Following an unsatisfactory session with her reputation manager, who refused to concede that her image problems were all his fault, Olive Valise found herself suffering from yet another attack of enthusiasm deficit syndrome. Her doctor said there was no such syndrome, but, then, her doctor had wasted several years of his life at medical school, therefore it naturally followed that he knew much less about medicine than she did. Olive read at least two or three holistic books a week, and she didn't think her doctor had ever read a single one in his whole life.
As afternoon eased toward evening, Olive Valise kept an appointment with her life coach, Helen Gobster, who spent some time massaging her back and exposing her to some new aromatherapy sensations marketed by Ambersynth Elite Aromas, a multi-level marketing concern which Helen was part of.
Since Olive had been complaining lately of world weariness, Helen introduced her to something new, a glass of wine in which a pearl had been dissolved. Sheba Regalis, one of history's most hideously expensive women, had indulged in just such a luxury in a spectacular show of conspicuous consumption. But the traditionally exclusive experience was spoilt by the fact that these days you had cultured pearls, so anyone could afford to do the oyster orb melting thing.
"I hate the rabble declassing everything," said Olive.
She did, too. As a child, she had entirely lost her religious faith when her mother had explained that the Exclavasha, the holy book of Qid Hartha, the religion of the norms, the religion in which Olive had been raised, was a book which had been printed by the millions.
If that were true -- and childhood inquiries had satisfied Olive that it was true -- then you were forced to the conclusion that the Exclavasha inevitably ended up in the hands of all kinds of people who were crass, stupid, ill-educated, vulgar and common, people who didn't necessarily bother to put on a clean pair of underpants each day, people who wouldn't be able to get the credit clearances they needed to enter the better sort of shops.
"Image pollution," thought Olive to herself.
The ongoing encroachments of the vulgar multitudes into her private areas of exquisite connoisseurship was an ongoing source of suffering for Olive. Take that traditional Beligian fumblebone percussion music, for example. Once it had been her own esoteric pleasure, unshared with anyone, but now you heard it everywhere, in elevators, in public lavatories, even, and the abuse of her music by so many unclean ears had totally spoilt the experience for her.
"Tell me about something special," said Olive. "Something I could do that I haven't done yet and that almost nobody else does. Something really classy. But not too expensive."
"Well, they don't do giveaway palaces in cornflake packets," said Helen, which was a way of sending a warning about the need for financial realism.
"Okay, so it's expensive," said Olive, impatiently. "But what would I be doing if I did it?"
Olive was sure that Helen must have a new treat in mind for her, something more exciting than pearl soup wine, a treat which she would disclose if she was pushed a little.
"One thing you haven't done yet," said Helen, "is to achieve enlightenment."
"What is enlightenment?" said Olive.
She'd heard the term kicking around but had never figured out exactly what it meant.
"Enlightenment," said Helen, explaining, "is an elite experience granted only to the very few. It's right up there at the very top of the prestige list."
"Is it orgasmic?" said Olive.
"No," said Helen. "It's mystical."
And she explained that to attain enlightenment was to transcend the material world through total understanding. Having done that, you were no longer the slave of your credit cards. You were their master.
"You understand that moss is quieter than calorie counts," said Helen, quoting the words of the guru Chalabaster, "and that the rock in the summer sun can absorb the very sound of the cicadas."
Olive didn't quite follow that, but Helen had said that enlightenment was mystical. In Olive's experience, when we're talking mystical we're talking go with the flow stuff, and it's better not to get too analytical about it. The main point was that enlightenment was not for the masses.
"How would people know if I was enlightened?" said Olive.
"You could advertise the fact on your web site," said Helen. "I could design a special meditation applause button for you, people could click it to send you funds. Another source of cash flow."
Enlightenment was looking better and better. It sounded as if it would do more for her reputation than her reputation manager had, and would also generate another revenue stream.
"Do you know anyone who does enlightenment?" said Olive. "And can you give me a run-down of how long it would take and how much it would cost?"
Off the top of her head, Helen could think of three enlightenment generators. One used insulin injections, another employed extreme sleep deprivation and the third specialized in a shamanistic process which involved plugging your nostrils with clay (the non-toxic modeling clay used at daycare centers was ideal for this purpose) and wrapping you in the hide of a freshly-flayed animal. They were all, unfortunately, a bit pricey.
"And you'd need follow-up visits, I suppose?" said Olive.
"Well, doesn't everything?" said Helen.
Olive decided to put the enlightenment idea on the back burner for the time being. She was thinking of going ahead with the breast enhancement procedure her husband had voted for, and maybe she would go shopping for enlightenment at the same time. Is enlightenment a product that you can sometimes get on a special? Well, that was something she could go into on another occasion.
"Everything costs money," said Olive, more than a little cross with the universe because so much of it was out of her price range.
Being President was more expensive than you thought, and less remunerative than it should be. Beria Dag had let her in on a secret. Her predecessor, Jorbel Eagle, used to arrange illicit arms sales to hellhole countries fighting hotspot revolutions, and would take a cut of each transaction. Beria knew this but could not prove it had happened.
The fixer who used to function as a cutout between Jorbel and the arms buyers had died when his automobile malfunctioned, just after Beria began digging into the more intimate parts of Jorbel's past. The fixer had turned on the ignition one day and the resulting explosion had fragmented his body, his head ending up in the neighbor's birdbath, providing the photo opportunity which had resulted in one lucky photographer winning the news photo of the year competition.
"What I want is a day off," said Olive, as Helen massaged her shoulders.
"What would you do with it?" said Helen.
"Something that doesn't involve consuming extra calories," said Olive.
She would go to Bloot Magnus and, if Wi would be a good boy and swallow down his tablet of gorda ding, then they could have a very nice time together. And she would take her vibrator just in case he wouldn't. Not forgetting spare batteries, this time.
Thinking of the calories, maybe she would start that physical exertion diet, if you were on that one you could pack down quite a quantity of ice cream, and Wi always stocked that raspberry ice cream which she rejoiced in, not least because her mother had taught her that raspberry is an elite ice cream, which shows you're special when you're eating it.
She could read her new book, too, Magnetized Wood: The Health Benefits.
And she could watch TV, and catch up with that weepy soap, Broken Eyelids of the Younger Dawn, which was reaching a very interesting phase. It was all built around the heroine, Miriam Watanabe, whose romances never worked out. She always went wrong by getting disgustingly drunk or by getting caught indulging herself, yet one more time, with her disreputable chauffeur, Breton Banana, whose hobby was going on home invasions with his buddies on the weekends.
Olive had missed the last episode, but apparently, going by the reviews, Miriam ended up facing a big decision, whether or not to take the opportunity to mortgage everything and take a major stake in a jellyfish ranching operation.
Also, the medical subplot was developing. Miriam's little daughter, Odette Watanabe, had a teddy bear, Ally Pappy, and poor Ally Pappy was dying of cancer. There was a tragic scene at the doll's hospital where the Scalpel Men took out one of teddy's lungs. A bit gross, said the review, seeing a shriveled purple thing dragged out of teddy's torso while teddy kicked and whined and screeched and cried. Anesthetic gas does not work on teddy bears, not at all.
The drama was coming to a climax, and Olive wanted to see how it all worked out.
Everyone was telling little Odette that it was going to be all right, that teddy was going to get better, but he wasn't, he was going to die. Going by the preview notes, in the upcoming episode they were destined to see the parents getting together with the family geomancer to choose a grave site.
Teddy's destiny was to die, and, in the next episode, the family would try to steer Odette through the grief experience. If they failed, Odette would undoubtedly do her special Irritation Expression Performance, and turn yet one more person inside out.
"Magic powers make mom anxious," said the buzzline for the next episode.
Apparently viewers were gong to see the reincarnation experts make a mummy out of teddy, and all Odette's little friends would gather together to sing a song in teddy's honor, a song all about drawing the brain out through the nose and about making souvenir patties from teddy's entrails, and then there would be a funeral for teddy at the Parkes Pilkem Faithful Companions Resting Grounds, where the city's social elite buried their cats, dogs and deceased dolls.
For Olive, the fascination of Broken Eyelids of the Younger Dawn was that it showed her the upscale social life she might have enjoyed if she hadn't been exiled from Parkes Pilkem. But she had been exiled. After the family lost the helicopter and the pony, they went on to lose the house, and ended up getting pushed off Parkes Pilkem and harried by debt collectors all the way to a miserable exile in Lan Bios.
Declassed by failure, there was no going back. Lord knows, Olive had tried. But the fact that she was President cut no ice. Failure, the failure of her parents to retain the wealth into which she had been born, had exiled her forever from a world which did not wish to acknowledge the possibility of failure.
Lan Bios ... these days it had such a high-tech image because you associated it with Ditmar Sparrow, the electronics genius who lived in a wheelchair, but it was almost Gorleth, one more shove and you'd be over the water and into street gang territory.
Exile to Lan Bios was the primal scar on Olive's psyche, the disaster which had befallen her at age twelve, and her whole life, ever since, had been one long struggle to redeem that downfall.
"Very quiet this evening, aren't we?" said Helen, by now massaging Olive's buttocks.
"Is it evening already?"
"We're getting there. Something unspoken on your mind, Miss Pensive?"
"They're trying," said Olive, at last ready to share with Helen, "they're trying to get me to go to Zisperhaven."
"They are?" said Helen, in astonishment.
"Yes," said Olive.
"But -- you couldn't go there!" said Helen. "They'd eat you alive. Literally. Cannibal astrals, it's the next thing down the track, that came out at last night's ouija session."
Olive agreed. But everyone had ganged up on her to force her to go. At first it had just been that Pigski guy, brain damaged by emanations of evil filtering across the border from Gretna Charbis, the Forbidden Zone, then the others had turned out to be a pack of traitors, and they had all gone over to the Pigski camp. Worse, Olive's PR flacks loved the idea of her going to Zisperhaven to do an "I love astrals" speech.
Domestically, you could do what you wanted with your minorities, but the PR flacks, who had all secretly gone and sold out to big business, and had become (Olive was convinced of it) covert lobbyists, were big on the international image thing and its trade implications.
"If all we do is shoot astrals it looks bad for our international image," explained Olive.
"Well, it's not our fault if they want to blow themselves up or get shot," said Helen.
"My own thoughts exactly," said Olive. "But there you are. I have to go to that disgusting place and talk to those disgusting people and pretend to like it."
"Why don't you send the body double?" said Helen.
Now that was an idea! They hadn't used the body double for months. First, she'd suffered yet another psychotic episode, this one so bad that the Superintendent of Gorgel Yoga had absolutely refused to let her out of the lunatic asylum to double for Olive at the mud wrestling finals. And then the plastic surgeon had been tweaking her face to perfect her for TV close-ups. But the bruises should have all healed up by now.
Yes, the body double, send her! Get her to memorize her stuff and, this time, punch her full of zombie bolus, that suppressor drug, then she wouldn't make the mistake of indulging in any extemporized speeches. Then, if there was a massacre glorst at the speechgiving, Olive and her eyelashes would be safe.
"You're a genius," said Olive.
"I know I am," said Helen complacently.
Of course she did. She was a life coach, and confidence was her stock in trade.
Olive was so excited with Helen's great idea that she wanted to tie down all the details then and there. But that proved impossible. It was too late in the day, too many people had gone home, and, in the end, Olive had to concede that the details would have to be left to a later date.
Still, it was going to happen. The body double would go forth to dare the hellzone of Zisperhaven, home of the autonomously explosive suicide bomber, and Olive would get her well-deserved day off.