Having studied entomology and having spent some years as a bug-killer, Ibrahim still thought of himself as the bug expert. But he no longer was. He was like a retired mud wrestling gal who still thinks of herself as a super hippo, and then, one day, confronted by a gang of street kids, finds herself with only the strength to put down the first half dozen before the rest of them swarm over her. The world has changed underfoot, and she hasn't noticed.
So it was with Ibrahim Chess. The bug world had changed, a couple of species dying out (most notably those big golden sunflower butterflies you used to see in the summer) and new bugs had imported themselves, or had escaped from the science labs where scientists, the Disbelievers, were messing with God's reality in caprice mode, trying to invent singing jellyfish, four-legged babies and intelligent mice.
Certainty is often the mother of error, and so it was with Ibrahim, who, never having heard of white-footed ants, concluded that they did not exist. Believe it or not, there are in fact such things as white-footed ants. Just as some cats have white paws, so, too, these ants have white feet. They are ants of ordinary size, and their most notable characteristic, apart from the white feet, is that they are particularly difficult to get rid of.
Although Ibrahim did not know it, his brother, Adolf (no middle name) North, the bugmaster of Adolf Exterminations, the pogrom artist, had been making private experiments aimed at figuring out a more efficient way to extirpate white-footed ants. Yes, white-footed ants existed, and they were a subject of concern to many people.
That said, there were no white-footed ants in the cool air-conditioned room at Ming Taxis where Egaltine Choom sat studying the dossier on Ibrahim Lonicus Chess, the Zisperchilp resident believed to be the perverted intellect who was masterminding the astral terror treason. There were no ants at all in that room. Nobody in that room had so much as thought about an ant in the last ninety days. (Pretty remarkable when you think about it, since scientific research has demonstrated that the average human being thinks about ants on 2.7761 occasions in every sixty-day period. Substantial scientific careers are dedicated to generating data like this.)
Why was Egaltine Choom, the self-declared islander, off island, at Ming Taxis? He was there at the behest of Don Trash, who was mindful of the fact that Olive Valise had warned him she was not prepared to tolerate another shootout between Don's guys and Beria's. Any repeat of that incident last year which had left five dead, not counting bystanders, and had put Inoshishi Station out of action for a month, and heads would roll, and, no, Don, that's not a figure of speech, when I say roll I'm talking about bowling ball territory.
Consequently, Don knew he had to tread carefully on this one, couldn't just jump in and machinegun that Scream Box trash that was surveillance-screening Ibrahim Chess, no, would have been easy, they were such a bunch of armless wimps, but Olive, when she hit the red line, she was scary. Hadn't become President by accident. Well, not entirely by accident.
Consequently, Don had reached out to Egaltine Choom. Any killing, torturing, baseball bat fighting, Egaltine's team could do it. Egaltine did have a team, a couple of them guys Don had fired for incompetence. Not much of a team, but, then, the astral conspiracy they were up against was probably still pretty small at this stage.
Yes, Egaltine would suffer the downside, if there was any downside to suffer, and Don, who was quicker on his feet than Egaltine, would snaffle up any upside that came along. And, if they were indeed on the verge of cracking the astral terror ring, which they seemed to be, the upside would be considerable.
Given that the astral conspiracy, mastermind and all, had been in the news for days, it might be asked why the security apparatus of the nation state was so slow in cracking it. Part of the problem was underfunding. You get the security you are prepared to pay for. If you prefer to spend your money on yet another hamburger rather than contributing to the Secret Policeman's Benevolent Fund, well, don't come complaining to the state when you're home at night and your cat suddenly explodes, some lowlife terror trash having fed it a microbomb earlier in the day.
Another problem was that both Tolstaple and Ideation Control spent too much of their energy spying on each other. However, if Don Trash had not been diligently invigilating Beria Dag, then he would never have cottoned on to the fact that Beria was in the process of corralling a terror ring.
But Don's spies, by snooping on Beria's spies, had stealthed themselves all the way to the Adventuring Salt Building, where they had discovered Ibrahim Chess, the venomous spider at the heart of a terror mechanism which was too subtle and intricate to understand at first blush.
And that was why, now, as Ibrahim Chess hiked along Zisperhaven's coastal road, making for Urn Angol Wat, Don Trash, the Tolstaple boss, was sitting across the table from Egaltine Choom, the ruler of Zisperchilp, in Chamber Terrorwatch, a harshly-lit room with off-white walls, high up in Telescope Tower, the tallest building in Ming Taxis. Telescope Tower: the headquarters of Tolstaple, the secret enforcement agency also known as the Inner Police.
There were not two people in Chamber Terrorwatch but three, the third being Vicky Glark, Don's instrumental assistant. They were all three of them getting into the psychotropics, strong coffee and that heavy-kicking mental boost chocolate, the dark-as-black consolidum, the kind of lifter you'd pack along if you were wilderness trekking north from Mount Vangus to Mount Spottle.
By now, they had been at it for some time, and were starting to get a bit of a buzz on, getting a bit of that alligator avalanche mental aggression you need just before you walk in to take your seat for that really tough three-hour written exam for that futurology course you have been taking. (Question one. Choose an option and explain your choice in no fewer than one thousand words. Ten years from now, will dreams be (a) recordable, (b) illegal, (c) legal but subject to censorship, (d) legal, but only for people who have attained the age of eighteen or older, (e) commodified, and, in consequence, both taxable and on sale at the supermarket.)
"Let's review," said Vicky Glark, who really wanted to kick this slow coach Choomy.
Or, failing that, to kickstart his brain into action. If he had a brain. Her thesis was that he did, but, as they had taught her back in Cognitive Philosophy 101, not everything you imagine is true.
Trying to be patient, trying to recap things at a pace which Choomy boy could follow, Vicky revisited the day's events. Sable Tauranga, the girl with the boobies, had left Tower A of Incineration Towers, wearing, as on previous occasions, that shiny metal collar which had been identified as a radio-activated Dubrovnic Decapitator, model KK-24. Quite powerful. Try not to be in the same room when that one takes someone's head off. Sable's precise relationship with Beria was unclear, but, evidently, he did not indulge his pretty little odalisque sex slave, or whatever she was, with the privilege of absolute trust.
A taxi to Diskartha. A quick trip into Highly Expensive, the place with the in your face prices, to buy a six-pack of lipstick. And who was paying for that? Beria? No, more likely Omblock's unsuspecting taxpayers. Snack time at Creamy Coffee Cups (did this girl have the word "diet" in her dictionary?), then a J-train out as far as Lan Bios.
At Lan Bios, Sable had been tailed to a dental clinic, Nirvana Orgasms -- odd name for a dental clinic, not quite the right image, a bit like setting up a restaurant and calling it Blowfish, Blowfly or Blowjob Susan's.
But Sable had not gone into the dental clinic. The cops had been at work just outside the front door, beating up a guy on the sidewalk, and one of the cops, the one with the bright steel knuckle duster which was starting to get bloodstained, was a man Don Trash had identified at sight as soon as he saw the surveillance videos, Heinrich Himmler. Heinrich, a member of the Diamorphine Taskforce, was the focus of three high-profile lawsuits as a consequence of his "let's get results" methods, some of which, incidentally, generated a lot of work for dentists.
Having apparently decided that she was not going to visit her dentist at the same time as the police, Sable Tauranga had headed back to Lan Bios Station. An I-train to Sekigahara then a velociraptor to quickthrust all the way to Luanda Hill. Another taxi (the bills were mounting up) then a ferry from Koala to Taris.
And now she, Sable, was at Taris, sitting at a place near Ibrahim's hangout, a place called Brashtabil Eats, eating her way through two chocolate eclairs, which inevitably led you to the conclusion that she was one of the bad girls, yes, skipped her compulsory Lady Svelte training at high school, showed latent radfem tendencies by ignoring the responsibility to diet.
Brashtabil Eats was run by a Donna Hong, almost nothing in the files about her, something suspicious about that. The ones nobody denounces, they're the ones who are best at hiding secrets.
Plainly, there was some kind of conspiracy afoot, and Beria Dag was close to cracking it. Beria had used exploding collar terror to co-opt the media identity Sable Tauranga, to force her to be his mole girl. Her mission, as in the movies, was to use her blonde good looks to seduce her way into the heart of a terror conspiracy which, looking at it from the outside, seemed to involve, at the very least, a dentist by the name of Seward Burroughs, the eatery manager Donna Hong, and Ibrahim Chess.
If you didn't accept the thesis that Sable, Seward, Ibrahim and Donna were all tied together in one and the same conspiracy, then you were forced in the direction of thinking that your surveillance results were just so many random insights into an intrinsically chaotic world, and that kind of thinking is forbidden. Once you sign on as security, you commit to the notion that the world is an organized engine, masterminded. A coherent structure, intelligently designed. The link-ups people make, they're not evolutionary accidents, no, they're part of a plan. Delete the notion that everything is part of an intelligent plan, and your surveillance operation gets trashed down to the status of worthless masturbatory voyeurism.
Presumably, Ibrahim was the astral mastermind at the heart of the terror treason conspiracy, since Beria's surveillance operation -- parabolic microphones, laser-powered window glass readers, binocular-equipped eyeball watchers, helicopter flyovers, the works -- was focused firmly on Ibrahim Chess. Beria must be red-lining his budget to pay for all this, since Ideation Control had the same basic problem as Tolstaple: not really enough money to do the job properly.
Well, what to do now?
Vicky summed it up for Egaltine Choom, but did not spell out the reason why Egaltine had been invited to be the third player in the three-way Don-Beria-Egaltine game. If Egaltine was too stupid to figure out that his role was to be the fall guy if anything went wrong (and he was too stupid to figure that out) then there was no need to put him in the picture.
As Don and Vicky had realized right from the start, if Beria Dag was left to his own devices, then Beria would, eventually, be able to crack the secrets of the astral terror network he was prying into, and then all the kudos would be his. Somehow, Don and Vicky had to preempt Beria. The way to do that was obvious, but Vickydon -- they were pretty much a mind-match, a merge -- thought it better if Egaltine got the impression that the obvious idea was his idea.
The next move was Egaltine's. He had to think his way through to the obvious, at which point Vickydon would take the applause track role and say wow, what a megamarvelous idea!
They had both of them, both Don and Vicky, been waiting for a long time now, with no sign of cognitive activity manifesting itself in Egaltine's speech, but, as the ancient adage says, all things come to he who waits.
"I have an idea," said Egaltine, at last.
Pompous Choomy was proud of himself. Ideas did not come easily to him, and, each time they did, he wrote them down proudly in his diary. He had been using the same diary for ten years now, and very few of the pages had been filled.
"An idea?" said Don Trash. "An idea might be just what we need. What is your idea?"
"Snatch this Ibrahim Chess individual off the streets, take him to the Dungeon of Death and torture him to death. Get the truth out of him."
"Sounds good to me," said Don. "Nice, simple and effective. Okay, when shall we snatch him?"
"How about today?" said Vicky Glark.
And none of them saw anything wrong with that idea. Yes, no time like the present. Snatch the astral terror lunatic off the streets and go to work on him. By the time they were finished with him, he'd tell them anything. Would give them names, telephone numbers, a list of capables. Probably even denounce his own mother before they were done with him.