Read Lauren Beukes’ Story from Pwning Tomorrow – A New Spec Fic Anthology Featuring Neil Gaiman, SL Grey and Charlie Human
As part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 25th anniversary celebrations, it has released an anthology of new speculative fiction, Pwning Tomorrow: Stories from the Electronic Frontier, with stories from 21 authors including South Africans Lauren Beukes, SL Grey and Charles Human as well as heavy hitters such as Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Charlie Jane Anders.
This EFF – not to be confused with Julius Malema’s red beret platoon – is one of the world’s leading nonprofit organisations defending civil liberties in the digital world, working to ensure that our rights are protected as our use of technology grows.
“From Mary Shelley to George Orwell to HG Wells to William Gibson, science fiction has been the most enduring, most convincing way for artists to engage in tech policy issues.” - Cory Doctorow
The Pwning Tomorrow ebook, available in ePub and MOBI formats, has been released under a Creative Commons license – in other words, it’s free and free to share – but you are asked to name your price and make an optional contribution to support EFF’s work.
From the EFF:
We meet many speculative fiction fans in the course of our work to protect digital civil liberties, and the 21 stories in this collection inspire a sharper sense of the futures we may experience and the role of rights and freedoms there. The authors explore the wonders and perils of technology over the next 25 years and beyond, imagining the consequences of everything from abusive intellectual property lawsuits to out-of-control viral marketing, from over-protective intelligent fridges to violently loyal cyber-pets.
It’s also important to know that writers have long been at the forefront of the fight against mass surveillance in the real world. Paranormal romance author Carolyn Jewel is the lead plaintiff in Jewel v. NSA, EFF’s long-running lawsuit against warrantless collection of electronic communications. Her novella, “Free Fall,” rounds out the collection.
The full list of contributors:
Charlie Jane Anders
James Patrick Kelly
Read Beukes’ story from the anthology, shared with kind permission from the EFF:
by Lauren Beukes
1. High life
The heat presses against the cab, trying to find a way in past the sealed windows and the rattling air-conditioning. Narrow apartment blocks swoop past on either side of the dual carriageway, occasionally broken up by a warehouse megastore. It could be Cape Town, Pearl thinks. It could be anywhere. Twenty-three hours’ travel so far. She has never been on a plane before.
“So what’s the best part about Karachi?” Tomislav says, trying to break the oppressive silence in the back – the three of them dazed by the journey, the girl, her promoter, and the surgeon, who has not looked up from his phone since they got in the car, because he is trying to get a meeting.
The driver thinks about it, tugging at the little hairs of his beard. “One thing is that this is a really good road. Sharah e Faisal. There’s hardly ever a traffic jam and if it rains, the road never drowns.”
“Excellent.” Tomislav leans back, defeated. He gives Pearl an encouraging smile, but she is not encouraged. She watched the World Cup and the Olympics on TV; she knows how it is supposed to be. She stares out the window, refusing to blink in case the tears come.
The road narrows into the city and the traffic thickens, hooting trucks and bakkies and rickshaws covered in reflecting stickers like disco balls, twinkling in the sun. They pass through the old city, with its big crumbling buildings from long ago, and into the warren of Saddar’s slums, with concrete lean-tos muscling in on each other. Kachi abaadi, the driver tells them, and Pearl sounds it out under her breath. At least the shacks are not tin and that’s one difference.
Tomislav points out the loops of graffiti in another alphabet and taps her plastic knee. “Gang signs. Just like the Cape Flats.”
“Oh, they’re gangsters, all right,” the driver says. “Same people run the country.”
“You have gangsters in your government?” Pearl is shocked.
The cab driver clucks and meets her eyes in the rearview mirror. “You one of the racers?”
“What clued you in?” Dr. Arturo says, without looking up. It’s the first thing he’s said all day. His thumbs tap over the screen of his phone, blunt instruments. Pearl rubs her legs self-consciously where the tendons are visible under the joint of her knee, running into the neurocircuitry. It’s a showcase, Dr. Arturo told her when she asked him why it couldn’t look like skin. Some days she thinks it’s beautiful. Mostly, she hates seeing the inside-out of herself.
“Why do you think you’re in Pakistan?” The driver laughs. “You think anyone else would let this happen in their country?” He rubs his thumb and fingers together and flings it to the wind.
2. Packed with goodness
Pre-race. A huge +Games banner hangs above the entrance of the Karachi Parsi Institute, or KPI. It’s a colonial building that has been extended to accommodate them, the track built over the old cricket ground and into the slums. The school has been turned into the athletes’ village, classrooms converted to individual medical cells to cater to their unique needs. Pearl’s, for example, has hermetic bio-units and sterile surfaces. The window has been fused shut to prevent the polluted air from leaking in.
In the room next door, they installed extra generators for Charlotte Grange after she plugged in her exo-suit and tripped the power on the whole building. Pearl can hear her grunting through the walls. She doesn’t know what Siska Rachman has.
She sits on the end of her bed, paging through the official program while Tomislav paces the room end to end, hunched over his phone, his hand resting on his nose. “Ajda! Come on!” her promoter says into the phone, in that Slavic way, which makes the first part of the sentence top-heavy. Like Tomislav himself, still carrying his weightlifter bulk all squeezed up into his chest and neck. He doesn’t compete anymore, but the steroids keep him in shape. The neon lights and the white sheen off the walls makes his eyes look bluer, his skin paler. “Peach,” she was taught in school, as if “peach” and “brown” were magically less divisive than “black” and “white” and words could fix everything. But Tomislav’s skin is not the warm orange of a summer fruit – it’s like the milky tea she drinks at home.
Tomislav has thick black hair up his arms. She asked him about it when they first met at the Beloved One’s house on the hill. Fourteen and too young and too angry about everything that had happened to mind her elders, even though her mother gasped at her rudeness and smacked her head.
Tomislav laughed. Testosterone, kitten. He tapped the slight fuzz over her lip. You’ve got it too – that’s what makes you so strong.
He’s made her laser all her unsightly hair since. Sports is image. Even this one.
He sees her looking and speaks louder. “You want to get a meeting, Arturo, we gotta have something to show.” He jabs at the phone dramatically to end the call. “That guy! What does he think I’m doing all day? You all right, kitten?” He comes over to take her by the shoulders, give them a little rub. “You feeling good?”
“Fine.” More than fine, with the crowds’ voices a low vibration through the concrete and the starting line tugging at her insides, just through that door, across the quad, down the ramp. She has seen people climbing up onto the roofs around the track with picnic blankets.
“That’s my girl.” He snatches the program out of her hands. “Why are you even looking at this? You know every move these girls have.”
He means Siska Rachman. That’s all anyone wants to talk about. Pearl is sick of it, all the interviews for channels she’s never heard of. No one told her how much of this would be talking about racing.
“Ready when you are,” Dr. Arturo says into her head, through the audio feed in her cochlear implant. Back online as if he’s never been gone, checking the diagnostics. “Watch your adrenaline, Pearl. You need to be calm for the install.” He used to narrate the chemical processes, the shifting balances of hormones, the nano-enhancing oxygen uptake, the shift of robotic joints, the dopamine blast, but it felt too much like being in school: words being crammed into her head and all worthless anyway. You don’t have to name something to understand it. She knows how it feels when she hits her stride and the world opens up beneath her feet.
“He’s ready,” she repeats to Tomislav. “All right, let’s get this show pumping.” Pearl obediently hitches up her vest with the Russian energy drink logo – one of Tomislav’s sponsors, although that’s only spare change. She has met the men who have paid for her to be here, in the glass house on the hill, wearing gaudy golf shirts and shoes and shiny watches. She never saw the men swing a club and she doesn’t know their names, but they all wanted to shake her hand and take a photograph with her.
She feels along the rigid seam that runs in a J-hook down the side of her stomach, parallel with her hysterectomy scar, and tears open the Velcroskin.
“Let me,” Tomislav says, kneeling between her legs. She holds her flesh open while he reaches one hand up inside her abdomen. It doesn’t hurt, not anymore. The Velcro releases a local anesthetic when it opens, but she can feel an uncomfortable tugging inside, like cramps.
Tomislav twists off the valves on either side and gently unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a party magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of the lab-mod bacteria and the faintest whiff of feces. She hands it to Tomislav and he wrinkles his nose.
“Just goes to show,” he says, folding up the slosh of crinkled plastic tubing and packing it away. “You can take the meat out of the human, but they’re still full of shit!”
Pearl smiles dutifully, even though he has been making the same joke for the last three weeks – ever since they installed the new system. “Nearly there.” He holds up the hotbed factory and she nods and looks away, because it makes her queasy to watch. It’s a sleek bioplug, slim as a communion wafer and packed with goodness, Dr. Arturo says, like fortified breakfast cereal. Hormones and nanotech instead of vitamins and iron. Tomislav pushes his hand inside her again, feeling blindly for the connector node in what’s left of her real intestinal tract, an inch and a half of the body’s most absorbent tissue for better chemical uptake.
“Whoops! Got your kidney! Joking. It’s in.”
“Good to go,” Dr. Arturo confirms.
“Then let’s go,” Pearl says, standing up on her blades.
3. Forces greater than you
You would have to be some kind of idiot. She told her mother it was a bet among the kids, but it wasn’t. It was her, only her, trying to race the train.
The train won.
4. Why you have me
The springkaan drone flits in front of Pearl’s face, the lens zooming in on her lips to catch the words she’s saying under her breath and transmit them onto the big screen. “Ndincede nkosi undiphe amandla.”
She bends down to grab on to the curved tips of her legs, to stretch, yes, but also to hide her mouth. It’s supposed to be private, she thinks. But that’s an idea that belonged to another girl before Tomislav’s deals and Dr. Arturo’s voice in her head running through diagnostics, before the Beloved One, before the train, before all this.
“It’s because you’re so taciturn, kitten,” Tomislav says, trying to comfort her. “You give the people crumbs and they’re hungry for more. If you just talked more.” He is fidgeting with his tie while Brian Corwood, the presenter, moves down the starters’ carpet with his microphone, talking to Oluchi Eze, who is showing off her tail for the cameras. She doesn’t know how to talk more. She’s run out of words, and the ones Dr. Arturo wants her to say are like chewing on raw potatoes. She has to sound out the syllables.
Pearl swipes her tongue over her teeth to get rid of the feeling that someone has rigged a circuit behind her incisors. It’s the new drugs in the hotbed, Tomislav says. She has to get used to it, like the drones, which dart up to her unexpectedly. They’re freakish – cameras hardwired into grasshoppers, with enough brain stem left to respond to commands. Insects are cheap energy.
Somewhere in a control room, Dr. Arturo notes her twitching back from the springkaan and soothes in her head. “What do you think, Pearl? More sophisticated than some athletes we know.” She glances over at Charlotte Grange, who is also waiting for her interview. The big blonde quakes and jitters, clenching her jaw, her exo-suit groaning in anticipation. The neural dampeners barely hold her back.
The crowd roars its impatience, thousands of people behind a curve of reinforced safety glass in the stands, raised high above the action. The rooftops are packed, and there are children climbing the scaffolding around the old church like monkeys.
The people in suits, the ones Dr. Arturo and Tomislav want to meet, watch from air-conditioned hotel rooms five kilometers away. Medical and pharmaceutical companies looking for new innovations in a place where anything goes: any drugs, any prosthetics, robotics, nano. That’s what people come for. They tune in by the millions on the proprietary channel. The drama. Like watching Formula 1 for the car crashes.
“All these people, kitten,” Tomislav says. “They don’t want you to win. They’re just waiting for you to explode. But you know why you’re here.”
“That’s my girl.”
“Slow breaths,” Dr. Arturo says. “You’re overstimulated.” The springkaan drone responds to some invisible hand in a control room and swirls around her, getting every angle. Brian Corwood makes his way over to her, microphone extended like a handshake, springkaans buzzing behind his shoulder. She holds herself very straight. She knows her mama and the Beloved One are watching back home. She wants to do Gugulethu proud. “Ndincede nkosi.” She mouths the words and sees them come up on the big screens above the track in closed captions below her face.
They’ll be working to translate them already. Not so hard to figure out that she’s speaking Xhosa.
“Pearl Nit-seeko,” the presenter says. “Cape Town’s miracle girl. Crippled when she was 14 years old and now, here she is, two years later, at the +Games. Dream come true!”
Pearl has told the story so many times that she can’t remember which parts are made up and glossed over. She told a journalist once that she saw her father killed on TV during the illegal mine strikes in Polokwane, saying she covered her ears so she didn’t have to hear the popcorn pa-pa-pa-pa-pa of the gunshots as people fell in the dust. But now she has to stick to it. Grand tragedy is a better story than the reality of a useless middle-aged drunk who lived with a shebeen owner’s daughter in Nyanga so that he didn’t have to pay off the bar tab. When Pearl started to get famous, her father made a stink in the local gossip rags until Tomislav paid him to go away. You can buy your own truth.
“Can you tell us about your tech, Pearl?” Brian Corwood says, as if this is a show about movie stars and glittery dresses.
She responds on autopilot. The removable organs, the bath of nano in her blood that improves oxygen uptake. Neural connectivity blows open the receptors to the hormones and drugs dispatched by the hotbed factory. Tomislav has coached her in the newsworthy technical specs, the leaks that make investors’ ears prick up.
“I can’t show you,” she apologizes, coyly raising her vest to let the cameras zoom in on the seam of scar tissue. “It’s not a sterile environment.” “So it’s hollow in there?” Corwood pretends to knock on her stomach. “Reinforced surgical-quality graphene mesh.” She lightly drums her fingers over her skin, like in rehearsal. It looks spontaneous and shows off her six-pack. She hears Arturo’s voice in her head. “Put the vest down now,” Arturo instructs. She covers herself up. The star doesn’t want to let the viewers see too much. Like with sex. Or so she’s been told. She will never have children.
“Is that your secret weapon?” Corwood says, teasing, because no one ever reveals the exact specs, not until they have a buyer.
“No,” she says, “but I do have one.”
“What is it, then?” Corwood says, gamely.
“God,” she says, and stares defiant at the insect cameras zooming in for a close-up.
5. Things you can’t hide
Her stumps are wrapped in fresh bandages, but the wounds still smell. Like something caught in the drain. Her mother wants to douse the bandages in perfume.
“I don’t want to! Leave me alone!” Pearl swats the teardrop bottle from her mother’s hands and it clatters onto the floor. Her mother tries to grab her. The girl falls off the bed with a shriek. She crawls away on her elbows, sobbing and yowling. Her Uncle Tshepelo hauls her up by her armpits, like she is a sack of sorghum flour, and sets her down at the kitchen table.
“Enough, Pearl,” he says, her handsome youngest uncle. When she was a little girl she told her mother she was going to marry him.
“I hate you,” she screams. She tries to kick at him with her stumps, but he ducks away and goes over to the kettle while her mother stands in the doorway and covers her face.
Pearl has not been back to school since it happened. She turns to face the wall when her friends come to visit and refuses to talk with them. During the day, she watches soap operas and infomercials and lies in her mother’s bed and stares at the sky and listens to the noise of the day; the cycles of traffic and school kids and dogs barking and the call to prayer buzzing through the mosque’s decrepit speakers and the traffic again and men drunk and fighting at the shebeen. Maybe one of them is her father, who has not been to see her since the accident.
Tshepelo makes sweet milky tea, for her and her mother, and sits and talks: nonsense, really, about his day in the factory, cooking up batches of paté, which is fancy flavored butter for rich people, and how she should see the stupid blue plastic cap he has to wear to cover his hair in case of contamination. He talks and talks until she calms down.
Finally, she agrees that she will go to church, a special service in Khayelitsha Site B. She puts on her woolen dress, grey as the Cape Town winter sky, and green stockings, which dangle horribly at the joint where her legs should be. The rain polka-dots her clothes and soaks into her mother’s hat, making it flop as she quick-steps after Tshepelo, carrying Pearl in his arms like an injured dog. She hates the way people avert their eyes.
The church is nothing, a tent in a parking lot, although the people sing like they are in a fancy cathedral in England like on TV. Pearl sits stiffly on the end of the pew between her uncle and her mother, glaring at the little kids who dart around to come and stare. “Vaya,” she hisses at them. “What are you looking at? Go.”
Halfway through the service, two of the ministers bring out the brand-new wheelchair like it is a prize on a game show, tied with a big purple ribbon. They carry it down the stairs on their shoulders and set it down in front of her. She looks down and mumbles something. Nkosi.
They tuck their fingers into her armpits, these strangers’ hands on her, and lift her into it. The moment they set her down, she feels trapped. She moans and shakes her head.
“She’s so grateful,” her mother says, and presses her into the chair with one hand on her shoulder. Hallelujah, everyone says. Hallelujah. The choir breaks into song and Pearl wishes that God had let her die.
Pearl’s brain is microseconds behind her body. The bang of the starting gun registers as a sound after she is already running.
She is aware of the other runners as warm, straining shapes in the periphery. Tomislav has made her study the way they run. Charlotte Grange, grunting and loping, using the exo-suit arms to dig into the ground like an ape; Anna Murad with her robotics wet-wired into her nerves; Oluchi Eze with her sculpted tail and her delicate bones, like a dinosaur bird. And in lane five, farthest away from her, Siska Rachman with her face perfectly calm and empty and her eyes locked on the finish line, two kilometers away. A dead girl remote-controlled by a quadriplegic in a hospital bed. That is the problem with the famous Siska Rachman. She wins a lot, but there is network lag time.
You have to inhabit your body. You need to be in it. Not only because the rules say, but because otherwise you can’t feel it. The strike of your foot against the ground, the rush of air on your skin, the sweat running down your sides. No amount of biofeedback will make the difference. “Pace yourself,” Arturo says in her head. “I’ll give you a glucose boost when you hit 800 meters.” Pearl tunes in to the rhythmic huff of her breath and she stretches out her legs longer with each stride and she is aware of everything, the texture of the track, and the expanse of the sky, and the smell of sweat and dust and oil. It blooms in her chest – a fierce warmth, a golden glow within, and she feels the rush of His love and she knows that God is with her.
She crosses third, neck and neck with Siska Rachman and milliseconds behind Charlotte Grange, who throws herself across the finish line with a wet ripping sound. The exo-suit goes down in a tumble of girl and metal, forcing Rachman to sidestep.
“A brute,” Arturo whispers in her ear. “Not like you, Pearl.”
The car comes to fetch them, Pearl and her mother and her uncle. A shiny black BMW with hubcaps that turn the light into spears. People come out of their houses to see.
She is wearing her black lace dress, but it’s 40 degrees out and the sweat runs down the back of her neck and makes her collar itch.
“Don’t scratch,” her mother says, holding her hands.
The car cuts through the location between the tin shacks and the government housing and all the staring eyes, out onto the highway, into the winelands and past the university and the rich people’s townhouses which all look alike, past the golf course where little carts dart between the sprinklers, and the hills with vineyards and flags to draw the tourists, and down a side road and through a big black gate which swings open onto a driveway lined with spiky cycads.
They climb out, stunned by the heat and other things besides – like the size of the house, the wood and glass floating on top of the hill. Her uncle fights to open the wheelchair Khayelitsha Site B bought her, until the driver comes round and says, “Let me help you with that, sir.” He shoves down hard on the seat and it clicks into place.
He brings them into a cool entrance hall with wooden floors and metal sculptures of cheetahs guarding the staircase. A woman dressed in a red-and-white dress and a wrap around her head smiles and ushers them into the lounge, where three men are waiting: a grandfather with two white men flanking him like the stone cats by the stairs. One old, one hairy.
“The Beloved One,” her mother says, averting her eyes. Her uncle bows his head and raises his hands in deference.
Their fear makes Pearl angry.
The grandfather waves at them to come, come, impatiently. The trousers of his dark-blue suit have pleats folded as sharp as paper, and his shoes are black like coal.
“So this is Pearl Nitseko,” the Beloved One says, testing the weight of her name. “I’ve heard about you.”
The old white man stares at her. The lawyer, she will find out later, who makes her and her mother sign papers and more papers and papers. The one with thick shoulders fidgets with his cuffs, pulling them down over his hairy wrists, but he is watching her most intently of all.
“What?” she demands. “What have you heard?” Her mother gasps and smacks her head.
The Beloved One smiles, gently. “That you have fire in you.”
8. Fearful tautologies
Tomislav hustles Pearl past the Muslim protestors outside the stadium. The sects have united in moral outrage, chanting, “Un-natural! Un- godly! Un-holy!” They chant the words in English rather than Urdu for the benefit of the drones.
“Come on!” Tomislav shoulders past the protestors, steering her toward a shuttle car that will take them to dinner. “Don’t these cranks have bigger things to worry about? Their thug government? Their starving children?” Pearl leaps into the shuttle and he launches himself in after. “Extremism I can handle.” He slams the door. “But tautology? That’s unforgivable.”
Pearl zips up the hood of her tracksuit. The Pakistani crowd surges to the shuttle, bashing its windows with the flats of their hands. “Monster!” a woman shouts in English. “God hates you.”
“Isn’t that what fear always is?”
“I forget that you’re fast and clever. Yeah. Screw them,” Tomislav says. The shuttle rolls and he claps his hands together. “You did good out there.”
“Did you get a meeting?”
“We got a meeting, kitten. I know you think your big competition is Siska, but it’s Charlotte. She just keeps going and going.”
“She hurt herself.”
“Ripped a tendon, the news says, but she’s still going to race tomorrow.”
Dr. Arturo chimes in, always listening. “They have backup meat in the lab, they can grow a tendon. But it’s not a good long-term strategy. This is a war, not a battle.”
“I thought we weren’t allowed to fight,” Pearl says.
“You talking to the doc? Tell him to save his chatter for the investors.”
“Tomislav says – ” she starts.
“I heard him,” Dr. Arturo says.
Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.
9. She is risen
Pearl watches the buses arrive from her bed upstairs in the church. A guest room adapted for the purpose, with a nurse sitting outside and machines that hiss and bleep. The drugs make her woozy. She has impressions of things, but not memories. The whoop of the ambulance siren and the feeling of being important. Visitors. Men in golf shorts and an army man with fat cheeks. Gold watches and stars on the uniform, to match the gold star on the tower she can see from her window and the fat tapered columns like bullets at the entrance.
“Are you ready?” Dr. Arturo says. He has come from Venezuela especially for her. He has gentle hands and kind eyes, she thinks, even though he is the one who cut everything out of her. Excess baggage, he says. It hurts where it was taken out, her female organs and her stomach and her guts.
He tells her they have been looking for someone like her for a long time, he and Tomislav. They had given up on finding her. And now! Now look where they are. She is very lucky. She knows this because everyone keeps telling her.
Dr. Arturo takes her to the elevator where Tomislav is waiting. The surgeon is very modest. He doesn’t like to be seen on camera. “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you,” he says, and taps her jaw just below her ear.
“It’s all about you, kitten,” Tomislav soothes, wheeling her out into a huge hallway full of echoes under a painted sky with angels and the Beloved One, in floating purple robes, smiling down on the people flowing through the doors, the women dressed in red and white and the men in blue blazers and white shirts. This time she doesn’t mind them looking.
They make way for the wheelchair, through the double doors, past the ushers, into a huge room with a ceiling crinkled and glossy as a seashell and silver balconies and red carpets. She feels like a film star, and the red blanket over her knees is like her party dress.
From somewhere deep in the church, women raise their voices in ululation and all the hair on Pearl’s body pricks up as if she were a cat. Tomislav turns the wheelchair around and parks it beside a huge gold throne with carved leaves and flowers and a halo of spikes around the head. He pats her shoulder and leaves her there, facing the crowd, thousands of them in the auditorium, all staring at her. “Smile, Pearl,” Dr. Arturo says, his voice soft inside her head, and she tries, she really does.
A group of women walk out onto the stage, swaying with wooden bowls on their hips, their hands dipping into the bowls like swans pecking at the water and throwing rose petals before them. The crowd picks up the ululating and it reverberates through the church. Halalala.
The Beloved One steps out and onto the stage and Pearl has to cover her ears at the noise that greets him. A hail of voices. Women are weeping in the aisles. Men too, crying in happiness to see him.
The Beloved One holds out his hands to still them. “Quiet, please, brothers and sisters,” he says. “Peace be with you.”
“And also with you,” the crowd roars back, the sound distorted, frayed. He places his hands on the back of the wheelchair.
“Today, we come together to witness a miracle. My daughter, will you stand up and walk?’
And Pearl does.
10. Call to prayer
The restaurant is fancy with a buffet of Pakistani food, korma and tikka and kabobs and silver trays of sticky sweet pastries. The athletes have to pose for photographs and do more interviews with Brian Corwood and other people. The girl with purple streaks in her hair and the metal ring in her lip asks her, “Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna die out there?” before Tomislav intervenes.
“Come on! What kind of question is that?” he says. “Can’t you be normal?”
But the athletes don’t really eat and there is a bus that takes them home early so they can be fresh, while the promoters peel away, one by one, looking tense, in fancy black cars that take them to other parts of the city. “Don’t you worry, kitten.” Tomislav smiles, all teeth, and pats her hand.
Back in her room, Pearl finds a prayer mat that might be aligned toward Mecca. She phones down to reception to ask. She prostrates herself on the square of carpet, east, west, to see if it is any different, if her God will be annoyed.
She goes online to check the news and the betting pools. Her odds have improved. There is a lot of speculation about Grange’s injury and whether Rachman will be disqualified. There are photographs of Oluchi Eze posing naked for a men’s magazine, her tail wrapped over her parts.
Pearl clicks away and watches herself in the replay, her strikes, her posture, the joy in her face. She expects Dr. Arturo to comment, but the cochlear implant only hisses with faint static.
“Mama? Did you see the race?” she says. The video connection to Gugulethu stalls and jitters. Her mother has the camera on the phone pointed down too low, so she can only see her eyes and the top of her head.
“They screened it at the church,” her mother says. “Everyone was very excited.”
“You should have heard them shouting for you, Pearl,” her uncle says, leaning over her mother’s shoulder, tugging the camera down so they are in the frame.
Her mother frowns. “I don’t know if you should wear that vest – it’s not really your color.”
“It’s my sponsor, Mama.”
“We’re praying for you to do well. Everyone is praying for you.”
She has a dream that she and Tomislav and Jesus are standing on the balcony of the Karachi Parsi Institute looking over the slums. The fine golden sand rises up like water between the concrete shacks, pouring in the windows, swallowing up the roofs, driven by the wind.
“Did you notice that there are only one set of footsteps, Pearl?” Jesus says. The sand rises, swallowing the houses, rushing to fill the gaps, nature taking over. “Do you know why that is?”
“Is it because you took her fucking legs, Lord?” Tomislav says. Pearl can’t see any footsteps in the desert. The sand shifts too quickly.
12. Rare flowers
Wide awake. Half past midnight. She lies in bed and stares at the ceiling. Arturo was supposed to boost her dopamine and melatonin, but he’s busy. The meeting went well, then. The message on her phone from Tomislav confirms it. Good news!!!! Tell you in the morning. Sleep tight, kitten, you need it.
She turns the thought around in her head and tries to figure out how she feels. Happy. This will mean that she can buy her mother a house and pay for her cousins to go to private school and set up the Pearl Nitseko Sports Academy for Girls in Gugulethu. She won’t ever have to race again. Unless she wants to.
The idea of the money sits on her chest.
She swings her stumps over the bed and straps on her blades. She needs to go out, get some air.
She clips down the corridors of the school building. There is a party on the old cricket field outside, with beer tents and the buzz of people who do not have to run tomorrow, exercising their nerves.
She veers away from them, back toward the worn-out colonial building of the IPC, hoping to get onto the race track. Run it out.
The track is fenced off and locked, but the security guard is dazed by his phone, caught up in another world of sliding around colorful blocks. She clings to the shadows of the archway, right past him and deeper into the building, following wherever the doors lead her.
She comes out into a hall around a pit of sunken tiles. An old swimming pool. Siska Rachman is sitting on the edge, waving her feet in the ghost of water, her face perfectly blank with her hair a dark nest around it. Pearl lowers herself down beside her. She can’t resist. She flicks Rachman’s forehead. “Heita. Anyone in there?”
The body blinks, and suddenly the eyes are alive and furious. She catches Pearl’s wrist. “Of course I am,” she snaps.
“Sorry, I didn’t think – ”
Siska has already lost interest. She drops her grip and brushes her hair away from her face. “So, you can’t sleep either? Wonder why.”
“Too nervous,” Pearl says. She tries for teasing, like Tomislav would. “I have tough competition.”
“Maybe not.” Siska scowls. “They’re going to fucking disqualify me.”
Pearl nods. She doesn’t want to apologize again. She feels shy around Siska, the older girl with her bushy eyebrows and her sharp nose. The six years between them feels like an uncrossable gap.
“Do they think Charlotte is present?” Siska bursts out. “Charlotte is a big dumb animal. How is she more human than me?”
“You’re two people,” Pearl tries to explain.
“Before. You were half a person before. Does that count against you?”
“Do you know what this used to be?” Siska pats the blue tiles.
“A swimming pool?”
“They couldn’t maintain the upkeep. These things are expensive to run.” Siska glances at Pearl to make sure she understands. In the light through the glass atrium, every lash stands out in stark relief against the gleam of her eyes, like undersea creatures. “They drained all the water out, but there was this kid who was … damaged in the brain, and the only thing he could do was grow orchids, so that’s what he did. He turned it into a garden and sold them out of here for years, until he got old and now it’s gone.”
“How do you know this?”
“The guard told me. We smoked cigarettes together. He wanted me to give him a blowjob.”
“Oh.” Pearl recoils.
“Hey, are you wearing lenses?”
She knows what she means. The broadcast contacts. “No. I wouldn’t.”
“They’re going to use you and use you up, Pearl Nit-seeko. Then you’ll be begging to give some lard-ass guard a blowjob for spare change.”
“Doesn’t matter. You say tomato, I say ni-tse-koh.” But Siska gets it right this time. “You think it’s all about you. Your second chance, and all you got to do is run your heart out. But it’s a talent show, and they don’t care about the running. You got a deal yet?”
“My promoter and my doctor had a meeting.”
“That’s something. They say who?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Pharmaceutical or medical?”
“They haven’t told me yet.”
“Or military. Military’s good. I hear the British are out this year. That’s what you want. I mean, who knows what they’re going to do with it, but what do you care, little guinea pig, long as you get your payout.”
“Are you drunk?”
“My body is drunk. I’m just mean. What do you care? I’m out, sister. And you’re in, with a chance. Wouldn’t that be something if you won? Little girl from Africa.”
“It’s not a country.”
“Boo-hoo, sorry for you.”
“God brought me here.”
“Oh, that guy? He’s nothing but trouble. And He doesn’t exist.”
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel Him.”
“Can you still feel your legs?”
“Sometimes,” Pearl admits.
Siska leans forward and kisses her. “Did you feel anything?”
“No,” she says, wiping her mouth. But that’s not true. She felt her breath that burned with alcohol, and the softness of her lips and her flicking tongue, surprisingly warm for a dead girl.
“Yeah.” Siska breathes out. “Me neither.” She kisses her again. “News flash, Pearl Ni-tse-koh. There’s no God. There’s only us. You got a cigarette?”
13. Empty spaces
Lane five is empty and the stadium is buzzing with the news.
“Didn’t think they’d actually ban her,” Tomislav says. She can tell he’s hungover. He stinks of sweat and alcohol and there’s a crease in his forehead just above his nose that he keeps rubbing at. “Do you want to hear about the meeting? It was big. Bigger than we’d hoped for. If this comes off, kitten …”
“I want to concentrate on the race.” She is close to tears but she doesn’t know why.
“Okay. You should try to win. Really.”
The gun goes off. They tear down the track. Every step feels harder today. She didn’t get enough sleep.
She sees it happen, out of the corner of her eye. Oluchi’s tail swipes Charlotte, maybe on purpose.
“Shit,” Grange says and stumbles in her exo-suit. Suddenly everything comes crashing down on Pearl, hot metal and skin and a tangle of limbs and fire in her side.
“Get up,” Dr. Arturo yells into her head. She’s never heard him upset.
“Ow,” she manages. Charlotte is already getting to her feet. There is a loose flap of muscle hanging from her leg, where they tried to attach it this morning. The blonde girl touches it and hisses in pain, but her eyes are already focused on the finish line, on Oluchi skipping ahead, her tail swinging, Anna Murad straining behind her.
“Get up,” Dr. Arturo says. “You have to get up. I’m activating adrenaline. Pain blockers.”
She sits up. It’s hard to breathe. Her vest is wet. A grey nub of bone pokes out through her skin under her breast. Charlotte is limping away in her exo-suit, her leg dragging, gears whining.
“This is what they want to see,” Arturo urges. “You need to prove to them that it’s not hydraulics carrying you through.”
“It’s not,” Pearl gasps. The sound is somehow wet. Breathing through a snorkel in the bath when there is water trapped in the U-bend. The drones buzz around her. She can see her face big on the screen. Her mama is watching at home, the whole of the congregation.
“Then prove it. What are you here for?”
She starts walking, then jogging, clutching her top to the bit of rib to stop its jolting. Every step rips through her. And Pearl can feel things slipping inside. Her structural integrity has been compromised, she thinks. The abdominal mesh has ripped, and where her stomach used to be is a black hole that is tugging everything down. Her heart is slipping.
Ndincede nkosi, she thinks. Please, Jesus, help me. Ndincede nkosi undiphe Amandla. Please, God, give me strength. Yiba nam kolu gqatso. Be with me in this race. She can feel it. The golden glow that starts in her chest, or if she is truthful with herself, lower down. In the pit of her stomach. She sucks in her abdominals and presses her hand to her sternum to stop her heart from sliding down into her guts – where her guts used to be, where the hotbed factory sits.
God is with me, she thinks. What matters is you feel it.
Pearl Nitseko runs.