At ten o’clock the microdrones come to do the daily roll call. One fifty microdrones for one fifty retinas. After each scan, the microdrones spit out a silvery gas. Everyone inhales. At ten fifteen everyone at Camp Williston collapses — their daily dose of chemical sleep. An hour later when the sun is harsher and the trash on the ground melts and methane gas rises from below the ground, the men arrive in their box-cart-like shiny black vehicles and their orange HAZMAT suits and their black respirators. They come and do the daily health checks. Three hundred men for one fifty bodies. On that day, two men found João, Willard and Vimbai’s sprawled bodies on the porch — their usual place of sleep. One man went inside to refill the water tank, and restock the daily food rations. The other paired his holographic screens with the flashing bands on the three’s wrists. Three screens for three bodies; each screen displaying a mugshot. João and Vimbai’s mugshots were green. Willard’s was red. Below Willard’s mugshot a flashing neon text that read: Send north for induction.
At five o’ clock as the heat abated and westerly winds washed away the last vestiges of the methane gas, João and Vimbai woke up to find Willard gone. In a land that considers you disposable for having been born to undocumented parents, they had both learned to compartmentalise loss. They were both brought to Camp Williston at thirteen and for the last seven years, they’ve kept a monotonous regime of nocturnal physical training; dreading the inevitable afternoon when, they too, will find themselves waking up in the ever-deepening gold mines up north – a start of their ten-year long toil for their freedom. Having learned to live with loss, the momentary feeling of grief was suppressed and crushed the moment they took their eyes off the last place they saw Willard collapse. Other matters were of more concern, like quieting their hunger pangs. So, up they rose from the porch and, in they went to the house where the day’s ration – two packets of a powdered substance – along with two plastic bowls, two spoons and two cups of water, stood waiting for them atop the dining table. They tore open the packets and poured the white powder into their bowl. The powder changed colour when they mixed in the water.
“Today’s meal is green”
“And what does green taste like, Vimbai?”
“It tastes like nothing.”
“Vimbai, each time I sleep my tongue remembers. I dream of millet and peanuts. And each time my tongue meets this nothing, I long for sleep again.”
After their meal, they went to sit by the porch and waited for the sun to set and for the robotmen to come.
Across the street from them, Danai stood, naked from the waist up, at her porch in a forward lean. Elbows atop the railing, one hand on her chin and the other hand holding a lit cigarette. Her shiny bald head reflecting the sun’s dying embers. A khaki duffle bag by her feet.
“These rats are throwing me out, can you believe it? I’m coming to crash by you guys till I’m assigned to a new unit.”
Without waiting for their reply, she picked her duffle bag up and ran towards their unit.
Danai was brought to Camp Williston from another camp around six months prior, and since then, she had been kicked out of four housing units. Her constant possession of a prohibited item and flagrant disregard for the camp’s unwritten rules without any backlash from security, had prompted most of the camp’s residents to conclude that she was a spy. Everyone’s reaction towards her was either distrust, or disdain. She was well aware of this and yet, she went about her days and nights unbothered by it all – much to everyone’s chagrin. Once she got to their porch, she lay flat, using her duffle bag as a pillow and continued smoking. Her eyes locked in on Vimbai’s? and João’s, like she was daring them to protest. They all sat silently in this position until the sun hid itself from the earth.
The wailing siren preceded a marching procession of robotmen, and the residents heeded the alarm. They walked out their houses and followed the pool-bound procession. Wednesdays were lungs and mind days. They got into the pool and assumed a lotus position; above them the robotmen encircled the four-metre deep dugout and observed. With their eyes open, the residents began to meditate. The hum of the water-pump motor and the hiss of the cold water rising replaced the still silence surrounding them. Once submerged, the only audible sounds were the faint buzz of the motor and their hearts thumping louder with each second they held their breaths. The pool’s surface turning lime was a sign; a permission for them to swim up and catch a breath. The blow of a whistle from one of the robotmen was a command for them to go back down and begin again. This cycle continued until the first light of the next morning signalled an end to their night’s training. Out the dugout the robotmen pierced the back of their necks with a yellow liquid-filled vial and, in an instant, they felt warm again. Their bodies ceased to shiver and in a synchronised procession, they all followed the robotmen to the assembly hall for their daily instructions.
The assembly hall was a large dome structure made of solar absorptive material. The energy it absorbed powered the whole camp. Pairs of contact lenses the residents were handed helped cut through the hall’s pitch darkness. They walked in, sat in a circle and held each other’s hands. In the centre of the congregants, a slow rotating, towering hologram of the state leader appeared, illuminating the whole hall. The suit he had on was patterned with small South African flags that randomly moved across it like that old cyberpunk Windows XP lock-screen wallpaper. When he spoke, his echoing voice sounded like it came from all directions.
“Future citizens! As you well know, we have been working tirelessly to rebuild our beautiful lands since the catastrophe. Our beautiful cities in the east, that you will soon get to enjoy, are thriving and expanding! Plans are in place to begin constructing new ones in the South, and work has begun to rebuild the ones abandoned, to make them newer, stronger, more agile and adaptable to our new climate. The work is not yet complete, my beloveds, much work remains, and soon, a time will come when you too will be called. When you too are chosen, to help rebuild our lands. As that day approaches, I urge each and every one of you to keep their minds on the wonderful reward that awaits them…”
Once the part of the leader’s speech where he thanks them for their dedication and training ended, his hologram faded, and a blanket of darkness covered the hall again. The faint grey glow of their night vision lenses made their eyes resemble those of night-time predators, and behind each pair, a custom looping visual was projected onto their minds.
What Vimbai saw was her mother on the balcony of an apartment in the city. A scenic view of sky-scrappers covered in moss, and ferns, and vines. Spherical sky cars swiftly floating past. She is watering potted plants. Smiling and singing a song of longing: it won’t be long till my hands hold my daughter’s face again / it won’t be long until I see her…
What João saw was his mother’s hands in the kitchen, surrounded by fish, and other sea creatures she used to tell him about, the ones he never got to see. She is cutting off heads and fins; deboning and descaling. Pouring rice in a pot of boiling coconut milk. Humming the bridge from Yana’s Que Venham.
At the end of the last loop the final frame faded to black, and their night vision came back. They all stood up and walked in a straight line towards the exit. There, each member handed back their lenses in exchange for a morning smoothie. Outside, they congregated in cliques and they drank and they talked and they laughed and they watched the robotmen leave and they winced at the sting of the methane gas in their throats and they dispersed and they ran towards the safety of their houses where they waited for the buzz of the microdrones and the peace of their chemical sleep.
Danai’s reassignment never came. Ostracised by her new housemates, she became an ornament; a ghost that’s terrible at spooking. The words she spoke. The attempts she made at joining in, or disrupting, their world. The tobacco smell she filled the house with. All ignored. One afternoon, at the dining table, Vimbai began the pre-meal ritual, like she was wont to:
“Today’s meal is pink”
“And what does pink taste like, Vimbai?”
“It tastes like nothing.”
“Vimbai, today before my eyes opened my tongue was aflame. I dreamt of a sauce my mother used to tell me about. She said it dances in your mouth in spiky heels. Her people called it piripiri. My ears long for the tales she used to tell. Tales about the life she lived before she came here, about her people. The day when I see her again is what sustains me, not this pink that tastes like nothing.”
It was in this instance that Danai’s mouth uttered the words that tore through the barrier the two had built. A portal – a bridge between her world and theirs – emerged, and on the other side they finally noticed the ghost they’d long ignored.
“These things you long for, these desires, they’re just traps. Lies designed to lull us from seeking freedom or from seeking death. I know of a way out of this nightmare, and if you want, I can show it to you.”
“What would you know about freedom, Danai? You think the whole camp can’t see you for what you are? You think we don’t notice when you disappear after training? You think we don’t know that you’re selling us out for tobacco? My patience will buy me my freedom. I’ve survived this place thus far and I’ll survive another ten years underground just to hear my mother’s falsetto.” Vimbai snapped.
“This country has violently taken so much from us. And yet, so many of us still believe the lie that if we labour hard for them, we’ll see our loved ones again or get to live amongst them in their shitty little utopias. Real freedom is taken, not worked for in those ever-deepening mines where so many of us will die. I don’t care that the whole camp thinks I’m a spy. I know I’m not, and I know that the same hands that gift me with this tobacco will one day see me to my freedom.”
João let out a long, sardonic laugh. Then he asked:
“What makes you so special that men who have long forgotten who they once were; men who know only force and violence, would offer you any help?”
To which, Danai simply replied: “My cunt.”
And so it was to be, that when two seeds of freedom were planted on two fertile grounds, only a single sprout grew. On the day of escape, as the buzz of microdrones reverberated across the camp, the two women of that house clandestinely swallowed a prophylaxis, and when sleep came, it was short. They awoke long after the men in the Hazmat suits left, and long before everyone else. Their first sight was a towering figure of a bearded man in a brown form-fitting pleather suit the robotmen wore. He knelt beside them and cut off their wristbands with his pocket-knife. Then handed them similar suits to wear.
“What about this other one?” the robotman asked, pointing to João. “Not ready.” Danai replied.
When they ran towards the vehicle parked outside the camp’s entrance, the sun’s sharp rays made the exposed part of their skin feel like it was growing thorns. Unfamiliar with such an intense pain, Danai and Vimbai let out wild short shrieks with every exhale. By the time they reached the vehicle, their heads, neck, face and back-palms were wrinkly and dark. The robotman handed them two pairs of reflective spectacles as he unlocked the door with his palm-print.
“So the scanner can’t read your retinas.” He said.
Inside, the vehicle had an impenetrable darkness that was only broken when the vehicle’s front part emitted a neon green light towards the three faces of its occupants. The robotman’s mahogany face looked dark olive in the light, and when shiny grey dots flashed rapidly on his irises, they looked like video static. The darkened windscreen lit up and became a screen. A feminine robotic voice emerged from the speakers: Welcome KV35PT139, please enter destination. The robot-man typed in coordinates and the screen faded back to black. A split second later, the darkened windscreen slowly lost its opacity and the outside view emerged as the vehicle jolted into motion. The cool and moist air from the climate control vents felt strange, yet pleasant to inhale; it also intensified the sting on their burns. The robot-man stabbed them on their necks with a vial.
“For the pain. I should’ve administered it earlier, I apologise. You can take off your glasses now, it’s safe.”
He then handed them a jar containing a grey goo for them to rub on. It undarkened their burns and restored their skin to its natural glow.
As they moved across dry vast planes, the hard, cracked earth gave way to soft, beige sand. The sun ahead made its crepuscular descent, and Vimbai noticed an absence. To her, and many like her, the world beyond the camp’s gates was a world filled with dread; a world where the state’s omniscient hands crushed the hardest. She expected to see patrols, checkpoints – the infamous surveillant machinery, not this unobstructed journey they were taking. The anxiety she felt about travelling through that liminal space without any weaponry, subsided and gave way to anger. Anger at the state’s arrogant belief in its system. Anger at the realisation that the state did not need much muscle to keep them in check; the land where it dumped them was its own security. Even if she, or anyone else, had imagined a life outside of camp and tried to escape, only certain death awaited: death by thirst; death by heat stroke; death by underground methane leak asphyxiation.
The vehicle came to a halt near a field of radio telescopes and when it switched itself off, the return of darkness made the flashing red light from the robotman’s wristband apparent.
“This is the farthest I can go without triggering any alarms.” He said, as he opened the door and dry hot air rushed inside. The soft glow of the moon made everything outside look greyscale. He pulled a notepad from beneath his seat and scribbled down something.
“Coordinates” he said, “they’ll take you to a deserted border town not far from here. It’s by the coast. From there you should be able to swim around the border wall, to Namibia.”
He got out and walked off. Danai asked Vimbai to stay and followed him out. A short distance away they stood face to face, a small space separating them. In the moonlight, the wet tricklets on Danai’s eyes looked like rhinestones. He placed his right hand behind Danai’s head and gently guided it to his chest. She held on tightly and let the river run from her eyes to his pleather suit, where it made its smooth slide down towards the grounds. He tenderly kissed the top of her head and they both let go.
“You should have stayed inside the car until it’s done.” The robotman said, as the glistening knife on his left hand sliced through his jugular. Danai leaned forward to catch his fall. Blood on his suit made him slippery like fish and his arms swung like a rag doll’s when she tried to steady him. The soft sand cushioned her fall as she knelt and guided his body down. Her ears mute to Vimbai’s screams, who was now frantic and running towards them. The robotman smiled and made his last exhale. For this too was freedom: an eternal rest from the memories of a happy life before, and the many violent acts he did in service of the state – the two constant torments that have haunted him daily since the moment he remembered who he once was. When Vimbai got there, she found Danai’s motionless face, and her shaky hands that were trying to gouge out the eyes they would need to carry on with their journey towards freedom.
Image by Peter Pieras from Pixabay