Since Ibrahim no longer had the Yandaviba, his options for getting to Urn Angol Wat were limited. Buses, that was possible. But the weather was getting sullen, so maybe it would rain. No way to be sure. That reverse-reliable weather forecasting system he had signed up for was no longer functioning, number disconnected, so maybe he should cancel the automatic payments for that.
Buses on a rainy day meant standing in the rain at bus shelters which didn't really shelter. After so many centuries of civilization, you'd think Omblock would have mastered the skills needed to build a decent bus stop, but, no, engineers and designers were too busy with prestige projects, like the Great Wheel of Zisperhaven. Not focused on everyday needs like a better bus shelter.
Speaking of wheels, how was his own wheel? There and then not there. Disconcertingly intermittent. No way to tell what it was going to do to him today. He'd been to three different doctors and they'd all told him there was nothing wrong with him. Medical profession is totally useless, don't know anything, a bunch of hit-and-miss experimenters, run weird pharma drugs into your body just for kicks, good job Manfred is around.
The phone rang, the landline. Sable? Maybe she was calling to say she had just got off the ferry at Taris. Ibrahim let the answer phone pick up. Heard his mother's voice.
"Ibrahim, Gillian here."
Then silence, then something which sounded almost like a sob. Was his mother crying? She hung up. No more message. Call his mother bacl? No, she could get him on his cellphone if she really needed him. Ibrahim hung out his "GONE FISHING" sign, locked up and started off down the waterfront in the direction of the ferry terminal, which was where the buses left from and where, too, there was a taxi rank.
Rain, so no buses. A taxi was out: too expensive. So that left a choice between walking and traveling. (Logically, walking had the same "possible rain" drawback that taking the bus had, but Ibrahim didn't see it that way, because, human perversity being what it is, he got really miserable hanging around in a damp bus shelter, but enjoyed walking in the rain.)
Astralize and travel, that was an option. Not something Ibrahim really liked to do. Even here on Zisperchilp, the talent of traveling through the astral realms was frowned upon. The ability to spook yourself through people's guardian walls made it all too easy to go career criminal, and a lot of astrals with the traveler talent ended up as permanently grogged up inmates of the heavier jails.
The stereotype was captured well in the movie Travels with my Aunt's Left Hand, all about a psycho astral serial killer who used his powers of "metamigration", as astral travel was slang-termed in the movie, to facilitate theft, rape, arson and a serial killer spree. All true to the possibilities of life, barring the serial killer bit: as any forensic psychologist could tell you, serial killing was a norm thing, something that didn't happen in astral culture. One of the quirks of Omblock's sociology that nobody could explain.
Not really the day for astral travel, this. A day, rather, for dissonant talents to keep a low profile. Even though Ibrahim was planning to use his talent to twist godson Topaz right out of his demo. That was a forced move. No option there.
His cellphone rang and he fished it up to his mouth, answered. It was his mother. Upset. Wanted to talk. Was he busy?
"I'm walking," said Ibrahim. "But I can talk."
"This is something we need to talk about sitting down," said Gillian.
"I don't see that we do," said Ibrahim.
But she was gone. Call her back? No. It was probably one of her "prophetic" dreams. Gillian Chess was, by and large, a well-balanced woman, but, occasionally, she woke from sleep convinced that she had seen the future in a dream, and it was always a bad dream, and, what's more, a dream that never came true, not ever.
Ibrahim had talked privately with a psychiatrist about this, and the guy had pulled out the government's big book of authorized mental illnesses, and, no, having prophetic dreams which failed to deliver on what they had promised, the definition guys hadn't licensed that as a mental illness, not yet, though maybe someone was working on it.
So, after his theoretically sane mother rang off, Ibrahim decided not to try to be his mother's mother, decided to let the mother-mothering business slide, at least for the moment, and focused on his journey. Yeah, he would walk. How far was it? In a straight line, a little more than three kilometers, at a guess. A little longer if he took Biltong Circuit, the coast road which ran right round Zisperhaven. Which he would: it was a nicer walk, and he had plenty of time. Would be at Urn Angol Wat well before Olive Valise showed her smiling face.
The phone rang again. It was Sable. She was already at Taris. Impossibly quick, unless she had been already on the ferry when she had phoned him earlier. Which perhaps she had. It felt like an ambush, this sudden proximity of hers.
"Are you still at the Adventuring Salt Building?" said Sable.
"Yes, of course," said Ibrahim. "Shall I put on coffee?"
"No," said Sable. "No coffee. My father has put me on this drug-free regime, no psychotropics. Would some warm milk be possible?"
"Yeah, sure," said Ibrahim, glad to hear that Sable was getting on top of the drug thing, somehow he'd started thinking she might be having a problem with that, a vodka-coke thing, a downhill trip, a coffin lid ajar at the foot of the slope. Good news if the girl was getting herself cleaned up, maybe her father was the tough guy she needed to kick her pretty ass. "See you soon, bubble girl."
And, with that, he closed out the call, before she could come back and bite him with a radfem retaliation taunt for the "bubble girl" insult.
Sable Tauranga. Twenty-two years old, and still living with her parents. His image of Conflux girls was that they grew up faster than that. But he was a Zisperchilp astral, so what did he know? So, Sable's dad was enforcing a drug-free regime. A cold turkey ticket. Yeah, good idea. Maybe that would prove to be part of the solution to the Topaz Atatangle conundrum, the problem Ibrahim was going to be focusing in on today.
Ibrahim Chess had been meaning to have a chat with his godson Topaz Atatangle for some time, steer him away from the delinquent direction he was heading in. But the demo business definitely forced things to a head. Boy was in the process of walking over a cliff, time to grab him by the scruff of the neck and haul him out of danger.
Ever since Ibrahim had become Topaz's godfather, five years previously, there had been problems with the relationship, but things had really been coming to a head over the last several days or so, and Ibrahim had just about had enough.
Seeing as how Ibrahim was Topaz's godfather, and seeing as how godfathership was a discharge of Ibrahim's filial obligations to his late father, Ibrahim couldn't just write off Topaz forever, couldn't say a go-goodbye to him. But, boy, was he ever tempted! And, in the absence of a goodbye kiss, it was time that Topaz got a shaking.
Mao Fats, the guy who owned the Cholesterol Heartbeats grease bar, had been in touch with Ibrahim about Topaz's unpardonable delinquency. Topaz had pulled a crazy stunt, vanishing into nowhere one night, leaving his piece of the beef-burning business unattended, patties burning on the patty cooker, the money in the till unguarded, lights still on, the whole place open to the world and to the world's street kids. No coherent explanation for any of this from Topaz, who acted brain dead if you tried to grill him on it.
Madam Sosostris, the old bat who was Topaz's landlady, had been trying to get Ibrahim to pay compensation for something Topaz had done, a door smashed to splinters at the apartment, for which Topaz was adamantly refusing to take responsibility, claiming it was "something that got happened when I was out", the truth being, probably, that he had gotten too drunk to recall his own complicity in the crime.
Then there was the mother of a kid called Winston Peters, a law student, kept phoning, insisting that Topaz surely had something to do with the disappearance of her son, and now she was asking if there was any truth to the rumor that Topaz and Winston had headed off to Imperial Yam for a twosome holiday, and, if they had, what could possibly be the explanation for that?
And how to explain, too, the new cellphone that Topaz kept checking for text messages, his boyblue Girldialer? Those things were expensive: Ibrahim had priced them on the Internet. Topaz, when pressed, said that "an older guy" had given it to him, and what in the name of twisted olives was Ibrahim supposed to make of that? Someone had given Topaz not just that cellphone but some walking around money, too, the extra income being betrayed by the fact that Topaz was indulging in those expensive new jellyfish designer aquas, instead of sticking to faucet water.
Additionally, as if that wasn't bad enough, Topaz had been hanging about Marine Charters, always down at the Adventuring Salt Building mornings and evenings, pestering Ibrahim to talk about his dad, the late Benedict Chess, a good man, okay, but, let's be honest: the world was safer now that Benedict was packed into a small urn of ashes in Lamma Cheng Endcrypt. Dad, to tell the truth, had been one of those stereotypical crypt lunatics, religious nutters of the "murder is okay if it's murder for God" variety.
But Topaz was all keen to know about Benedict, yes, and kept discussing the Egon glorst and the Tespetty attack, and that Lombonny Nedcroft case, way back when. If you looked in the history books, you got told that Lombonny's glorst was political, a protest against the federal government yanking up the Universal Sales Tax, but now there was a rumor going around saying, no, Lombonny had glorsted at the Cow Vesti mud wrestling arena because the TV cameras were there, so that was how to get maximum publicity, try to wake Omblock up, try to wake the Dreamer.
And Ibrahim was getting the impression that Topaz took the nutso Dreamer idea seriously, really believed that a process of massacre glorsting could awaken the hidden messiah to self-awareness. If Topaz didn't believe that, then why did he keep talking about it?
It was as if, somehow, this pretty ordinary student type, a beer-drinking burger chef who put in just enough study to keep himself from getting kicked out of the institution of higher learning which provided him with the precious student ID card which gave access to so many discounts and perks, had somehow been brainwashed into spiritual fanaticism.
Who was the "older guy" who had provided Topaz with a cellphone and money, too, must be more money than the burger job had paid, because, first, there were these self-indulgent designer waters and, second, because Topaz was showing no signs of looking for a new part-time job to replace the one he had been fired from. Who was paying Topaz to dabble in chat-talk which was playing around at the fringes of terror treason?
It was hard to avoid the obvious conclusion. There was an astral mastermind somewhere, organizing this glorsting and attacking, that was acknowledged by all the media commentators. Terror doesn't happen on its own. It's illogical to think that terror arises spontaneously out of social conditions or political disconents. Terror is the work of conscious controlling evil, of a malign intelligence which plots and plans, which pencils in "apocalypse" on the day planner, just after cornflakes time.
The logical conclusion, then, which Ibrahim was trying hard to avoid, was that Topaz's "older guy" was none other than the evil mastermind, the astral fanaticism king, implacably ruthless and, so far, too cunning to be caught. Not such a mastermind if he chose to recruit an unreliable dorp like Topaz, but, presumably, when you're building up a terror network from scratch, you work with whatever you can scrape up off the streets.
Topaz had become a part of the astral conspiracy that you were hearing so much about these days, what with glorst warnings in the latest astrology columns in the newspapers and, locally, the Zisperchilp bosslord, Egaltine Choom, the Supervisor of Zisperhaven, recently announcing that the terror alert level had escalated all the way from white to light gray to lime to pastel blue to coffee stain brown to its present position, which was red, blepharitis red, just one step down from spastic rainbow, the ultimate "glorst in progress as we speak" warning.
Ibrahim's analysis, then, was that Topaz had somehow gotten himself warped in the direction of fanatical lunacy, becoming mad, bad, and dangerous to know. His suspicion was that Topaz, probably sooner rather than later, would sit down to share secrets with Ibrahim, and would invite him, Ibrahim, to join the terror network that Topaz had started to collude with. And then what was Ibrahim to do?
"Denounce him to the cops," said Ibrahim, at last, finally resolving this question in his own mind.
While things were still at the murky suspicion stage, he could let the situation slide. But if Topaz tried to recruit Ibrahim into the terror network, if Topaz gave that irrefutable evidence of guilt and complicity, then Ibrahim would have to act. Because one baby Paffita tragedy in the history of the city was one too many. A second could not be permitted.
And, thinking of baby Paffita, whatever happened to her? Momentarily, baby Paffita was there on the TV screens, got her glorst victim spotlight jiffyshake, her fame bite, then she was lost history, celebrity spooked to nadir, vanished, gone. Presumably still alive, modern medicine was pretty slick, but erased from the public imagination. Did anyone in the entire state of Omblock ever think about her these days, except for her suffering mother and Ibrahim Chess?
Yes, astral terror was as bad as any other kind of terror, and Ibrahim Chess, the good citizen, the stable taxpayer, the moral man, one of life's faithful machinegunners, if he found himself face to face with a known and acknowledged terrorist, well, he would find himself with no choice. He would have to phone the cops, denounce the guy, turn him in.
Not wanting to be forced into this position, Ibrahim had been doing his best to delay the moment when he would suffer revelation. He had been trying to put Topaz off, to fend him away. But it had been difficult. The kid had been persistent. Persistent, and, on top of that, consistently odd, sidewhacked in a way which was hard to define. There was something wrong about the way he talked to you, something wrong about the way he looked at you. Something which didn't compute.
Maybe Topaz was screwed up by drugs, yeah, kids these days, drink vodka in bars, go into the toilets and snort up cocaine, blow their minds with anything, even shoe polish if they're desperate, and who knows what Topaz had been up to? The latest current affairs downer was that the new breed of cockroaches, the flesh-eating ones which were becoming a staple of tabloid horror stories, they had psychoactive properties, and all you needed to get high was to boil up half a dozen of them and drink the juice. This was already starting to become a trend on two of the civil islands, Sclag and Gorleth.
Now that Ibrahim thought about it, hadn't there been a glue sniffing phase, back on Sclag, back when Topaz was ... how old would he have been? The year of the Dilskartha meteorite, wasn't it? Yeah, the meteorite which had demolished the Green Parrot Bar, which had been reborn, famously -- you saw it on TV shows sometimes, which was probably why Sable had wanted to meet there, play at being part of TV land -- as the Dead Parrot Bar. Topaz would have been twelve, yeah, and into the glue sniffing thing. That could really bubble your brain. Permanently.
So that was Topaz, heading for the lunatic fringe of astraldom, getting texted by his "older guy", who was shaping up to be the mastermind terror king, and let's just hope there was no pleasure tourist angle there, hard to see that there might be, Topaz didn't come across as a streetmeat tasty, never had. But the whole world these days was going crazy, was one big twisted crab, sanity no longer there where it should be, on the supermarket shelves between the coffee and the tinned lychees, and there was definitely something short of level-headed about Topaz, yeah, he was acting weird around Ibrahim, unacknowledged and unguessable tangents hinted at by his conversational explorations, and maybe -- no real reason to doubt it -- he was running chemlab experiments on his head.
"My God-fucked drug fiend godson," said Ibrahim. "Joy of my joys, light of my life. What in the name of milk curds did I ever do to get myself lumbered with this?"
Good question. What had Ibrahim done to deserve this, his gradual but inevitable embroilment in the world of terror? Well, he had made a mistake. A bad one. One morning, meaning no harm by it, he had picked up the telephone and had made a phone call, asking for a weather forecast. And, as civilization heads into the age of shoot to kill, one mistake, and a mistake that small, that's all it takes.
Walking along in the sultry weather, Ibrahim found himself sweating. Up ahead, a Glycy Zinger, one of those mart machines, vending chilled drinks and frozen banana blocks. It was standing between two other vending machines, one selling pre-worn girls' panties, "sealed for aroma stability, full satisfaction guaranteed", and the other selling magic mushrooms. The one selling the packets of hallucinogenic fungus was labeled with a stern legal warning advising that these psychomorphers were legal for purchase and possession only as scientific samples, and that their consumption was illegal.
Ibrahim pressed buttons, zapped the Glycy Zinger with his cellphone, and had the satisfaction of hearing a Frosty Susan clang into the receiving trough. Condensation sweating on the can. Cool against his cheek. Slaking in his throat. Great things, these Glycy Zingers. Zinger, now that was the name of a type of missile, something the Argives had.
Writing of domestic terror threats, Brian Hazard, the columnist who wrote for the Civil Islands Times, had sketched out a nightmare scenario in which Gorleth street gangs broke into armories in Argive, heisted zinger missiles and automatic weapons, and went on a spree-shoot through Omblock, knocking choppers out of the sky and annihilating the cops in street corner shoot-outs. General Flattop, asked for comment, had pooh-poohed the idea, saying the entire Argive enclave was "military tight", guarded by razor wire and attack dogs.
Yeah, easy to say. But if the Argives can't even keep their terror nukes on the leash, if they can't even stop their own marines wandering off and ending up naked in the beds of fourteen-year-old virgins, then how much can they guarantee?
Ibrahim drained his can and sent it clattering into the interior of the sun-cracked green plastic recycling container, to which someone had affixed a bright new "Glorst for glory!" sticker. Wall poster terror treason writ small. Ibrahim hadn't seen any of the wall posters, but apparently they had been going up all over Zisperchilp and in parts of Glud Hurgus, the authorities tearing them down as fast as possible, but it was a form of propaganda which was difficult to censor out of existence. Got yourself a computer and a printer, you can zap out your own one-page terror sheet, stickum your opinions to the public walls.
How are we for time? Still plenty of time. Hang loose. Olive won't start without you.
So thinking, Ibrahim continued on his way. And that was when his cellphone rang. It was Sable.
"Ibrahim," said Sable, "something you should know about me."
"Okay," said Ibrahim. "Shoot."
"I know a guy who can set it up," said Sable. "That's what you need to know."
"Set what up?"
"Shooting's too good for you, Ibrahim. It's cockroach time. Those flesh-rippers, that's you, Bazooka Boy. That's your fate. You're going down. I know a guy who can set it up, there are places in the sewer system where they'll be all over you, trice-instant. I mean it, Ibrahim. You're roach meat."
And, with that, Sable was gone.
Well, well. A death threat. And from such a pretty girl, too. Bright bouncy boobies, that's her good point, but what a warped and wicked twist to the malice of her mind! What will she be threatening to do next? Put maggots in the meatloaf? Firebomb the Yandaviba? Can't wait to discover. Well, after her next trip to the comic book shop, I guess we'll get another phone call, and then we'll find out.
The cellphone rang again. Back from the comic book shop already!?
"Yeah," said Ibrahim.
It was his mother. Was he sitting down now? He lied to his mother and said, yes, he was sitting down. And his mother shared with him.
"I had a terrible, terrible dream, Ibrahim. They were going to torture you to death."
"Yeah, well," said Ibrahim, "we've spun the roundabout on the dream thing. I mean, haven't we? How many times is it now?"
How many glorst-brained prophecies, visionary dreams of that which will be? How many of those squirrel symphonies had gone rorting through his mother's mind? All of them false. False, delinquent, deluded. Nutso stuff. None of them true, not one. Maybe mom had a kind of prophetic reverse-forecasting talent, like the guy who used to provide those negative-image weather forecasts by telephone. Everything in the prophecies made by Gillian Chess was false. Everything. Nothing was true. Not one single thing.
"But the worst part is," said Gillian, not done yet, "you denounced me. Terror treason, that's what you said, you denounced me, Ibrahim! You denounced your own mother!"
Gillian Chess was a mature woman and she did not have labile hormone fits. But she was having one now. Her latest dream must have been a megabruiser, a psychotrasher. Really, the federal government should do something about dreaming, it was out and out hallucinatory, and, what's worse, often terror-tainted, these things called dreams. Yeah, people start indulging in all sorts of thought crimes in their dreams, should have been a law passed against them years ago.
Gillian kept going on about how Ibrahim had denounced her but he soon more or less gave up listening. From a practical point of view, how could he possibly denounce his mother? There was nothing to denounce. Gillian Chess was the ultimate Good Astral, law-abiding and inoffensive, a self-employed woman with her own successful small business, the mother of three children, a taxpaying citizen. She was living one of the few exemplary lives in Omblock. How many people in the city state of Oolong Morblock were leading exemplary lives? How many, out of more than twenty million? A dozen?
(Ibrahim was guessing high. There were, in fact, only three people in Omblock who were leading exemplary lives, one being his mother, Gillian Chess, the second being the retired engineer Hadonovich Yeltsa and the third being the retired engineer's ophthalmic surgeon, Dr. Wise. Other than that, it was really a city of walking hellmeat, none of them, Ibrahim included in the none, really fit to even wipe their feet on the doormat of Paradise.)
"Are we done?" said Ibrahim, when at last his mother seemed to peter out.
"Just one more thing," said Gillian Chess. "I can tell you who was threatening you with torture."
"Mother, I think we can pass on the identity parade," said Ibrahim.
"No!" said Gillian. "When it starts to come true, this may save your life. It was Egaltine Choom."
"What do you mean, who? Egaltine! You know, Pompous Choomy."
Yes, Ibrahim not only knew Egaltine Choom, but, just a little earlier, had actually been thinking about him. But, considered as a human being, Egaltine was infinitely forgettable. Much more memorable as a cartoon character. Pompous Choomy, yes, the bureaucreep guy who cartoonists so delighted to caricature. The joke in the Zisperchilp dinner cracker. The boss, God help us. The master. The lord. He was legally known as Egaltine Choom, and he was the Narabarakak, the ruler of both Zisperhaven and of Chilp. Dork of dorks, idiot of idiots. If you had to have sworn enemies, Egaltine was the way to go.
But the notion of Egaltine Choom, Supervisor of Zisperhaven, targeting Ibrahim Chess -- that notion was ridiculous. Egaltine didn't even know Ibrahim existed.
"Mother," said Ibrahim, "Egaltine Choom doesn't even know I exist."
"But he does," said Gillian. "He was sitting at a table, looking at your dossier. It was at Ming Taxis."
Ming Taxis? Mom's dream was getting less and less logical. Ming Taxis was on Glud Hurgus, no reason for Egaltine to go there. It was just a hop across on the ferry then a couple of trains, but didn't Egaltine boast that he was an islander? (Meaning, in the parlance of Zisperchilp, that he was someone who never ventured to any of the other civil islands unless he really had to.)
This was getting to be a long conversation. He really should have done this one sitting down.
"Mother," said Ibrahim, "Let's change the subject. There's something wrong in your life. You've been holding out on me, but you've been seriously upset for days. Whatever it is, you ought to talk to me about it."
Whatever trauma had upset his mother -- and, yes, in recent telephone contacts he had clearly divined that she was upset, and badly so -- it might be responsible for this highly improbable false prophetic dream she had endured. Maybe getting the real problem out in the open would get rid of the spurious dream.
"You don't believe me, Ibrahim," said Gillian, "but in my dream I saw Egaltine Choom as clearly as I see you. He was covered with white-footed ants."
"With what?" said Ibrahim.
"White-footed ants. You know, ants with white feet."
"I see," said Ibrahim. "I'm sorry, but I really have to go now."
And, with that, he rang off, having finally run out of patience. Better to ring off than to have a pointless argument with his mother. But, really! As clearly as I see you? They were talking on the telephone. She couldn't see him at all. And -- white-footed ants? There are no such things as white-footed ants!