Marin had gone silent, responding to Jonathan, probably giving him the good news. And Senna looked back up at the holographic screen, seeking out the numbing softness of Daily Bliss
, the rhythm of something she knew and liked, safe sights and sounds that washed over her like a cool fan gust.
But Hali and Zaid weren't smiling anymore from their little stools. The model, Zurri, was on her feet, trembling. The whole plaza turned to look at the feed while the studio fell into chaos on camera. Someone had burst onto the set, an older man with a bushy gray beard and thinning hair. He was soaking wet. With his back to the camera, Senna couldn't tell what he was saying, but the model was crumpling on her feet, her hands out in front of her defensively. Security rushed toward him, but he had already flicked something in his hand. Then he ignited, nothing but a ball of fire that lurched toward the hosts and the model, slowly falling to his knees.
The plaza had gone silent. On-screen, the man screamed.
Someone would put him out. Someone had to put him out. Zurri shrank away from the blast of heat and the smell. Oh God, the smell.
She was already a vegan, but the burnt pig stench would have put her off meat forever.
She knew the man in flames. Tony. He had been Tony. Security rushed onto the set, sleek, silver fire extinguishers held at the ready. White smoke filled the air, a hiss of liquid fat and a strangled moan came after, then the sound of Tony's body, what was left of him, hitting the floor. Next to her, Hali Teng had not stopped screaming, her hands covering her eyes. On her left, Zaid WhateverWhatever vomited onto his six-hundred-dollar loafers.
More security guards in all-black jumpsuits arrived, circling the charred, twitching body. One of them held up his VIT monitor, mumbling something about paramedics.
"Zurri . . . Zurri . . ."
"H-He's alive!" Zaid shook his head, wiping his mouth, a smear of greasepaint makeup coming off on his white sleeve.
Zurri would never forget the sound of her name coming out that way, like a thick, wet bubble bursting out of Tony's mouth. It almost didn't sound like her name, just a death wheeze, the last rattle of breath before the end.
"Get me out of here, I have to get out of here!" Hali Teng leapt to her feet, losing a heel, and raced off the set, shrieking.
Zurri couldn't move. Every muscle in her body refused to cooperate. She couldn't look away from the security guards and Tony. White motes danced around them like snow, but everything felt blistering hot under the studio lights. Winter in the desert.
Her eyes drifted upward, to the little red light blinking over the shoulder of one of the security guards. The camera. Zurri finally found her strength again, wobbling off the floor and storming past the guards and Tony.
"Cut the feed!" she screamed.
The drone cameras buzzed softly in the chaos, hovering at different levels to capture every possible angle, every reaction, every nuance. The little red light didn't go out, so Zurri grabbed the drone with both hands, tearing it out of the air and slamming it onto the ground.
"I said cut the feed! What the hell is wrong with you people?"
The station's first aid personnel scrambled past her, a stretcher hovering after them. Their orange-and-yellow jackets were bright even through the haze of powder from the extinguishers.
"Jesus, Tony, what were you thinking?" Zurri muttered, kicking the drone into the shadows, hoping it broke when it hit the wall.
One of the security guards spun to face her. The others parted for the stretcher. Zurri couldn't look—Tony had to be too frail to transport anywhere. She imagined him snapping like a burnt twig, scattering to ash. Her mouth tasted like a campfire. Tony went on moaning. From the darkness surrounding the too-bright studio, Zurri's assistant, Bev, emerged, dressed in a formfitting red suit, her white hair shellacked like a helmet to her head. Tears had carved white paths through Bev's makeup. She couldn't get a single word out, just shook her head and stared in horrified awe.
"You know him?" the security guard asked. The thin silver holographic badge on his chest read: DAVIES.
"Yeah," Zurri said, pulling Bev into a limp hug. Where was the person to hold her? Not there, she thought. Maybe not anywhere. "Yeah, I know him. He's my stalker."
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the paperback edition.
Monday, January 24th, we begin the book Invisible Sun by Charles Stross.