It was against the rules to eat on any of the buses operated by Conflux Transport and you could be subjected to a spot fine of fifty dollars if you got caught. But Egon Turow, who had been made reckless by the fact that he planned to shortly kill himself, was eating his way through a packet of Higlin's Curried Jellychips, strongly-flavored chips of freeze-dried jellyfish. He was sitting toward the rear of the bus, back near the teenyboppers with their blaring radios, so he didn't think there was much chance of being caught snacking.
Maybe it had been a mistake to get on a bus. It would have been faster to get a taxi from Abendigo to Sekigahara. But it would have been a hugely expensive taxi fare, his second big fare of the day, and he was almost out of cash. There was no way he could pay by credit card. He had heard his own name on news breaks that interrupted the music on the radios the teenyboppers were carrying. He was famous, and famous sooner than he had expected. There was a good chance that any taxi driver might recognize his name if he paid by credit card. And that could mess things up at the last moment.
Okay, then. Sit on the bus and enjoy the moment. His name was out there on the airwaves. He was already famous, and he had not even exploded himself! On top of that, it seemed he had fooled the authorities somehow. They thought he was going to Parkes Pilkem. Idiots!
One of the payoffs of being a terrorist is that you become the One Who Knows. Egon knew exactly where he was going and exactly what he was going to do there, and the knowledge that he alone knew filled him with an immense sensation of satisfaction.
Egon wondered if the astral community was already talking about him, thinking about him. Actually, they were, usually along the lines of "Who is this nut?"
Also, apart from having won instant fame as a terrorist, Egon was fast gaining notoriety as Omblock's number one welfare cheat. Reporters had been interviewing Egon's neighbors in Bilbage Apartments, his place of residence in Balimo, and had discovered that Egon was a sickness beneficiary, receiving a payout from the taxpayer because he was, theoretically, too ill to work. But if he was fit enough to plan a terrorist outrage then, surely, he was fit enough to work.
People were starting to think and talk about Egon, then. But, with the pressure of daily life being what it is, few people had time to spend more than a couple of minutes worrying their heads about him. After all, since he was believed to be heading for Parkes Pilkem, most people could comfortably tell themselves "not heading my way".
On Zisperhaven, where Ibrahim Chess and Sable Tauranga were deep in discussion, the quotidian details of Ibrahim's life took precedence over any speculations as to the outcome of the Egon Turow manhunt. While Egon sat on his bus, grinding his way toward his own destruction, Sable methodically went into Ibrahim's life in as much detail as he would permit.
Some subjects seemed to be off limits. Intimate companions? Ibrahim was not saying.
"But you know what a girl is, don't you?" said Sable finally, in exasperation.
"I may have seen one at the zoo," said Ibrahim.
"Oh, very witty!" said Sable impatiently. "Partners, partnership, this is where the human interest is."
"I'm here as a businessperson," said Ibrahim. "Not a human interest story. It's not like I was a music star or the national dog-beating champion."
He appreciated that publicity was part of the deal if he was lucky enough to win the ballot for the Omblock Prospadaplus Consultancy Prize. The Open Mansions people would be making a documentary covering the progress of the consultancy process. He would be on television. But he wanted to be there on account of his business: boats on the Bilge Globulus. Not for things more private and personal.
Knowing that her boss, Watford Lammerton, would be checking up on her, Sable persevered with the interview, finding her first astral interviewee more than a little disappointing, like gin and tonic without the gin. A zero on the weirdness scale.
And where was this carnival stuff you heard about when you talked about astrals? In Ibrahim's quiet office world on Pier Nine, there was zero in the way of riot and uproar. Maybe carnival was like sex. People did it, but they didn't do it all the time, and they generally hid away when they did do it, and they wouldn't always show you their videos afterwards.
At this stage in the interview, Sable knew more about the Ibrahim Chess story than she really wanted to know. Born on the island of Sclag. Attended Anclag Academy, a combination day school and boarding school. When Anclag Academy went (briefly) into the business of offering its own university degrees, Ibrahim stayed on and studied for a degree in entomology.
Entomology, which basically meant taking an unhealthy interest in bugs, led him into his first business venture, Ibrahim Exterminations, a bug-killing company which went around wiping out ants, flies, termites and mosquitoes. Not a glamorous business, and not wildly profitable, either, but it was steady work (the bugs keep breeding) and you could make a buck doing it.
Then, five years back, Ibrahim had entered his "my dream" period and had started up Marine Charters. What a boring name! Why not Seduction Cruises or Voluptuous Ocean Adventures?
The yacht business, as far as Sable could gather, was tougher than the bug-killing trade. People needed their bugs killed, and, if they did not realize the fact, then the bugs would bite them or eat away at their houses until they thought otherwise. But having fun floating on the water was a luxury, and the world was crowded with people out for the luxury dollar.
Had she absolutely run out of questions? And did Ibrahim have a toilet? And, if he did, was it clean or dirty?
As Sable was thinking these thoughts, there was a surge of excitement from the TV which drew both Sable's attention and Ibrahim's. Earlier, Ibrahim had offered to turn off the little TV but Sable had preferred for it to stay on. She was, after all, a journalist, and would rather not switch off what had to be the number one breaking news story of the year. So they heard the news flash. Ibrahim looked at Sable and she nodded, and he turned up the volume.
"Glorst suspect caught!" said Esmeralda Arizona, the anchor on Conflux One, the city's leading free-to-air TV station.
Esmeralda, glammed up like a fashion model, wearing those diamonds that oh so famous husband of hers had given her. Bitch. Bet she has sweaty armpits.
With hostile jealousy -- older women with a jewelry lifestyle always made her furiously envious -- Sable watched Esmeralda do her stuff.
A man had been arrested by the coast guard. He had been in a fizz boat approaching Parkes Pilkem, but was now in custody and had been "grogged up" -- that is to say, injected with drugs designed to prevent him from using his paranormal powers. If he had paranormal powers. If he was the right man. Esmeralda said that his interrogation was already underway.
"So that's that, then," said Sable.
A little disappointed. There would be no bang, no glorst. Life would carry on as before.
Then, realizing what she was thinking, Sable was ashamed of herself. What a horrible thing to think -- to think it would have been more exciting for the guy to have gone bang. That was a mayhem thought. A boy thought, even. Think too many thoughts like that and she'd find herself heading off to buy an inflatable doll and a jockstrap.
Or, maybe, that aberrant glorst-loving thought was an astral thought. Yes, maybe she was being contaminated by an astral mode of thought, sitting here on Zisperhaven face to face with her first astral, Ibrahim Chess.
"Well," said Sable. "That's it, then. All's well that ends well."
And then her thoughts returned to what was fast becoming priority number one: did Ibrahim have a toilet?