The Green Room in the Olid Mazoora Building got its name from the fact that the walls were padded with green leather. Here and there, affixed to the leather, were the jaws of various sharks. Beria Dag, who ruled Ideation Control from the Green Room, was no fan of art, but he had a fascination for teeth. Including his own. Beria had extremely strong teeth. They were also (or such was his belief) the very biggest teeth anywhere in Oolong Morblock. Beria was so proud of his teeth that he visited his dentist four times a year for the sheer pleasure of being told what great teeth he had.
Alone in the Green Room, Beria contemplated the situation regarding the terrorist Egon Turow, the astral who had posted on his web site his intention to glorst, to cause himself to explode and to take as many of the Xalbardoz with him as possible.
Really, the astrals were a security nightmare. True, they were only two percent of the population. And true, also, only two percent of astrals were capable of glorsting. But, when you did the basic arithmetic, the threat was formidable.
Omblock's population was computed to be more than twenty millions, and two percent of twenty million is four hundred thousand. That was how many astrals there were, a big concentration of them on Zisperhaven-Chilp, a fairly substantial population of them on Sclag, quite a few on Glud Hurgus, and a smattering in other places.
Now, given that the astral population was at least four hundred thousand, and given that two percent of that group was glorst-capable, when you did the math you found that you had eight thousand human bombs on your hands, eight thousand people who could, if they so chose, opt to be suicide bombers. Stalking through the streets, undetected, undetectable.
"But why now?" said Beria.
He knew Egon Turow's motive: the incredibly silly notion that reality could be perturbed, and, consequently, the messiah revealed, by the simple process of people blowing themselves up in a mode of mass murder. Such mass murder was an essential element of the Dreamer myth. But the myth had been around for centuries.
"Why now?" said Beria again.
What had suddenly made Egon go pop? Nobody wakes up in the morning and suddenly decides to opt for a new career as a suicide bomber. There has to be some kind of build up. A precipitating cause.
The natural conclusion was that Egon had been egged on to it, encouraged, probably, by a mastermind lurking in the background, someone too smart to blow himself up (Beria was definitely thinking of a man for the mastermind role, not a woman).
"So we're talking conspiracy," said Beria to himself.
If Egon Turow could be caught alive, and if Beria was able to take control of the prisoner before the police messed up the interrogation (the cops too often got over-excited and terminated their clients before the information-extraction process had been completed) then Beria had every confidence that Egon could be made to confess the details of the conspiracy.
But the chances were that he would slip through the police net.
"So we end up in body part city," said Beria.
If so, there would be no breathing corpse to interrogate. The conspiracy would have to be worked out by studying Egon's past. And this was something that Beria planned to do himself. Undoubtedly, Don Trash, Beria's main rival, would already have someone at Tolstaple at work on piecing together the truth about Egon's past. And doubtless the police would run their own investigation.
"But," said Beria, "they'll puppy poop the whole thing."
They would probably go directly to the key suspects and ask them idiot questions such as "Are you a member of a conspiracy which aims to overthrow the nation state, killing a lot of people in the process?" And, of course, if you ask an idiot question like that then the answer which comes back is "No".
The direct approach was not the way to do it. The way to do it was to penetrate the conspiracy. Which meant finding someone who was in the conspiracy. Or who, alternatively, was on the periphery. Someone who could be used as a spy. An informer. An instrument to unlock the hidden truth.
"My personal attention," muttered Beria.
Yes, that was definitely what this matter deserved. His personal attention. If an astral conspiracy was on the move, and if that conspiracy had succeeded in recruiting a substantial number of glorst-capable astrals, then the consequences of failure were too dreadful to contemplate.
Beria could not trust his subordinates on this one.
He was going to do it himself.
With that in mind, Beria pulled his computer keyboard toward him and punched in Egon Turow's phone number, which he had obtained by the simple process of looking it up in the telephone directory.
Beria had two powerful city computers at his disposal. One was Hashtamatrix, which indexed every phone call made in the city state of Oolong Morblock. You could check and find out which people had been calling each other (assuming that people were using the telephone numbers which were registered in their names).
The other computer, far more formidable, was Vocablanatus, which, if it worked, would be able to retrieve a recording of any particular conversation which Beria wished to listen to. If it worked. Unfortunately, Vocablanatus was turning into the Data Management Project That Ate Omblock -- a preposterously ambitious project which had consumed more money than anyone wanted to confess to without, as yet, delivering on more than a fraction of the promises that had been made for it.
Still, one could always hope.
If Beria could get an angle on what telephone conversations he needed to listen to, he might get lucky.
In an ideal world, Beria's organization, Ideation Control, would have owned both Hashtamatrix and Vocablanatus outright. But it didn't. It had to share. Beria hated sharing. Why, even the coast guard had access to both those computers.
Still, when Beria sat at his keyboard and punched in Egon's telephone number, he felt a satisfying sensation of power. Data controls the world, right?
A menu popped up and Beria selected "recent phone calls".
Hashtamatrix meditated on Beria's request for a disconcerting length of time. If Hashtamatrix had fallen over then this day would have got off to a very poor start.
Then the computer laughed with success (Beria hated that success laugh, but there was no way of switching it off) and the first of the requested data was there on the screen.
Beria opened his private notebook, the small volume with the delicate violet paper and the smart black leather cover, and began to make notes.
Who had last phoned Egon Turow? Marine Charters, which, plainly, was a corporation rather than a person. A simple data search revealed that Marine Charters was a company owned by an Ibrahim Lonicus Chess, who resided on Zisperhaven. An astral, then, presumably. Which made sense.
Ibrahim had called Egon Turow early in the morning. A wake up call, maybe. A final call to make sure that Egon got into action and went off to do his glorst. Nobody else had called Egon in the preceding twenty-four hours, so it was logical to focus on Ibrahim Chess as the primary suspect. The mastermind? Perhaps. Or, more likely, just a messenger. Someone used by the mastermind.
So who had last called Ibrahim?
Today, nobody. Yesterday, evidently a quiet day in telephone land, only one person. Sable Astrophinia Tauranga. Who was? Maybe Oogle would have the answer. Sure enough, a quick search on the search engine site, oogle.omblock, threw up the information that Sable was a journalist, a TV reporter working for Open Mansions, the civic affairs channel.
"Makes sense," muttered Beria.
Journalism, when you thought about it, was a kind of invasive espionage, dedicated to undermining the social code by breaching the barriers of privacy. And, once you started down the road of breaching conventions, where did you end? Logically, nowhere. Not as far as Beria could see.
Who, then, last phoned Sable?
Lily Peacock. A consultant, according to Oogle. A connection which didn't immediately make sense. But, then, the investigation was only just beginning.
"One last shot," said Beria.
Who last called Lily Peacock? Answer: Jack Glinch. Another consultant.
"That's it," said Beria. "I'm done."
Then chastised himself for feeling lazy. Laziness was not how he had got to the top. You get to the top by being ruthlessly focused and, above all else, being prepared to work really hard. To drive yourself. Lazy people? If they want to conquer the world, there are drugs which will let them have the experience of doing just that, at least for ten minutes at a time. For real success, you have to put in the effort.
So Beria went one step further.
Who last phoned Jack Glinch? Answer: Sable Tauranga, the female who had been the only person to call Ibrahim Chess yesterday.
"A circle," said Beria.
On the evidence, all these people were tied together. Ibrahim Chess. Sable Tauranga. Lily Peacock. And Jack Glinch. All tied together. Somehow.
Having discovered that much -- having discovered the identities of four people who were part of a conspiracy against the state, even though he was not yet in a position to prove it -- Beria used his computer privileges to put a lock on the telephone data that he had retrieved from Hashtamatrix so nobody else anywhere in the state security apparatus -- not the police, not the amateurs at Citywatch, and most certainly not Don Trash -- could get access to the chain of connections which he had discovered.
In the world of bureaucratic battles, Beria's success in getting the power to lock up data on Hashtamatrix so other people could not access it was, in his opinion, his greatest triumph. It had been a hard-fought battle, and his personal relationship with the President, Olive Valise, was what had enabled him to come out victorious.
But had anyone got to the telephone call data before him? Possibly, but he doubted it. He had been quick off the mark, so, if luck was with him, he had succeeded in forestalling any of the competitors who might want to come trampling onto his turf, muddying everything up with their hoof prints.
The phone calls were, plainly, the starting point for the investigation into the conspiracy, and Beria wanted this investigation -- the most important investigation of his entire career, if he judged right -- to be his and his alone.
Now, he needed to hear those conversations. If the conspirators were at all cautious, the phone calls would probably be guarded, and, possibly, partially in code. But, if he could listen to them talk, he would probably get the general drift, and would know where to go next.
"Okay," said Beria. "Vocablanatus."
But Vocablanatus, the gigacomputer which was supposed to store and archive all telephone conversations, was down. Beria got the chief tech support guy on the phone and got the bad news. Vocablanatus had been hacked and hijacked -- again! -- by players of the illegal shared world computer game Global Bunker Busters, which needed immense amounts of computer power for simulating that fun event always lurking just over the horizon, global thermonuclear warfare.
The archive had been completely trashed.
Not for the first time.
"The next hacker I catch," said Beria wrathfully, "I'm going to nail him to a wall with red-hot crowbars."
He was left with the stripped-down caller summary records which he had found on Hashtamatrix, records which told him only who called, when, and how long the conversation lasted.
But, plainly, there was a mesh here, an intersection of callers. A conspiracy, undoubtedly.
"Okay," said Beria. "Do the research and find a way into the organization."
Check these people out. Ibrahim Chess. Sable Tauranga. Lily Peacock. Jack Glinch. One of them would prove to be the weak link. Or, if not one of them, then one of their associates.