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Kendra, an art-school dropout, brands herself for a nanotech marketing program. Lerato, an ambitious AIDS baby, plots to defect from her corporate employers. Tendeka, a hot-headed activist, is becoming increasingly rabid. Toby, a roguish blogger, discovers that the video games he plays for cash are much more than they seem.
On a collision course that will rewire their lives, these characters crackle with bold and infectious ideas, connecting a ruthless corporate-apartheid government with video games, biotech attack dogs, slippery online identities, a township soccer school, shocking cell phones, addictive branding, and genetically modified art. Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, Lauren Beukes spins a tale of a utopia gone wrong, satirically undermining the idea of progress as society’s white knight.
It’s nothing. An injectable. A prick. No hospital involved. Like a booster shot with added boost. Just keep telling yourself.
The corporate line shushes through the tunnels on a skin of seawater, overflow from the tide drives put to practical use in the clanking watery bowels of Cape Town—like all the effluent in this city. Like me. Art school dropout reinvented as shiny brand ambassador. Sponsor baby. Ghost girl.
I could get used to this, seats unmarked by the pocked craters of cigarette burns, no blaring adboards, no gangsters checking you out. But elevated status is not part of the program. Only allocated for the day, to get me in and out again. Wouldn’t want civilians hanging around.
As the train slows, pulling into the Waterfront Exec station, it sends plumes of seawater arcing up the sides. In my defense, it’s automatic; I lift my camera, firing off three shots through the latticed residue of salt crusted over the windows. I don’t think about the legal restrictions on documenting corporate space, that this might be provocation enough to revoke the special access pass Andile loaded onto my phone for the occasion.
“They don’t like that, you know,” says the guy sitting across the way from me. He doesn’t look like he belongs here either, with his scruffy beard and hair plastered into wet tufts. Older than me, maybe 27, 28. He’s wearing a damp neoprene surf peel, a surfboard slung casually at his feet, half blocking the aisle.
“Then I’ll delete it,” I snap. It’s impossible, of course. I’m using my F2, picked up cheap-cheap along with my Hasselblad at the Milnerton makt during the last big outbreak, when everyone thought this was really it. It’s oldschool. Film. You’d have to rip it out the back, expose it to the light. But no one’s ever sharp enough to notice that it’s analogue.
“Kit kat,” he says, “I was just saying. They’re sensitive round these parts. All the proprietary tech.”
“No, thanks. Really. I appreciate it.” I make a show of fiddling with the back of the camera before I shove it in my bag, trying not to think that I’m included in that definition now—just as much proprietary technology.
“See you around,” he says, like it’s a sure thing, standing up as the doors open with an asthmatic hiss. He’s left a damp patch on the seat.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, trying to sound friendly as I step onto the station platform. But the encounter has made me edgy, reinforced just how out of place I am here. It’s enough to make me duck my head as I pass the station cop at the entrance—behavior the cameras are poised to look for, not to mention the dogs. The Aito sitting alert and panting at the cop’s feet spares me a glance over its snout, no more, not picking up any incriminating chem scents, no suspiciously spiked adrenalin levels or residue of police mace. His operator doesn’t even bother to look at me, just waves me through the checkpoint with a cursory scan of my phone, verifying my bioID, the temporary access pass.
It’s only six blocks but my pass isn’t valid for walking rights, so Andile has arranged an agency car, already waiting for me on the concourse. I nearly miss it, because it’s marked only by a “Vukani Media” license plate. The name means “Awake! Arise! Fight!,” which makes me wonder who they’re supposed to be fighting. The driver chuckles wryly when I ask her, but doesn’t offer up a theory. We travel in cool professional silence.
Although my hand itches for my camera, I manage to restrain myself as we pass between the rows of filter trees lining Vukani’s driveway, sucking up sunlight and the buffeting wind to power the building. You don’t see filter forests much, or at least I don’t. They’re too expensive to maintain outside the corporate havens.
Inside, the receptionist explains that she’d love to offer me a drink, but it’s not recommended just before the procedure. Would I like to have a seat? Andile will be only a minute. And would I mind checking my camera and any other recording devices? I don’t have to worry about my phone, they’ve got app blockers in place to prevent unauthorized activity.
I reluctantly hand over my Leica Zion, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Nikon too.
“It’s got half my exhibition on there,” I say, indicating the F2.
“Of course, don’t worry. I’ll stash it in the safe,” she says, against a backdrop of awards—gold statuettes of African masks and perspex Loeries with wings flung wide.
I take a seat in the lounge, feeling naked without my cameras. And then Andile arrives in a fluster of energy and hustles me toward the lift. He’s got the kind of personality that precedes him, stirring up the atoms before he even enters the room.
“There she is. Right on time, babes.” He honestly speaks like this. “You get in all right? No hassles?”
“It was fine. Apart from nearly being ejected because I took a photograph of the underway.”
“Oh babes, you got to rein in those urges. You don’t want to look like one of those public sector activists with their greater-good-tech-wants-to-be-free crap. Although those pics will be worth something when you’re famous. Any chance I could get a print?”
“To go with the rest of your collection?”
His office on the 17th floor is colonized by an assortment of hip ephemera, a lot of it borderline illegal. The most blatant example is the low-fi subtech on his bookshelf, a cobbled-together satellite radio smuggled in from the Rural in defiance of the quarantines, which probably only makes it more valuable, more flauntable. It all goes with the creative director territory, along with the pink shirt and the tasteful metal plug in his right ear. The stolen photographs of the underway would fit right in. What doesn’t fit in is the contract. The wedge of white pages on the desk among the menagerie of vinyl toys seems antiseptic, too clinical to gel with all the fun, fun, fun around it.
The bio-sig pen I signed with (here, and here, and here) had microscopic barbs in the shaft that scraped skin cells from the pad of my thumb to mix with the ink. Signed in blood. Or DNA, which is close enough.
“Adams, K?” A woman steps through the doorway from the boardroom, all crisp professionalism in a dark suit, holding a folder with my name printed on it in caps.
“I’m Dr. Precious. We met before, during the pre-med?” Through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her, the southeaster bunches and whirls the clouds over Table Mountain into candyfloss flurries. Spookasem in Afrikaans. Ghost’s breath.
“Can you roll up your sleeve, please?” She’s already prepping the autosyringe.
Dr. Precious is here on call. Even ad agencies with big name biotech clients on their books don’t tend to have in-house doctors. Andile claims it’s because “the labs are so impersonal, babes.” But I suspect that it’s easier to bring her in here to shoot us up one at a time than to get the necessary security clearance for twelve art punks to enter a restricted biomed research facility.
Not that the rest are art punks necessarily. All Andile will say is that they’re hot talent. Young, dynamic, creative, on the up, the perfect ambassadors for the brand.
“You know the type, babes,” he said in interview #1, when I was sitting in his office, still reeling from the purgatory of dropping out, my dad’s cancer, wondering how I got here.
“DJs, filmmakers, rock-star kids, and you, of course,” he winked, only emphasizing that this is all a mistake, that I am out of their league. “All Ghost’s hipster chosen.” But we don’t get to mingle until the official media launch party.
“Just in case one of you goes into meltdown,” Andile said in interview #3, when it was already too late to pull out. As if I’d even consider it. “Ha-ha.”
Dr. Precious loads a silver capsule like a bullet into the back of the autosyringe. She’s too smooth to be a doctor-doctor. She’s not worn hollow from the public sector, new outbreaks, new strains. “Inatec Biologica” it says on the logotag clipped to her lapel.
Before interview #1, I thought their line was limited to cosmetics. I imagine her in a white coat and face mask in a sleek lab that is all stainless steel and ergonomic curves, like in the toothpaste commercials. Or behind a cosmetics counter, spritzing wafts of perfume and handing out 50 g samples of the topshelf biotech creams (one per customer, please). This isn’t so different after all. It’s just that the average nano in your average anti-ageing moisturizer acts only on the subdermal level. Mine, on the other hand, is going all the way.
“Don’t sweat it, Kendra,” Andile said back in interview #3, seeing my face. “The chances of meltdown are like zero. They’ve been using the same tech in animals for years. Cop dogs, the Aitos, you know, guide dogs, those helper monkeys for the disabled. Well, not quite the same, obviously.”
Which doesn’t mean that the contract didn’t include a host of clauses indemnifying Ghost, their parent company Prima-Sabine FoodSolutions International, Vukani, Inatec Biologica, and all their respective agencies and employees against any unforeseen side-effects.
“So, how long before the mutation kicks in?” I ask, acting like it’s no big deal, as Dr. Precious swipes at the crook of my elbow with a disinfectant swab, probably loaded with its own nano or specially cultivated germ-eating bacteria or whatever new innovation Inatec’s come up with specially.
“Oh babes,” says Andile, mock-hurt. “Didn’t we agree we weren’t going to call it that? Promise me you won’t use that word in the interviews.”
“What did you have for breakfast?” says Dr. Precious unexpectedly. But her question is a ruse. Before I can think to answer (cold oats at Jonathan’s apartment, no sign of Jonathan, but that’s not unusual lately), she snaps the autosyringe against my arm like a staple gun. And just like that, three million designer robotic microbes go singing through my veins.
It doesn’t even hurt.
Considering the hype, the bulk of the contract, I am expecting nothing less than for the world to rearrange. Instead, it’s like having sex for the first time. As in, is that it?
“That’s it. It’ll take four to six hours for the tech to circulate. Do you want me to run through it again? You may experience flu symptoms: running nose, headaches, sore throat in the first 24 hours. Then it’ll stop. Enjoy it. It’s probably the last time you’ll ever get sick.”
“All perfectly normal, babes. Just your body adjusting,” Andile chips in.
Just my immune system kicking into overdrive to war with the nanotech invasion. But it’s only temporary. People adapt. Evolve. It’s all in the manual, although I haven’t read all the fineline. Who does?
“I’ll see you here for a check-up next week.” Dr. Precious ejects the silver capsule from the back of the autosyringe and slots it carefully back into the case with the other empty shells. Can’t leave that stuff lying around. Light catches the gleaming shells, the reflection of Dr. Precious stretched thin like a Giacometti sculpture.
I’m already planning a timelapse, to capture the change. Only the top three layers of the epidermis, Andile was at pains to point out, a negligible inconvenience to carry with you for a lifetime.
If I could embed a camera inside my body, I would. But all I can do is document the cells mutating on the inside of my wrist, the pattern developing, fading up like an oldschool Polaroid as the nano spreads through my system.
My skin is already starting to itch.
Her timing is perfect, as always. My motherbitch manages to call bang in the middle of my morning streamcast. On an everyday, this wouldn’t bug me—motherbitch is one of the favorite recurring characters on my cast, according to my comments section, but I’m supposed to be hooking up with Tendeka to plot our criminal adventure, so it’s inconvenient deluxe.
“You were late fifteen minutes ago, my darling,” she says by way of greeting and it’s true, I’ve forgotten that she’s scheduled one of our “we have to talks” over a civilized brunch, but with the amount of sugar I’m doing, she’s lucky I can remember the color of my eyes without a mirror. I’ve told her to upload appointments to my phone. Whore.
I smoke some more on the way to the Nova Deli, just to bring me up enough to handle, and switch my BabyStrange, currently displaying images from the gore folder, to record. You’d be amazed at what compelling viewing even the most arb of daily interactions can make—or then, if you’re watching this, maybe you already know.
I take a shortcut through Little Angola, which I only realize is a terrible mistake when I’m hit a double blow by the smell of assorted loxion delicacies and the chatter of warez in the overbridge tunnel makt.
The warez are outmode. It’s not just that they’re cheap useless, cos who really needs a tube of bondglue or six, except for the street kids, and there are better highs for less, but cos they’re all fucking chipped. This is non-reg, but the cops have better shit to worry about, especially when it doesn’t impact the corporati.
The whole audio chipping thing was outlawed almost as soon as it hit. I mean, it was bigtime initially, with cereal boxes and toys and freeware and fucking appliances all chirping their own self-importance, jingles, promos, sound-effects, celeb endorsements, so that house spouses had to wear ear blanks to get through the supermakt. It was only a matter of time before the multinationals made it illegal, or specialized use only, but then notions of illegal don’t extend to the developing. Most of the stuff now comes down from Asia or central Africa, so the chips in here aren’t even speaking English or Xhosa or any of the other eleven nationals, it’s all Cantonese and Portuguese and Kinyarwanda.
It’s ugly, but the effect, even cumulatively, is nowhere near as annoying as the relentless twitter of the motherbitch. I pause at a stall selling plastic belts and cellphone covers and Fong Kong sunglasses to get her a talking Hello Kitty taser that yelps for “help” incessantly in five different languages. The vendor tries to sell me one from under the table, rather than the squawking sample that got my attention. Once they’re activated, he says, you can’t turn the damn things off. Better take a new one, still in the box. But I tell him it’s absolutely perfect and transfer the full asking to his phone, not even bothering to haggle. He can’t even keep up the pretense of being offended. Cash talks, baby.
Between the short cut, dodging the herd of cyclists who try to run me down on the promenade, and stopping to check out the surf—negligible; the sea stretching between Mouille Point and Robben Island looks greasy and flaccid, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be cooking on the corporate beaches—I’m already an hour late.
I slide into the motherbitch’s usual booth at Nova Deli by the window, playing it charming, even patting that disgusting mutacute she insists on carrying around with her, draped off her neck like an albino tiger slothmonkey scarf. It bares its neat little teeth at me, the only thing at this table brave enough to express how it really feels.
“Oh Pretzel, stop that.” Motherbitch taps it on its nose and it starts making these groveling, warbling, purring sounds. I wish she could have settled on one species or two max. These multiple mash-up jobs make me queasy.
She is sucking on a nutradiet. She blows a punctuation mark of vitamin-enriched smoke in my direction. “Did you call the Sunshine Clinic?”
“Oh, hey, I’m fine thanks, mom. Just great. Thanks for asking. Got a regular DJ gig now, Thursday nights at Replica. Met a cute girl. Several, actually. Nothing serious, no grandkidlets on the way or anything, sorry to say. Swivel’s cool, bit disarrayed, but it just hasn’t been the same since you stopped paying for my cleaning service. All ordinary, you know. Oh, and you’ll be happy to know my ratings are up. Who said I have no ambition? Well, apart from you, obviously, but in light of this, I really think you’re going to have to reconsider. I’m streamcasting live now, by the way. So if you have anything particularly entertaining to say, go right ahead. This is a good time. And how is Tyrone? Or was it Wynand? I do struggle to keep track. Which reminds me, I bought you this. In case, you know, you need to put one of them in his place.” I slide the Hello Kitty taser across the table toward her. It’s still bleating.
“That’s ‘help’ in like five different languages, right there.”
The waiter materializes with two rooibos lattes, like I even drink that herbal shit. While he’s fussing with the coffees, motherbitch plucks up the cartoon cat canister in her napkin and drops it neatly onto the waiter’s tray, with the same cool efficiency she used to dispose of the rain spiders that probably still hang out in the kitchen.
“Your father and I have been talking.”
“That’s a first time.”
“We’ve managed to agree on your problem.”
“Can I have one?” I ask, reaching for the pack of nutradiets.
“No, Tobias, honestly. They’re calibrated for my bio-rhythms exactly. They’d just make you sick.” Which is a lie straight up, although of course they are personalized for her nutritional requirements—she pays extra for that—but at least we’re communicating now.
“So what’s the problem?” I say, taking one anyway, igniting it with a light tap on the table.
“Oh my darling.”
“No, seriously.” I take a drag and the micro-nutrients kick up the sugar by 100 degrees. I am intensely interested, blisteringly smart, devastatingly witty.
“Toby, please. You make me terribly tired. It’s unconscionable. We’ve decided.”
“And that’s it?”
“Well, of course you have a choice. If you’d bothered to phone Sunshine…It’s just that we won’t be enabling you anymore. We’ve already advised the trustees.”
I take another drag of the nutradiet. I think it’s the zinc that does it, that complements the sugar, I mean. You have to watch it though, because vitamin C will kill a buzz dead.
“Oh for god’s sake. You’re on something now, aren’t you?”
I lean back, put my feet on the table to a jangle of cutlery and crockery, cos there’s not really space for it. If I can get her to cry, points go to me and everything else is annulled.
“So, how is father? Still fucking his boss? What’s her name again?”
But she just looks at me.
“Really darling.” Even the squashy-faced marsupial is the image of bored contempt, digging under its armpit with its perfect little teeth.
Chalk this one to her.
* * *
By the time I get to Stones, my mood has not improved. The pool bar is not, shockingly, exactly jamming at 11 am on a Sunday, even though it’s one of the few places in Long Street that’s still general access. No corporati pass or proof of income required, and the cams don’t work too well. Which goes a way to explaining the general dinginess and a clientele that leans toward the undesirable side of the LSM spectrum—and also qualifies it as the ideal venue to plot Tendeka’s next outrageous, which he’s being generous enough to allow me to guest on.
It’s a mutual beneficial. I score some quality vid that’ll push up my streamcast’s rankings, and he gets his exploits recorded for posterity, faces blanked out, of course. Not like those fucking idiot thug-lifers in Baltimore who were IDed and arrested by their uploads, in high-def. Tendeka and Ash are in the middle of a game, but when he sees me, he sets down the cue and crams me into a back-slapping hug of camaraderie, or maybe that should be comrade-ery for the Struggle revivalist over here. He’s such a wannabe, so born fifty years too late. His dreads shoved up against my cheek smell of too much ZamBuk wax.
“Toby! We thought you weren’t coming.”
“What, and miss all this?” I gesture at the near-empty pool hall, inhabited only by Tendeka and his go-everywhere accessory, Ashraf, a couple of oldtimers wedged in the corner, sinking their fifth beers already and not even lunch time, and the bartender of course, who is tuned out to the soccer. The irony is lost on Tendeka.
“Can you tone down the coat? We don’t want to draw too much attention,” he says, conspiratory-quiet, as if he’s telling me I have bad breath. Can I tell you how crazy it is that the visuals are freaking him out when they didn’t make the motherbitch so much as flinch?
My BabyStrange is set to screensaver mode, so it clicks into a new image every two minutes. Here’s a random sampling to give you an idea of what’s displaying on the smartfabric that is so bothering Ten: close-ups of especially revolting fungal skin infections, 18th-century dissection diagrams, and, for a taste of local flavor, a row of smileys—that’s sheep’s heads for the uninitiated—lips peeled back to reveal grins bared in anticipation of the pot.
“No, see, Ten, that’s where you’re wrong,” I explain. “It’s camouflage, hiding in clear sight. By drawing loads of attention, I actually avert it.”
“You’re not going to turn it off?”
“Uh-huh,” he says, flat. And just in time, Ashraf swoops into the rescue, reprising once again his role as long-suffering boyf and keeper of the peace. Mr. fucking UN.
“We’ve got a lot to get through, Ten. C’mon,” he says, nudging him back to the table.
Tendeka goes grudgingly. Cos the fact is, kids, they need me. Can’t do it without me. Security on the adboards is tighter than a nun’s twat unless you’ve got a connection. Of course, I still have to convince my connection, but they don’t need to know that sweet Lerato isn’t on board yet.
Ten scoops up the balls in the plastic triangle with a neat click-clack and picks out four to map out the plan. He’s the eightball, naturally, I’m solid orange, the blue stripe is some polit-ec student they’ve got tagging along, a girl apparently, who better be cute, and Ashraf as the white ball to counterbalance.
There’s lots of actiony stuff, leaping about on rooftops and crawling under fences and avoiding cameras and Aito patrols. I stop paying attention five minutes in. I think we’ve just got to the part where we have to run across six lanes of highway, judging by the way Tendeka has the balls leaping over the cue laid across the table, when this incredible girl walks in, all juiced to kill, to give focus to my distraction.
Even by the competitive standards of Long Street, being Cape Town’s hipster capital and all, this girl is styling, with her hair streaked in fat chunks of copper and chocolate, dirty cream boots and a charcoal cowl-neck dress over jeans, overlong sleeves dangling over her knuckles—this despite the soaring Celsius outside. I’m so preoccupied figuring out if I actually know her or just from the scene that I miss what she says.
“Do you mind?” she says again, already reaching into her back pocket for her phone, hung skate-rat off a silver chain from her belt, to log twenty rand to the table to get tata machance on the next game. “I mean, if you’re not busy?” Ten scowls, but what’s he gonna say? Fuck off, we’re planning the insurrection? That’s the problem with pool halls, they’re not exactly discreet. And who else is she going to play? The geezer alcoholics in the corner?
Besides, Tendeka’s already chalking his cue, just in case you thought anyone else was going to game-on. I’d point out that a real general would let one of the footsoldiers take care of this little nuisance—like me, for example, cos I could think of some ways. But his logic’s going to be to get rid of her as quick as possible, and the truth is, kids, he’s the most qualified.
Ten could wax us all six-love, baby, with one arm amputated. He’s that guy who carries his own cue around, the kind that snaps together like a sniper rifle in a war movie. He’s also that guy who’s not going to cut a rookie any slack.
It’s too entertaining to pass up. Surreptitiously I hit the record button on my cuff as I hand over the stick to the girl.
“Your massacre, kid.” But as she takes it from me, her sleeve slips back and I catch a glimpse of a faint glow. I knew something was up. Long sleeves in the height of the heat don’t cut it. I’ve seen enough light tatts on the little trendies in the clubs to know, even from a glance, that this here is the coke. The real thing. And when I twig that I saw her a week ago in the eastern seaboard executive zone, which is strictly corporati only, it all clicks into place.
- "Moxyland does lots of things, masterfully, that lots of science fiction never even guesses that it could be doing. Very, very good."—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer
"The world Beukes has invented is both eerily familiar and creepily different."
- "This fast-paced sci-fi trip has intriguing characters, big ideas, a new lexicon [and] serves as a global warning."—GQ
- On Sale
- Aug 16, 2016
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Mulholland Books