Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us
Print this Story

Issue 21
Stories
Brutal Interlude
by Wayne Wightman
The Devil's Rematch
by Spencer Ellsworth
Breakout
by Edmund R. Schubert
IGMS Audio
Breakout by Edmund R. Schubert
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Brutal Interlude
    by Wayne Wightman

1st Place - Best Story - 2011
1st Place - Best Cover Art - 2011

Brutal Interlude
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Walter Roscoe

was a little bit taken with Noreen Brown, the woman in the tea shop across the street from his pet store, Walter's Used Pets. Both in their aimless thirties, Noreen, he'd learned, had divorced herself from a lawyer husband who had promised her lifelong poverty, and on this he had delivered. Walter had never had the marriage experience, he suspected, because of the purple birthmark on his left cheek, the size and approximate shape of a small hand. People assumed he was psychologically strange. Thus, he thrived in the company of cast-off animals. He knew this made him vulnerable.

Walter developed an every-other-day tea habit in her shop where he could say hello to Ms. Brown and, perhaps today, say something else. Now, sitting at a little table, he tried not to squirm. Perhaps he'd ask her how she was doing, a question he heard people ask each other a lot, but whose purpose eluded him, since the answer was never meaningful. Out of desperation, he asked her how she was doing.

For a moment she looked like she didn't know the answer to a hard question. Then she said with a happy-sad face, "Another day, another dolor," and placed the cup of Assam before him.

That was when he realized he was a little taken by Noreen Brown.

The next day, through his front window, a no-tea day for him, he saw her delicately bustle out of her shop, holding a tray with a teapot under a cloth thing.

Noreen came through his door backside first, to keep the tea tray clear. "I have to get right back," she said as she set it on his counter, "but I thought perhaps you could return these this evening, about when I close?"

He froze -- she actually stood in his shop, Noreen Brown, in front of him, talking. He unfroze just enough to say, "Yes, I will." Walter, for the rest of his life, remembered her faintly sly smile and wide-eyed expectation. She smelled of flour and her final words, ". . . this evening, about when I close?" -- the saddest and most hopeful words he had ever heard. Garith Glone

looked at the datapage one last time, said, "Take her," and broke connection. There was some je ne sais quoi about this woman, something about her face. In his spacious office, he darkened the lights, watched, and awaited the unfolding events he had just triggered.

ICU!

(the clever logo-name for I See You!) was the latest incarnation of invasion entertainment. Hosted by Lance Graff, dragged from obscurity in Barstow, big grin, big bravado, to become everybody's friend with a constant stream of self-evident observations. ("You are who you are!" "We got weather today!" Etc.) He wasn't quick, but he looked good and hadn't become offensive. Lance was this afternoon fully geared, aglow with sweat and excitement, accompanied by security and crew, in the back of the hot-oil-and-electronics-smelling ICU! van, just minutes from inducting their next contestant. Around the world 1.2 billion watched this special high-density trivid broadcast. New Contestant = Big News = Big Revenue.

All America held its breath, and a lot of the rest of the world.

ICU! selected one or two contestants a week, allegedly at random, though it was widely believed each was actually picked by Garith Glone, himself, since so many of his severest critics or their children ended up as discredited, raving, or suicidal contestants.

It was a simple concept: As a contestant, one's entire life was broadcast to the world -- every second, from various angles -- eating, snoring, bathroom habits, any sexual practices, everything and all of it, as in all of it from all angles in the highest of definitions. And not only was it broadcast as it happened, most stations provided extended evening highlights of the most popular five or six contestants -- embarrassing moments, surreal moments, contestants blowing all reality -- and cursory coverage of the other twenty-some. Perversely, those few who didn't mind the intrusion dropped off the charts in days. Being a contestant was a cakewalk for the densely stupid, the arrogant, and the sociopathic; most others had trouble, and there was the fun of it.

Since it was quasi-governmentally-run and provided immense revenue, everyone between sixteen and sixty was considered subject to it, in return for lower taxes, with no exceptions for the wealthy, the imbecilic, the delicate, or the dying. Contestants were paid one million dollars for each day their ratings stayed in the top five of the twenty-five contestants; the others got a lot of merchandise. One remained a fully monitored contestant, even against one's will, depending entirely on the ratings. Slots below fifteen had a fast turnover. But the most interesting were the ones driven mad or near mad, which assured higher ratings, in proportion to their affliction. People loved it.

Noreen Brown

took a smooth deep breath when the little bell on the tea shop door jingled. It would be Walter, arriving a little early. She hurried toward the front.

It wasn't Walter.

"Hi! I'm Lance Graff from I See You! And guess what, Miss Nor-een Brown?!" He was all excitement and vacuous charm. It was one of those five-second moments when a life becomes a catastrophe.

Walter Roscoe

thought things moved pretty fast after that.

He witnessed the commotion in the street, the dozens of vehicles, the armed crowd-management team ready to game, the helicopter blapping overhead, and by the time he had planned to walk across the street to return her tea set with the cloth thing, she was a celebrity.

From his shop, Walter had seen Lance Graff give his famous "Big Signal" for loosing the swarmers, those airborne cameras no bigger than peas that would follow her everywhere, anticipate her movements, and meet her wherever she arrived. They would swarm around her in the dark, and in obscure wavelengths they would see everything from every angle, translated into visible light.

The world waited.

Walter turned his trivid to the ICU! channel, and there she was, Noreen, sprawled on the floor of her tea shop across the street, weeping and weeping. The multiple views of the swarmers coordinated so that her trivid image was fully dimensional. The commentators discussed Lance Graff's apparent special concern for her -- but she had been unresponsive. Walter knew that if he went to comfort her, the world would stare and talk about him and the left side of his face. Strangers would act like they knew him.

Across the street, ICU! Security monitored her door. The neighborhood had been swept for non-residents, and from now on, she would be protected from strangers who would want to touch or kiss or kill her. She could go anywhere or do anything except not be a contestant -- as long as it wasn't illegal, insofar as they could stop her. What she wanted, she had only to ask for. The budget for the show was fabulous but was only a tiny percentage of what ICU! brought in.

Walter politely explained who he was to the armed person in the black mask. A quick ID check, and yes, he was cleared to go in. In front of his chest, Walter carried the tea set with the cloth thing over the pot. He had no idea what he felt about what he was doing.

He bumped backwards through the door and put the tray on the counter. And there she was, just like on the trivid, on the floor hiding her face, the swarmer cameras circling lazily, like flies.

On him in an instant, Lance Graff whispered loudly into Walter's face, "Hello, I'm Lance Graff. She's having a rough time of it, isn't she? She's attractive. You're across the street, am I right? Big day. What do you think?" Swarmers circled them.

"I thought I should come over," he said around the knot in his throat. "Maybe I can help."

He was thinking that all over the world people were muttering, "Splotch-face! Creep!" at their trivids, at him, and wondering if he was a pervert and would try to molest her, what with the birthmark.

Walter crossed the room to her and knelt beside her. Her hands were wet with crying. As if it might give them privacy, Walter shielded their faces with his hands. He spoke quietly to her for a minute, then another, and soon they sat at one of the customer tables. She quivered. Her face moved from one rigid expression of fear to another.

"We should have tea every day," he said helplessly. And he wasn't sure either one of them understood anything. "Noreen?"

Her focus shifted to him precisely. "What."

"We can still have tea every day."

Her focus sharpened. "This is really happening to me, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"Everyone's going to see everything I do . . . aren't they."

"Yes."

A middle aged gentleman, rumpled black suit, thinning black hair, opened the shop door tentatively, grinned, and gently knocked on the door frame. "Hello?" He pushed the door further, making the little bell brightly jingle. "Hello? I'm Ms. Brown's ICU! physician, Dr. Leonardi," he said to Walter. He sat down with them. He spoke slowly and evenly, just above a whisper: "Ms. Brown. I am so pleased to meet you. I'm entirely at your beck and call, anytime, anywhere. Any way you think I could be useful, just say the word. But for right now . . ."

He pulled several plastic bottles of pills out of his pockets and put them on the table before her. She forced her eyes toward the bottles.

"This is routine, Ms. Brown. Now, these receive my highest recommendation: This one -- For Sleep, like it says on the bottle, with the dosage. This one, For Calmness. This, For Quiet Thoughts." He leaned toward her and said, "We understand there may be issues of modesty involved. Quiet Thoughts helps with that. Would you like any of these to help you along?"

"I want all of them."

He pushed them toward her and laid one of his hands over hers. "Now, you note the dosages." He leaned closer and the world listened to his intimate whisper: "I won't say you can't go over it a little, but if you take a bunch of them, you'll have to be, you know, pumped out." His face slowly went from serious to sad. "I'm very sorry this has happened to you, Ms. Brown, truly. You have lovely hands." He stood and nodded at Walter. "I'll do my best for you," he said to her. "Ask for me. I'm near." He twitched a smile at Walter and left without sound.

Walter didn't know what to say.

Noreen forced her eyes from the bottles of pills to Walter's face. "How long do you think it will take me to not want to die?"

As though anyone could know that. "Four days," he said out of nowhere.

"Then, Walter," she said, forcing the words through her tightened throat, "beginning now, I want you to excuse me for four days. Then please come for tea?"

"I shouldn't leave you."

"Everyone's going to see me." She tilted her head a little to the side and said, as a question, "Walter, please don't watch me?" She looked horribly weak.

"No, I won't and I won't listen to people talk about it. I shouldn't leave you."

She nodded with glacial slowness. She mouthed the word Go.

He left her, not knowing the meaning of her sending him away, not knowing what was going to happen in either of their lives. He felt like he had left the earth behind.

Noreen Brown

survived the first two days only by drugging herself into insensibility. She was surprised how many pills she could take without getting pumped out, or maybe they pumped her and she hadn't noticed. Whatever. Her rating bobbled around nineteenth.

Much later, when those hours were played back for her, she saw that Lance Graff had repeatedly had his hands all over her, outside her clothes, under the pretense of making her more comfortable. The mousy doctor, Leonardi, had shown up morning and evening to check her over, and aside from always holding one of her hands, he touched her delicately, only as necessary, often with Lance Graff standing over him.

Morning of the third day, moderately clear-headed, she lay in her twisted sheets, and tried to put the few pieces together.

Though they still watched her, the swarmers were silent and unmoving for the moment, perched on furniture and shelves, and Noreen wanted them to stay that way.

She had been trying to think in rational steps about what she knew for sure:

One: I am Noreen Brown and I would prefer to live.

Two: Noreen Brown can't live this way; she will find a way to die.

Three: I will die unless I am not Noreen Brown.

Then, so easily one might think she was born for it, she thought, Goodnight, Noreen Brown. Maybe we'll meet again. Goodnight. She listened for a while to her breath. I am a person who is not Noreen Brown. I am now not that tea shop person. She let Noreen slip away as another face entered her mind's mirror, the face of the person she would become -- someone she had been for a moment here, a moment there . . . someone who had been robbed of being Noreen Brown, someone with a high degree of resentment.

She rolled slowly over to her back and let the sheet fall open.

The world gasped.

Aside from her nudity, she didn't precisely look like Noreen Brown. It was something about the narrowed eyes and her lips, a look of bitterest contempt.

Copies of the moment proliferated geometrically.

The world sat mesmerized.

Day three, her rating went to sixth. She moved into the penthouse of the Santa Miranda Hidalgo. She had her hair cut and lightened to the lightest blond. She selected different clothes and spoke in single-syllable commands. "Here." "Stop." "Out." Her ratings climbed; she showed promise: sponsors lined up.

At one point during her shopping, she saw one of the background technicians smirking at her. She spoke languidly in his direction. "If I ever see him again, I'll have his house burned." He was instantly transferred to a pitiful job out of state to save him from willing arsonists, who were never in short supply. This early incident rang a few alarms in the mid levels of ICU! but they were drowned out by the rain of increased revenue.

Millions loved the incident -- victim turns on victimizer, Miss Nobody strikes at Goliath -- with few recognizing the irony of their cruel affection or identifying with Goliath, which they should have done.

Garith Glone

owned PulseCorp, which owned ICU!, among many other things. In the darkness of his office, Glone sat and gazed at Noreen Brown as she moved around her bedroom, preparing for sleep. The frail light caught the planes of her face. Her fingers unfolded like delicate sea animals and combed through her hair. Garith Glone had adored a face like hers, long ago, back at the edge of memory. While she slept, he looked on her in fascination.

Walter Roscoe

heard the convoy arrive outside Walter's Used Pets at 1:30 p.m., on the fourth day. A driver gestured the disbelieving Walter into the waiting limousine and took him with his own garden's five-rose bouquet to Noreen's hotel suite. The driver answered no questions. Ignorant of everything that had happened, this luxury, this production, made him suspect he had been mistaken for someone else. The driver sequentially opened and closed all doors and pressed all buttons for Walter, who now stood in a grand but empty penthouse entryway, eighth floor.

The woman who had been Noreen Brown came around the corner, accompanied by the soft rushing sound of the swarmers. At six or seven feet away, Walter could see a good bit of Noreen in her, but there was also someone else. This woman had bobbed blond hair, wore shorts and a half-opened white shirt. Her eyes looked bigger and her lips softer -- a kind of thin, tightly-wrapped Marilyn Monroe look.

"Noreen couldn't be here, most literally," she said softly. "When she comes back, Walter, you'll be the first to know. I'm Sylvia."

"I might need a minute to understand this." He held out the flowers. "Here."

They were served tea, on the expansive deck, in deck chairs, overlooking the tree-shrouded city. The swarmers settled in places high and low, still as long as she was still.

She said, "Noreen couldn't live in this disaster. I gave her what she wanted."

"I'll do anything to help." He wanted to say more but couldn't think of anything.

"I'll tell you when I need you. Walter, you can watch me on the trivid now, if you want. I'm not Noreen."

He nodded, but he didn't know about intruding on her like everyone else -- he actually knew her. "I'd like to see you in person sometimes."

Before he could think, she stood, leaned toward him, and kissed his lips -- not quickly, not slowly -- and said, "You will."

Sylvia Romilar

noted that after Lance Graff brought her a message or admirers' flowers, he would silhouette himself against a window in some pseudo-heroic pose, or appear conspicuously suffering from crippling sadness, cornball even to pre-teens, and he would wear those tight, skimpy, expensive clothes he got paid to wear. She gave him pleasant smiles and kind words, once going so far as to briefly hold his hand, thus making him more willing to be used, if the need arose.

On day five, Garith Glone, Mr. PulseCorp himself, stopped by for a set-check, which meant that on random whims he nosed into whatever he felt like. Fiftyish, trim and elegant, he focused on her and displayed the radiant grin that $40,000 of famous dental work provided. Liquidly rolling his words in anapests, he lingered over vowels: "I'm so glad to finally meet you now face-to-face, Ms. Romilar. Of all contestants, you are one of the very most fascinating." He held both her hands in his, lingering longer than the world expected.

"I want out."

"Sylvia, you're already Number Three! A million a day!" -- as though she were to be envied. "You're mysterious and irresistible. The world is fast falling in love with you, and I love you for reasons even your mother would appreciate." Exquisite grin.

"You could let me go if you wanted to. Please."

"I could, but your beauty and determination make you more intriguing by the moment." He could make words like that sound unrehearsed.

She looked away, she looked back, she seethed. "You've turned my life into pornography."

"No, that comes later." Now he played shamelessly to the trivid audience, hundreds of millions of people, 89% of current viewers. "This is just the cheesecake stage. And your insipid 'life'? You had no life. But ICU! has given you one."

"I was about to have one of my own."

"Have a life here -- Lance would help, I'm sure."

To the side, Lance twitched and shrugged with restrained excitement. Everybody knew he would help all over the place, given the chance.

"When your ranking drops to twenty, maybe Lance will give you the three-point bounce." He gazed at her like a sated predator.

Common knowledge: most contestants eventually had intercourse while the world watched; it was both the highlight and the drop-off point for most players. But, for a 3% bump and a million a day, or $42,000 an hour, contestants did things they earlier would have thought were both morally corrupt and physically revolting. As it turned out, contestant after contestant, the ethical issues needed hardly any kicking around before coming into alignment with the money.

"I'll make you a deal," she said.

"I am amused," Glone's arrogance was rich with scorn. He looked ready for a good joke.

"When you want me to quit --" (He laughed at her.) "-- I'll refuse you as often as you refuse me."

"How Shakespearean! I've refused you once already -- how about a few more? No, no, no, no."

"That's five," Sylvia said.

"Let it be five," said Garith Glone.

"No second thoughts?" she asked.

"None. Your silliness doesn't disturb my equilibrium." He was so obviously pleased with the way the conversation had gone.

"Glone, I'm going to punctuate your equilibrium."

"Whatever." With a flash of his teeth, he shook his head, as though she were a naughty girl.

It was a moment often replayed on the trivid, a few months later.

Walter Roscoe

tracked the surveys to see if her ranking rose or fell. The Glone-Romilar exchange caused a 2.2% uptick in the viewing audience, and +7.8% specifically in the subfactor of "curiosity regarding motivation." Walter was curious about that, too -- but get Glone to release her? Maybe in some other twilight zone.

He watched Noreen-Sylvia during the long pauses between his customers -- he tried to think of her as Noreen, but news programs called her Sylvia Romilar. It was a name she'd chosen from labels out of a waste can. She didn't look a lot like Noreen anymore or act like her, for sure. Noreen Brown was a shy person, and he remembered her with an aching fondness. Sylvia Romilar, however, was going into the movies. She was already in Morocco for Instruments of Torture and Delight, in which she would play both leading parts. Shooting had already begun.

After two months at a million a day in her ICU! account, she still held in the top three, bumped around a little by channel 667's Your Life/Our Life when they featured a normal-looking guy named Diaz who had about six secret lives and ran his OCD at Mach 3. The two days on each side of his suicide she dropped to fourth.

Garith Glone

watched on his trivid as Sylvia washed her hands. He had hours of her hands as they washed, handled dinnerware, or read, or lay across her lap, and he now realized these were indeed like the hands he had once known, and her face was very much like the face he remembered. And he had insulted Ms. Romilar in front of the world, just for the fun of it. It had been fun. But now . . . now her hands and face haunted his imagination. He watched her hours every day.

Walter Roscoe

was watering his cats when he first heard her go after music. She would have music played for her. "Beethoven . . . stupid thumping. Mozart . . . trivial curlicues. Bach . . . last year's software could do better." To popular music, she listened long, without indication of attitude. Then, after two weeks, she said, "I like the violent ones."

Her play chart was revised. After two days of icepick-in-the-skank's-eye lyricism, she said, "Is that it?" and seemed to sulk.

Walter knew what would happen next, and most people were excited about it: Emulating her implied tastes, the demand exploded for lyrical cruelty -- mumbled, crooned or shrieked -- from party-stomping to rhythmic eviscerations. Product appeared in geysers out of indie labels, non-labels, and heavily sponsored corporate labels that added violins and woodwinds and tried to sell it to the middle-aged. Hundreds of groups wrote thousands of songs and glued bullets on their bodies. Dencil Pick and the Slicks swept the Western world with "Bulimic Fatso," a tango with rhythmic eating-disorder noises. Mutant Genes' "Mystery Bump (Grab It!)" initiated the graphically visceral "grab-it" style of popular music with weapons fire in place of percussion and assorted sampled animal noises among other organic sounds.

Instruments of Torture and Delight was released on her ninety-fifth day. Those who were paid for their opinions said that she was heartbreaking as the self-loathing Betty Fornax and inhuman yet sympathetic as Patty Pavo. She made the rest of the cast look like high school.

When asked where she got her inspiration, she said, "First, I was born. Then this happened. It motivates me." In two weeks, the movie had made her more money than her victimization by ICU! She channeled this wealth into her fan clubs, with utterly predictable results, in hindsight.

Walter watched Instruments with trepidation yet felt relief at its end. It troubled him to see Noreen as Sylvia as the icy Patty and then as the self-loathing Betty. He wondered if those people had been inside her all along and if there were other people she could be. As easily as she could be Betty Fornax or Patty Pavo, she could certainly be Noreen Brown again, with be presuming that appearance is 75% of reality, ▒25%.

Walter noted that always in the background hovered Lance Graff, quick with a smile and a nod, who, between his excited personal broadcasts, ran errands for her, ordered her wine, and alerted others to her movements.

She made blockbuster after blockbuster. In Triumph of the Flesh, she again brilliantly displayed the souls of two characters, one odd-minded, the other cruel. But it was Adaptogenia, written as though by Kafka with a tumor, that made her an icon. Playing all three parts, her death scene on the beach broke the hearts of millions. She was saintly, she was luminous. Prizes were awarded. Heads of state welcomed her. Men openly wept. Walter wept. Sylvia Romilar announced she had made her last film.

She had become mythic.

Sylvia Romilar

remained on St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, where Adaptogenia had wrapped. Remote and isolated, the crew hated the place, which gave Sylvia a third reason to stay.

She rarely heard Dr. Leonardi as he ghosted into the room, always a bit nervous, saying bits and pieces of what nervous people say, apologizing that it was already time for a re-check.

He fiddled with his scanner, having a little trouble turning it on. "That Mr. Graff," Dr. Leonardi said almost under his breath, "isn't a very stable person." He moved the soap-bar-sized thing across her chest, across her back, and then held it against her neck for several blood-related readings. "He's very rude to everyone but you, Ms. Romilar," he said through his heavy breath. "He's placed some bets, a lot of money -- I'm sorry. I'm rambling."

"What kind of bets?"

"On what he . . . . On what sexual activity he could do with you by the first of next month, then by the fifth, the tenth -- all kinds of different odds -- it's too complicated for normal people to understand." He looked at the numbers on the device and nodded. "You have wonderful health. Ms. Romilar, I'm a dull person, but if you need a dull person to talk to, I volunteer myself."

"Thank you," Sylvia said neutrally. She patted the top of one of his hands. "Thank you."

Dr. Leonardi nodded, looking utterly blank. Sylvia left the room with most of the swarmers circling her. The few that remained showed Dr. Leonardi looking steadily at the hand she had touched, at the hand that lay unmoved for one minute and forty seconds. The world watched and connected the dots.

Walter Roscoe

found it hard to believe reports from around the world that people washed their faces in imitation of Sylvia, spoke in Sylvia's lilting and shy or crisply hostile tones, ate what she ate, bought the products she used, and gathered to discuss the unspoken meanings of her words or actions.

Walter was watching her on his trivid from behind the counter of his pet shop, on the day of what became known as the First Speaking. For an hour she had sat quietly, on her St. Helena veranda. And then, without prelude, she looked into the swarmers, focused, and began to recite:

"Seven women in brown dresses will die in the next five minutes. Three men in their forties named Charles will soon come into more than ten thousand dollars. A lady in her forties in California who survived cancer should be cautious this week of food poisoning. Alice, keep your pets close this week; it'll be easier for you. A family named Wilber, get your children inoculated now." And it went on. And on.

Walter was awed. She seemed to have no script, yet her words coursed smoothly along, one after the other, as though precisely rehearsed. Nine men and six women would discover whatever, four people in Wyoming will injure something with some implement -- all kinds of people, pets, even farm animals, falling, flying, eating, and traveling; there was losing money, finding it, finding a lost one, losing a found one . . . . It seemed endless. Most of it was cautionary or positive, with few dark spots.

It occurred to Walter that she had gone mad. That wouldn't be surprising.

Or she was receiving paranormal notice of future events. That would be very surprising.

Or she was pretending that she knew these things, for reasons unknown. This would be mysterious.

Sylvia ended the First Speaking at 9:30 p.m. by saying, "Walter, come to me." That got his attention and surprised everyone. Walter watched her get up and drive down to the shore of the South Atlantic, spread out a towel on a tiny beach of hauled-in sand, and go to sleep, watched by the swarmers.

Before she had returned to the house, not two hours later, reports boiled into ICU!'s SylviaCentral: From Wyoming -- someone had already mangled his leg on a Hydrafork. From another place, then from dozens of places, women in brown dresses dropped dead, cows ran off cliffs or into canals, riches and loved ones were lost and found -- the trivid gushed with the excited announcements of her fulfilled Speaking. On channel 720, broadcast from some remote part of the St. Helena house, Walter saw Lance Graff jabbering about the crazier reports coming in. He kept saying, "It's real!" and "I need air!" and then making obvious veiled references to some immediately upcoming major event, which only he knew about -- many winks and nods. Once again, Lance was running on full adrenaline.

When Sylvia did pass through her opened front door, back from the beach, there was Lance to meet her -- a breach of protocol. He casually mentioned, "You're in the news . . . Sylvia."

First name? She looked at him three withering seconds, said, "Don't," and passed by.

But Lance Graff had brought her flowers this evening and he carried them with a special dignity. A lot of cash rode on this. He wore sponsored clothing, something in the purple family, though it changed with the light into greens. It was quite tight and various slits allowed peeks at his tanned midriff.

"Ms. Romilar, I so adore you." He actually knelt in front of her. "You fill my thoughts and I feel deep emotion toward you. This is the sincerest truth I have. It is my heart!"

"Lance, if I knew you better I'd be cruel to your family. I know what you want here. Believe this: the only way you'll ever get in my bed is if I'm dead before you get there. So I guess you could say you have yet a glimmer of hope." Reptilian smile.

Lance Graff's face had the expressions of one who had been freshly whipped -- a miscellany of grimaces separated by moments of choked breathing. He left with his flowers.

Well, that was exciting, Walter thought. He glanced at the percentage of viewers at the bottom of his screen. 94.7% and rising. Wow to that.

He watched the analysis of her Speaking develop over the twenty-six hours of his flight to St. Helena:

The number of deaths she had spoken of amounted to fifty-three. Fifty-three more-or-less matching deaths were verified within the first twelve hours. At the end of twenty-two hours, two hundred and eighteen dead people fit her alleged predictions. Specifically regarding the seven women in brown dresses: ad hoc committees instantly formed to distinguish between the various shades of brown in order to certify exactly seven out of the twenty-eight claimants who were "predicted by Sylvia." In regard to who really had been touched in some way by Sylvia and those who falsely claimed her influence, shifting, vindictive factions developed overnight. They revered her. Sects developed. She sent them more money.

Walter and Sylvia

were both shown split-view on the trivid as they drew nearer each other.

After an hour of switchbacks and the growing buzz of swarmers around his face, Walter was deposited at her cliffside villa, named London House, and ushered in. At the sound of Walter's feet on her floor, she turned and she radiated a sudden joy the swarmers had not captured before. In her, he saw no traces of Noreen.

The world held its breath.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She whispered against his ear, her words instantly translated around the world in seventy-two languages, "Walter, I'm so glad to see you." She said it like a thirsty person finding water. She sounded like Noreen. Against him, she felt as he knew Noreen would feel against him. "I needed to see someone who had a life. Is our street like it used to be?"

"People keep your tea shop just like you left it. It's like a museum."

She looked like she might cry. He saw Noreen in her eyes.

The world

saw the 5:20 p.m. murder several hours later in the evening, around 8:00. Details:

Attracted by the sounds of angry voices, swarmers beelined to the back of the villa, over to the stairwell access, where Lance Graff and Dr. Leonardi were about to descend. The swarmers got every angle, activating the dimensional elements.

"I'm sure she loves your purple pants," Leonardi said. "Anyone would."

"Shut up. You told her about the bets and wrecked it all. You told! You bet on it too!"

"I admire how it separates at the waist to give us shadowy glimpses of your stunning physique."

"Shut up, you Jew. Everybody knows you want her. I'd laugh but I'm out of chuckles."

"I'm Italian Catholic."

"Wop Jew."

Leonardi kind of hunched his shoulders, squinted his face up and said, "All kidding aside, Lance, I have a medical question. It's something no one knows for sure, but I think you might have some new information for my profession. In fact, I feel a professional obligation to ask for your help. Seriously now."

Lance Graff came alert, some hostility leaving his demeanor: Someone was going to ask him a serious question he might be able to answer? That didn't happen often -- and it could be a joke. He didn't adjust his sneer. "Ask it."

"Well," Dr. Leonardi said, "I know how much you adore Sylvia, so if no one would ever, ever know, would you have relations with her if she were dead and it was convenient, and, you know, the mood was right, lighting and everything?"

Lance didn't change expression -- as though he were waiting to hear more of the question.

"Say she was dead just ten minutes or so, still warm and pliable. No one would ever know. Would you do it?"

Lance acted like he'd been plugged in. He snapped fully upright, drew his right arm back to give Leonardi a killing blow, but, fool to the end, he slipped on the polished concrete, and as he balanced, as he reached for the handrail, in that one moment of utter vulnerability, Dr. Leonardi gave Lance Graff a little shove, a tiny shove, not more than a touch, and Lance began his tumbling, clanging, backward fall down the metal stairs to the first landing.

The swarmers showed close-ups of Lance's face at rest. Breath could be seen moving across the blood that pooled under his nose.

Dr. Leonardi did a heavy duck-footed descent to the landing, grabbed Lance by the feet, dragged him around ninety degrees, gave him a twisting heave, and Lance Graff went down his second flight of metal stairs. The bom, bom, bom of his head on the stairs, alternating with the flat clang clang clang of his two feet, made a snappy but brief repeating rhythm.

The bom, bom, bom of his head on the stairs, alternating with the flat clang clang clang of his two feetů

This time, swarmer close-ups and longer shots of Lance Graff's disarticulated neck argued against future consciousness.

Dr. Leonardi looked at the corpse a moment, then reversed direction and went back to the main floor, to Sylvia.

5:22 p.m.

The world had not yet been shown a moment of this.

ICU!

had never seen Sylvia this way. She and Walter sat side by side at dinner, on her vast veranda, and twice Sylvia laughed openly. They held hands, leaned together, touched feet under the table, a smile never leaving her face, till 5:18 p.m.

That evening she was an unheard of 97.8% of the viewing audience. They saw excitement and passion in this hostile, bitter woman. She had transformed yet again, and with that came the thrilling expectation that the cheesecake part of her life had ended and now would begin a new, more shameless phase. 98.1%.

Sylvia Romilar

placed her eating utensil across the middle of the plate at 5:18 p.m. One of the help discreetly said beside her face, "Ms. Romilar, Mr. Garith Glone wishes a few moments of conversation with you. He apologizes."

She looked momentarily defeated. To Walter: "He flew in yesterday to do whatever he does. If I deal with him now, he might leave sooner."

She ignored the servant, who didn't have to return with the message because Glone had been watching on a trivid in a near room. He appeared in moments, tailored, manicured and styled, his teeth gleaming, his charisma surrounding him like a vacuum fluctuation. Walter had heard his name but that was all.

Sylvia looked at him.

Walter might as well have been vapor. "Ms. Romilar," Glone said, his tone almost confidential, "You are lovelier than ever this evening. I apologize for interrupting. We're getting a lot of noise from law enforcement about these deaths you mentioned in your litany. Many more people have died than you said would die. There are implications there."

She looked at him as though he were a specimen. "My wine is getting warm."

"Ms. Romilar, Sylvia, there is no need for us to be enemies. First, I want to apologize for the offensive things I said. That was shameful of me. To atone, I want to invite you to my residence on Corfu -- a little closer to civilization. Ms. Romilar, in truth, I feel I've known you before -- that we knew each other in the past, and were very close."

"I would have opened my wrists."

Glone looked away from her. His face and posture shifted. He said to the swarmers. "This snot waitress should remember who owns whom. Sylvia, if you do that kind of speaking thing again, kindly steer away from the subject of death. You say these things -- 'a kid in red clothing will be hit by a car' -- and sure enough, it happens somewhere in Germany, or Argentina, or Omaha. Paranormal powers should do better than that, hmm? You're playing the odds with billions of viewers -- so how can you lose? And it alarms those who exercise authority."

"Are you offering to exempt me from this cruelty?"

"No." Glone slouched back, at once fully at ease. "You would not believe," he said, "how much you're making for PulseCorp. It is phenomenal. You're making my family wealthy for generations." Brilliant teeth gleamed inside the grin.

"You're dental work, disguised as a man." Disgust sharpened her words. "If your children are like you, they should be used for parts."

Glone hesitated before breaking out the full $40,000 grin, his Hindenberg ego intact.

At that moment, 5:23 p.m., Dr. Leonardi appeared from the hallway with strict voices behind him telling him to stop, that he was not expected. He pulled away and walked in despite the hands grabbing at him.

"Sylvia?" he said. He tried to maintain his composure, but looked unsteady

Glone's head made a swift, grim turn.

"When you know me better, you'll know I loved you more than my own life. I apologize for being so dull. I'm trying not to be."

Garith Glone stood up, his charisma curdling into authority. "Get him out of here."

Dr. Leonardi flapped his hand in front of his face and said, "I'm going, Mr. Glone. Remember me," he said to to Sylvia. Nervously gracious, he made a slight bow. "Your memory of me will be the most precious thing I have." He then returned whence he'd come.

In the subsequent moment of silence, Sylvia said to Glone, "The snot waitress is visiting with a friend. You were finished?"

"Of course," Glone said with a smile. "Consider the safety of our viewers."

On the veranda, Walter and Sylvia sat under a sky of several colors, without much talk, their hands held draped between their chairs. "This could be Walter and Noreen," she mused.

At 7:45, they heard a crew member hurrying toward them from inside the house. That was unusual. "Ms. Romilar," the young woman said gravely, "Lance Graff is dead."

Sylvia wasn't shocked, but she was curious. "Why?"

"Because Dr. Leonardi broke his neck," she explained. "It was on the back stairs, so no one saw the swarmer playback till just now -- if you want to see." She pulled a trivid around for them.

The figures of Lance Graff and Dr. Leonardi stood at the top of the back stairs, the image frozen.

She nodded.

The world would watch as she watched.

Sylvia's eyes grew wide at Lance's second flight. "It appears," she said, "that he was selected out. We can hope he hasn't bred."

During the night they slept clinging to each other, and with the audience's expectation of intercourse, she went to 99.91% of viewers. The next morning, millions complained, but all remained hopeful they would see the madonna deflowered.

After breakfast, Sylvia's trivid chirped and turned itself on. A St. Helena journalist narrated the conclusion of Dr. Leonardi's five-hour walk into town while he was thoroughly observed by a half dozen tag-along swarmers. Walter watched with full attention. Sylvia had coffee.

The journalist said, as the video substantiated, "On reaching the main street of Jamestown at daybreak, several early-risers who had already observed Sylvia and Walter watching Dr. Leonardi murder Lance Graff, congratulated him for making rid of an annoyance. They try to high-five him, as you may see here, which he took as a threatening gesture. As Dr. Leonardi shuffled through town toward the sea, more people gathered, some of whom were fans of Lance Graff and were indignant."

The trivid showed a group of a dozen shouting citizens, one of whom threw a flower pot. Others threw dirt and any handy trash.

"The many people argued," the reporter said, "and, at length, they came to blows. When the commotions subsided, Dr. Leonardi was discovered in such a damaged condition, as we see here, that the exact cause of death will not be understood for several days."

A car drifted past the reporter, blaring a grab-it song that drowned everything out. She had to pause. She said the incident concluded when a policemen observed a dog licking the remains.

"You make people crazy," Walter said to Sylvia.

"And am I the sane one? When I say 'I' or 'me,' the words need footnotes. My sympathy is gone for those people. They do this to me for their entertainment. Call me an accident that waited to happen. Call me a selecting event."

(Instant surveys indicated few people had any idea what she was talking about. In the Romilar groups, suspensions and excommunications subsequently occurred over interpretation. The usual.)

On the third day, she said to him, "The next time I see you, if I'm different, I want you to pretend you know me, even if you don't."

"I will."

"Tell me you'll never lie to me."

"I won't."

Walter Roscoe

had no more than got airborne than she did another forty minute rip on who was going to get what, and this time the import was noticeably darker. More of it dealt with criminal activities: the undetected, the wrongly detected, the detected but unsolved, and the wrongly solved. Criminals were identified in terms of location, gender, age, clothing or tattoos. Thirty-eight suicides and forty-five hundred plus confessions to crimes of battery or better were attributed to her broadcast; the guilty threw themselves on the mercy of their respective police systems rather than risk fatal torments by the mob. As for the huge number of others who were ratted out by their friends, for money, their guilt would take months to ascertain.

Sylvia Romilar

took up knitting for a week. The peculiarity of the choice bumped her rating .7%, then it dropped off a little, and the third week she got a +.1% when speculation increased as to the nature of the item she knitted. It required much yarn of a dozen shades from bright red down to brown. One evening, she spread it full out -- irregularly circular, a distorted tear-drop shape in reds and rusts, heavily textured in places. A large handbag? A throw for those chilly nights?

"A clot," she said. "A clot," she explained further, "as of blood."

Sylvia Romilar: +.9 to a week's average of 87.5%. PulseCorp was happy. Madness was a plus.

Walter Roscoe

saw three things happening that seemed misguided and troubling, heading into territories that were rarely explored, for good reason.

First: Channel 614 now became Sylvia's trivid shrine. It had sequencing images of her, candles, droning sounds, and several Sylvia-related mantras that helpfully scrolled across the bottom. Walter could not imagine what cause and effect meant to these people. He would have thought that they were impaired, except there were so many of them who heeded their midnight voices.

Second: In the future, accounts of popular music would be unsuitable for children. The grab-it band Pitchforkin' Babies' hit, "Navel Operation," and three notorious songs titled "Untitled," from Unprovoked Attack, all expressed degrees of psychopathic violence, rage and excretory imagery that six months earlier would have been unthinkable.

Third: While music groups tried to out-deprave each other, Sylvia turned to sit-coms, often conspicuously drifting to sleep in the middle of them. Cleverly, one of the programs, 37 Ocean View, had inserted the lines, "What could we do, Miss Romilar, that would keep you entertained?" The feed showed Sylvia watching the actor pose the question. She said, "Ask your friends in the music business," and walked away.

Within weeks, Walter saw situation "comedies" turn darker, often including humorous assaults, copulations with the unsuspecting, incest with misidentified parents or siblings, and innumerable varieties of hilarious physical and psychological humiliation. Game shows had become cruel spectacles of mocking and degrading punishments new to history, with a hysterical laugh-track. Sylvia Romilar was seen watching these things all the way through, with moments of interest and enjoyment.

In actual life, police had begun referring to trivid-inspired crimes in terms of the program and episode. In Largest Life, "Artificial Lover" episode, the murder of the bound and gagged Aston Drew by suffocation with a female part, became known as a "large art lover" and was frequently attempted for several months. Other program-derived names were as obscenely crude as the crimes were grotesque. The word "fadmurder" was added to dictionaries. "He was fadmurdered -- it was a large art lover."

Walter knew Noreen would never provoke people like this. But Sylvia didn't have any trouble suggesting they degrade themselves -- and they raced to do a good job of it. The ripples went everywhere: Even in Walter's obscure backwater neighborhood, across the street, Noreen's tea shop with white lace curtains was now HARDWARE GUNS, its official name, with bars on the windows. From customers, he heard that more people were getting mugged these days. Gun sales soared. Then more people were getting mugged and shot.

Even without being physically assaulted, if he walked anywhere, he was likely to hear Wanda & The WhoreMoans yodel-shrieking one of their several versions of "Enema Mama." Their performance was cutting-edge, wildly popular, and ripped any dignity from coprophilia. It was unspeakable.

Garith Glone

again watched the refined montage of her hands, the changing light on the planes of her face -- and her lips, the many ways they moved. Twenty-year-old memories melted into the moment . . . he felt more than remembered a thrilling long-ago intimacy, mysterious and electric, where he was alive moment by moment. Sylvia could be the reincarnated woman he had loved, now that he realized how much she resembled her -- but every time he spoke with her, she drew contempt and ridicule out of him. During those moments, he wanted to grab her by the throat and slap her till she bled. But now -- in his darkened office, he was not that person. On the trivid, she was radiant. Garith Glone felt weakness.

Walter Roscoe

happened to be watching two days later, when Sylvia sat down to lunch on her St. Helena veranda. She turned down the offer of wine. Then, as off-handedly as a lunchtime chat, she did her Third Speaking, twenty minutes, this time making many predictions and issuing warnings to generally-identified groups and individuals, as to who might suffer and/or die standing up, lying down, sleeping, in cars, in midair, by bullets, strangling, stabbing, poison, falling, or beating with miscellaneous sporting or farm implements. Most pointedly, a surprising number of these persons were identified as employees of PulseCorp, the spawn of Garith Glone.

Then she had a slow, newspaper-reading lunch, with the wine.

Before she finished, the news-crawl at the foot of Walter's trivid reported that eight executives of six PulseCorp subsidiaries, in their workplace, had already suffered suspicious fatal injuries, and two others were expected to die. In pops and snaps, the violence started everywhere immediately, but later the same day, in larger cities across Europe and the Americas, mobs swarmed corporate offices of power and finance, interpreting Sylvia's words to coincide with personal grievances; they went after insurance companies with a special vengeance and generally trashed random offices of any business that housed itself in a tall building. Using simple hand tools, they exterminated functionality in selected key areas, knocked employees around and dealt harshly with those in the more luxurious offices, running a few out their windows. "Makin' 'em angels!" became a ubiquitous threat that chilled the hearts of those who worked above a third floor, where they trembled at loud voices.

There sure wasn't any Noreen Brown showing anymore. If someone came by the shop and wanted to talk to Walter about Noreen or Sylvia, which happened several times a day, he could honestly say, "I don't have any idea who either of those women is."

One evening, ten minutes till closing, while talking to the dogs and covering the birds, a perky young lady bounced in and beamed across the counter at him.

"Hi!" she gushed. "I'm just so proud to meet someone who actually knew Sylvia back when she was Noreen --"

"I don't have any idea --"

" -- so I just couldn't imagine why --" (She slapped a notebook on the counter, opened it, and pointed to a list of names.) "-- our records don't show that you're a member of any of Sylvia's groups. Why would that be?" She looked up, cheery, nice clothes, big orthoplastic smile.

"I didn't need to."

"But you, sir, especially! We have an opening in the SR Pet Owners' Group. It's right up your line, answering desperate calls from those in need of Sylvia's advice."

"I really wouldn't know what her advice would be, since I don't have any idea --"

She began writing. Walter didn't stop her.

"Why is there a Sylvia Romilar pet owners' group?"

"Well . . .," she said, as though to someone not very bright, "we all want to do things Sylvia would like -- don't you?"

"Most of the time."

"So we behave in ways that she would approve of, and that includes raising pets according to her preferences. Any kind of pet. Iguanas, dogs, fish, whatever. People call in with a pet problem and you tell them what Sylvia would do. WWSD. See?"

"I do." Walter saw that this person was not rational.

"Besides --" The girl chuckled and whispered, "Sylvia can punch our tickets any time she wants. She killed my evil aunt."

"Most people think she's predicting things, not causing them."

"What's the difference?" She waggled a cautioning finger at him as she left.

They weren't just seeing her face looking out of the trivid -- they were reading her mind of thoughts she'd never had and attributing to her the power of life and death. Walter supposed these people hungered for someone hugely powerful to love them and hate everyone else, no matter how despicable their behavior was.

Walter wondered what Noreen would say about that. Sylvia would say, "How surprised can you be?"

Sylvia Romilar

observed Garith Glone appear on her trivid, shortly after sunset. Charisma pumped out of him like a fluid. She was picking at a tray of hors d'oeuvres.

"Things do take on a life of their own, don't they," he said gently, suspiciously gently. He had the air of an old friend who was a little sad.

Sylvia's lips momentarily pursed before a bite of smoked eel. She looked peeved.

"You've done well for us, Ms. Romilar." The gentleness of his voice worked around a slight shortness of breath. "You've wanted out from the beginning, and we want to do what's right." (Sylvia appeared amused at his lie.) "We will cut the live feed, totally, permanently, we'll only broadcast edited material, and we will continue the payment of one million dollars a day for the rest of your life, whatever your ratings."

She looked at him with disdain.

Glone flashed his teeth. "We could do it anyway."

"If you did, just imagine, with your reknowned foresight, what my people would do to your people, as we have seen. I imagine a lot of personal contact, don't you? My answer is no." She selected a piece of uncooked beef on a pick. "That was one," she said.

Gorn had sobered. "One of what?"

"Your five no's. You've made a start." With her teeth, she pulled the meat off the small tines. One of the swarmers zoomed on the ooze of blood where her teeth cutthrough its fibers.

Walter Roscoe

watched this as he leaned on his shop's counter. Raw meat, Walter thought, with teeth and blood -- it seemed to have symbolic import of a threatening nature.

Several hours later, shortly after St. Helena nightfall, from her Napoleonic bathtub, her peaceful face filled the trivid. Walter wondered how people could not fall in love with her. She gazed dreamily into the eyes of the world and out of nowhere began speaking again, her Fourth Speaking -- another litany of the guilty, the vile, the greedy, the vicious, and this one went on almost eighty minutes as she bathed her perfect skin.

Walter was in awe.

ICU! workers were partially named with locations, physical details, details of their pasts and miscellaneous trivia that enabled viewers to hunt them down. How she knew this was a mystery, but no one was surprised.

At the end of the Speaking, she said to the swarmers, to the world, "I want to go to Paris. I want to meet Walter there."

He packed a bag.

The trivid reported that even before Sylvia had arrived at the hideous Luanda-Angola airport, some of her believers weren't above giving a hand to the execution of her "prophecies" and some had been performed with surprising expedience.

Walter's Santa Miranda taxi to the airport, the first leg of his journey, had a bullet hole in the front door. The driver showed him his gun as he opened the door for Walter. "Gotta license for this." They got in, doors slammed. "But," the driver yammered over the back seat, "I don't gotta license for this one." He waved an eighteen-inch sawed-off. "Kill bastids if they bother us. I'll do it, too."

The smoky overcast, the wild swerving of the taxi, and the driver's venomous execrations at everything and everyone made Walter queasy. He had troubling life-shouldn't-be-like-this moments.

It started within hours of the Fourth Speaking: Many confessed and pleaded for mercy, some died in peculiar ways imitated from the currently most popular sitcom, Killer Mom, but most were beaten savagely or to death or simply stabbed.

Walter saw the whole thing was getting out of hand. Channel 614 had a ribbon at the bottom that tallied the numbers of the apprehended for each category Sylvia had identified in her various Speakings: pale woman named Alice who hit an old woman in a crosswalk -- 17. Three brothers in Santa Miranda who killed neighbors' pets -- 15. A well-dressed Hispanic man who argued . . .. Etc.

In the news: Relatives turned on each other; teenagers identified their parents as fitting certain categories of Sylvian criminals. Different branches of police eyed each other with suspicion. People bought tiny booklets that listed those Sylvia had identified so they could ID criminals that might still walk among them. Every day Walter heard shouts on the street as another suspect was run down. Now people were seeing Sylvia everywhere, looking out at them from reflections on buildings or stains on walls or in cheap food.

Hotel Minérve, Paris. Initially ecstatic at seeing her, his joy drained away by the hour. Sylvia didn't go out, she didn't laugh, her eyes opened more widely on the world yet seemed to register little. Usually cold and always tired, her conversation was disjointed, her responses vague. She often stared at him without speaking, but this was not uncomfortable.

She did say, "Do you still know me?"

And he said, "Always." This pleased her.

Meals were difficult to classify, either in content or conversation. She slept next to him (spiking to a 99.5% rating) like a dead person.

Walter's second day there, Garith Glone suaved into the room. Sylvia drew herself up. To Glone, Walter was failed existence.

"Ms. Romilar, Sylvia, I'm sorry to intrude unexpectedly." He seemed more sedate than before, but his teeth still flashed through the nervous smile.

She looked at him.

"I'm sure you can understand why some people would be concerned about your identification of alleged wrong-doers. The government of France has expressed concern. St. Helena won't let us return."

Walter wondered if she weighed Glone's life as she gazed at him.

"Please consider: We will pay you a million dollars a day for the rest of your life and permanently remove you from ICU! programming. You can have privacy again."

"No."

"A million five, a day."

"No."

"Two million."

"No. My salad is wilting."

"Ms. Romilar, it's a thing we're asking for the sake of the public good. You're --" His eyes searched for the words in the upper corners of the room. He seemed to go off-script. "You're becoming very expensive, Miss Romilar. The crime rate is rising, and some of the crimes are troubling to authorities."

"Then everybody needs a gun."

The world took note of that.

Glone almost dropped his jaw. "No, no they don't. Give us your conditions, Ms. Romilar, please."

"For the fifth time, the answer is No."

"Ms. Romilar, there are people out there who are advocating serious measures, but PulseCorp wants to do this the right way, if it is at all possible. Miss Romilar, I beg you."

"ICU! is depraved," she said. "You are depraved. Appreciate your moments."

He caught his breath. The swarmers showed his face parsing her words and then settling between fear and confusion. He backed away; he hurried away.

"Stirring the chaff," she said to Walter, the world attending. "Sylvia is holding a mirror up to nature, to their exciting plans and the unintended consequences. They build excellent snares."

She took his hand and stood against him. "Walter, talk to me sometimes. I won't be there, but you'll be able to hear me." He had feared this moment and it happened very quickly. "Do one thing for me."

Her hollow eyes stared into his as swarmers spun around them, seeing it all, almost.

"I will." Between their clasping hands, he felt a tiny object press between his fingers.

"Now we'll just say goodbye, Walter, and you'll walk away." She gave him a simple kiss on the lips. "Do one thing for me."

He couldn't speak. He nodded again, wishing he had more time to look into her face. But he did rise, and he did walk away.

Out the door, down the wide hall. "Do one thing do one thing do one thing . . .," down a half dozen floors and far enough away that only one or two swarmers haphazardly circled him, he took the BB-sized thing -- a knot of paper -- from between his fingers and carefully uncompressed it. It was three tiny pieces of torn newsprint, three individual words: tell, location, and my.

She was going to excite one of ICU!'s greatest fears, that people would find out how to get to her. Without a clear exit and prearranged transportation, all elements of the situation would quickly become provisional, and then ICU! security, fully armed and fully infiltrated by Sylvia-lovers, would, in truth, do whatever they individually felt like doing.

He had promised. He would do this one thing. He would postpone the anguish.

Now Walter wanted to be seen and the purple hand-print birthmark on his left cheek made him recognizable to millions. In the lobby he moved among the larger groups, turning his left cheek for the widest view. Several men tagged him within seconds, growing to a cluster as he passed out onto the sidewalk.

In front of the Hotel Minérve, a fleet of fifteen-foot tall aluminum tour buses crept down the street. Tourist faces looked down on purple-blotched Walter who was circled by questioners with recorders held toward him.

More swarmers arrived. Vehicular movement ceased.

Surrounded, shouted at, his stomach knotted, he said, "Yes, I've seen Sylvia. She's in there, twenty-second floor."

Garith Glone

didn't understand himself. In his darkened temporary office, same floor as Sylvia, the trivid glowed to life with Sylvia's hands, the light off the curves of her cheeks . . . . "I loved you, and you left me," he said at Sylvia's images and to the woman from his memory. The knot in his throat was swallowed with growing anger. The woman had left him on New Year's, by message. Till this moment, he'd never realized what a self-absorbed low-grade she had been -- stupid with a mirror. And Sylvia was just like her. She was. And if that first one was here, he knew exactly what he would do. He'd do this:

Glone headed out of his office, toward Sylvia's rooms. His skin vibrated with agitated rage and he didn't have a thought in his head.

Tourists

watched Walter out the windows and on their portables. Within seconds, a dozen bus doors hissed open, and within minutes, the sidewalks filled to impassibility. People squeezed tighter, heading for the twenty-second floor. Walter pulled his collar over his left cheek and left unobserved.

Paris leaped to its feet, the world held its breath. After sporadic resistance, security was overwhelmed by this multinational wave of believers who longed for just a touch, a glimpse, of Sylvia Romilar, or only to be in the same building with her.

Sylvia opened her doors and waited. With her Mona Lisa smile, she stood in the middle of the room, wordless, surrounded in minutes by a press of reverential followers. Admirers, idolizers, supplicants and suitors pushed up the stairways till every room and hallway of the twenty-second floor was packed tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, then even more pressed in. Adjacent floors filled, the building creaked.

Garith Glone had got a good start on those people, but still he had to squirm and pry the last yards to stagger into her room like some exudate of her worshipers. He gathered himself and stalked forward.

The swarmers saw it all; the world saw it over and over in replays:

"Garith," she said like a lover, "I expected you sooner."

"You," he said, "have deserved this for years." No one had ever seen Garith Glone's face ugly and flushed. His brilliant teeth gleamed between drawn, down-turned lips.

He moved on her, grabbing for her neck and crotch, and he almost got his feel, but Sylvia slickly thrust one of her thinner knitting needles into his chest, just below his sternum, at an upward angle, but missing the heart, because he did not die then. Into his surprise, she said wistfully, "I thought of you every hook, every loop, and now we are all gone."

Glone was seized by the crowd and with surprising rapidity passed overhead on their hands and thrown off a balcony without ceremony. (Months later, grab-it groups did music to accompany a swarmer video of the dive, inevitably with a big ending at the instant Glone's brilliant teeth did their slow-motion impact on concrete and disintegrated into sprays of tissue-smeared porcelain.)

And then the inevitable crowd disturbance spread from the south balcony, where someone had been trampled as Glone was tossed. The agitation moved across the room, down the corridor, toward Sylvia.

In her room, where the air had grown dense, with six bodies firm against her, her adherents, after a minute of tolerant civility, broke. Most of the swarmers were knocked down as bodies filled to the ceilings, so most of the recording was two-dimensional, but it was an instant collectible: Never to be forgotten was Sylvia Romilar's faintly sly smile and her wide-eyed expectation as she disappeared behind screaming, climbing people who fought not to be buried. The last-seen living piece of her was her small right hand, finally blotted from sight by an anonymous flailing body.

For whatever reasons, conspiratorial or not, her body re-appeared two long hours later, in the glacial flow of the mangled dead, the unmarked dead, and the near dead, in the semi-solid ooze of bodies that slow-bumped down the stairs, through the lobby and out to the front steps of the Minérve, where they were pulled apart and sorted.

People knew they were seeing another legendary moment. As word spread, her body was at first hovered over and protected, then stepped on, pulled, stripped, damaged, and at length she was pieced away, smaller pieces cut from the larger, or torn from her corpse, as mementos of her beauty, elegance, and mystery -- preserved sometimes now in so small a thing as a few hairs in the thinnest crust of scalp. At the end, bystanders wiped the pavement of her blood with pieces of their clothing. These tatters and shreds would be handled reverently and sold for large sums.

Later that day, it rained, washing the little left of her down the drains, into the grand sewers, and out to lakes of the city's excreta, where she would be aggressively processed into a nutrient broth and spread on fields.

Sylvia became memory.

Walter

grew a beard, wore make-up, and opened another used pet store. People still organized a lot of ugliness and violence around Sylvia, with the truest believers selecting out the less-well-armed, but Walter ignored all this.

When he thought of Noreen, he remembered how she smelled of flowers when she told him to bring the tea things back. The highlight of both their lives.

In the evenings, among cast-off pets, he had tea with her and they spoke. He missed her past anything.


Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2021 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com