In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.
Rapper Tha Prince was history's single most famous person.
No name or image before his had ever been as familiar to as many. The details of a personal life had never been so widely revealed and examined--and much of it in the moment, broadcast live in "real time".
Cameras followed Tha everywhere, always. The first performer to amass a fortune in the tens of billions he was an industry unto himself; his very minutes were processed and packaged and delivered in a variety of forms to waiting media nodes, where they were consumed daily. As one of Tha's management team (he called them his "hebros") noted, its model was the food distribution system, daily sending out trucks with perishable goods.
His lyrics and random musings were the subject of several college courses and analyzed like a sort of daily gospel stream, despite their stupidity and incoherence. His insubstantial expressions would have floated away on the breeze like spores if not for the weighty anchor of his popularity. Between the global wrath of his admirers and his economic might, Tha crushed all dissent. None dared note his lack of intelligence, the garbled, inarticulate speech (the absurdity of his Nobel for literature!), his child-like narcissism, his celebration of violence and street crime.
The legend of his genius was sacrosanct. That he wrote and produced his entire fourth album in his head down to the minutest detail was not just believed, it was received gratefully, confirming the selection of Tha as prophet.
And his wouldn't be the first prophet's life shrouded in questionable myth--as his intellectual apologists pointed out. Making people believe Jesus walked on water was a greater feat than Jesus walking on water--the former being the whole point, whereas the latter, if not witnessed, would have been pointless.
Besides, what god worth his salt can't walk on water? But, for a mere mortal to make the world believe he does? There's an achievement.
That Tha's work and life were of a seamless whole was one of two core tenets to which he held true, the other being his celebration of greed. He praised money as a means to power and revolutionary change in his work but his actions belied little genuine interest--he was a coveted but stingy and unreliable political donor to causes familiar and trendy.
Why in the first place he would be interested in a revolution overturning this world he bestrode like a colossus did not even occur to the people. That this contradiction was lost on them was an unappreciated feat, a sort of negative miracle of which no one was more oblivious than Tha himself: this novel prophet had made the seeing blind.
This is not to say he was without talent. His forays outside of music were all genuine, not simply the lending of his name, and they were all equally successful. He was an auteur carrying his own distinct aesthetic across various media.
He was known for his love of the bizarre hybrid and curious deformity. His work skirted the morbid and grotesque, stopping just short of repulsing a long-jaded public, no mean feat.
Despite his lyrics lacking all nuance, their true novelty was lost in all the reverential praise. He didn't employ transgressive humor, joking about violence or sex (or violence and sex) to outrage, no, he blended humor and violence and sex in a way that you didn't know where one left off and the other began. To Tha saying violence was fun was like saying sex was fun.
To him violence wasn't fun; violence was joyous.
Domination achieved by violence and maintained by cruelty as the highest good, as religious ecstasy; this was his theme, and message--the most successful and least understood artist, and prophet, of all time.
On the day Tha's fashion label Red Masque launched its spring line with the usual hype, a university researcher on the other side of the world squinted through a microscope at a soft red bloom. A local doctor had sent the sample, unable to explain an alarming nerve disorder among workers at a textile mill.
Slight tremors announced its onset, felt most acutely around the soft tissue of the eyes, which soon became painfully sensitive to light. All sensation gradually intensified, becoming unbearable. Sound became amplified and shrill. Sufferers reported everything tasted of ash, even the air.
All the while the tremors progressed gradually into violent convulsions. Eventually the victim thrashed about as if in comic dance, arms and legs flailing with an electric, tremulous action, often injuring himself to the point of incapacity--a blessing as only in the final stage would the most horrifying aspect reveal itself when the eyes, their whites turned red from burst blood vessels, bulged and pressed forward, illuminated and pulsing with a neon glow (possibly bacterial bioluminescent luciferase) before death's merciful release.
"The Red Eye", as it came to be known, took just 24 hours from first sign to death; with a curious precision, no cases varied more than a few seconds from this mandate.
Early on one of Tha's hebros, before the true threat of the disease was known, called it a "happy accident" that at the same time their spring line employed as a recurring motif a sort of rose bloom, its center subtly suggesting an eye, with jagged petals above blending below into a pattern of red tears. "Instant notoriety," he said approvingly.
He had no idea: examining the work more closely one might have gleaned Tha's meaning--and here he had been unusually focused. Transfixed by the image of a viral host cell, the work started developing in Tha's mind as if of its own accord. Had he the awareness he would have described being under the influence of genuine inspiration.
Each successive item of apparel in his runway show represented a visual analogy of the next stage of a virus' progress in capturing a host cell and reproducing itself, culminating in the final piece of apparel Tha modeled himself.
Tha's spring line was a celebration of contagion, representing Tha as a benign viral agent in divine turnabout capturing the culture of the Man, enslaving it and forcing it to turn out endless copies of Tha. Only he knew what he specifically meant in titling the show "Positively Spring".
The speed and certainty of the disease's course meant all lived under the threat of violent expulsion from society at a moment's notice. Anyone visibly trembling in public would throw anyone near into a panic; the universal response was to run away--if one could. If one couldn't, all manner of unfortunate acts of desperation could and did happen, as in the case of a man pushed in front of a subway car by commuters wielding clubs and bars and whatever they could grab to avoid touching him. Many cases of mistaken, rash actions taken against such as epileptics or anyone with a physical condition causing tremors--one young woman narrowly escaped a mob after shivering excessively in the cold--were recorded in the few days before everything fell apart and normal life ceased entirely.
Heartbreaking stories of family or friends abandoned in an instant, and of those who refused to abandon their fellows, abounded. Often a good soul would recognize the onset of the Red Eye and flee--bravely running away, shouting warning. In the end many more jumped than were pushed before subway cars. The horror brought out the best and worst in us.
Within a week of the Red Eye dropping Tha Prince convened the hebros.
"It's good to own an island." One of them offered. A look from Tha revealed he had forgotten about it.
"Two years ago. You may recall, we were thinking about making it an offshore pay-per-view site when regulators were still giving us trouble over Combat Sports League.
"E's been using it for his private parties, you know, and while that's been a negligible source of revenue for us he has built the place up. Well, it's just sitting there. It's got a small hospital we were going to use for fights; E even had a little dentist's office set up there. It's got a good airstrip. Still, we'll have to build it up quickly, of course, but it's a great start. Then there's the question of who we'll, of who you'll bring along."
These last words fell like train cars off a cliff into the tense silence of the videolink.
Tha grunted for him to continue.
"We could outfit the place to survive indefinitely with what we've already laid by as far as food and basics--longer-term, should the need arise, there's arable land, good fishing and even some game running around--we could stock a lot more. We've got cattle in our holdings already without a market--we're slaughtering loads of them just to clear the books right now."
"Well, what we waiting for?"
Creating Tha's island was a logistical project on the scale of a military invasion.
Cargo planes flew round the clock. A motley fleet of private planes joined in--their owners angling for a spot on the island. Unauthorized planes, boats and others tried to crash the island--but Tha's team had put a crack security force in place first thing. Showing what cooperation can achieve, ex-officers of the Israeli Air Defense Command worked amicably with former Iranian naval officers, whose speedboats boasted a perfect record at intercepting boats, rafts, low-flying aircraft, two gliders and one innertube.
In flowed the pilgrims, beginning with the hebros and their families; then those upon whom Tha saw fit to bestow the blessing, his friends and their families, but not all, alas (there were so many!); and then the ranks of the useful: the "hoes", women all selected for a particular body type and look; there were performers such as dancers, musicians, DJs, acrobats and clowns.
There were people selected for necessary practical talents, such as doctors (no need to establish a lawyer quota, one of the hebros joked), electricians and engineers, chefs, mechanics and technicians. There were no writers or critics.
They brought sound equipment and lighting, for there would be shows; a pot farm and a chemical laboratory were transferred whole; they tried transporting a small amusement park but ran out of time. There was a brief attempt at a reality show competition for slots on the island, but things broke down too quickly.
Thirteen thousand made it past the weeklong quarantine--and never saw the crematorium downwind. Remorse, guilt and nostalgia waned quickly, as their early days were spent repelling desperate refugees, each representing a mortal threat. Their fear of the outside world hardened them to it. Eventually the world went silent, and the refugees stopped coming.
The summer was a continuous bacchanal. Their needs were met and their days were filled with pleasures.
One day sullenly bored Tha gazed upon an orgiastic scene before him and inspiration struck. It was time for a real party, one inaugurating their time on the island; it would be a masquerade. Tha would consecrate the occasion with a special composition, in the classic fashion.
There would be games, for the spirit of competition needed to be instilled in them now, he thought, looking at the writhing, fleshy bodies and dull expressions.
Let there be rap battles and dance-offs, a costume ball with the Red Eye as theme. He was enlivened. No one watching the lizard-lidded, slack-jawed Tha gaze upon the orgy would have guessed the ferment in his mind at that moment.
The hall arranged for the ball was a scene equal to the magnificence of Tha Prince.
Six suites faced off three-on-three across a round dance floor, each lit in a color of the rainbow--but for red--and representing a corresponding theme. The suites were open to the floor, and their walls angled outward away from their interiors--so that no place in the hall was out of sight of any other place.
Throughout the suites were the looted treasures of the old world. The Laocoön throbbed obscenely in purple, amid the writhing mass of dancing bodies. Via projection Tha's lyrics and writings continually scrolled down the body of David; he actually looked a bit sickly in green.
A round stage illuminated red from below stood in the center of the floor. Near the stage in shadow Tha slouched on a perfect copy of a throne Napoleon used--actually something he'd commissioned himself long before the Red Eye--on a tear-drop shaped recessed platform.
The dancers enthralled. The Red Eye's thrashing and tremulous death throes lent themselves perfectly to all manner of street dance, of course, and there was even a modern interpretative adaptation, and a ballet version, for they had not neglected to bring Beauty. Tha had only given one direction, the suggestion they incorporate humor. The dancers took up the license with enthusiasm, competing to outdo each other in Red Eye gallows humor.
Likewise the masqueraders. The costumes were eerily realistic--they had the resources of a Hollywood studio on hand--and obscenely comic. Skits were performed; they competed to create the most offensive.
All the while Tha nodded approvingly from the shadow of the teardrop.
He felt warm inside as he waited to give his final rap concluding the ball. The hall had grown quiet, the revelers were sated, the bass line fading out. They waited, looking up toward him rapturously. He swallowed down the unfamiliar lump in his throat--what was it? he asked himself-- and rose, turning toward the hushed mass.
They gasped. The hall shuddered beneath a single bass note that came from somewhere over and above the sound system. An electronic voice boomed the standard hip hop encore announcement:
"No, no, we ain't done, we ain't done..."
Still isolated in light amidst the darkened hall, Tha turned around and saw a figure in the half-shadow of the stage.
The bass line started rolling, building ominously; the hall's speakers hissed and smoked and blew out but the bass just kept getting louder somehow. The house lights popped and cracked and exploded one by one, but on the stage rose a white light, faint and slowly growing brighter.
The figure became visible as the light rose, rocking his head to the bass line--and Tha couldn't help noticing how perfect it was, as dense as lead and expansive as sky at the same time.
The figure was of human outline if not quite form, with two arms, two legs and a head; it appeared to be made out of eyeballs, all eyeballs, eyeballs upon eyeballs, teeming, crowding, pulsing here and there--to the beat--with the familiar and horrible phosphorescent glow of the Red Eye.
His rocking gradually became a dance as he advanced slowly from the back of the stage to the center. He spun on the floor like a break dancer; rising and pretending to dust himself off he went into a moon walk and transitioned into a perfect slide; he popped, he locked--the swaying eyeballs lagged his motion, seeming to defy gravity as they sort of floated on him, like seaweed in the ocean current. Here and there they parted like tall grass.
He executed a perfect pirouette, spinning impossibly fast and long, with the eyes on their stems wrapping around him like flaxen hair. Still he went faster until he became a blur; just when it seemed he would come apart he stopped in an instant, the lagging eyeballs taking a moment to catch up and fall in place.
The figure motioned as if dizzy and needing time to recover.
He did "the robot" with a comic flair. He performed a jete. He split off into two and danced a waltz with himself and recombined. He formed a high-kicking chorus line, then recombined. By now he was close to Tha, who was standing stock-still, trying to find his voice. The figure did the shimmy, mockingly. The illuminated eyeballs started forming patterns, like the bulbs on a scoreboard. These began taking the shape of the designs from Tha's Positively Spring show; it even showed him designs that he didn't produce, but recognized as the half-formed ideas that hadn't come to fruition.
"Eat at Joe's...Eat at Joe's...Eat at Joe's..." The eyes spelled out finally. The figure heaved and held its midsection as if laughing, gesturing for forgiveness and pretending to wipe away a tear of laughter.
Now Tha found his voice.
"I'm gon' kill this mothafucka!" He bellowed. The sound of his own words boosted his courage, and it was uncommon courage indeed by which he charged while everyone else in the hall crouched and knelt, faces lowered, too terrified to move. Ashamed of his early terror, disdainful of the cowering mass, Tha Prince advanced.
Tha drove a massive fist into the center of the beast. It was absorbed and held there as he tried to pull it back. He tried pushing off with his other hand; it too stuck. Unthinking in his panic he offered a foot. The figure began drawing him in as he thrashed and howled.
The process hesitated with Tha's face alone not yet submerged, Tha holding his mouth in the gaping pout of a swimmer going down.
"Tha Prince, motherfuckers, and I own all this shiii--"
The words were submerged as he was yanked in as if by a rope. Tha's signature roar, never more impressive, escaped from within the figure as a crescendo halting the music.
No sound from within or without relieved the silence; even the panic in the people's hearts could not escape their terrified throats.
The still figure began pulsing rhythmically, barely perceptible at first, with each pulse bigger and coming faster than the last. Now the whole of him began tilting side-to-side like a bowling pin; someone managed a pathetic wail; as if in response the figure exploded.
Eyeballs showered the cowering people. Eyeballs bounced off the walls, some sticking, some sliding down like slugs. Eyeballs trailed tendrils like pennants as they flew. Eyeballs landed on skin, caught up in hair. Eyeballs collided in air. Eyeballs slinked like inch-worms on their stalks across the floor. Eyeballs writhed like fish out of water. A gusher of eyeballs streamed from where the figure had been.
And then it stopped.
As one they felt the faint, fearsome tremors; as one they cringed beneath the light and sound; as one they danced the death dance.
As one they were collected by the Red Eye.