MOXYLAND, by Lauren Beukes
CHAPTER ONE: Kendra
It's nothing. An injectable. A prick. No hospital involved. Like a booster shot with added boost.
Just keep telling yourself.
The corporate line shushes through the tunnels on a skin of seawater, overflow from the tide drives put to practical use in the clanking watery bowels of Cape Town – like all the effluent in this city. Like me. Art school dropout reinvented as shiny brand ambassador. Sponsor baby. Ghost girl.
I could get used to this, seats unmarked by the pocked craters of cigarette burns, no blaring adboards, no gangsters checking you out. But elevated status is not part of the program. Only allocated for the day, to get me in and out again. Wouldn't want civilians hanging around.
As the train slows, pulling into the Waterfront Exec station, it sends plumes of seawater arcing up the sides. In my defence, it's automatic; I lift my camera, firing off three shots through the latticed residue of salt crusted over the windows. I don't think about the legal restrictions on documenting corporate space, that this might be provocation enough to revoke the special access pass Andile loaded onto my phone for the occasion.
'They don't like that, you know,' says the guy sitting across the way from me. He doesn't look like he belongs here either, with his scruffy beard and hair plastered into wet tufts. Older than me, maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight. He's wearing a damp neoprene surf peel, a surfboard slung casually at his feet, half blocking the aisle.
'Then I'll delete it,' I snap. It's impossible, of course. I'm using my F2, picked up cheap-cheap along with my Hasselblad at the Milnerton market during the last big outbreak, when everyone thought this was really it. It's oldschool. Film. You'd have to rip it out the back, expose it to the light. But no one's ever sharp enough to notice that it's analogue.
'Kit kat,' he says, 'I was just saying. They're sensitive round these parts. All the proprietary tech.'
'No, thanks. Really. I appreciate it.' I make a show of fiddling with the back of the camera before I shove it in my bag, trying not to think that I'm included in that definition now – just as much proprietary technology.
'See you around,' he says, like it's a sure thing, standing up as the doors open with an asthmatic hiss. He's left a damp patch on the seat.
'Yeah, sure,' I say, trying to sound friendly as I step onto the station platform. But the encounter has made me edgy, reinforced just how out of place I am here. It's enough to make me duck my head as I pass the station cop at the entrance – behaviour the cameras are poised to look for, not to mention the dogs. The Aito sitting alert and panting at the cop's feet spares me a glance over its snout, no more, not picking up any incriminating chem scents, no suspiciously spiked adrenalin levels or residue of police mace. His operator doesn't even bother to look at me, just waves me through the checkpoint with a cursory scan of my phone, verifying my bioID, the temporary access pass.
It's only six blocks but my pass isn't valid for walking rights, so Andile has arranged an agency car, already waiting for me on the concourse. I nearly miss it, because it's marked only by a Vukani Media licence plate. The name means 'Awake! Arise! Fight!', which makes me wonder who they're supposed to be fighting. The driver chuckles wryly when I ask her, but doesn't offer up a theory. We travel in cool professional silence.
Although my hand itches for my camera, I manage to restrain myself as we pass between the rows of filter trees lining Vukani's driveway, sucking up sunlight and the buffeting wind to power the building. You don't see filter forests much, or at least I don't. They're too expensive to maintain outside the corporate havens.
Inside, the receptionist explains that she'd love to offer me a drink, but it's not recommended just before the procedure. Would I like to have a seat? Andile will be only a minute. And would I mind checking my camera and any other recording devices? I don't have to worry about my phone: they've got app blockers in place to prevent unauthorised activity.
I reluctantly hand over my Leica Zion, and after a moment's hesitation, the Nikon too.
'It's got half my exhibition on there,' I say, indicating the F2.
'Of course, don't worry. I'll stash it in the safe,' she says, against a backdrop of awards – gold statuettes of African masks and perspex Loeries with wings flung wide.
I take a seat in the lounge, feeling naked without my cameras. And then Andile arrives in a fluster of energy and hustles me towards the lift. He's got the kind of personality that precedes him, stirring up the atoms before he even enters the room.
'There she is. Right on time, babes.' He honestly speaks like this. 'You get in all right? No hassles?'
'It was fine. Apart from nearly being ejected because I took a photograph of the underway.'
'Oh babes, you got to rein in those urges. You don't want to look like one of those public sector activists with their greater-good-tech-wants-to-be-free crap. Although those pics will be worth something when you're famous. Any chance I could get a print?'
'To go with the rest of your collection?'
His office on the seventeenth floor is colonised by an assortment of hip ephemera, a lot of it borderline illegal. The most blatant example is the low-fi subtech on his bookshelf, a cobbled-together satellite radio smuggled in from the Rural in defiance of the quarantines, which probably only makes it more valuable, more flauntable. It all goes with the creative director territory, along with the pink shirt and the tasteful metal plug in his right ear. The stolen photographs of the underway would fit right in.
What doesn't fit in is the contract. The wedge of white pages on the desk among the menagerie of vinyl toys seems antiseptic, too clinical to gel with all the fun, fun, fun around it.
The bio-sig pen I signed with (here, and here, and here) had microscopic barbs in the shaft that scraped skin cells from the pad of my thumb to mix with the ink. Signed in blood. Or DNA, which is close enough.
'Adams, K.?' A woman steps through the doorway from the boardroom, all crisp professionalism in a dark suit, holding a folder with my name printed on it in caps.
'I'm Dr. Precious. We met before, during the pre-med?' Through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her, the southeaster bunches and whirls the clouds over Table Mountain into candyfloss flurries.Spookasem in the local. Ghost's breath.
'Can you roll up your sleeve, please?' She's already prepping the autosyringe.
Dr. Precious is here on call. Even ad agencies with big name biotech clients on their books don't tend to have in-house doctors. Andile claims it's because, 'The labs are so impersonal, babes.' But I suspect that it's easier to bring her in here to shoot us up one at a time than to get the necessary security clearance for twelve art punks to enter a restricted biomed research facility.
Not that the rest are art punks necessarily. All Andile will say is that they're hot talent. Young, dynamic, creative, on the up, the perfect ambassadors for the brand.
'You know the type, babes,' he said in interview #1, when I was sitting in his office, still reeling from the purgatory of dropping out, my dad's cancer, wondering how I got here.
'DJs, filmmakers, rockstar kids, and you, of course,' he winked, only emphasising that this is all a mistake, that I am out of their league. 'All Ghost's hipster chosen.' But we don't get to mingle until the official media launch party.
'Just in case one of you goes into meltdown,' Andile said in interview #3, when it was already too late to pull out. As if I'd even consider it. 'Ha-ha.'
Dr. Precious loads a silver capsule like a bullet into the back of the autosyringe. She's too smooth to be a doctor-doctor. She's not worn hollow from the public sector, new outbreaks, new strains. Inatec Biologica it says on the logotag clipped to her lapel.
Before interview #1, I thought their line was limited to cosmetics. I imagine her in a white coat and face-mask in a sleek lab that is all stainless steel and ergonomic curves, like in the toothpaste commercials. Or behind a cosmetics counter, spritzing wafts of perfume and handing out fifty-g samples of the topshelf biotech creams (one per customer, please). This isn't so different after all. It's just that the average nano in your average anti-ageing moisturiser acts only on the subdermal level. Mine, on the other hand, is going all the way.
'Don't sweat it, Kendra,' Andile said back in interview #3, seeing my face. 'The chances of meltdown are like zero. They've been using the same tech in animals for years. Cop dogs, the Aitos, you know, guide dogs, those helper monkeys for the disabled. Well, not quite the same, obviously.'
Which doesn't mean that the contract didn't include a host of clauses indemnifying Ghost, their parent company Prima-Sabine FoodSolutions International, Vukani, Inatec Biologica and all their respective agencies and employees against any unforeseen side-effects.
'So, how long before the mutation kicks in?' I ask, acting like it's no big deal, as Dr. Precious swipes at the crook of my elbow with a disinfectant swab, probably loaded with its own nano or specially cultivated germ-eating bacteria or whatever new innovation Inatec's come up with specially.
'Oh babes,' says Andile, mock-hurt. 'Didn't we agree we weren't going to call it that? Promise me you won't use that word in the interviews.'
'What did you have for breakfast?' says Dr. Precious unexpectedly. But her question is a ruse. Before I can think to answer (cold oats at Jonathan's apartment, no sign of Jonathan, but that's not unusual lately), she snaps the autosyringe against my arm like a staple gun. And just like that, three million designer robotic microbes go singing through my veins.
It doesn't even hurt.
Considering the hype, the bulk of the contract, I am expecting nothing less than for the world to rearrange. Instead, it's like having sex for the first time. As in, is that it?
'That's it. It'll take four to six hours for the tech to circulate. Do you want me to run through it again? You may experience flu symptoms: running nose, headaches, sore throat in the first twenty-four hours. Then it'll stop. Enjoy it. It's probably the last time you'll ever get sick.'
'All perfectly normal, babes. Just your body adjusting,' Andile chips in.
Just my immune system kicking into overdrive to war with the nanotech invasion. But it's only temporary. People adapt. Evolve. It's all in the manual, although I haven't read all the fineline. Who does?
'I'll see you here for a check-up next week.' Dr. Precious ejects the silver capsule from the back of the autosyringe and slots it carefully back into the case with the other empty shells. Can't leave that stuff lying around. Light catches the gleaming shells, the reflection of Dr. Precious stretched thin like a Giacometti sculpture.
I'm already planning a timelapse, to capture the change. Only the top three layers of the epidermis, Andile was at pains to point out, a negligible inconvenience to carry with you for a lifetime.
If I could embed a camera inside my body, I would. But all I can do is document the cells mutating on the inside of my wrist, the pattern developing, fading up like an oldschool Polaroid as the nano spreads through my system.
My skin is already starting to itch.