The Real: Sample

 

Copyright 2017 Masha du Toit

 

You can buy "The Real" here

Smoke


The old dog dreamed of fire.

Her paws twitched and her eyes blinked behind the lenses of her armoured mask. Smoke. The scent of it filled her dreams. She woke and raised her head, ears swivelled to catch the distant chirr-chirr of a dassie’s alarm cry.

The overlapping plates of her armour scraped as she heaved herself up and walked, stiffly, to the cave mouth. Wrung with age though she was, she was still intimidating. Her head was massive, her neck and chest muscular. Her muzzle, under the permanent snarl of the armoured mask that hid most of her face, was touched with grey but her flanks and legs were brindle-dark. It was years since the teats on her sunken belly had been swollen with milk but they still showed the marks of motherhood.

Behind her, deeper in the cave, her two sons lifted their heads. Their fur was longer than hers and their faces narrower and more wolf-like but they both had their mother’s size and colouring.

They watched as she stood sniffing in the cave mouth.

She could find no hint of human presence, nothing to explain the unease that had dragged her from her sleep. A hot wind raked the mountainside. Long grasses hissed, the fynbos rustled. A flight of tiny birds swept past, twittering urgently.

The dog raised her nose to sniff the tapestry of scents—the sharp fragrance of the heath, the musk of the distant dassie colony, the scent of sun-warmed rock, of dust, dry grass, lichen. It was a cloudless morning but the sky seemed dull, the sun hazy.

The dassie called again and this time the dog caught the smoke-scent and understood its message.

Fire. Close and coming closer.

She moved onto the rocky slope outside. Her sons followed close on her heels. For a moment the three of them stood, noses up, reading the messages on the smoky breeze. Then they went trotting down the slope and disappeared amid the grey-green-silver of the protea bushes.

¤¤¤

 

“Ndlela, look!”

Ndlela turned. His little sister, Isabeau, crouched at the fringe of the high tide mark. “Hard plastic!” She held her wind-whipped hair away from her eyes with a sandy hand. “I think it’s a whole bowl. Look.”

He started back towards her. “Put your hat on,” he called, knowing she’d ignore him. By the time he reached her she’d cleared away most of the sand from around the bowl. Not using her hands, he was pleased to see, but a stick.

Not everything you found washed up on the beach was safe to touch.

“That’s pretty,” he said. “But it won’t be whole.”

Half of a plastic bowl stuck out of the sand—translucent blue, scoured to a pearly finish.

“Can I use the gloves?” Isabeau looked up at him, eyes narrowed against the sun. “I can’t do much more with this stick.”

“Sure.” Ndlela dug around in his bag. “Here.”

Isabeau slipped her small hands into the gloves. After more careful digging she pulled the bowl free of the sand.

“Oh.”

“Told you.” Ndlela crouched down next to her. As he’d expected, the lower half of the bowl was eaten away into a melted-looking lace. Isabeau held it up and considered it sadly. “Germs,” she said with disgust.

“It’s still pretty.” Ndlela sat back on his heels. “It’s an unusual colour. We can cut it up into smaller pieces.”

“Pieces don’t sell as well as a whole bowl.” Isabeau turned the bowl over and looked at the lacy plastic, her disappointment evaporating. “Why is it like this? I mean, why do the germs eat only bits of it?”

Ndlela shrugged. “Crosshatch says that the bacteria doesn’t eat all kinds of plastic in the same way. Maybe they can only live buried in the sand, or when it’s damp.” He stood up. “That’s why we still find so much plastic stuff. Otherwise it would all be gone. Put your hat on. You’ll burn.”

Isabeau made a wry face and jammed the broad brimmed hat onto her head. “It’s not fair.” She tucked her pale hair behind her ears. “You don’t have to wear a hat. Or this—” She plucked at the long sleeves of her shirt. “It’s hot!”

“I’m just gifted in that way.” Ndlela held out his bare arms, turning them as though showing off his dark skin. “I just got that natural sunblock.”

Isabeau gave a snort of laughter and fell into step beside him. “Where’s Robby?”

“He’s waiting for us by the river. He’s been rolling in something stinky.”

“Ugh! Dogs. Honestly.”

Ndlela smiled. Sometimes Isabeau sounded so exactly like their mother.

Isabeau was only two years younger than him, eight to his ten, but he felt immeasurably older. Still, she was growing fast and he had the uneasy suspicion that before too long she’d be the taller one. He put this unpleasant thought firmly aside and hitched his bag higher on his shoulder.

Up the coast was the river mouth, a network of ever-changing, shallow channels that shone in the early morning sun. Inland, fringing the river, was a swampy stretch of wetlands. Grass, reeds, mud-edged pools, and beyond that, the dunes with their covering of hardy beach plants.

To the left was a wide expanse of damp sand and further out, the sea, sparkling silver and pastel blue so bright Ndlela had to squint to see the horizon. He turned and walked backward for a few steps, spotting, as was his habit, the silhouette of the Ishtar gate rising from the deep water beyond Kaapstadt harbour. He never quite got used to it, or to the thought of what it led to. The portal to the Babylon Eye. And beyond that, the Strangeworld.

He’d dreamed about the Strange often enough, conjuring up magnificent cities with white towers and fluttering pennants like something from a fairy tale. By contrast, Kaapstadt, on the far side of the bay, seemed mundane. Above it was the familiar shape of Table Mountain, shrouded in more than the usual fug of smoke.

“Looks like there’s another fire on the mountain.” Ndlela pointed. “Look at all that smoke.”

“You can smell it, a bit.” Isabeau turned to look. “Must be a big one.”

Ndlela checked the progress of the retreating waves again. It would be a long time till the tide turned but you could never be too careful. The Muara is no place for fools, that’s what their mother always said, and it was true. The landscape was a testament to the destructive power of the ocean.

The sand by the river mouth was smooth enough. But everywhere else rose hummocks and ridges, crumbling walls, piles of brick, roof tiles, and half buried slabs of concrete. Years ago this had been a neighbourhood with houses, shops, hotels, streets and cars. The river had taken a different course then and the shoreline had been much farther away. That was before the weather broke and the waters rose.

Ndlela often tried to picture what it must have been like before the storms swept away the pleasant beaches and battered down the houses, ripping up trees and street lights, all in one terrible night.

Once upon a time the people who’d lived here had had electricity to light their rooms and cool their fridges. There had been fresh water flowing along pipes, available at the twist of a tap, and shops that sold food.

Isabeau grabbed Ndlela’s arm. “Look, I told you, didn’t I tell you?” She was looking beyond the river mouth. “I thought I heard engines last night. Look! There by the circus. Tracks. See?”

She was right. Curving tracks marked the flat expanse of sand on the far side of the river.

“Looks like bike tracks.” Ndlela squinted in an attempt to see better.

“It’s the circus.” Isabeau pointed. “See? There’s somebody on the wall there.”

“Where? I don’t see anyone.”

The tracks curved across the beach all the way to the group house that crouched on an outcrop of rocks right at the edge of the sea. This was not one of the original ruined buildings but more recent,constructed well after the storm. Ndlela didn’t know who built it or why, but recently it had become the occasional haunt of a travelling circus who drew their audience from nearby Kaapstadt.

“Come! Let’s go say hello.” Isabeau headed towards the stepping stones that crossed the river mouth.

“Wait, Isabeau!”

“But it’s the circus people!” Isabeau strode on, one hand on her hat to stop the wind from snatching at it.

“No.” Ndlela made a grab for her arm but she dodged away. “Issy, listen. We don’t know who that is.”

“We do! Only the circus ever goes there. There’s never been anyone else.”

“That we know of.” Ndlela got hold of her hand. “Those are sand-bike tracks. The circus always come with trucks. I don’t see any trucks, do you?”

Isabeau stood on tiptoes, looking at the buildings. “No,” she said, a little sulkily. “No trucks. But maybe those are still coming?”

“Maybe.”

Then they both stepped back to avoid the splash as Robby came charging at them through the shallows of the river.

“Hey, Robby,” Isabeau smiled as the dog butted at her knees with his big, blunt head. She pulled at one of his scarred ears and Robby shut his eyes, tongue lolling in pleasure. “Man. You were right.” Isabeau wiped her hand on her trousers in disgust. “He really does stink.”

“We better get going, if we want to do another pass along the shore before the tide turns,” said Ndlela.

“Okay. I guess.” Isabeau knew better than to argue about the tide. Their mother had made her promise to obey Ndlela while they were out on the Muara.

“Tell you what,” said Ndlela. “We can look at the circus through the scope, when we get home.”

“Oh! Good idea.” The thought of the scope cheered Isabeau and to Ndlela’s relief, she stopped edging towards the river. They turned and walked back the way they’d come. Robby went on ahead, his skinny tail sticking up like an aerial, his nose snuffling at promising patches of sand and seaweed.

“We can ask Noor when she comes back.” Isabeau picked up a fragment of netting but dropped it again when she saw that it was rotting and had unravelled past repair. “Maybe she’ll know. But I’m sure it’s the circus. Who else could it be?”

Ndlela looked back at the building on its rocky outcrop. Isabeau was right. Somebody stood on the perimeter wall. A man, Ndlela thought, although it was too far away to be sure.

Is he watching us?

It was a relief when they reached a ruined walls and stepped behind it, out of view.

I just wanted to get out of the sun, Ndlela told himself. No reason to worry about that guy seeing us, is there?

¤¤¤

 

Elke stood looking down at the Zero level of the Babylon Eye. The stall keepers were setting out their wares and people bustled past in all directions—tourist groups, messengers on skateboards, office workers clipping along on hard-heeled shoes, can workers pushing trolleys towards the realside gate.

Out in the middle of Zero level a new garden was taking shape. It was little more than a large, roughly oval space marked out in lengths of tape. Elke had watched its progress with interest during the past few days while the workers spread out layers of gravel, sand, and soil. Now, it seemed, they were getting ready to put in the plants.

The supervisor was a broad-shouldered woman. Her feathery tattoos marked her as a high-ranking eidolon lady but she showed no hesitation in getting involved with the work, stepping in to help manoeuvre a delicate-looking tree as the workers unloaded it from a trolley.

The woman grasped the trunk and swung the tree smoothly to the ground, unaware or uncaring of the twigs that snagged at her formal jacket. When the tree was safely in place, she knelt to examine its cloth-wrapped roots.

Elke leaned on the railing and tried to pick out which of the plants were realworld, and which were from the Strange. It’s going to look grand, when it’s finished. Like a little indoor forest.

A series of clangs echoed through the space. Workers were loading cans onto the train. Soon it would be going through the portal to the Ishtar gate bearing strangeside goods into the Real world. The customs whistle blew—the sniffer dogs had completed their search. Next would be the signal that the carillon operators were about to open the portal.

Elke dropped a hand to Meisje’s head, stroking her ears. Even a normal dog could hear the carillon. A gardag like Meisje, all her senses enhanced by stranger-tech, would be even more sensitive to the sound.

Meisje leaned against Elke’s leg. She was an eye-catching dog, a White Shepherd, with the large ears and dark eyes of that breed. She was a gardag but, unlike most gardags no external armour clad her body and no visible lenses shielded her eyes.

When the klaxon sounded, Elke gave Meisje a last pat and started walking to the stairs that led down to Zero. A crowd of office workers surrounded her, heading to work or coming off their night shift.

On Zero level Elke wove her way through the stalls, averting her eyes from the decapitated heads in their glass boxes, the ghastly reminders of the harsh law in the Eye. The new garden filled the air with the scent of freshly turned soil.

A party of tourists who had just emerged through the portal from the Real stood on a walkway overhead, taking in the view.

“…behold the Babylon Eye, the portal between the Real world and the Strange.” The tour guide’s amplified voice clanged tinnily amid the din of the Zero level. “Border post, trade route, tourist Mecca, a city and a gate, the Eye is all of these things and more…”

The noise faded as Elke took the stairs down to Short Storage. This was where Dolly’s office nestled between the stacks of the enormous container-cans. The door to the office was half open. Voices sounded inside—Dolly’s sharp, precise tones, and a deeper rumble.

Ncita must have dropped in for a visit. Elke knocked and pushed the door open, edging around it when it wouldn’t open any further.

The floor of the tiny office was covered with stacks of files and papers. Constable Wozniak was on his knees sorting through them. Hoofdinspecteur Dolly Ngcobo stood behind her desk, getting something down from a shelf.

Several grey boxes stood on Dolly’s desk, their lids secured with straps. Elke’s eyes widened at the sight. She knew what they contained. Hardflasks with contraband substances— biologicals and drugs that had been smuggled into the Eye from the Strange, and intercepted by the Eye authorities.

What were those doing out here on Dolly’s desk?

“Veraart!” Inspecteur Ncita sat on a folding chair pushed right back against the filing cabinets.

“Hi, boss.” Elke snapped off a mock salute, which brought a smile to Ncita’s eyes. It was an old game between them. It had been many years since he’d really been her boss, back when she’d worked with armoured dogs in the Egoli gardag unit. Now she and Meisje were a gardag unit all on their own, policing the corridors of the Babylon Eye.

Her present boss, Hoofdinspecteur Dolly, turned at the sound of Elke’s voice.

“Ah!” She dusted her hands together. “Constable Veraart. Good timing. Make that dog of yours wait outside. She’ll just knock things over.”

Meisje, who’d been pressing against Elke’s legs, backed away without any signal from Elke and left the office, radiating displeasure. Being a gardag, she could understand Dolly’s words perfectly well. Being Meisje, she didn’t approve of the suggestion that she would be anything less than graceful.

“What’s going on?” Elke scanned the chaos of documents and boxes. When nobody responded she turned a questioning look at Ncita.

“It’s the commission,” he said. “They’re calling Dolly and me in for a chat.” He gave an almost imperceptible tilt of the head and Elke noticed the fourth person in the office, by the filing cabinets behind the door. A neatly dressed young man with the tattoos of a high-ranking eidolon.

“Herr-eid Argent,” said Ncita. “This is Constable Elke Veraart.”

The door and several piles of papers made it impossible for Elke to reach over and shake the man’s hand, so she bowed in greeting. “Good morning. Nice to meet you.”

Herr-eid Argent closed his eyes and inclined his head in brief acknowledgement.

“I’ve been showing Herr-eid Argent how we run things here,” said Dolly. “He’s standing in for me while I’m with the commission.” She met Elke’s eyes, her expression bland. “I rely on you to give him any help he needs. Officially he has the same status that I have for as long as I’m away.”

“They’ll need you for that long?” said Elke.

“The commission is taking this investigation very seriously,” said Herr-eid Argent stiffly. “The illegal trade of contraband that has been flooding through the Eye has reached epidemic proportions and is in desperate need of independent investigation. I’m sure we all agree that this process should be as thorough as possible.”

Elke started to grin but saw from the man’s expression that his pedantic tone was not a joke after all. She opened her mouth to respond but Ncita forestalled her.

“Our hearing should take a couple of days,” he said. “They’re talking to both of us and they want to go over all the paperwork for the last ten years or more. That stuff takes time.” He fiddled with an unlit cigarette, taking it out of his pocket, rolling it between his fingers, then putting it back. Ncita was a chain smoker but even he knew that smoking in a closed system like the Eye was not a good idea.

“But you’ll still be around, won’t you?” said Elke, turning back to Dolly.

“Not at all. The entire process is closed,” said Dolly. “I’m not allowed to be in contact with anyone while I’m giving evidence. I won’t even be living in my own place.”

Dolly sounded calm but Elke felt a chill at her words. This sounded too much like a criminal procedure. Was Dolly under arrest? Getting on the wrong side of the law was dangerous in the Eye, especially where smuggling was involved. The price for that was having your head in a glass box on Zero level.

“You’re leaving right now?” Elke asked.

“I’ve got today to get all the evidence together.” Dolly placed a hand lightly on one of the boxes.

Even the disapproving presence of Herr-eid Argent was not enough to suppress Elke’s interest. “Are those all Strangeworld biologicals?” She made her way towards the desk, stepping carefully between the piles of paper. “Can I see?”

“Let me do it.” Dolly unclipped the straps that secured the lid and opened one of the boxes, exposing a row of translucent tubes, each with the distinctive black line of a hardflask. Some were filled with opaque powder, others with spiralling strands suspended in a cloudy fluid. “And these are all eathers,” said Dolly as she opened another box, this time with more than a dozen tiny pipette-sized flasks.

“Are any of these live?” Elke was fascinated and a little horrified.

“These are.” Dolly opened the last box and showed her two medium-sized hardflasks containing a smoky fluid and some kind of dark precipitate. “Nasty stuff this.” Dolly tapped the glass with a perfectly manicured finger. “Spores.”

Elke leaned to see better. “There’s so much of it!”

“Yes. All highly active. But the odd thing about these ones,” said Dolly as she fitted the lid back on the box, “Is that they came through from Realworld side. We found them on a man coming in from Kaapstadt while he was still out on the Isthar gate.”

Elke frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.” Why would somebody try to bring Strangeworld contraband back into the Eye?

Dolly shrugged. “Just another one of our unsolved mysteries. Oh, before I forget, you need to finish your report on Mr Yelland. I want to have all that filed away before I’m gone.”

“Oh. That guy,” said Elke. “Sure. It’s all pretty straightforward. Lots of witnesses.”

Herr-eid Argent was following their conversation with interest. “Domestic violence,” she told him. “Pay day, Mr Yelland gets drunk and tries to take out his frustrations on his girlfriend. The neighbours usually step in before things get too bad but he’s an ugly drunk. Yesterday he started smashing up their cubby. He calmed down pretty quickly when Meisje pinned him to the floor.”

“I see,” said Argent, but he seemed less than impressed.

Elke took in the man’s tight-lipped expression with a sinking feeling. I suppose I should have called him sir, or “Herr-eid” or something? The man was easily ten years her junior and looked the type to resent that fact. Give him a chance. Dude might be perfectly fine.

She turned back to Dolly, who was packing files into her briefcase. “Anything else? I’ve got to go meet a guy down in Works level about that stink from the algae reactor.”

“No, you can go ahead.” Dolly lowered the lid of the briefcase and clipped its catches with a sharp double click. “I won’t see you again before I go.” She looked at Elke. “Your duties are unchanged, no matter who is in charge. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Elke made a salute that was only half in jest. “Good luck with the hearing!”

¤¤¤

 

The old gardag stood in the cleft between two rocks looking out over the city. Her sons flanked her, heads up, ears alert.

Behind them the slopes of Table Mountain rose, rocky and inhospitable, too steep for human habitation. Below them was Kaapstadt. Shacks of corrugated steel and plastic sheeting, stone, cardboard, woven twigs and plaited grass crowded together. Beyond were the brick houses and hard, black streets of more prosperous neighbourhoods.

The gardag glanced back at the ridge. She knew of no other way than down to the city. She and her sons had been on the move all day,trying to double back behind the line of the fire, trying to find a way into the wilder parts of the mountain.

A row of people were up there on the mountain, beating at the fire. The scent of them, that human sweat of fear, had brought back memories that made the old dog’s hair bristle under the armour plating. She’d found paths that kept the three of them out of human view, but that would be difficult this close to the city. Her sons were tense, their bodies vibrating with excitement at what they could see and smell. One bold, the other wary. One looking for a challenge, the other scanning for potential danger.

She wondered how long they would follow her lead. Many years had passed since they’d been the tiny, blindly mewling blobs of fur that had puzzled and obsessed her, demanding the surrender of her body and all of her attention. Now, they were old too, with grey hair among the dark.

The gardag lowered herself to lie in the long grass, groaning a little. After a moment first one brother, then the other sniffed respectfully at their mother’s face, then circled to lie down next to her. The smoke was still strong enough to sting their eyes, but the humans would keep the fire away from the city’s edge, at least until the sun went down. Then, in the relative safety of the dark, they’d have to try to find a safe path through.

¤¤¤

 

Ndlela knew his sister Noor was nearly home when Robby rose from his spot under the table and trotted out onto the balcony. The dog’s chewed-up ears were pricked and his piggy eyes blinked eagerly at the darkening landscape below. Then with a “woof!” he went scrabbling down the stairs.

A few minutes later Noor’s familiar uneven footsteps sounded on the stairs. A step, and then a clunk as she placed her built-up shoe.

“Issy! She’s here!” Ndlela plunked the pot of algae paste onto the stove, checking the charge left in the battery. Then he gave the paste a stir and poured the pot of chopped-up tomatoes and chillies into the mix.

Something scraped in the stairwell. He knew better than to ask Noor if she needed help hauling her bicycle up the stairs.

“Hey there.” Noor was framed in the door. She bent to greet Robby, who was twisting himself into silent and ecstatic curves, his tail whacking back and forth so fast it blurred. “Hey, monster munch. Hey boy.” She allowed the dog to touch his nose to hers. “Hey, buggy boy. Okay. Cool down, pupster. You’re going to knock me right down the stairs again.”

“Hey.” Ndlela poured some water to the food that was sizzling away nicely now. He had timed it just right. Algae paste could only be heated for so long before it became bitter and inedible. “How are things?”

“Hey.” Noor clumped past him, dropped her bag on the couch then pushed through the curtain that divided her room from their living space. She always changed out of her work clothes as soon as she got home.

Ndlela tried to judge Noor’s mood from the sounds that emerged from beyond it. She’d been on edge when she left for work that morning, as seemed to be the case almost every day lately.

“Issy,” he called. “You gotta come make the table ready.”

“Okay, sure.” Isabeau’s voice came down from the hatch in the ceiling. “I’ll be there now-now.”

Ndlela considered a sarcastic response but these days you never knew what would provoke an explosion from Noor. He took the pot off the heat, turned off the plate, and climbed up the ladder so he could stick his head through the hatch.

As he’d thought, Isabeau was in her favourite place, curled up in the hammock that was slung between two tall posts that might once have been flag poles. A rope pinged against the pole in the evening breeze.

“Issy, you got to come. Now.”

She gave a convulsive wriggle and turned in the hammock. “Yes! I’m just finishing—”

“No, right now. I’m hungry. Noor’s hungry. We want to eat.” Ndlela hoisted himself the rest of the way through the hatch. “And anyway, how can you read in this light?”

It was summer, so the sky was still light despite the late hour, but the sun had set behind Table Mountain and they were in its long shadow. “Hey. Will you look at that.”

“What?” Isabeau slid out of the hammock.

“That.” Ndlela nodded towards distant mountain.

“I know,” said Isabeau. “It’s pretty.”

The pall of smoke above the mountain had grown and now the light of the setting sun shone through it, turning it into flaming shades of yellow, pink, and orange. It was always like that, with a mountain fire. How could something so destructive be so beautiful?

Ndlela turned his gaze to the river mouth that lay glistening below them, reflecting the orange tints in the sky. This view was one of his favourite things about the building in which they’d made their home.

It had been a hotel once, before the weather broke. It stood on a small rise which might be why it weathered the storm better than most of the other buildings. The looting that had followed had emptied it out, but it was structurally sound and, best of all, its flat roof provided a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.

The wind had dropped to a light breeze, riffling the grasses and reeds that grew in the shelter of the low walls and on the mounds of brick among the dunes. The frogs were welcoming the night, their peeping voices joining the shrill chorus of crickets.

Nobody but us here.

That thought always brought Ndlela a sense of satisfaction. Well, us and Crosshatch. But old Crosshatch didn’t seem to count, really. He was more like part of the landscape, like an old dune mole or a crab.

Ndlela closed his eyes and listened to the soft thunder of the waves. They always sounded different at night. Closer.

We’re here. We’re doing fine. And when Mom comes back—

But that was not a safe thought.

“Come on Issy. Let’s go.” He headed down the hatch into the kitchen below.

¤¤¤

 

“I got something to add to supper,” said Noor as Ndlela came down the ladder. She’d changed from her work clothes into a faded T-shirt and a wrap-around skirt that had once belonged to their mother. She’d taken off the clumsy shoe and brace that compensated for her twisted leg and was massaging her calf.

“I stopped by Crosshatch.” She dug her fingers into her sore calf muscle. “He’s finished smoking that pig. He gave me some strips.” She pointed to a parcel that was already open on the table. “Should be good for a few meals. I’ll cut it into the food.”

“Hey, great!” Ndlela admired the strips of meat. “Can Robby have a bit?”

Noor glanced at the dog who was gazing at her in silent hope. “Jeez, dog. Look any harder and you’ll bore a hole in me. Sure. Give him a bit.”

Isabeau was plunking dishes and cutlery onto the table. “Can’t you keep that stuff aside?” she said. “Do you have to put it in with the rest?”

Noor turned to look at her. “Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Isabeau straightened one of the forks, not looking at her older sister. “I don’t know if I want to eat it. It sort of feels wrong.”

“Why?” Noor’s straight black eyebrows went up. “You got a problem with eating pig, now?”

“It’s just,” said Isabeau quickly, still looking at the fork, “I like pigs. I don’t know if you should eat people you like.”

That surprised a laugh out of Noor. “A pig’s not a person.”

“They are so!” Now Isabeau looked up at her sister, her own jaw set.

“Guys, you’re scaring Robby,” said Ndlela as the two of them stared at one another. “Just look at him.”

It was true. Robby had crawled in under the table and curled himself up into a tight ball, only one eye visible, warily keeping track of the combatants. To Ndlela’s relief, this did the trick.

“Oh, Robby, I’m sorry.” Isabeau caressed the dog, rubbing one of her feet along his spine. “We’re not fighting, I promise.”

“Anyway, I bet that’s not pig at all,” continued Ndlela. “Crosshatch has been shooting an awful lot of rats, lately. You sure that’s not rat meat, Noor?”

Noor gave him a look, but Isabeau giggled. “Rat!” she said. “Why not. Why don’t we eat rat?”

Any reservations she had about the food seemed to have been set aside, at least for the moment, and she didn’t complain when Noor served her a bowl. “It will be better when the meat had a chance to stew a little,” Noor said as she pulled her own bowl closer.

“Anything happen at work today?” Isabeau asked.

Noor rolled her eyes at the routine question but answered peaceably enough. “The Marine Guard chased a shark right under my raft today. One of the tourists got such a fright he nearly fell off.”

Isabeau rocked her chair, smiling in delight. “A big shark?”

“No, just a tiddler. Don’t know why they were chasing it.”

Noor worked as a tour guide in Uferland, the section of Kaapstadt’s city centre that had been invaded by the sea, creating a bizarre landscape of ruined buildings and trees standing in deep water. Some years ago an enterprising businessman had spotted the tourist potential. Now young people like Noor poled rafts down the flooded streets, telling rich tourists from Prussia and the Northern States all about the days the weather had broken and the city had lost the battle with the sea.

“Anything happen this side?” asked Noor.

“Well, yes, actually,” Isabeau sat up importantly. “The circus is back again. We saw them.”

“They’re back? I haven’t heard anything about that.” Noor looked questioningly at Ndlela, who shrugged.

“There are some people down there, is all,” he said.

“Really? At the circus buildings?”

“Yes,” said Isabeau. “We saw them there this morning. Well,” she glanced at her brother. “We saw somebody. But it must be them, right? I mean, who else would go down there?”

“I’ll ask around work tomorrow,” said Noor. “I’m doing another dive trip.” She scraped the last of the stew from her bowl. “Got a nice party, four adults who’ve done the tour before. Second-timers are always easier to handle. Apparently they tip really well. Where’s that piece of meat for Robby?”

Ndlela felt his stomach tighten. Dive trips were where the money was but even Noor didn’t pretend they weren’t dangerous. Diving in open water was one thing. Taking a party of tourists down into a submerged building to look at the drowned offices and shops—the thought made his blood run cold.

“I might be getting a promotion too.” Noor watched Robby gulp down his piece of salted meat.

“Is that a good thing?” said Isabeau.

Noor sighed and reached down to run her hand over Robby’s round head. “I suppose. I’ll be one of the head guides. More money. Which we need. But it’s not taking me any closer to where I want to be.” She reached back and pulled off the band that kept her long, black hair confined.

“And what about the Marine Guard? You talked to them again?” Ndlela asked.

“Nope.” Noor shook out her hair then swept it back again so that it hung down her back. Then she rolled her shoulders slowly, easing her stiff muscles. “Or, really, I speak to them all the time, but I can’t figure out how to get them to let me apply.”

The Marine Guard were the underwater force that patrolled the stretch of sea around the gate to the Babylon Eye. They dealt with poachers and other threats to the marine life.

Some time ago the owner of the Uferland Tours had struck a deal with them. The Marine Guard would help with the dives and put on shows and entertainment for the tourists in exchange for a cut of the profits. It was all supposed to be educational, an opportunity for the Marine Guard to spread their message of conservation, but Ndlela privately suspected that they also liked any chance to show off their modified bodies.

Ever since Ndlela could remember, Noor had been obsessed with the Marine Guard. She didn’t just want to watch them—she wanted to join them, to have her body edited so that she could spend hours underwater without having to wear the cumbersome breathing apparatus. To swim with the seals, and keep the poachers at bay.

Proximity to the Marine Guard had been the main reason she’d joined the Uferland tours, a chance to make a connection, impress them with her dedication and knowledge.

From the look of things, it didn’t seem that she was making much progress. He didn’t like the way she sat, shoulders slumped, her face expressionless.

“You’re tired,” he said on impulse. “I’ll do the dishes tonight, okay?”

At the word “dishes” Robby was on his feet, face intent. This drew a reluctant smile from Noor. “Looks like Robby plans to do the dishes,” she said. “With his tongue. You been letting him lick out your plate, Issy?” She stretched and yawned, then gave Ndlela a tired nod. “Thanks, Ndlela. It’s been a long day. I’ll do the breakfast dishes, okay?”

¤¤¤

 

The entire time he was busy with the dishes Ndlela was aware of Isabeau’s impatience. She kept going to the balcony door and looking out, then getting in his way as he tried to clean the kitchen. And when Noor gave up the struggle against sleep and went to her room, Isabeau came right up to him and widened her eyes significantly.

“What,” he said, knowing trouble when he saw it.

“You said we could use the scopes when you were finished with the dishes.”

Ndlela scraped the last of the scraps into Robby’s bowl. “What for? It’s dark already. And you know you’re not allowed to touch the scopes unless there’s somebody there to watch you.”

“That’s why I’m asking you,” Isabeau said with exaggerated patience. “And I want to use the heatscope. So it doesn’t matter if it’s dark.”

“But what do you want to see? I thought you were bored with Jayden’s games.”

Isabeau stared at him. “The circus people, of course!”

“Not that still.”

“Of course that still! I want to look at them.” She jiggled on the spot and Ndlela could see that she wasn’t going to drop this topic any time soon.

“You wiped the table yet? And filled Robby’s water bowl?”

“Yes, yes!”

“Alright. Hang on a sec. Let me just finish here.”

A few minutes later he passed the scope case and tripods up to her through the hatch, then joined her on the roof. Now that he had the case in his hands again, he found that he shared Isabeau’s excitement. He clipped it open reverently, admiring the gleaming rows of lens attachments, each in their own little velvet nest. The batteries still had a bit of charge, he was happy to see.

The heat scope belonged to their mother’s boyfriend Jayden. He’d done nightly inspections of the Muara from the roof deck, often with the children’s help. Even after his mother and Jayden had left, Ndlela had kept up the routine, setting up the tripod, fitting the scope, and inspecting the landscape for any signs of life.

Gotta know what’s popping, Jayden used to say. If anyone’s joined the neighbourhood. See them before they see you is what I’m saying.

At first it had just been routine. Then, as days and weeks passed with no sign of either Jayden or their mother, it had become a reminder of their absence and Ndlela had found himself skipping days. Now it had been months since he’d last opened the case.

He extended the tripod’s legs, making sure each one clicked firmly into place and wouldn’t wobble. Then he attached the scope and sat back, orienting himself.

“That way,” said Isabeau, pointing.

Ndlela sighted through the scope, keeping it on night vision. He had to find the building...there. The cluster of shapes on the darkness of the rock.

“See anything?” Isabeau’s hot breath fanned his cheek.

Ndlela took the heat vision attachment out of its velvet nest. This was the moment he loved. The scope was old but good. Not stranger-tech as he’d first thought, but real-world. Prussian made and probably military, or that was what Jayden had hinted at.

He clipped a lens-attachment into place and looked through the scope again. Now the scene was transformed, the pink glow of the sand still warm from the heat of the sun, the utter black of the cold sea. He upped the magnification, hunting for the tell-tale peach glow of body heat. Even at this distance a live human body should be clearly visible.

“They’ll probably be indoors at this time.” He turned the scope slowly, sweeping it first to the right, then to the left. “So—”

Both of them gasped simultaneously and Ndlela sat back, blinking.

“Oh! Lookit!” yelped Isabeau. “Look, lookit look! I told you they were there!”

Ndlela could see it even without the scope, a glow flickering in the dark distance, firefly spots of multi-coloured light. They flickered and went out.

“The lights!” said Isabeau. “They switched on the circus lights! You saw them, you did!”

“I did,” agreed Ndlela. For a brief moment the familiar swathes and curves of the circus lights, incongruous lollipops, flowers, stars and spirals, had sparkled up at them through the night. Now, all was dark again.

 

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