ibrahim. He might be able to glorst. And, even if he couldn't, he probably had access to a cyanide tablet. Tackle him the wrong way, and you could all too easy lose him.
You couldn't just shoot him in the head, no, do that and you'd lose track of the conspiracy, and you'd never know whether the conspirators had or had not been able to track down Nuclear Bob, the rogue Argive weapons technician who, three years back, had deserted from the Relsh Strasborg military, and who was believed to be hiding out somewhere amidst Omblock's population of twenty millions, still possessed of the self-destruct codes for those nukes (nine of them) which the Argives had (very secretly) admitted had gone missing, and still possessed of the knowhow needed to activate those nukes.
To how many circles of Hell had Ibrahim's conspiracy expanded? Beria needed to know that. And, to discover the data he was after, he had to subordinate Ibrahim to his will. Get at the man through his pride, that was the way to go. Submit, Ibrahim, or go down in history as an obscene defiler of hapless blondes, as a human hippopotamus, pervert of perverts, an outcast creature of disgust.
Beria tried Sable's cellphone again, but it was still switched off or out of range.
With nothing more constructive to do, and with sleep signaling that tonight it was in a mood to play stranger, Beria settled down to the task of reading his way into the mind of Ibrahim Chess. He had obtained a list of all the library books which Ibrahim had borrowed in the previous twelve months, and had obtained copies of some of those books.
The book that Beria chose to start with, following in Ibrahim's intellectual footprints, was War and the Art of Machinegun Maintenance, an inspirational book for people running small businesses. It had been written by Wittgenstein, a guy who had been a professional machinegunner during a five-year war featuring brutal trench warfare. It was all about survival against the odds, financial and otherwise, and was subtitled Toughing it out in a Business Downturn.
The book bore the imprimatur of Helpself Omblock, an organization devoted to the dissemination of "self-help, self-actualization and ego calisthenics". It was adorned with a Holistic Cash Gusher decal, a shimmering hologram featuring Zolgus Pump, the three-headed Inner Tapeworm, the traditional symbol of esoteric mystery. It bore a gushing quote from Omblock's most famous professional soul repairer, calling it "vital fixum glue for the gunshot heart".
A man's book, this, and it came complete with tear-out discount coupons for machinegun lessons at Hammerdeath Rifle Range near Niche Safa, guided endurance treks through the tough, broken wilderness between Mount Spottle and Mount Vangus, and for something called Aesthetic Hotolortics. What, exactly, was Aesthetic Hotolortics? The tear-out coupon did not say. But it did feature a full-color photograph of a woman who did not seem to have enough money in her budget to go out and buy all the clothes she needed to be decently clad.
Plainly, to judge from the cover, this book that Ibrahim Chess had been reading was part of the alternative reality industry. Don't like the world you're living in? Buy this book and adjust your head to a different frequency.
Beria did not approve of people making up their own ersatz philosophies of life and foisting them on the world, and, in the process, making more money than he could ever hope to see in his lifetime. Given the power, he would seek to ban the whole alternative reality industry, the whole holistic self-actualization self-help shebang. Or, at least, put it under the control of Ideation Control. Now, there was an idea. A chance to enhance his public profile, to take one more step out of the shadows and into the world of celebrity, and, also, a chance to expand his budget.
"Read on," said Beria, admonishing himself.
Time was wasting, and Ibrahim Chess, a man with an unhealthy amount of time on his hands, had been doing quite a bit of reading. Know your enemy. Read and understand.
Taking the plunge at last, Beria opened up War and the Art of Machinegun Maintenance and started reading.
"Imagine if you were a triangle."
That was how it started. The reading was not going to be too difficult but the understanding, well, that was going to be a different matter.
Imagine a triangle -- that was easy enough. But imagine yourself being a triangle? Reality does not bend that far before it breaks.
If it was something you could hit on the head with a sledgehammer, then Beria could imagine it. But this esoteric stuff, no. Still, he vowed to persist with the book. Ibrahim was reading this stuff, therefore, potentially, the book might contain a clue to the mind of the evil astral mastermind, the mind which Beria would have to unlock if he was to penetrate to the heart of the astral conspiracy, the heart of horror which might, quite possibly, contain Nuclear Bob and the missing Argive nukes, the nukes that were armed and ready for destruction.
As Beria sat in apartment A9716, reading in the pages of the alternative reality book that Ibrahim Chess had read before him, another man was busy reading, just one floor down from him. The texts they were reading were different, but both readers had terrorism on their minds.
Beria's underfloor neighbor was Lucas Onarea, a teacher by profession, a teacher of rhetoric at Xgadriver High, and he was studying, with a degree of consternation, an essay entitled Submission to the Proper Authorities, which was from the pen of Edith Larmaiti, age twelve. The essay was, generally speaking, ideologically correct, but one dissonant sentence glared out at Lucas.
"Sometimes the government is not always right."
Did the writing of that sentence constitute a terrorist act? If you applied the wording of the latest revisions of the glorification of terrorism regulations literally, then it surely did.
Lucas had, on this very day, received an update advisory concerning the terrorist watchlist which schools were supposed to be secretly compiling. The update advisory had been distributed, confidentially, to every school teacher in the city state of Oolong Morblock, with, as always, the standard reminder that disclosing the existence of the watchlist was prohibited by law, and that any such disclosure would itself constitute a terrorist offence.
What to do?
A complicating factor was that Edith's father was a cop, a member of the Conflux Constabulary. Maybe Edith's potentially deadly sentence was the act of a provocateur. Maybe Lucas was being set up. Tested to see if he would denounce that which he should denounce. Or whether he would fail. And if he did fail?
If it were to become known that he had failed to report words which were, in essence, treasonous, in that they gave comfort and support to the world of terrorists actual and would be, then he would stand betrayed as an enemy of the state. And what would follow? Why, men who did not exist would come knocking at your door, and you would find yourself in a room with no shadows. And you would learn, to begin with, exactly how many teeth there are in a human mouth. And then, bit by bit, you would learn much, much more.
Lucas went to his bookshelf and found the necessary book of forms. Nobody trusted computers for this delicate task. The reporting of suspected terrorists, terrorist sympathizers and fellow travelers was still all done by paper, at least in the high school system.
"I denounce the child Edith Saxonite Larmaiti," wrote Lucas.
Then set down the details of her offence.
The astrals were rising, yes. The astrals were rising, aided by sympathizers and fellow travelers, but the system was far from helpless when it came to fighting back.