Haloed Bane

Hope Solarium: Part II


 Sinduin

12/23/11, Scotland, First Night

Sin is frightfully jealous. She goes to her room, logs onto the internet, and looks Michael up. The autocorrect informs her it’s Counter Canon, not Cannon, “founded by Beirne the World Productions in 19xx, the group rose to fame on the…” bah. She closes the browser. “I’m better than looking a guy’s history up on the net”. Slams the laptop shut. Then she opens it again, “However, I’m not above…doing this”. She goes back to Wikipedia and looks up Manami Suzuki, a.k.a. The Spiral M, as she is listed in the Challenger Book, in order to gets a sense of the singer’s background: her rise to fame, her spell at the top of the Oricon charts, then her downfall, alleged kidnapping of Hubert Beirne, disappearance. Michael had mentioned being in a different stable, but this woman simply is not.

J-Pop is definitely not Sinduin's strong suit. This woman’s face must have been plastered all over the subways and yet it's totally unfamiliar to her. Hold on. Hubert Beirne, Beirne the World. Clicks on Beirne. “Ah, I know this guy from those E! documentaries.” There were two in fact: “From Galway to the Runway (the Wrong Way)” and “High King of Haute Couture”. Played incessantly years ago. Small world, say the creepy little dolls. And here we are, singing to rule it!

Nothing of interest for the Sup.Com. here, but Sinduin decides to write to Marjuin about these people, as she is very much into coincidences and serendipities.

She goes back to the program and sees that The Spiral M is competing tomorrow evening, so she decides to check her out. Now, what to do with the rest of her time tonight? Practicing for her performance would be the sensible thing...

A couple of hours later

Manami steps out to pick up some ice for her one foot. She’s been training like crazy and really feeling the weight of her 24 years, especially after being out of the business for so long. She’s about to close the door when Sinduin barges in with a bottle of liquor in hand. “Hi there, I’m Charlotte Renders from Preciosa, and I brought Japanese whisky. Mind if I come in?”

“You already are in. Now get out” Manami says.

“But I can speak Japanese, I mean not very well, but you can speak it and I can understand you, that way we both speak our strongest languages. Preciosa is this little island where they…”

“Get out!”

“I’m not a weirdo, I promise. I’m a big fan of Japanese culture: you of course, and bonsai trees, Emeraldas, vending machine corn soup, karooshi, zettai-ryouiki-”

Elements of Japanese subculture

“That’s not Japanese karuchaa, that’s Japanese sabukaruchaa!!” Manami moves toward the door but Sinduin pushes her own back against it and clasps her hands together, begging, the bottle precariously held in between.

“Just five minutes. Onegai.”

A noise is heard outside.

Manami whispers with a scowl, “Get out or I will scream and probably we both will have disqualification.”

Sinduin stays put, hoping to call her bluff, but Manami opens her mouth as if ready to yell.

“OK, OK. I get it, I’ll leave.” Sinduin turns around and looks through the peep-hole. “Hey,” she whispers. “You’re really popular with boys of all colors, huh.”

Manami pulls at her hair. “Fans? More?”

“What? You were all kissy-kissy with them earlier, indirectly, but still! There’s a couple of older lads with them too.”

“Please don’t say Chervenkov!”

“Redhead, crazy look in his eyes?”

Manami nods, her voice faint. “Best fan. Worst man.”

Sinduin lifts the bottle toward Manami, the Suntory label front and center. “Tell you what, you don’t scream, I won’t scream either. Deal?”

Manami sighs. “Deal. But away from the door. Chervenkov has senses like an animal.”

Manami sits at a low kotatsu table. She reaches under it and takes out two glasses. Sinduin resists the urge to plop down at the kotatsu -respect for personal space, right?- and instead perches herself on a sofa after handing her hostess the bottle.

“Any advice for me for the competition? I’m a singer too.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Sinduin looks around the room. “I didn’t see Utada's name in the Challenger Book...or Ringo's. You must know your stuff.”

”This is not Japan.”

”Well, yeah.” Sinduin wonders how much this gal knows. Does she know she was picked out of a hundred million? Does she know where this place is and what actually happens here? Is she getting preferential treatment like Mr. Collins or is she coming in blind like a bat? She’s curious, but it’s probably best not to interrogate. Keep it banal.

“How important will looks be, do you think? Should I let my hair down or keep it up in the traditional style of my country?”

“I don’t think you’re the judges’ type. They’re more…” Manami’s voice trails off.

The singer notices Sinduin’s glass is empty so she stands up and pours her some more. She herself has stuck to tiny sips.

“Am I yours?”

“What?”

“Am I your type?”

Iya na hito ne, anata. Awful person.”

“Come on, I’ve caught you peeking at my chest like five times already. I don’t know if you want to sign them or just grab them.”

“You’re crazy, Char…lotto? Crazy.”

“Sign one and grab the other, that’s fine too.”

Manami guffaws. “If you didn’t flirt with me, I could accept the invitation, fom curiosity. But I don’t wish a misunderstanding. How can you be so big there and so thin around?”

“Oh, they’re natural if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve only got the one rib, though. For science?” Sinduin crosses her arms behind her back and closes her eyes. Manami stays put, but after a while she asks:

“You don't act like a fan. What’s your favorite of my albums?”

“Tsk.” Sinduin gulps down the whispy, then thinks. “Uhmm… Spiral..ing?”

“You are terrible.”

“Still, better than Chervenkov.”

“Much better. And thank you for not asking about embarrassing things.”

Manami takes the final sip of her whisky, then grabs a bucket full of ice and dunks her leg in it.

Sinduin walks over to pour both some more. “Is all the kissing reserved for real fans?”

Iya da.” She sighs. “OK. I will sign. Your bra, a lot of space.”

“Excellent!” Sinduin unbuttons her blouse and takes off her bra.

“You don’t have to take it off!”

“I’m just making it easier for you.” Sinduin uses both hands for an underhanded toss.

Manami signs the bra, and then throws it right back to Sinduin, not without a good dose of staring.

“What’s that scar?”

“This?” Sinduin touches her chest and then makes a clawing gesture. “Would you believe: meow?”

“Must be very big cat.”

“Hey, you thanked me for not asking you about sensitive things and now look at you!”

“Well, before you asked kiss and grab too.”

“Fine, you’re not into women, I get it. Me, I can take them or leave them.” Sinduin lowers the glass and leans forward conspiratorially before saying, “That Michael Collins, though, he’s handsome huh.”

“Michael Collins. Counter Canon? Kimatteru wa, of course.”

Wow, Sinduin thought. She doesn’t sound too interested. Is this unrequited? Or nothing at all?!

“And what’s this?” Sinduin picks a black leather jacket reeking of tobacco trapped between the cushion and the sofa she’s sitting on.

“That’s Masa, my drummer. He went to visit Brazil. He says he scouts the strong performers.”

Sinduin chuckles, “He’s a sassy one then.”

“Masa is always very busy. We play last tomorrow. Christmas Eve.”

Sinduin tries a winsome smile. “So romantic. I’ll be there, count on it.”

”Here”, Manami says, getting up with some difficulty. “You can listen, choose your favorite.” She hands Sinduin a copy of her greatest hits.

12/24/11, Scotland, Second Day, Morning

“They have a couple of small tetrapods. They resemble Maras, but shorter and not as hairy.”

Sinduin smiles and whispers back: “Ponies, for sure.”

“And then several much smaller creatures, also four-footed, constantly howling and/or whimpering.”

“That would be the dogs.”

“Dogs,” Papieca repeats, committing to memory.

“Yes. Anything making you sneeze?”

“No.”

“Then we’re good. I don’t think you’d like cats.” Sinduin looks around. The stable for contestants’ animals is very roomy, far better than Preciosa's. They’re speaking as softly and discretely as possible so as not to draw attention, though a few of the contestants are speaking to their animals quite openly. One of them, a cello player, is arguing furiously with a CASBA operative. Apparently, his pet stork is part and parcel of his “act” and he feels that it’s supremely unfair for the animal to be kept apart from him until the performance. How could they do a proper rehearsal? The operative tries to convince him to rehearse right there in the stable, but the suggestion is rejected. He finally waves his head and says something to the effect of “No good ever came from storks.”

“Misanthropes the lot.”

“What, Sinduin?”

“Nothing, Pap. CASBA being CASBA. So your task will be to supervise things backstage, make sure my performance isn’t sabotaged. Some of these artists are ridiculously competitive, and I don’t trust CASBA to put a stop to any shenanigans they might catch sight of. They’ll probably chalk it up to fate.”

“I have a question, if I may.”

“Yes.”

Papieca speaks even lower now, so low in fact it’s hard for Sinduin to make out, as his occasional stomach noises surpass that decibel range. He says, “If this CASBA is so advanced and clever, why can’t they figure out you’re not really who you say you are?”

“Ah, ah, well, that requires some knowledge of Human psychology, which yours truly has in spades. They do, in fact, think I’m lying about my identity. They just don’t realize that the identity underneath the fake one is also fake.”

“Huh.”

“So…they think that Charlotte Renders has pretended to be one Silvina Svensson for several years, driven by some youthful indiscretions. They also think that this Silvina, or this Charlotte that’s pretending to be Silvina, is in desperate need of money, and so that’s why she’s reverted to her previous name and flown to Preciosa to gain access to this contest. She’s faked her own identity so long that now her real identity, or what used to be her real identity, is just another mask to put on.”

“So CASBA knows you know about CASBA.”

“That there's a contest and that the winner usually becomes ridiculously wealthy, yes. That was always a risk on our part, whether they would simply shoot me in the back of the head once it was clear I knew this sort of event was going down. But it’s evident to me now that several contestants have known about it and even prepared and aimed for it. Though I don’t imagine anyone knows the full extent of it or the consequences thereof... except me of course.”

“I see,” Papieca said.

“So they think I’m Charlotte pretending to be Silvina and now being Charlotte again, when the fact is they’re both fake, and the only reality is I’m going to win the contest.”

“I trust you will Sinduin, I see you’re brimming with confidence.”

“The odds are in my favor, since I know everyone’s secrets just about,” Sinduin replies, eyes staring at the floor. “Anyway, I’ve asked the CASBA to let you to hang out behind the scenes, just in case I get anxious. Your real job will be of course to prevent any funny business on the part of the judges, the contestants, or whomever.”

Papieca nods.

“I guess I’ll go then, and figure out how I’m going to win this thing. I was thinking of going really poppish for this, but I realize now I’ll never be able to even pretend to be as saccharine as some of these people. I’m going to have to play to the judges, get a reaction from them.”

“But I imagine many performers will be doing precisely that.”

“Yes, I have to get in their faces in a way nobody else will even dream of doing.”

Papieca thinks for a while, then said: “I believe you will. Your knowledge is your power.” Despite these words, he is quite taken aback that she has yet to decide on the details of her performance, but he keeps that to himself.

“Thanks, Pap, I’m off to grab lunch and then train.”

12/24/11, Scotland, Second Day, Afternoon

But any thought of proper training is quashed the moment she returns to her room. Someone has slipped a little red envelope under the door, with an even littler note inside it that reads only: “I know you’re not who you say you are. Meet me at the swimming pool at 1:30. Carolina Herrera hat. Large with polka dots.” That part of is typed. Scribbled underneath it says "Michelin bar tnearhe middle, ceiling with stars."

Would it hurt whoever it is to add just who do they think I am? If the answer isn’t extradimensional alien, then I’m not much interested. Sinduin sighs and leaves the room again. The staff quickly tells her where the swimming pool with the fake sky is (three flights down, hang a left, then another left after you see the golden flamingos), but they scratch their heads when she asks about that one bar.

She understands as soon she gets there. This isn’t a pool so much as an ocean. It’s dark with stars above like a Vegas hotel or a Tokyo mall would have, only more believable. Something about the acoustics tells her there’s a ceiling, otherwise she’d almost think they were outside again. And there are plenty of watering holes strewn about. The CASBA has swimsuits for guests who neglected to pack any, but they’re stored quite a ways from the main entrance to the pool, which boasts several stupendous waterfall slides. Sinduin wonders if she’ll have time after the dust settles to play around for a while. The lady leading her talks about their selection of bikinis.

“No, I’ll be fine with a one-piece. You do have one-pieces, right?”

“Certainly, certainly,” she says, nodding gravely and without masking her disapproval.

At the changing room, Sinduin is handed no less than five swimsuits, each skimpier than the last. She’s too proud to ask to look at the bikinis now, so she opts for the least immodest among this lot, then begins to make her way back to the entrance. Creepiest of all is the fact that all the options she’s been given have the color scheme of the Preciosan flag. (She designed that flag herself as part of her self-promotion campaign on the island literally a month earlier.)

Charlotte in a one-piece swimsuit

”Say,” Sinduin asks, trying not to stare at the lady trying not to stare at her, “I assume you have swim caps too, right?”

The lady frowns, then nods. She opens a drawer and starts showing her an impressive selection of caps. Her frowning this time around is not judgmental, but shame for the fact that they didn't make any caps in Preciosan colors. Ha! Sinduin grabs one covered in flower petals -the more irregular the surface of the thing the better, since the whole point is not to protect her virtually indestructible hairdo, but to hide the ears that will be sprouting as soon as she enters the waters. She thanks the woman and begins to walk back where she came from.

“No, no,” says the lady, pointing forward. “You can actually enter the pool from over there.”

“Great, thanks. And you said the world-famous bar was at…”

“Up a little.”

“Up a little… O…K?”

Sinduin opens a sliding door. The pool here is rather narrow, the current quite strong, the sound of the water a riot. Most of the people are lazily floating “down” (there seems to be a slight but noticeable declination here), and though some contestants are visible, the majority of the people present seem to be children. She doesn’t wonder whose children these are, all of her focus is on wondering who has forced her to come down here and waste her precious time! At first, she tries just walking against the current, but it’s tiring, and she has no idea how far away the bar is, so she resorts to the game some intrepid children are playing: hanging onto the rocks at either side and pushing against them to trot against the current.

Despite the circumstances, Sinduin has to admit it's refreshing. The water feels good and the air is fine. The idea of challenging a would-be blackmailer begins to stimulate her. It might be just what she needs to come up with the perfect musical set to take over Earth.

I shall face my accuser and squash him (or her) like the bug that she (he?) is! I will go on to get that crown from CASBA and overthrow them altogether! I shall be queen!

Until now she has been bending her knees somewhat, to show less of herself above the waters, but why hide? Let them see their queen, she thinks. Lucky ones, getting a sneak preview. Let the big red eye stare until it pops a vein! And when the…Ow! did someone just hit my boob?!

A child of ten or twelve going down the current and rapidly losing control of his float just kicked her in the chest. Sinduin turns to scold him but he’s been separated from the float and nowhere to be seen. She thinks better of trying to find him and soldiers on, more alert to her surroundings and less cheerful than a minute ago.

After twenty minutes or so, she sees the pagoda-like roof of the bar up ahead, and soon enough music resounds in her ears. The bar is wide open -some overly happy contestants are having a blast tossing daiquiris at swimmers heading downstream (rather reckless)- but the roof makes the place a shade darker and there are at least forty or fifty people sitting on submerged stools. It would take forever to find the behatted extortionist, and forever is too long.

Sinduin wades toward the bar and finds the pool there much shallower. She stands up and makes for the bar with big strides, drawing attention to herself. She figures whomever she’s meeting is a blackmail bear and not a brown one, but she hopes they don't run away without engaging. The ploy works pretty well, as the bartender immediately points to a table and says her friend is waiting for her. Said friend, wearing a big floppy black and white polka dot hat, is shrinking in her seat and making herself as small as possible. It's the scarlet woman from yesterday.

The lady puts a brave face on when Sinduin -twice her size all arounf- sits down across her. She asks:

“What do you drink?”

“Bloody Bull.”

“W-what?”

Sinduin turns to the waiter, who has either walked in right behind her or just magically materialized in, and explains: “A Bloody Mary, with beef bouillon.”

“One Bloody Bull ,” the man replies. And as he turns to leave, she adds:

“Make it rare.”

Bloody Bull cocktain

The man pulls at his half-open white shirt, which is super soaked and sticking uncomfortably to him, and nods.

“I hate to do this,” the scarlet woman says, and it's obvious she means it. She looks downright ill.

Sinduin rolls her eyes. “Why do it then?”

Scarlet grips her drink tightly and takes a big breath.

“It’s not right for you to be here, if you’re not really from that place.”

“Are you afraid I’ll win?”

“Wha-no! You have no chance. There are so many talented people here. Are you serious?” The ridiculousness of the notion seems to delight the woman and calm her somewhat.

Sinduin smiles. “I see your point that it’s not fair if there are two of us from… you know.”

“Sweden.”

“Right, Sweden.” OK, so this isn’t very serious at all, Sinduin thinks. Even if the woman takes her claim to the judges, well, they bloody know all she and Marjuin want them to know about her and Sweden. Nothing will come of it. And it wouldn’t be the first time someone wins the competition for the wrong nation either.

“I love Abba, I love Ace of Base. It’s not personal, but you have won enough in the music world.”

From her speech, Sinduin has her pegged as Venezuelan, maybe Colombian. For a second, she considers bringing up beauty pageants and pointing out the rich irony in her outrage, but it’s best not to alienate her further. What makes her curious is the question of how she has come by her information, and who is behind her here.

The waiter arrives with the Bull, and behind him is none other than Michael Collins himself. Scarlet and Sinduin forget their quarrel and marvel at the fellow’s bare chest, sculpted like an exposed mountainside -rugged to begin with, then cut by industrial machinery, now raw and majestic still, though invitingly vulnerable- featuring a white gold necklace with a whistle pendant. OK, the whistle thing looks like it belongs on a Monopoly set, but the idea behind it is solid: Lifeguard Adonis. Real playing piece available upon request. Save-me-or-drown me-I-do-not-care-just-as-long-as kind of a thing. He’s smiling. Of course he is.

“A little birdie told me you’d be here.” He lowers his voice and continues addressing scarlet, saying, “remember the gentleman we were talking about last night? He was spotted over at the Courtyard Victoria just a little while ago.”

Scarlet snaps out of her reverie to enter another, while Sinduin’s blood bubbles up. Last night? What were you doing together last night? Aren’t you even going to say hello?

Scarlet claps her hands. “Do you think he’s still there?”

“I’m sure of it.”

Scarlet looks at him, then at her, then back at him. He laughs.

“What are you waiting for? Go! And be sure to say hello for me.”

She nods, hugs him, and goes off into the artificial night.

“A little birdie, huh. I wonder how it got in?”

Michael scratches the back of his neck, working the shoulder, arm, armpit…

“Same way we all did?”

“Hehe.” Sinduin gulps down what’s left of her drink and signals the waiter for another. “Myself, I talk to them regularly.”

“Birds? I knew you were crazy pretty, but I didn’t realize you were also, like, crazy crazy.”

“I do do, so I guess I am am, crazy crazy.” I sound like an idiot, but the man just lied to be alone with me. Sue me if I’m a little bit giddy.

Michael fixes his posture and remains silent.

“You want something to drink? I’m not sure if I get a tab here or how it works but…”

“No. I mean, yes. I’ll have whatever you’re having. Waiter! Same!”

“What’s on your mind all of a sudden?”

Michael smiles, but then his smile turns into a grin, and this grin is as scary as his smile is pleasant. Attractive no doubt, but scary. When he leans forward, Sinduin feels a shiver. He asks:

“You don’t actually talk with birds, do you?”

“Uhm..?”

The grin is replaced by that smile again. “Parrots and mynas can mime and, well, parrot what people say but that’s about it. Birds don’t actually talk, as you know…”

I know better, thinks Sinduin.

“Only a ripe old nut would say a bird spoke to him. Off his rocker, like.”

Sinduin’s spleen, the seat of an Incula’s memories and emotions, itches just then. Her vision goes a bit blurry, her mouth dries up. She has to make an effort to close her mouth.

Michael silently thanks the waiter, takes a sip, and says: “Sorry, Charlotte. I get on the weirdest topics when I’m about to perform. I find it therapeutic.”

Sinduin stands up and talks in his general direction, not really seeing him: “Good luck, you’ve reminded me I have to go practice my piece. Put it on my tab.”

She leaves. ”Don’t mind if I do”, Michael says to the nether. The waiter comes with the drink and he orders an Irish stew. He mutters to himself, eyes glazed over: “A ripe old nut. Un loco maduro.” Then he starts thinking about what to buy Miss Merida to thank her for her troubles and apologize for his little white lie. There's barely enough time to ingest two spoonfuls of mutton before two or three fans approach his table.

12/24/11, Scotland, Second Day, Evening

She gets back to her room, sets the alarm for nine p.m., and collapses on the bed, swimwear on.

The alarm rings. Still half-asleep, Sinduin slaps on a super basic yet spiffy black and red jogging outfit, a mishmash of brands designed to welcome all sponsors: Nike, Adidas, Puma… The getup also lets her run to the concert hall without looking like a weirdo. Then again, she notices there are plenty of runners in high heels and the such.

It’s a good thing she’s made a point of getting there fast. The competition is running a bit early, as the lead singer for the Guaíba Gems (representing #109 Brazil) has developed some horrible though apparently non-contagious illness. It’s hard for Sinduin not to think of that guy Masa, and doing so is far better than mulling over her conversation with Mr. Collins earlier.

If Japan is trying to stack the odds in their favor, the CASBA is at the very least enabling them. Putting The Spiral M last on Christmas Eve was no accident. There is a large crowd in attendance, and Sinduin can hear snippets of discussions on this and that aspect of Manami’s checkered past. She’s a bête noire, and the people here just love that.

But first it’s Latvia’s turn. Contestants no. 118 go the Eurovision route, dressed as Livonian knights, or Teutonic knights, or maybe some of them are Livonian, some Teutonic, because they’re fighting each other on stage. They sound more kitten than Sabaton for all that (the latter played for Sweden in the morning, while Sinduin was chatting with Papieca, so unfortunately she missed them).

Zimbabwe takes the stage next. Sinduin’s ears perk up, having recently been there. It’s a solo performance, a young girl on a xylophone-looking thing. But it’s not a xylophone. In fact:

”It’s a marimba -the voice of wood, as the natives call it. In this case, Honduran rosewood. But does the performer know that the material she uses to express her culture and her very soul comes from another continent, another world? I believe she does. Look at how gingerly she deploys those mallets. They-“

”Excuse me.” Sinduin stands up and leaves the doofus who’s been whispering in her ear. She finds a spot two rows back and sits back down. The connoisseur looks back, finds her, then quickly looks away. What an asshole, she thinks.

There is much applause, though it's probably inflated due to the fact that the performer is a child (cuteness factor, pity factor), plus the knowledge that Japan is about to come on. And when they do, well, the crowd goes wild. In enter the guitarist, the bassist, and the keyboardist, the latter wheeling his instrument in with as much dignity as he can muster. The lights dimmed, it’s impossible to see what’s happening further back until a spotlight comes on and illuminates Masa in his drum fortress. Finally, The Spiral M walks in -no gimmicks, literally one prosthetic foot after the natural- and everyone shuts up. She adjusts the mike, the lights go out, and then the show begins.

Sinduin is not surprised to learn the keyboard is king. That’s the way it was on the albums. The other three (two lads and the bass gal) mostly shake and bounce to the synthesized rhythms. Then there’s Manami, who has the energy to power two hundred and sixteen suns. Sinduin recognizes the tunes, so it's likely a medley of their hits, which means they're playing it safe. The Spiral M spins and twirls and does on occasion spiral as if on a skating ring. Oh, and she sings too, most notably random European phrases, like Rabu nottooo (Love Knot, officially, but her finger wave suggests it’s Love Not) and Vana guroriaaaa, with a thicker Japanese accent than she used when speaking to Charlotte/Sinduin. She opts to end with a Japanese line: subete no hoshi ga sora kara ochite mo… from a song which Sinduin remembers well as being actually more than decent.

Success, well done. The lights go out again and the clapping begins. Sinduin joins in. Some of the judges are clapping. This will be hard to beat. The light comes back on. Manami is hugging the bassist. She proceeds to shake hands with the guitar player, then turns around to thank the drummer. As she does, she falls flat on her face.

There is a collective gasp. Sinduin is one of many who stand up. By Kalderon there is no way. The alien stares and squints, not at the singer, who is being helped by the others, but at the spot where she fell. There is nothing to trip on, nothing slippery, it’s the very spot she pounded for four and a half minutes. She is not tired. It was four and a half minutes! Even if it were four hundred minutes, one does not fall down at a moment like that. She fell on purpose. She had everyone in her pocket, and then she just threw them jeans into the washer and ran it on Cold.

There’s no pity here, no pleading special circumstances. Before long, viewers’ faces begin to change from sad to glad: she was a competitor after all. And it’s not like these judges are going to let that go. How can they allow a country to rule the world under their auspices when their champion did not deem the contest serious enough to follow all the way through? There’s the case of the Great Absent this time around: the United States. Apparently the man picked by CASBA turned them down, and the Knights struck the superpower off their list faster than it takes to say sic transit gloria mundi and that's all folks.

The consequences are clear. What Sinduin doesn’t get is why Manami would do that? Why swim so hard only to fake a cramp at the shore?? “Nothing is what it seems” Sinduin concludes, much louder than she intended, though the bustle of people heading back to their rooms drowns her out. Nothing is what it seems. Never has such a final-sounding statement been as empty and devoid of content. The Land of Confusion is not where Sinduin expected to find herself tonight.

The walk back to the room takes no time at all. She goes to the bathroom and opens both faucets all the way. One mystery leads her inexorably to the other. Her thoughts cascade into words, loud ones. She can't stop them. She looks into the mirror.

“Birds and beasts don’t speak. Birds and beasts don’t speak. If a bird did talk, the chances you could understand its speech are nil. No dragon blood in your diet, Sin. But you do understand them. You can make out what they say.”

She slams her fists down on the counter.

“No! Not what they say, what they mean. Malleability of communication. You’ve ascended to the fifth grade, you stupid c**t.”

Silence sets in as thoughts too dark to verbalize start pouring forth. She brushes them aside and speaks again, but in a whisper.

“Nobody told you you’ve ascended, and there’s no way to tell here on this side of things. And back home you never stepped outside of Flayer Field so you wouldn't have been able to tell.”

She stops herself, remembering that she had been outside of Flayer Field when she had to flee the space attack with Papieca. She had been to Ildico. Quite barren, didn’t speak to anyone, so… So… She had searched for the famous Pink House and been unable to find it, so then she… She…

She looks again at the mirror and speaks again:

“You couldn’t find the house because it wasn’t there. You were in the fifth trinity, and the Pink House is in the fourth. It’s in Kalderon, and you were in Navach.”

She prepares a bath. In the water’s warmth, the thought of having been deceived by A-22’s deceitful duo, who must have known all of it, does not seem as hard to cope with. She and Sandalion are in the same boat, a kayak or a canoe as it turns out. There’s comfort in that. But then she remembers that as a fifth grader she can turn into an Upa and lose herself any minute, and she is so scared she wants to die. It’s almost midnight when she finally brings herself into the bedroom.

12/25/11, Scotland, Third Day, Wee Hours

She dims the lights in the bedroom down to that sick yellow crap hotels usually offer -to save cost maybe- and gets to work.

Too bad about Spiral. No time for her to get phoenixed, but whatever, it’s one less rival. Now go for the jugular. The knights want what they want, so give it to them. They’re masochists in the end and what they want is a slap in the face. Puppeteering puppets, hit them so hard the strings snap and they fall. But they’re proud fools, so keep it to insults, not threats. Do it for yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you’re lied to, if you win, the victory is yours. Not CASBA’s, not CSD-A’s.

A song she's heard only once or twice before comes to mind. About the Fall of Granada in 1492. She pulls YouTube up on the fancy tablet computer thingy the room came furnished with (fancy for Earth standards) and finds it before long: Juan del Encina’s Una sañosa porfía. Oh, it fits her own mood just right, and that can only redound in her favor. Unity of thought and action and all that jazz.

Thinking it over further, she sees the advantage of appealing to CASBA’s more whimsical side as well. The hard work, this secretive herding of over a hundred self-important divas and divos into a massive subterranean complex under Scotland or wherever they are, is really meant to be a great big joke, right? There is a super-catchy tune released by Ace of Base recently and which hasn’t made nearly as big of a splash as it should have. It’s rousing enough for the task, so she works on transitioning the Spanish piece into this one. Rather, her version of it, which she changes just enough not to be accused of plagiarism, insulting in it of itself, but hopefully compounded by the insult of picking Sweden, with CASBA being aware that she has a fake Swedish identity. That should rile them up. Scarlet's face can get as scarlet as she wants it to. Sinduin just needs to make sure not to fall on her face like Manami, but that will be easy. As opposed to The Spiral M, she is here to win it.

12/25/11, Scotland, Third Day, Morning

She wakes up right at ten, and walks halfway toward Manami’s room to apologize for having barged in and see how she’s faring, but ends up changing her mind: if she really is there and available for talking, it might just take too much time. Instead, she goes back and dials room service. She asks for help arranging the light and sounds for her performance. Thank goodness the woman at the other end does not sound outraged at the request coming in so late in the game.

A chubby lad appears soon after with what looks like a gaming console, but lacking cables of any kind. It’s a universal controller, he explains. He has a book with instructions, but he heartily recommends the state-of-the-art software that comes installed with all sorts of presets. He adds that the software can actually factor the music picked together with the musician’s movements and manipulate the lights on the go, so that there's need to actually do anything but concentrate on the performance.

“I’m good, thank you. I’ll go through the book.”

The man’s smile is replaced by a frown, then by an even bigger smile when she agrees to give him an autograph. He’s probably surprised that such a modern looking gal could be so antiquated. But Sinduin isn’t about to leave the fate of her performance up to the knights and their algorithms.

She comes up with a really simple sequence of reds for the sad portion, then a bunch of happy trance-inducing lights for the remaining pick-me-up portion. She saves the whole thing and goes to visit Papieca and give him the all-important job of playing the file and hitting a couple of buttons as needed.

A couple of burly waiters are carrying caviar sandwiches, and she manages to snatch one as she passes them by. Her spirits rise, then dive a little when she gets to the Zeburaja. He looks quite forlorn there in his stable. She meant to request an open-air pen for him, but with all the craziness…

“Don’t worry, it’ll be over tonight,” she says, waving the sandwich. “By tomorrow we’ll be out of here, no matter the result.”

“Yes.”

She puts the sandwich down on a ledge -Singapore-level clean, like the rest of the place- and explains to Papieca what he’s supposed to do.

On the way back and with the delicious sandwich in her mouth she crashes into a group of people. One of them loses her balance quite dramatically and has to be helped by the others.

I didn’t hit her that hard, did I? Sinduin thinks. Then she realizes that the bumpee is none other than Manami.

The Japanese idol checks her prosthetic, then looks up and recognizes her. Sinduin still has the sandwich in her mouth, though most of the delicious roe has scattered. Not a very dignified situation to be in. Before Sinduin can remove the sandwich from her mouth to apologize, Manami and the others have turned around and kept on walking. Ugh, how divine of her.

12/25/11, Scotland, Third Day, Afternoon

A combined 26 years of work as an agent in her country’s versions of the FBI and the CIA has taught her how to be charming. Sinduin can ooze charm if she wants to, bottles of it -kegs even- but she sometimes -scratch that, she often- has trouble getting motivated enough to open the faucets. Today, Christmas Day 2011, she wants to get things done right, and that is plenty motivational. Her one hope is that she doesn’t ascend in the middle of her performance. That would be very, very bad. Whether ascents are even possible in this dimension is completely unknown, but now is not the time to find that out.

She puts on her outfit for a last rehearsal. It’s two outfits cut down the middle and resewn into one: a white flowy pajama-like thing with three large puffy buttons (a classic Pierrot), and a white and black cheapish ballerina dress (classic Columbine). She ordered several sets of both from Harajuku in Tokyo but stitched them together herself to avoid any copycats from surfacing. The result is an Italian version of Baron Ashura from the Mazinger series. Sinduin adds a single cap with a very important function: to hide a special powder -concocted out of free samples obtained from a couple of Misui subsidiaries- that will play a key role in the performance. She spent the latter half of November and first half of December experimenting and experimenting until she perfected it. Meanwhile, Papieca had a quiet stay at a zoo in Nagoya.

 Cover of Vanity Fair featuring Pierrot and Columbine

The dancing as such is relatively simple, really confined to the second half of the performance. She figures the important bit is smiling a lot and shaking it. Easy peasy.

She’s done rehearsing close to five. She places the outfit in a cover bag, slips on a pair of jeans, a blouse and a jean jacket. She enjoys a nice omelet rice coupled with some fermented herring while CASBA radio plays in the background. She downs the meal with today's chef’s choice: a fizzy drink branded Olympus with a lemony taste and carbon dioxide straight from Mars -so claims the small print. She brushes teeth and wig vigorously and heads down to the concert hall.

Sinduin is not really noticed as she comes in, since the audience is collectively focused on trying to determine which country has just come out on stage. “Didn’t he say Gawinda?” someone asks. Others speculate “Canada” or “Mirinda” before someone with the Challenger Book declares the right answer (“Cabinda”). Google then explains that this is the former “Portuguese Congo in Africa”.

Cabinda, huh. Well, that’s not an independent country either! You invite less than 200 challengers total and yet manage to include places like Cabinda, Christmas Island… Several proper countries must be missing. Wacky.

For what it's worth, it’s a really lovely mambo, and far superior to the two acts that follow, after which the afternoon session is complete. Sinduin just ate, so there's still a long time until she’s up. Michael Collins comes on at nine-ten, so she reckons she’ll definitely be there for that, but that still leaves her three hours to kill.

12/25/11, Scotland, Third Day, Evening

The door to her room is already open. Sitting on the larger of two sofas is a young man she doesn’t remember seeing before. He’s wearing a dark green vest with trousers the same color, which means he’s a CASBA operative.

Sinduin closes the door behind her.

The man signals for her to sit down and says, “Pardon the intrusion.”

Sinduin crosses her arms and remains standing. “If you want an autograph, this is not the way to go about it.”

”Haha, no, that’s not why I’m here…unfortunately.”

”To what do I owe the ill fortune then?”

The man stands up, seemingly ruffled at Sinduin’s calm demeanor. “You’d better sit down,” he says.

Sinduin snorts. “I’ll let you know when my knees are getting weak. So far I haven’t seen anything to merit that happening.”

”Fine.” The man starts to speak more rapidly now. “It’s come to the organizers’ attention that you might have broken some rules that invalidate your candidacy.”

”Give me a break.”

”Let me finish, Ms. Renders. You’ve had your fill, you’ve had your food and your drinks and I’m sure met a lot of famous people. We’re hospitable here, there’s no need for this to become a bigger problem.”

”Well, first off,” Sinduin says, finally sitting down, “I’d like to see your evidence.”

The young man sits down with relief. “The investigation will be conducted after the contest, and if our suspicions are confirmed you’ll be stripped of your position. Then maybe, maybe, we’ll send you the evidence. Now, as I’m sure you probably don’t know, the truly important spots are the top four ones. So…if you don’t end up in fourth place or higher, we’ll simply forget all about this and you can head on home.”

”You want me to throw my performance?!”

”I think the chances of you ending up in the top four are minimal. But -and please forgive me for being so frank- there’s an animal attraction to you that is…that makes calculations more difficult. In the end, my message to you is that it’d be best if you tone down your performance and avoid ending up with too much success for your own good.”

Sinduin’s blood begins to boil. They’re going to pull this now? At the eleventh hour? They judge the freaking contest. If they don’t want me to win they can just give me lousy scores and be done with it. Unless…

”How do I know you're actually say who you say you are? Not that you've actually told me who you are at all!" She throws her arms in the air. "You could be a contestant or working on behalf of a contestant.”

The man smiles, and finally looks as relaxed as he did when he first entered, if not more. He pulls out a business card from his pocket. It has the initials C.A.S.B.A. on top, a purple Maltese cross in the center, and the name Alfonso Ortega at the bottom. Surely, it’s a fake name and yet…this man doesn’t seem like he’s lying about being in the organization. First of all, he knows about it, which marks him as one in a million. And if he knows about them, then he knows that impersonating membership is a very serious matter to them, especially right here, right now. He’s too loose, too confident. Conclusion: he is who he says he is. Heck, as far as I know that might even be his own name, Sinduin thinks.

”Thank you for the visit,” Sinduin says and opens the door. “I’ll really think about it.”

"Osewa ni narumasu," he responds almost perfectly. “Remember our advice.”

He heads out.

Rather, he makes as if to go out, but a kris dagger at the neck stops him on his tracks. ”Bedroom, now.” Alfonso holds his hands up in the air and begins walking. “This is not the way to go about it,” he begins to say, but that only makes the cold iron press closer. “I’m not feeling romantic, don't worry,” Sinduin responds.

The door to the bedroom is already open. They are about to go through when Alfonso wheels around and points a Uzi Pro pistol at her stomach -complete with suppressor and bayonet. With no time to think, Sinduin mutters “Sogosh is irin ya rashi”, which spell knocks the man a couple of steps back, until he trips on a slipper she had absentmindedly left there. Sinduin jumps on him, grabs the Uzi and searches him, finding a Sig Sauer P226 in the process.

The slipper is the best thing that’s happened to Sinduin since this whole thing started. The CASBA man stares at it, utterly confused but already accepting it -as Humans are wont to do- as the only logical explanation for what just occurred, even though the slipper was nowhere near the door sill to begin with. Plausible deniability works both ways -for victimizer and victim. Humans are such Cleopatras.

Sinduin smirks, and with Uzi always pointed at the man, walks back toward the bedroom door. Sure enough, she sees an open compartment in the left casing where the weapon was stowed away and the little button that Alfonso must have pressed to pop it open when he walked through the door. I should have searched the premises for weapons. Then again, the whole point was not to have to engage in violence.

”Scream and I kill you. Lie to me and I kill you harder. Now, get up.”

Alfonso gets up slowly, still flustered.

”I believe you are who you say you are, which is a good start. Let’s keep it truthful. Why threaten me? Why not just vote me out if you want someone else to win?”

Alfonso stares at her. “I won’t lie to you, but I’m not answering any questions. Time is against you. Soon they’ll come looking for me.”

”How original.”

”You don’t stand a chance. You’re dealing with powers much greater than you could ever imagine.”

”Ditto.” Sinduin tries to listen, but she can’t hear the cavalry coming. “Are the judges not in on it? Why not?”

Alfonso won’t talk. Sinduin grabs him by the collar and pushes him against a wall. She punches him hard in the stomach. He begins to spit syllables while she continues punching:

”We” punch “comp” punch “art” punch “men” punch “ta” punch “lize” punch. He groans, red-faced and out of breath. Sinduin turns him around and runs the tip of the bayonet down his back. “Your spinal column is mine, honey bunny.” Instead of responding, he slumps to the ground, unconscious.

She turns him around again and lifts his shirt. Brutal bruises brewing. There might be no taking this back.

Sinduin sits on the bed, Uzi in hand and the two other weapons beside her. Time passes. Alfonso remains inert. It’s fine if they send someone, and then another one, and another. She’ll kill as many as she has to, change into her outfit and go do the show. If CASBA is into whimsy, what’s more whimsy than crowning the one challenger who ran the knightly gauntlet to get her chance? She waits for a long time, but nobody knocks, nobody bursts in.

12/25/11, Scotland, Third Day, Showtime

There is some hoopla when Sinduin gets to the hall. The next contestant up -an eight-year old Chinese boy wearing a tuxedo and sitting at an electone- is overwhelmed by the experience and shedding copious tears. A CASBA woman -very rare to see, thinks Sinduin- tries to cheer him up and get him going but it’s not working. One of the judges yells out: “Grow some more before you try again for world supremacy, sonny!” Sinduin frowns, then hears people complaining about the American judge and how nasty he is. No wonder! He knows his country's time has passed!

Another judge, a bespectacled fellow with an air of Mitteleuropa, steps in: “I vonder then, since we have some time, vhether Michael Collins vould be so kind as to play a tune for us, non-officially. Something from his younger days?”

More hoopla ensues, with the excitement among the judges as high if not higher than the general audience's. Michael wastes no time to pop out from behind the curtain and take a bow. He proceeds to perform the cheesiest song ever, the refrain of which is: “Love is a bumper car / you just gotta bang it~” The tune is a total rip-off of Boyzone or some such other. Anyway, it’s wildly unfair. Michael gets to warm up and pump the judges up in the process.

He finishes, takes another bow, then does a little speech on how if Ireland should win, they’ll finish the job they started. He pauses for effect, and then fills in the audience: “What job you ask? Well, to save civilization, of course!”

Now his official performance begins. As Sinduin fumes, Max and Leto watch from one of the balconies.

”What do you think?” Leto asks.

”It’s his if he wants it,” replies Max. “And from the look of it, he does want it.”

”You sound surprised.”

Max looks at Leto. “He’s unpredictable, that boy.”

”An Irish superpower? Rabbi ighfir warham!

Michael looks over the moon as he finishes. Sinduin will not recall who came next, but as she or he or they ended their bit, an attendant calls her to get ready backstage.

Papieca is there with the equipment. The attendant eyes both curiously, but doesn’t inquire. He must think that Sinduin has set up everything to operate automatically. Once he’s gone, Sinduin makes sure Papieca is ready. The bull just nods.

Twenty minutes pass. Sinduin is suited up. Pap hits the start button and out she goes. Time to rock the CASBA.

It’s hard to know what the crowd thinks at first. But of course each person has a separate train of thought. The outlandish outfit might provoke mirth, even laughter. The somber music -even darker lyrics for those who can understand them- might provoke thought, or might come as a downer, especially on the heels of Collins’ perky performances.

One thing is for sure. Sinduin sings earnestly. She sings of the passing of the old order and the beginning of a new. She sings of sadness, and power. She sings of fate.

Michael sits down next to Max and Leto, eyes on Sinduin. “Hmm. Spanish classical huh. Playing to the judges.”

“Hardly,” says Max. Listen to what she's saying. It's the last Moorish king decrying Spanish power. Wailing against the victors. It's more of a slap in the face if you ask me.”

Michael interjects: “But isn't this what the CASBA always wanted. The death of arbitrary state power?”

Leto puts her hand on Michael’s shoulder, saying “And how do we achieve our aims, if not through arbitrary state power, hm?”

”She's daring, I must admit,” comments Max, as he notices another CASBA operative arriving with a message. “Alfonso has been found, sir.”

”Was he lost?” asks Michael, but before Max or Leto can answer that, the music changes.

Sinduin begins dancing like a crazy person, singing: Nineteen~, Ni-ni-nineteen~, unencumbered age, Nineteen~. The reworked lyrics harp on nostalgia, but this second half of Charlotte Renders’ act relies mostly on three factors: 1) the violent shift from the first half, meant to stun and to stir; 2) the bubbly lighting, which Papieca bungles somewhat (what else can you expect from a tetrapod?), though if anything, the set gains from the randomness of colors and intensities, as if Charlotte is performing at a sixties wonderwall; and 3) the costume change, which goes off exactly as planned: she tosses the cap, lays hold of the powder and rubs herself with it. The outfit is made of unblended polyester and cotton patches, while the powder is a sulfone-smalt mix that dissolves the polyester bits and turns the cotton ones blue. After some rubbing then, Charlotte goes from split Pierrot/Columbine to sexy Harlequin -blue diamonds alternating with diamonds of her own exposed skin.

Michael frowns. This is better than he expected. The judges seem delighted with this beauty from Preciosa. Leto is saying something but Michael isn't listening. He tells his colleagues: “I gotta go rack up some more points.”

”How?” Max asks, surprised, but Michael is already on his way. In the blink of an eye, he’s on stage with a microphone in hand singing Nineteeeen along with Sinduin. The latter is as shocked as the rest of the crowd. However, the crowd can at least suspect that this is all programmed, whereas Sinduin knows better. The song is not a duet. If they just sing the same thing they’ll crash and burn -both of them. If somehow they can pull it off, then he gains as much as she. It sucks, but their fates are intertwined now. Sinduin has no choice but to improvise and make the best of the situation. She remembers a song she used to like, a similar tune with two voices. Something in a foreign language, she can’t even even remember which, but she translates it into English on the fly, desperate.

”Say what you’re thinking~”

Michael, after only the briefest of pauses, rejoins: “I’ll show you right now~”.

Sinduin sings: “Let me know how~”

Then they both go: “Together we can~”

It’s a good thing Michael is musically inclined and knows his music…and his audience. He rips his shirt for effect (the jacket exited the stage as soon as he entered it) and presumably for gender equality or something of that nature (what a copycat!). It’s sink or swim for both them, but now they’re doing swimmingly. Hopefully the judges will disqualify Michael, who’s tripled his allotted performance time at this point, and award Charlotte the prize. It's down to one of us two, no doubt.

Michael takes Sinduin by the hand during the instrumental. As she moves toward him, the music freezes and -more problematically- the lights go out. She stumbles, he tumbles, and down they both go.

 Michael falls on Sinduin

The lights come on again, but Michael’s world is still pitch-black, his head buried between Sinduin’s breasts. She pushes him aside violently. Amid the noise of cameras snapping and heads laughing, Michael scrambles to his feet and shouts: “That won’t count against me, right?? It wasn’t even my turn!” Sinduin stands up and walks backstage, hands curled into fists. She walks past a little boy, hardly noticing him.

A few minutes earlier

Papieca thinks and does not say, but thinks: Pu paith tagum inze haus ribashins. Via Channel Five on the silfemon that comes out to Sic semper tyrannis, though from Sinduin’s perspective the lesson here might be just as well described as not to seek Cyrano’s temper, since his next act is to trample on the cables and brings Incudea's plans for Earth to a grinding halt.

12/26/11, Scotland, Award Ceremony

The winners are announced bright and early at eight in the morning. Sinduin is in attendance -her body more than her head. She figures if they’re coming to take her out, she stands a better chance in a wide space with lots of witnesses than barricaded in her room. (She hasn’t slept.) The master of ceremonies thanks everyone for participating and announces that all scores have been gathered and tabulated. The top five countries will be announced in alphabetical order first, then the fourth place winner will be revealed, the third, the second and finally the first -the country that's not called a second time taking fifth place.

Sinduin can’t see Michael, though she does spot Manami sitting close to the stage. I hope he died of shame, the bastard.

After some more blather, the MC finally announces the top five:

  • India
  • Italy
  • Preciosa
  • Thailand
  • Zimbabwe

Sinduin’s heart leaps. She’s in the running! And Ireland is out of it! Now she wishes Michael were alive and attending, so he could die of shame in her presence, the bastard. It’s good to know the judges knew where to place the blame.

Sinduin didn’t see any of the others perform, except for Zimbabwe. No matter, it will be what it will be. The MC waits for the audience to settle before resuming:

”The fourth place goes to…India!”

That’s big. India will rise. Sinduin clenches her teeth.

”In third place we have…Italy!"

Wow, thinks Sinduin. Good for them, but it means the top two nations from now on will be countries that hardly measure on the power scale currently. And Preciosa is still running. Something like confidence starts trickling back into her, not just wild hope. The outfit was an inspired choice.

”The second place goes to…Zimbabee!"

Wow, wow, wow. Xylophone girl. The magnitude of the win is exemplified and amplified by the MC’s mispronunciation. A new era dawns on Earth.

Sinduin double-checks the Malay dagger is still at the ready and hugs her Birkin closer (Uzi Pro inside). A scenario where she wins the contest and then is attacked for her trespass against CASBA is more than plausible. If so, the trick would simply be survival, since the organization would be unlikely to impugn Preciosa’s destiny in the process. Then later, afterwards, she could resurface and lead Preciosa to proxy world domination. Hopefully, though, it won’t come to bloodshed. Nothing succeeds like success. She might get to walk away scot-free.

”First place goes to…Thighland!

The Thai lad stands up and bows and wais several times to the audience, after which he abandons all restraint and starts jumping up and down like a fool. Manami is one of the first to stand up and clap in his direction effusively. The kid actually runs over to her and gets a pat on the head.

Sinduin stands up and walks to the nearest exit. Some of the more famous contestants are up in arms over the fact that the top two winners were both xylophone players, as Thailand played something called a ranat ek which to the layman is practically a marimba. Poland is particularly mortified, since apparently the musician in question was quite adept at their version of the xylophone yet ditched it for the competition as not being a crowd pleaser.

Back to 1/4/12, Sweden

Sinduin walks out of Hope Solarium with a basket of goodies, Ulf’s gift for being so gracious. She whistles a tune and manages to pass the Thai restaurant without giving it a second thought. However, a series of TV sets on display in Kaggensgatan catch her eye. There’s a map of Southeast Asia with a trio of countries shaded red. The newsperson is reporting a resolution to a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. Next, she explains that a Thai consortium has been awarded a hydroelectric contract for a new dam in Sainyabuli, Laos, beating back a Chinese bid -to the surprise of many. Then a series of red concentric circles begin to emanate out of the lucky country. But when Sinduin squints, the circles are gone. It must have been a trick of light reflecting on the glass. Or a hint of things to come.

Sinduin lowers her head and resumes her walk. Halfway over the Olof Palme bridge, she stops whistling. She stops because she’s remembered the name of the song that’s been haunting her for ten days now, as well as who sang it and where they’re from. It’s titled Doch alhanem kunchin, and it’s by Trondertrender, the famous group out of Ishdodeth. She drop the bag with all the creams and lotions. She picks it back up with a trembling hand, not before looking in all directions. She half-expects to see Michael Collins somewhere in the distance, but he is nowhere to be found.

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