Haloed Bane

Hope Solarium: Part I


 Sinduin

1/4/12, Sweden

Kalmar1 truly was peaceful on a day like this, peaceful and crisp, with only the soft murmur of a sympathetic breeze relating to the passers-by the promise of the year to come without altering the general silence that even the buses and cabbies respected. In other words, things here were normal. Peering out the window of her cottage deep in the woods she couldn’t confirm any of it, but she knew it was son and the knowledge rankled her. Alltför konstigt tror jag.2

Sinduin left her country home at the break of dawn, then walked the six hours to downtown Kalmar. As soon as she crossed Olof Palme’s bridge and the old water tower came into view, she decided that once she reached Fiskaregatan she’d avoid even looking in the direction of the Thai restaurant there (its reminder too painful, her pride too stubborn to take another street and rejoin Fiskaregatan further up ahead), but alas, a sign on the door caught her eye. “VINNA LOTTERIET, KOM TILLBAKA OM ETT ÄR”. In other words, the shop was closed for the foreseeable future, as the owners had hit the jackpot. Sinduin wanted to punch the maneki-neko on the other side of the window, rubbing it in with its great, big smile. Come on CASBA, talk about overkill! The owners of that joint are not even Thai!!

The last few minutes to Master Ulf’s seemed an eternity.

11/5/11, Preciosa

Sinduin looked out the window as their charter plane to Preciosa, the only means of transport in and out of the island, carried them above the forbidding barrier of dark blue.

They traveled on a Combi YS-11, a frail old thing that preserved Japan’s last claim to sovereignty over Preciosa. The pilot commented to Sinduin (once he overcame the shock of hearing her speak more than decent Japanese) that word was the accountants at the ministry were considering relinquishing even that. Anyway, the world, said he, is fast becoming One. Staking claims is anachronistic. The pilot halted, but Sinduin, gingerly and suitably apologetically, explained to the Okinawan that she knew what jidai-sakugo, anachronism, meant. No worries.

Papieca kept quiet, not approaching any of the windows in the cargo section of the plane. Sinduin never recalled being briefed on whether the Zeburajas were afraid of the ocean or not, maybe they were, or maybe he was tired or overwhelmed by all the novelty. The Silver Planet was even in modern times an extremely dry place.

No one was waiting for them at the airfield. The pilot’s fear of PLA missiles was stronger than his curiosity and he took off again immediately. Apparently, the world wasn’t One just yet. Sinduin sometimes wondered if it ever would: unification of this and that elementary chunk only made one more ambitious, and when all was brought under one world then one found the world was only a stepping-stone to more conquests, plus then everyone else with any ambition would be aiming to topple you next. The lesson of Five Star Stories. As useless as staking one or two or three hundred vampires and yet leaving the moon untouched (scratch that, werewolves?). As would be trying to stake an entire witch planet…and on this subject Sinduin could talk about, and how deep in debt Incudea’s Carmillas -the Garterys, the Rinvilos, what have you- had gotten her and her kind.

So they were alone and the hour was four o’clock, not long before sunset in these parts. To the southwest lay a humble peak. To the north, the ocean. Aside from these two it was all flat and boring, though somewhat prettified by the brilligish hues of a dying day.

“Why do things sometimes look prettiest when they’re dying?”

Papieca offered no response. He did not consider himself an expert on the subject.

She bid him come and walk toward the water, not knowing if it was polite or not to invite him to refresh his hooves. The tetrapod moved slowly toward her and finally did sit down. He didn’t tell her he had enough water at Ephocto to last him a while.

The rumble of explosions was audible, but not nearly as bad as expected. They hoped it was the laborers keeping the firecracker quality testing to a minimum out of respect for the prodigal Miss Renders. Finally, something gray and as long as Sinduin was tall popped its head out of the water and she began talking to it.

Papieca waited politely, chewing the cud of his own thoughts. After about eight or nine minutes, Sinduin turned to him. The speaker in the waters was gone.

“Who were you talking to?” he asked.

“That was a huso. Not many of its kind around anymore. You won’t believe how much effort it takes for one to come all the way down here.”

“They are sapient then?”

“Borderline. If you push me, I’d say yes, but things work differently on this planet. Humans all speak different languages, as you’ve seen. And if you leave a baby unattended it will not develop any language at all!”

“But it’s obvious Humans are sapient. They build functioning airships, for example.”

“Hardly, but I know what you mean. The question is do we need to redefine ‘sapience’ or is it that each dimension has its own rules?”

“It makes one think.”

“It does. I don’t think Humans would recognize sapience in another species even if it stared them in the face. It’s kind of a lucky break that you can travel with me like this at all, actually!”

“It is?” Papieca looked surprised.

“Absolutely. Your kind are seen as close to gods in a large nation called India. But India does not rate even close to Incudea on the power scale. The closest equivalent here would be a place called the West. Now, there were many stories in past times of your kind showing reverence to holy artifacts, despite your presumed lack of sapience. All over the West of this world: in Czestochowa, Luján, Hormigueros. That in itself was not enough, though. About a century ago a Western scholar wrote a book called “India: What can it teach us,” and there he went into great detail on how your kind was revered in India, and then tied it to these more familiar stories. The book was well illustrated with pictures of cute baby zebus, and it became fashionable to keep your kind around, not just use you.”

Papieca pondered for a while. He had misunderstood Sinduin’s description of cattle being “close to gods” as a reference to their piety. Just like us then, he thought.

“May I ask how Humans employ my counterparts over here?”

“Well,” Sinduin said, “for pulling things, helping in food production. Agricultural stuff, mainly.”

“I see. Food production is vital work. High stakes.”

“Steaks, yes… Aaanywaaay, we’ve strayed from the subject!” Sinduin waved a hand in the air to clear it. “Switch to Channel 2 on the silfemon I gave you. Chances are good the competition will take place in some fancy place where people speak of fancy things, and French is the language of choice in such cases. You should get used to listening to me speak it.”

“Oui, Madame,” Papieca replied. Fast for a quadruped, Sinduin thought, no doubt about it.

“Comme je le disais, les hommes ne sont encore qu’à la bavette. Non seulement ils parlent des milliers des langues, mais chaque langue est un désordre de synonymes, homonymes et malentendus. Alors-”

“Excusez-moi de vous interrompre. Vous avez dit ‘bavette’?”

Sinduin nodded. “Cela signifie que les hommes sont encore des enfants. Et voilà, bavette. Cette parole a plusieurs sens. Par exemple…”

Sinduin stopped cold. Papieca was consumed in the little dance he needed to operate the translation device, since he didn’t have hands or the like.

“Stop!” she said in Horgothic. “You’ll end up more confused than ever. Let’s just speak in our tongue.”

The Zeburaja seemed a bit confuded but not otherwise perturbed. Sinduin had just realized that bavette was among other things –indeed first and foremost for her personally- a prized beef cut! Thankfully, Papieca hadn’t gotten down to that meaning of the word.

Sinduin stared at the placid waters and gathered her thoughts. “I’ll tell you how I came to discover that these fish could speak. I’d been in the planet half a year, and the Sup.Com. wanted me to figure out why the largest nation on Earth was the largest, and why the most populated was, well, the most populated. The problem as it was posed immediately gave me a headache. I mean, if you have a group of countries, then one of them is bound to be the biggest, and so on and so forth.”

“I see your point. But I also see the Commander’s. Primacy usually has its reasons.”

“Ugh, yeah, you’re right. Well, these two countries –the largest and the most populated- happen to share a border, and I had a lead that took me right there, to a great river the folk on the left bank call the Amur, those on the right the Heilong. But there was nothing or nobody on the banks that helped in any way, so on the second night I simply jumped in and swam.”

“And these huso welcomed you?”

“They were there, but they didn’t speak, not at first. Long story short, I got in a bind, they helped me out, and eventually I was able to start teaching them words. Enough to have simple conversations of the inform, command, obey, and report variety.”

“In what language? Is it on your device?”

“Horgothic!”

Papieca’s eyes swam up and down, taking it all in. “What did they have to say?”

“Not much. They didn’t have a clue about Human lands. They didn’t really know that Humans existed or what they were. I managed to explain things to the smartest among them, though, and it came like a revelation to them.”

“Their lives were adversely affected by Humans, correct?”

“Exactly. They learned the cause of their sorry state, basically. And so they’ve become very convenient to me. Suppose that we fail in this present mission… that we fail to take over the world.”

“I trust that will not happen, Sinduin.”

“If it did, though, we might have use for these swimmers.”

“How so?”

There was no good reason to mistrust the Zeburaja, so Sinduin told him:

“Humans are a very reckless species. They have no understanding of the sea, and despite their awareness of this utter lack of comprehension, they entrust some of their most awesome weaponry to its depths. As we speak, the most powerful nations have underwater ships roaming all about equipped with missiles capable of annihilating the global population. These creatures track all of that activity for me. I even have some of the best of them -great kalugas and belugas- fitted to take control of said missiles if need be.”

Sinduin stood up and looked at the land, then at Papieca.

“If need be. If need be, I could within a few hours arrange for the destruction of all the major Human cities. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though.”

Papieca stood up and walked to Sinduin, then lowered himself so she could get on.

“Do these allies realize that it would mean their own destruction?”

Sinduin thought for a moment, then replied: “Good question. I guess not; it’s never come up.”

They didn’t have to walk long before they noticed a group of forty-odd people -a Preciosan multitude- waiting for them on the path back to the airfield. News of the return of Charlotte Renders, daughter of the famous missionaries, had reached everyone by now.

“OK,” Sinduin whispered to Papieca. “Might as well do it here.”

The international obligation to avoid getting planes and ships blown up meant this sector near the landing strip was by the far the most secure in the island. Beyond here were peak, smoke and rock. Mordor without the orcs, Hobbit Mordor basically. And the sun was dropping fast now, making the horizon look eerier still. She spoke in her best dog-eared Japanese.

“It’s been so many years, I’m not even sure how many, that-“ Sinduin paused and stomped the ground when she noticed people trying to calculate with their fingers. A few abaci popped up as well. “No matter how long!! Ehem, no matter how long the time, I never forgot this, my one and only homeland. And I’m so glad to be back I could sing. In fact-“

Sinduin looked to Papieca, then at the crowd. She was about to start crooning when someone yelled out: “Tell us the Word of God.” Everyone muttered in agreement. “Her parents must have her taught her something.” “It would be so nice.” “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

The brown-wigged alien sighed.

“Right. Uhmm, theology, OK. Well, it’s two thousand eleven and I don’t have to tell you that we live in a godless age. But God… God is still here. Doctrines are all fine and good but our personal relationship with God is what truly matters.”

The crowd looked puzzled, or so Sinduin thought. Maybe she was getting too New Agey for their tastes.

“And sin! Sin matters too. Have you been good, brothers and sisters? I ask you now, have you been good?”

“No!” someone yelled.

“There you go! I tell you, verily, in truth and forsooth, that no one is good in the sight of God but God, like uhmm, Michael says in that chapter where…”

Japanese New Testament

She took her Bible out and began leafing through it furiously. She thought she heard the chirping of phantom crickets. 666 of them. Damn, she thought. I’m losing them. She put the book back into her bag, not noticing she was rubbing her own legs in hopeless stridulation.

“OK. The truth is that…one should not kill, or lie, or covet…things, anything, that is, unless you have money to purchase it. Though of course you’re welcome to use credit cards because even though usury is evil it’s OK if you’re not the one charging the interest, right? For you shall inherit the Earth, then, and be meek. Don’t eat of the…no, wait, wrong religion. You can eat anything pretty much, and chew the cud if you feel a need to, because none of the food will go to Heaven, except you, so just make sure not to eat each other. Cannibalism, brothers and sisters, is very, very wrong.”

Asked a lady: “Is it wrong for me to feed fish eggs to my carp, then? Is it sinful for fish to eat fish?”

Replied Sinduin: “That should be fine, I think. They’re all heading to hell, or they’ll immediately go poof when they die. Anyway, we’re probably talking about two different species, and it’s only cannibalism if it’s the exact same species.”

Asked another: “Are foreigners the same species? Are we allowed to eat those?”

Sinduin: “No, no! Of course, they’re the same species, and you can’t. I, uhmm…”

The crowd -now doubled or tripled in size- entered into a vigorous debate. Sinduin looked to Papieca, who finally whispered to her:

“Maybe in matters of faith an Incula as advanced as yourself will not be able to reach these primitives as well as a tetrapod such as myself.”

Sinduin sighed. “Agreed, but if you talk to them directly, they’ll freak out. Switch to Channel Six and whisper me a sermon. I saw this in an old Oscar winner once, it should work.”

(Papieca had asked about the silfemon before so he knew how to use it now. She had told him that Channel One was English, Channel Two French, Channel Five was a sacred conlang called Latin, and Six Japanese. She had warned him not to hit Seven by mistake, which was Dutch, and by Kalderon not to go anywhere near Eight, which was something called Carrollian, or she’d be positively frumious. Whatever frumious meant, the Zeburaja reflected on the fact that the contraption likely fell under the abominatech classification back home, and that it was rather Sinduin and her bosses who should fear making the Council frumious.)

Papieca hid as best as he could behind a bush and began dictating his Papietheologica.

“Itoshii tomodachitachi.”

Tomodachitachi? thought Sinduin, even as she faithfully parroted Papieca’s every word.

“Ohisashiburi desu.”

Atta koto nai no ni. A, sō ka, Shārotto no koto da.

“Gobusata itashimashita.”

Mō ii yo, kono ushiyaro!

“Kono tabi mata aete medetai desu ne.”

This all sounded ridiculous to Sinduin’s ears, but the audience was full of smiles. So far so good, she thought.

“Kamisamatachi ni kansha shimashō.”

As soon as she relayed these last words, Sinduin went over to the bush and screamed as softly as she could: “What the hell was that?! They’re monotheists, you baka. Tachiwarui wa, hontō ni3. Just speak to me in Horgothic and I’ll translate to Japanese.”

They restarted the sermon on that basis. “Doesn't God love us, brothers? Didn't he give us all this grass to enjoy, oh brothers?”

Hearing that, a lad in the audience told his friend: “See, I told you the Lord was down with weed.” “Whoa” replied the latter.

“Doesn’t God love us, brothers? Didn’t He give us sisters to care for us?”

“See,” said Stoner 1 to Stoner 2, “I told you there was nothing wrong with incest.” And Stoner 2 replied, saying “My apologies, brother, for dumping your DVD collection into the ocean.” They hugged.

“In short, love one another, brothers and sisters.”

Papieca’s speech as rendered by “Charlotte” was having the precise effect. She decided to play it safe, cut the sermon short and just break out into song. Except that her mind went blank before the crowd and whatever she had planned on singing was gone. “Uhhmm, so…”

Something exploded in the distance. Surely, just some fireworks. That’s it! How does that song go?

"Do you know that there's still a chance for you 'Cause there's a spark in you You just gotta ignite the light And let it shine Just la la la And the Fourth of July 'Cause you’re all fireworks Come on show 'em what your worth Pray to God, God, God As you look up to the sky-y-y"

The crowd couldn’t properly hear her, but they could read her lips well enough, and they thought she did great. A few of them lighted firecrackers and waved them to and fro, which was a scary sight, but other than a few injuries it was a roaring success.

Sweden

Anyone raised beyond the rapidly shrinking pale of Christendom immediately saw in Ulf a perfect Saint Nicholas minus the beard. Sinduin’s upbringing was well beyond all earthly pales, and so she shared in the assessment, if not intellectually so much (she remembered memorizing the gospels, then watching and rewatching the heck out of Maison Ikkoku and Evangelion and forgetting all her Bible verses, a topic infinitely more suited to Marjuin’s scholasticism), at least emotionally at the level of her alien gut. Within the Christian lands, most saw him simply as a tall, robust, pink man on the brink of old age, with puffy cheeks and a twinkle in his smile. He did don a beard for the children on occasion.

Ulf was with the photographer, the most continental looking Swede she had ever laid eyes on: dark, vivacious, and far more dwarf than elf all things considered. The camera man tossed an English hello her way before continuing to talk to the master, though she felt his eyes as soon as she turned around. Sinduin went straight into the changing room (a former darkroom from darker ages) and greeted Ulf’s sister, who was in charge of makeup and hair. To her chagrin, her keen ears were more than capable of catching every one of Ulf’s words. The photographer either did not say much or spoke very softly.

“Seychelles! A fine thing, isn’t it. She just got back. I was getting some Chinese Monday night, as I always do, when I ran into her, and you know, I had to get her to come in….Yes, yes, two, three years ago….Right, Argentina originally. But she lives half an hour drive away… Good eye you have, yes. Father’s side of the family, Svensson, can you believe it… Haha, yes, well. That’s a long story. I wouldn’t ask her a lot of questions if I were you. You see this? Right, right there…. Who else? Yes, her! I was visiting the Angkor temple in Cambodia, see, they have a festival there, where they sprinkle people with water… Very hot, but it’s also a cultural thing. Anyway, I went to a bar as soon as I came back and she was there, and I was explaining to people how the Orientals do this thing. A bit drunk, you know? So I started sprinkling people, fun and games. Until I sprinkled her!... Oh, I don’t remember. I woke up on the floor, and she was gone. Water under the bridge, though. She brought me flowers and everything, though she usually refuses to come in. Friendlier recently. But, you know, word to the wise... Oh, it’s not cheating, it’s advertising. Not everyone can afford a trip to Seychelles! Hope Solarium cannot make people as pretty as her, but we can make them just as dark, more even!”

Sinduin sighed. She’d been told to stay put, for up to a month at least, and really pretend to be a regular human for once. This included accepting at least some of Ulf’s invitations. Ulf knew everyone in Kalmar, and so by knowing him, Sinduin managed to be known of by most of Kalmar, without anyone really getting to know her, starting with the man himself, whose frequent offers to help expand her social circle under his tutelage were always rebuffed…giving her a solid presence in the city with the least effort and chance of interference possible…until now. Sinduin did not take the changed circumstances in stride; to her it was a debacle. A very shoddy debacle.

Preciosa

That night, after a nice meal, Sinduin was able to get to the pen where Papieca had been put away. The Zeburaja seemed content, almost smiling, even though he was alone and likely the first resident there in a long time.

“Congratulations on the song. It was very pleasing.”

“Hehe.” Sinduin scratched and shrugged. “I’m not as good as Trondertrender but I get by.”

“I have never heard of them.”

“What?! They’re huge all over the place. There’s seventeen of them, each playing a different instrument, plus the two singers. Their recordings are sold everywhere and... well, what do your people listen to these days?”

“We mostly bellow hymns. Live and unrecorded. We find disembodied music somewhat disorienting. One of my ancestors, Butterror the Unbeliever was a great singer. He sang at the Horn Festival 150 years ago in the Tetrad. Maybe you were there?”

Sinduin replied: “No chance of that. I wasn't even close to Silver at the time...”

“Oh.”

Silence. Papieca started snacking on some grass.

“Anyway, let’s hope the CASBA moves fast. It’s not like the Upas like to take things slow.”

“In Oxytania,” Papieca said between gulps, “our young ones are asked to run the national perimeter in one swoop. This is not easily accomplished, but the elders are adamant and almost everyone gets it done. The last leg of the journey is particularly difficult, as it involves circling the Nanyare enclave. The young ones ask: how can we cover the enclave without abandoning the main perimeter first? The elders keep quiet.”

Sinduin knew all about the Zeburaja tunnels, and not because she was an agent. She reckoned half the civilian population in the Tetrad had a vague notion of them, and it was hard to believe the young Zeburajas had to re-solve the riddle every single time. But culture is culture, and Sinduin did not want to alienate her assistant, so she stayed quiet.

“I mean to say that rites of passage are always strange, Sinduin, but you Inculae really go to an extreme, if you pardon my boldness in saying so.”

“I guess so, huh. Well, have a rest. I’ll come for you tomorrow as soon as I’m able.”

Sinduin closed the stable door, absolutely clueless at what the bull was going on about. “Never mind,” she whispered to herself, “I figure you’ve got about six weeks to turn yourself into a real singer, Sin. I’m sure those Illuminati judges will have better hearing than this crowd today.”

As she turned around, she found herself facing an older gentleman reeking of serene confidence.

“The name is Max Di Luvio. Pleased to meet you. I wonder if you’re busy this Christmas?”

Sweden

Master Ulf had been a photographer at one point, so his tanning salon had a space in the back for photo shoots in addition to the musty darkroom. Ulf gave the young cameraman a tour with Sinduin close behind.

Si, en relik!

The man popped in briefly, then stepped away making a circle with his index finger: “And now this shop is all a darkroom, if you think on it.”

Sinduin gave a tiny smile, more at the English than the message it conveyed, while Ulf cocked his head.

“I mean because people here come to get dark… dark skin” the photographer explained.

“Ha!” guffawed Ulf.

Sinduin deadpanned: “I mörker är alla katter grå.” (i.e. all cats are gray in the dark). An identical thought crossed both the men’s minds: let’s hurry up before she complains of a headache and flies off.

Her outfit was a bikini with the national colors. According to Ulf, in this type of business, subtlety was out of the question. Glitz, glamour, patriotism, that was the ticket.

After a few perfunctory shots, and a few perfunctory “bellas” and “bellissimas” (ah, that made sense to Sinduin then; the fellow did look exactly like one of those Italian funny men who got all the Nordic naiads back in sexploitation films), Master Ulf unveiled his vision for the poster.

12/22/11, Scotland

Sinduin could only think of registering Papieca as an emotional support animal, something which the CASBA authorities –used to so many prime donne and primi uomini- did not even flinch at. Animals did not leak locations. And so the two were flown on a plane from Preciosa to God knows where, then they were blindfolded and taken on a road trip to an undisclosed location. From the quality of the air, the rustling of the flora, and the whispers she could catch (especially the whispers), Sinduin figured it was north of the English border, on the way to but not quite at Cockburnspath.

She exited the truck and beheld a modest yet distinguished gray brick house, three stories all in all. Her CASIO G-SHOCK had been confiscated with promises of swift return, and she swore to herself they’d be the ones getting a great big shock if there was a single scratch on it. Timeless, she read the sky the best she could as three o’clock in the afternoon, with the sun already parting on this winter day, but the trees surrounding the facility were so thick and luxurious that it did not seem out of place for all the artificial lights to be on, as they happened to be.

There were at least a fifty or sixty people milling about outside the house. The multiple Alexander McQueens (wannabe Kates), rainbow dip-dyes (fake Lums) and double-breasted tweed jackets (boys, you’ve achieved it, whatever it is you were aiming to pretend to be, now will you please just knock it off?) made it evident that these were not ushers or photographers or well-wishers, but the contestants themselves. It made sense. After all, a good number of the participants were extremely popular worldwide. A thrill if you were into that sort of thing. Sinduin wasn't, not really, so she ignored the crowd. With one hand on her sidekick, she stared at the house, wondering how it would fit all of these people.

The crowd started cheering. Sinduin turned around just in time to see a flashy green and orange sportscar arrive. There was a shamrock on the number plate. Out stepped a handsome fellow full of smiles, not too tall, but well-built and with very pettable soft, fluffy hair.

Aston Martin with Irish colors

“Nice car!”, someone said.

And he replied, “The only one for me.”

Then umprompted he added: “It's a DB9, the first to come out of their Gaydon factory.”

Sinduin said, apparently much louder than she intended, “Gay... Don??”

And Michael (as many incessantly called out to him) smiled, “Haha, yes.” He sauntered to Sinduin and added just loud enough for her to hear, “Kind of ironic, huh.”

And Sinduin thought: Ironic how? Well, kind of hot anyway.

Michael took a couple of steps back with arms outstretched and addressed the entire crowd:

“Some of you might not know me, so allow me to introduce myself: My name is Michael Collins, and I’ll be representing United Ireland....You know, the guys who saved Western civilization and then later on proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the darn thing wasn't worth saving in the first place! Hahahaha. Ha?”

An Asian woman had rushed into his arms and said what -if she was honest to herself- the reptile part of Sinduin’s alien brain was already muttering: “You could save me all day long!”

Michael carefully, but firmly, extricated himself from the lady and laughed: “But then that would mean you weren’t worth saving.”

The woman was confused. Michael walked once more toward Sinduin, by which time a shiny limo had arrived and sucked everyone’s attention. He said:

“And you are?”

“Ch-charlotte Renders, from Preciosa.”

“How fitting!”

“Huh?”

“The place..it fits you. Doesn't it mean Beautiful?”

“Ah yes, well. I knew that. That it meant that, I mean, not that I was, you know....”

“The name is Michael. You don’t have the typical Preciosan look though, right?”

“Well, your Irish accent is atrocious,” Sinduin retorted, finding it hard not to keep smiling all along.

“Ah, touuuuchéééé,” he responded, with a deliberately god-awful pronunciation. “I grew up in the States. It’s a long story. I apologize for assuming yours would be shorter.”

He turned to the house and sighed, “Quaint, huh,” failing to hear Sinduin’s weak-kneed “Apology accepted.”

Strength, she reminded herself. “Yeah, a can of sardines. Wherever we are.”

“Hehe. No, this is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are multiple levels beneath the ground.”

Sinduin squinted her eyes. “You’re well informed.”

“Maybe I’ve been here before.” He ran a hand through his hair absent-mindedly (not really). “Or maybe one of the organizers spilled the beans when he was recruiting me.”

“Well, either way there’s some horrendous double standard at work. Here I come in blindfolded and you drive down in your own car!”

“Shush!” cried an eavesdropper in a scarlet dress, popping out of nowhere to interrupt them. “You call yourself an artist, woman? Do you know you’re talking to the lead singer of Counter Cannon?”

Sinduin looked at Michael, then at her, and shrugged.

The eavesdropper grabbed him by the arm and took him away, muttering that only a bumpkin would bring her pet ox to such a prestigious event etc., etc.

“Screw you!,” Sinduin said at no one in particular. “Let’s go, Pap.”

12/22/11, Midnight, Scotland

Leto said: “So it’s one hundred percent confirmed. The Germans did see a bona fide UFO.”

Max asked: “Two months ago correct?”

“October 23rd. The pilot didn’t survive, but he did file a report prior to being blown to bits.”

“And there’s no way it could have been one of ours?”

“No chance. The only mock saucers we had up on that date were scaring some fishermen off the coast of Hong Kong.”

12/23/11, Scotland, First Day, Morning Session

The attendant that brought breakfast gave her the Casio watch back along with a complimentary Hermes bag. All is forgiven. He also handed her an envelope with the calendar of proceedings and some basic instructions, plus a so-called Challenger Book with photos of all of the participants. The order of performances was random, or so it was claimed. There were 182 contestants all in all, and each had 10 minutes, though this included getting into and out of the stage, so the performances proper needed to be 4 to 6 minutes long. The procurement of instruments and props was handled by the CASBA themselves, but the deadline for participant requests on this front had expired a week prior.

Preciosa’s mail system was very iffy, so if they sent her an application form to fill out it never arrived. Or maybe they just didn’t care about Preciosa. That fellow Max should have at least told her. Then again, all she really needed was a microphone and a sound machine, and she was sure she’d be able to arrange for one seeing as she had ended up at the very end: there were three days of competition, split into three sessions each, with the night sessions being half as long as the morning and afternoon. She was placed next to last Christmas night.

Card with competition schedule

She decided to sit through the first morning session and get a sense of the competition. The concert hall was shaped like a shoebox and colored like a Stratocaster, with the orchestra section cordoned off for the judges to cast their rulings on the buddy hollies on stage. The hair on her arms stood on end as she passed by the orchestra on the way up, prompting her to conclude –as insane as it sounded- that there was some sort of force field around the area. Happily, the usher said that she could sit anywhere in the balcony and he did not lie: barely any contestants were in attendance today, and likely the CASBA would not be allowing any other type of spectator in. She sat front and center and fanned herself with the program in her hand. She resigned herself to doing some recon on the people watching. It was dull work, but Marjuin back home would love the intel.

Her eyes first rested on a bald man that had just sat down. He thought she had seen him before, but where?

All of a sudden, Mr. Michael Collins plopped down on the seat next to her.

“Charlotte!”

“Hey!”

“176th. You?”

“181st. Next to last.” She sighed. “Are we sure this arrangement is random?”

“Why wouldn’t it be? Are you famous or infamous enough to warrant some hanky-panky?”

“Most definitely not. But you on the other hand, putting you that close to the end there…”

Michael crossed his legs and stared at the orchestra. “You worry it's a coronation? For me?”

“Maybe. You have a lot of fans here.”

“I’m not the only one.”

Sinduin looked at him, but his eyes were on another competitor who had just entered the balcony. It was one of them ageless Asian idols. She waved at him with a smile and he saluted her playfully, then watched her as she went up to a higher row. She was followed by some long-haired musician types and a few others with stupid smiles on their faces.

“You know her?” Sinduin stared at him, trying to sniff out a reaction. Disappointed she didn’t sit closer to him, maybe?

“Sort of. Same industry, different stables.”

“Hmph.” Sinduin opened the program. The first performers were Angola, Christmas Island (say where?), Puerto Rico, Tonga, and Malta. She gave it an honest try, but she couldn’t imagine a world in which Puerto Rico or Tonga were picked as world superpowers, or a cabal powerful to make such a thing happen.

She turned to Michael and said: “Must be tough being famous for a long time and everything.”

“It is, definitely.” He took his eyes off of Sinduin to acknowledge the waving Angolans on stage. They seemed super excited to see him there.

“Wow, you’ve got fans in Angola even!”

“No, no. Just them, I think.” He returned his gaze to Sinduin and put his hand on hers. “As I was saying, it’s tough. And confusing. Exploitation is a funny thing. We were made to roleplay as the Finna, this legendary band of Irish heroes. I would play Finn MacCool. Nice ring to it, right?”

He raised his right index finger, and continued: “There was one reporter, I remember, this one woman, who complained it was a disgrace. That they were exploiting us youngsters doing it, and also abusing the historical memory of the nation, something like that. Becky…Beckett? Beck Beckett? Anyway, I just laughed it off at the time. I thought, first, I’m getting paid. How can I be exploited if I’m getting paid, handsomely, to dress like someone else and get my picture taken? Second, Finn wasn’t even a real guy. He’s a fictional character! How can he be exploited? Later on, I did wonder though if she didn’t have a point. Finn and I were both objects of consumption... Wow, they’re really going for it, huh.”

“Huh?” It took a second for Sinduin to realize Michael was referring to the Angolans, who were doing a lambada-tango hybrid thing that really did make it hard to notice that there were notes and tones being played as well.

“It’s a music contest. I hope the judges remember that.”

“Hehe.” Michael removed his hand.

“Exploitation,” Sinduin said, sounding a bit sad.

“Yes. It boggles the mind. Things spiral out of control. Sometimes I felt more myself when I was playing Finn, pretending to be an Irish hero, than when I was Michael Collins –believe me, that is my real name, thanks to my lovely parents- because as Michael Collins I was already pretending to be something I was not, except I also had to pretend like I wasn’t pretending. Much harder. It all spirals out of control.”

Fan Bingbing as Chairman Mao

Michael took out a fancy Apple phone and showed her the screen wallpaper. “See this? A capitalist icon cosplaying as a Communist icon in the service of… who? Herself? Her fans? An empire turned soviet turned mixed moxie something or other? It's playing with fire, and I guarantee you she'll get burned one day. But they'll be sure to phoenix her back into being.”

Sin thinks: I’m in love with this man.

”Fame is attractive, sure.” He sighed. “But be careful of getting what you wish for. It’s like the eye of Mordor. The public is the manic-depressive eye. If you have a manic-depressive person among your acquaintances, it’s the easiest thing in the world to set up an intervention, gang up on him, and get him fixed, basically. But if you’re the only sane one, and everyone is manic and depressive and looking at you, up and down – building you up and tearing you down, I mean – how can you intervene against everyone? It’s impossible. Ah,” Michael looked up at the ceiling and exhaled, “sometimes I think, corny as it might sound, that only famous people can really understand this. And by then it’s too late!”

Sinduin was about to speak when Michael turned and looked back, suddenly aware of the noise from the crowd that had formed around that Asian idol. She was kissing copious amounts of merchandise and passing them out. It was clear to Sinduin now that she was Japanese -she could hear the gal cooing over the band members, who were trying to physically cordon her off and give her a break. They were able to hold the fans back just enough for the idol to reapply her lipstick, and not a minute more.

“Like her?” Sinduin asked Michael.

“Me?” Michael asked back, eyes wide.

Sinduin was frazzled and didn’t get that Michael was messing around. “I asked, like her, not like her?”

“Oh, I see, I see. Like her, yes, maybe, famous people like her. God knows she’s been through a lot.”

Sinduin was quiet, and Michael shifted in his seat before flashing a grin: “You’ve really never ever heard of her?”

“I guess there’s a lot of research I need to do, being an island girl.”

Sweden, always the same day

The deal was to have her eyes closed and hands folded in prayer to the Sun, thankful for her tan. It went by quickly, quietly. Ulf and the photographer agreed with each other that Silvina Svensson practically photographed herself. It was just a matter of pointing the camera in her direction and making sure she didn’t wander out of frame. Today, Sinduin felt like a literal mannikin and hardly moved, so it was all easy as pancakes. The men also agreed she was drop dead gorgeous, and there was something worshipful in their gazes, but it was neither selfish nor selfless adoration. Not selfish, as nothing could be gained from it -she had learned long ago how easy it was to lead Humans on, and therefore scrupulously avoided doing so unless there was a purpose behind it. Neither was it selfless, since their eyes were fixated on her form, and not her content: the warmth under the skin -what she knew, what she loved- was neither sought nor hoped for. Subconsciously, and only apparently paradoxically, she was too close to them, maybe even beneath them (a woman, not Everest, and only half a Swede at that). Ulf’s story reinforced the air of noli me tangere, and without a gospel to her name Silvina might as well have been a mannikin to them, or a statue: cornucopian chest over a washboard stomach, a needle for each strand of hair, razors for lashes, unnaturally large hands and eyes. Her colors, though pleasing, could have weathered off for all they cared. They could have added them in post: gold for the needles, black for the razors, the requisite tan for the figure, adjusted for brightness as needed. As for her, she was lost in thought, back at that temple she used to circle -and occasionally visit- during her midnight jogs in Tokyo, but instead of merely savoring the boundary between the visible world and the invisible, she was actually attempting to cross it. But the statue at the temple was indeed achala, unmovable. There was only one sure-fire way she knew of accomplishing that crossing, the way of the abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here variety, the one that transcended cultures and dimensions / \ of Sinduin’s anatomy whose boundaries the men savored: invisible nothingness hidden by a very visible blue and yellow bottom, four parts Nylon, one part Lycra, whose trespassing would carry terrible consequences. And on that note, one of them could not resist remarking something to the other a bit too audibly. Silvina/Sinduin slowly opened one inquisitive eye in response, and Cyclops became the promo poster.

Sinduin posing in a bikini

1. Kalmar! The same Kalmar whose friendship the Spaniards once sought out, “por calmar mi pecho que de afán muerto se halla,” with sadness and terror, assailed by the French cavalry, whose swiftness belied the revolutionary embryo already in her pregnant womb, and although the trans-Pyrenean power did ceaselessly dust off kinships and Gothicisms like a mad maidservant shattering vases in the hopes of replicating a melody she heard but once echoed behind the stern wall of a house she would never be allowed to enter, it remained oblivious to the fact -Sinduin knew without relishing the span and breadth of her ken- that it was the Merry Knights (hijos de algo, padres de todo) who in feeding the womb punished the Empire for its hubris. This Earth always was and is full of plots. Quevedo’s warning would come to pass, though the disaster seemed to come without warning. Saavedra Fajardo’s winning move had to be beached on a hoary stone shore, Hispania’s castling availed her not, as, after all, hope of progress by avenues political is a dead end productive only of countless dead, and on that shore Andromeda remains chained, wild eyes gazing in horror upon the handful (or dozen, or legion) of revenants regurgitated by Pandora’s briny abyss – the foremost avatar of nature and her ultimate monster. But Kalmar needed no union to become what it was, it never did, and so here she was, with its walls and its parks and its popshops, eternal in her own quiet way.
2. "Too odd, in my opinion."
3. Translation of the Japanese lines: “Dear friendses.” Friendses? “It’s been a while.” We’ve never met. Oh, right, we're talking about Charlotte. “Long time no seen.” Let’s get mooving, shitty cow. “Our reunion today is auspicious.” “Let us thank the godses.” “…you idiot. Your esses are awful, honestly…”
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