While the wheels turned, the city slept, awaiting the arrival of the yakety dawn, awaiting the opening of chewing gum packets, awaiting the switching on of radios and the playing, always, inevitably, of the hit that never dies, Tinklebell Swangirl's immortal Girlkiss Cuddle.
The city state of Oolong Morblock, then. Waiting. Awaiting the arrival of a floozy, a wanton woman, a notorious good time girl, strumpet of strumpets, whore of whores, a female who promiscuously bestowed her charms on all and sundry, without bothering about their lineage or their marital status. And she didn't even get paid for it.
Who was that scarlet woman?
Dawn, gray today rather than scarlet, gray of flesh but red of eye, slovenly and unwashed, came to the streets of Oolong Morblock looking decidedly disheveled. Her excuse for the state she was in was that she had been dancing. (Dawn, get serious. Dancing? If all you were doing was dancing, then how do you explain all this cigarette ash scattered about inside your panties? And if you didn't gobble down all the big yellow pills that were in this bottle, then who did?)
Dawn began to flush a little red. Embarrassed? Well, maybe. Certainly she had every reason to be. Dawn, undeniably hung over, unexplained scraps of someone's eyelid skin beneath her fingernails, stumbled between the towerblocks of Jumbletown and spread her diaphanous skirts across the jellyfish waters of the Bilge Globulus. Perhaps tweaked in the direction of consciousness by the not quite wiped away smell that was oozing from her panties, a corpse stirred to life in a rickety building on Pier Nine in Zisperhaven.
God had assigned the ownership of this building to Camelot the Cockroach, but this fact had not been properly promulgated and so the building was temporarily a locus of human habitation. In time, all the humans will be gone, and the cockroaches will claim that which is theirs by divine right, but provisional arrangements prevail in the interim.
The corpse groaned, wondered what was causing all the pain. Dawn, that was the answer. Bitch will never leave you alone, always has another day tucked up her sleeve, comes into the room with her fag hanging from her mouth, kicks you in the head, won't let you sleep. Won't let you die, either. Or, at least, not just yet. Not that easily.
Dawn, having roused the corpse, hung back a bit, displaying herself flirtatiously, not quite sure whether the time was right to plunge right in and claim her prey absolutely.
"What am I?" thought the corpse.
With one hand, he checked. A man, it seemed. Well, that was a start. Next question: Who am I? More difficult, this one. But, slowly, after some groping, an identity emerged. It was all dust and spiderwebs, a tin can identity trashed by buckshot, an identity which had gotten blurred and smudged by sitting out in the rain for too long, but it was functional. Just. And it was what he needed. An identity is the one key thing you need before you get up and face the task of fulfilling life's most important function, which is to pay taxes.
After a long struggle to make its thoughts cohere into an identity, this was the think that the corpse came up with:
"I am Ibrahim Lonicus Chess, an astral resident in the Federal Republic of Oolong Morblock. I am the evil mastermind who is organizing the astral terror campaign. The terror campaign is gearing up to destroy Omblock. I, Ibrahim, have set it in motion. I sent the capable Egon Turow to his martyrdom. Many are the astrals who are mine to command, and today the world will hear more of them. My key task now is to get possession of the unacknowledged Argive nukes which are on the loose in Omblock and to work them into my plan."
It took a long, long time to construct that think, but, once constructed, it flowed as a unit, smooth and logical. The nukes, of course. Everyone knew about the nukes -- that rumor had been around for years. Find the nukes and you could forget about the trivia of glorsting and get big time real. Go play with the big boys. Nukes, yeah. Way to go.
Having thought his way through to his own identity, Ibrahim then rejected that identity.
No, he was not the mastermind. He had no astrals at his evil command. He was not in the business of chasing after nonsense rumors about missing nukes. He was not the tumor of evil at the heart of the horror campaign aimed at devastating Omblock. He was not even evil, at least not as far as he was aware. Where had that thought come from?
"Maybe I had a zeitgeist moment," thought Ibrahim, still reliant on thinking alone because he was, up to this point, far too sick to consider speaking.
Sometimes, if you lived in Oolong Morblock, the zeitgeist slipped in and started doing a little bit of your thinking for you. If you were famous.
"But that's nonsense," thought Ibrahim.
He did not have the celebrity required to fall prey to zeitgeist tampering. If he was a dominant figure in the zeitgeist then he would be seeing himself on TV, and he would have sexy blonde girl reporters lining up outside his door, eager to trade sexual favors for exclusive interviews.
Not the zeitgeist, then. No, it was not the zeitgeist which had been tampering with his mind. But something had done a tamper job. Or, more likely, someone.
Someone, somewhere, had been thinking about him, Ibrahim Chess, imposing a false paradigm upon him, warping his thoughts in the direction of delusion. But who?
On analysis of the evil mastermind think, Ibrahim decided that he had received a hint that one or more of the human minds that were active in Oolong Morblock had started to focus on him with malign intent. But which mind or minds? And what could he possibly have done to attract their attention?
Someone's nuke terror fantasy had infiltrated his mind, and the problem with a chain of thought is that it can all too easily become a runaway chain reaction. Your mind gets away from you and the next step is intellectual meltdown. Nuke thoughts? Ibrahim could feel the heat already.
Nuclear Bob. Yeah, I could find him. That's doable.
Periodically, Ibrahim's chartering business took him back to Sclag, the island of his birth and upbringing. Just one year previously, he had visited Sclag six times in a row, each time picking up that retired archaeologist, Toulouse Erceg, from House Scramble, and taking him to Lanta Bay for yet one more fruitless dive trip, the unattainable object of these trips being to discover the location of the ongorfung thalazm, the fabled Invoker of Destinies which had disappeared from human history during the chaos of the Purge Years.
Toulouse was not a drinking man, but, one night, Ibrahim had got him as drunk as it was possible to get, and the Nuclear Bob story had slipped out. Bob was hiding out on Zotkrammer Island. Toulouse had met Bob while visiting an old friend, and, from the foreign accent and a few other clues, such as the fact that he was still wearing a pair of those last-forever Argive combat boots, and had in his possession the latest issue of Nuclear Weaponmaster, a trade journal for thermonuke guys published in Relsh Strasborg.
Toulouse had figured it out, yes. He had accidentally met up with N.B., the missing weapons technician for whom the Argives were offering a cash reward of one million dollars. Dead or alive.
With the prospect of possessing the ongorfung thalazm dominating his mind, Toulouse had no interest in life's trivial prizes, such a million dollar reward. Additionally, he valued the obscurity which allowed him to quest for the ongorfung thalazm in a privacy close to secrecy.
As for Ibrahim, it would take more than a million bucks to motivate him to do a favor for the Argives. He hated the Argives on principle, foreign intruders whose presence exposed Oolong Morblock to the danger of becoming involved in the thermonuke war that the leaders of Relsh Strasborg were so plainly itching to have.
No, Ibrahim had never for a moment contemplated the prospect of selling Nuke B. back to the place he came from.
But to own him ...
To own Nuclear Bob, codes and command skills and all ...
In the present context, it was impossible to avoid the temptation of thinking about where such ownership might take you.
Where exactly on Zotkrammer Island was Nuclear Bob hiding out? And how was he disguised? Small questions, really. The Zot, as it was known to mariners, was a small place, an island of cranks, weirdos, hermits, retired folk and convalescence homes, such as the Heavenhope Stroke Recovery Center. An easy hunting ground for the hunter.
The day after Toulouse Erceg's drunken disclosure to Ibrahim, Toulouse had retained no memory of their conversation. Toulouse had drunk so much that the night before was a blank to him, scrubbed from memory, gone beyond retrieval. Consequently, there was no danger that Toulouse might have taken steps to alert his buddy's buddy, Nuclear Bob. Nuclear Bob had no inkling of the fact that a certain astral by the name of Ibrahim Chess, a potential terrorist mastermind, knew, in general terms, where Bob had gone and hidden himself.
Finding Nuclear Bob was doable.
And, if Nuclear Bob knew where the missing Argive nukes had ended up -- which was possible, given that Bob was one of the Argives' thermonuke guys, and had been plugged into the heart of the weapons control system itself -- then finding Bob might lead Ibrahim to the nukes themselves.
And once he had his own thermonukes plus control of the guy who knew how to set them off, then he could nuke Tespetty.
"But why would I want to do that?" thought Ibrahim.
The temptation, surely, was not for him. He was not a madman, was not a deranged fanatic. He was not a lunatic. He had a life to live for. Given a choice between a battlestorm berserker existence and a life of tax deadlines and dental checks, he'd take the taxdental option, thank you very much.
At heart, Ibrahim's politics were inclusive. He believed strongly in the nation state. He believed that the nation state should be a home for all its peoples, and that everyone should make the compromises that were necessary to rub along with their neighbors.
Any utopian revision of the status quo destabilizes the fragile consensus which permits one single society to sustain a civilization possessed of lines of schism in the form of irreconcilable views. Upset that status quo in the name of liberty, equality, fraternity or any other slogan you have in mind, and there's no telling what the hell will happen next.
"I want to subordinate myself to my destiny," thought Ibrahim to himself.
That was it. He wanted to submit to his limits. He wanted to be just what he was, Ibrahim Chess, citizen of Oolong Morblock, resident of the port of Taris, a Zisperchilp patriot who believed that good old-fashioned stone is better than concrete, a small business owner whose ambition was no more than to be a humble machinegunner in the wars of commerce. And yet, here he was thinking crazy (but doable) thoughts of becoming the all-time terrorist, a nuclear monster whose megadeath nukeglorst would leave a million dead.
He was going crazy, in a word.
Mind infiltrated by God knows what, Egon Turow's bad example, brother Adolf's wild-eyed fanaticism -- who could say? The key point was that he knew these nuke thoughts were aberrant, alien to him, and that his correct procedure was to fight, consciously, to win back full control of his own mind.
"Imagine if you were a triangle," thought Ibrahim.
This was the first and most important of Wittgenstein's Combat Meditations, the mental discipline which was at the heart of combat commerce, one of the areas of business theory that Ibrahim had studied in his efforts to make Marine Charters a going concern.
Ibrahim could not yet imagine being a triangle. It was just too difficult. But he was confident that, if he focused on the task for long enough, he would eventually succeed. And then benefits would follow.
As Ibrahim lay there trying to triangulate himself, a woman stood at the window, observing him lustfully. A predatory woman, reckless in her appetites. Who was that woman? Dawn. Yes, she had not gone away. She had just been waiting for her hormones to hit critical, waiting for her daily dose of pandora to kick her into heat.
Dawn, finally, stopped flirting around and came plunging right into Ibrahim's room, with thoughts of sexual molestation on her mind. Dawn was bright now, because she was dying. She flung herself forward, aiming for one last fling before she was gone. She was sexual aggression made flesh, lunging desperately for Ibrahim. But she was too slow, too late. Her time was done. No sooner was she fully in her paramour's room than she was dead. Or, more exactly, transmuted. No longer dawn but day.
Dawn dies into daylight,
The cigarette ash of her aftermath
Empty of syllables,
Fully awake by now, Ibrahim decided it was time to get up. Incautiously, he sat up, and the negatives of his depleted physical state hit him with full force. He passed out, slumping back on the bed, and lay there, mouth open -- three flies took advantage of this to make transient speleological expeditions into the interior -- until it was late in the morning. To be precise, until it was 1136.
On first waking, Ibrahim had felt as flat as a piece of blotting paper, but, apart from that, not too bad. On his revival at 1136, however, he felt like hell.
What had happened?
It took Ibrahim a while to get a grip on his present circumstances, but, gradually, he began to figure out how he had ended up in this state. Someone, presumably a burglar, had hit him over the head with something large and heavy, possibly a sledgehammer. His mouth felt as if a gang of street kids had been using it as a public toilet. And he was dry, his landscapes had been ecotrashed by desertification. Need water. Now. Lots of it.
In the bathroom, Ibrahim glugged water. Got his toothbrush, tried to clean the claggy taste out of his mouth. Something was strange about his toothbrush cup. It was prettier than it had been the day before, all clean and shiny, hashy mouse bright. Someone had cleaned it. The gray goo at the bottom, the goo that Ibrahim had never bothered about, because, after all, the head of the toothbrush was sitting out in the nice clean air (if you could legitimately use the word "clean" to describe the air in Oolong Morblock) -- the goo was gone.
"Someone cleaned my cup," said Ibrahim, wonderingly.
Yeah, weirdness had broken out, big time. Never a good sign, the breaking out of weirdness. He was reminded of that horror flick, Fractured Dentures of the Fallen Gods, and the moment when Beatrice Otter realizes that her lipstick is no longer red but green. The moment when you hear that jaunty jazz theme coming back, and you realize that the Hangman must be on the prowl again.
"The horror story I call my life," thought Ibrahim to himself.
Burglar, sledgehammer attack, clean toothbrush cup, desertification syndrome, mouth full of spectral parrot crap -- if there was a pattern here, Ibrahim couldn't see it.
Suspiciously, operating in high paranoia mode, Ibrahim started hunting around, trying to confirm that he had been burglarized. If he had, what had the burglar taken? Was anything missing?
Yes! His medicine cupboard had been looted! His sleeping pills were missing. They had vanished. He almost never used them, but he saw them every time he opened the medicine cupboard to get out his dental floss. The sleeping pills, they were gone. Gone, also, was his holiday dust, the precious little jar of medical-grade cocaine which had been prescribed by the bent dentist, Seward Burroughs, "Willy" to his friends, the gentleman who had intimated that ampoules of injectable heroin were also available, at a price.
The cocaine was gone, stolen, and, with it, Ibrahim's certified copy of the all-important "don't lose this" piece of paper, the prescription, the magic charm which made his indulgence (he used that white stuff so seldom that you couldn't really call it a habit) legal.
Downstairs, Ibrahim found another piece of the puzzle. A window had been smashed. Not carefully taped then broken discretely so as not to alert the neighborhood. No, it had been smashed recklessly, from outside, shards of glass flying inwards. The window, which had been unbolted by whoever had smashed the glass, still hung open. That was how they had got in.
Ibrahim had more or less figured it out by now. He had been robbed by a junkie. It would have to be a junkie, someone desperate enough to noisily smash the window. Someone who had ignored all the good stuff, like the TV and the electronic calculator, and had gone for the drugs, just the drugs, the sleeping pills and the cocaine. And who had done some horribly disgusting junkie thing to Ibrahim as he slept, maybe first bashing him over the head then spraying him with Vomit Nine or one of those other incapacitators.
"Junkie scum," thought Ibrahim.
Thought, not spoke. He was still too sick to be saying anything. Junkies. God, how he hated drug-using scum! Here he was, he worked for a living, and life was tough, and a head-tripping vandal had smashed his way into the building, had sabotaged Ibrahim as he lay peacefully asleep, and had then gone and ripped off the pharmaceuticals which Ibrahim's care givers had prescribed for him. For him, the upright citizen. The guy who even went so far as to pay his taxes. Well, most of them, anyway.
But how did you explain the cup, the toothbrush cup which had been cleaned? A ritualistic thing, obviously. Junkie scum, their heads are so twisted there's no point in trying to make sense of their weird drug fiend antics. Junkies, those are people we really ought to incinerate.
The thought of ritual made Ibrahim think, automatically, of serial killers. Nobody knew for a fact how many serial killers there were in Oolong Morblock, but the number was generally estimated to be about fifty, not counting retired ones. Serial killers, yeah. Really weird people with extremely secret lives which they didn't advertize on the Internet. That smiling salesman at the home appliance store who sells you the special vacuum cleaner that you can use not just for dust but for spilt fluids also, that friendly taxi driver who, like you, is a fan of Venus Lobotomy, the fattest and feistiest of those mud wrestling gals -- a serial killer was someone just like that, hidden in the general population. Undetected. Undetectable. Like a suicide waiting to happen, only it's someone else who dies.
So maybe Ibrahim's burglar had been not just a thieving junkie but a serial killer as well, and had been going through a necessary ritual preliminary, carefully cleaning an object selected from the victim's home: the toothbrush cup. Maybe the killer always cleaned the toothbrush container. If there was one. And came back another night, armed and ready, to take things to their fatal conclusion.
Or maybe not.
On analysis, warped junkie was more probable than serial killer, so scratch the serial killer alarm. Junkie thought he was in his own home, started cleaning stuff, then began to realize, hey, something wrong here, not in my own place at all, better exit.
Ibrahim phoned the glazier. What else was there to do? Something important. Something he couldn't quite remember. Something to do with words. Oh, words! Mantra -- right!
Ibrahim tried to remember the death mantra that had been taught to him by Manfred Sphere, his death counselor, the man on who his survival now depended, the guy who worked at that place, Something-Something Rituals -- now, what was the proper name of the place? Wrote it down somewhere, but where? Can't remember. Can't remember the mantra, either. Done a data dump. Got it written down somewhere. I think.
But what did any of that matter? The good thing, the great thing, was that the wheel was gone. And, though Ibrahim felt totally trashed, though Ibrahim felt as if he had been fucked for forty nights by a hippopotamus, to coin a phrase which had been popular in his student days, back at Anclag Academy, he was, nevertheless, happy. Or, more exactly, at peace. The kind of peace that comes upon you after you spend half a day bashing your head against a brick wall and then, miraculously, stop.
"I guess I should eat," said Ibrahim.
The inner promptings of "should" are not always freighted with the wisdom of God, nor is their motivation always that of the angels, and, in yielding to the urgings of this "should", Ibrahim was being exceedingly unwise. Having ingested food -- a small helping of ice cream plus a single clove of roasted garlic which he had no recollection of having cooked, but which was sitting on the sink bench just waiting to be eaten -- Ibrahim shortly found himself kneeling in front of the toilet, throwing up.
By that time, the morning was done with, and the clock was gnawing its way into the afternoon. But time, today, showed no sign at all of being in a hurry. In fact, Ibrahim got the impression that this was going to turn out to be a very, very long day.
What day was it?
God, the weekend was almost upon him. The weekend, and all its unavoidable commitments. Which he loved. Because -- hey, it was the weekend that he lived for. Wasn't it? Yes, it was. Sort of. But, sometimes ... sometimes the weekend load, the load of responsibility and commitment, it all got too much for him.
"A machinegun has no setting marked defeat," said Ibrahim to himself, grimly.
The weekend. His commitment. His life. His true and secret life, more valuable to him than Marine Charters, more of his heart than yachts and the sea, more gratifying, in the long event of time, than drinking beer, snorting cocaine and watching those mud wrestling gals get close and dirty. His love, his commitment, his life.
Ibrahim Chess, the faithful machinegunner, summoned his courage and, true to his duty, marched stubbornly into the future.