by Fleur Lyamuya
Issue 10: Afrofuturism | 2,798 words
© lisima/Adobe Stock
Another game. Zoë was a chess piece being shuffled around on a board. The player liked her best because she could jump over the other pieces, but she was as expendable as they come. So she jumped as high and hard as she could. Her costume on this occasion: gallery owner interested in the work of a rising artist.
“I’m Beth Nichol,” she said, offering her hand alongside her undercover name.
Themba, the artist, held her in a firm grip. She wore an orange dress with edges resembling flames.
“What did you think of the exhibition?”
Zoë took a breath and realized she was free to speak. Control couldn’t come up with an appropriate response in time. Unplugged. A jolt behind her forehead, a key lodged in her skull coming unstuck, opening head room in which she could breathe. The commands that usually controlled her consciousness had taken a back seat.
“The shifts between forms were seamless. That was impressive. I wanted more time with each movement.”
Themba smiled with her eyes, a hint at the left corner of her mouth. A handsome man with long black hair and blue eyes stepped between them. He eyed Zoë gently, while grasping Themba’s arm protectively.
“They’re waiting for you,” he said.
“I can’t wait to chat–Beth!”
Pursued by fire, Themba was pulled away to a well-groomed, fancy-dressed crowd, conversing in romantic whispers: suits, bow ties, gowns, a cape or two, a catman with whiskers and a tail that must have been body modifications. She dipped in and out of clusters of fellow artists, activists, students, academic types, hangers-on. Zoë watched closely.
Other agents switched their eyes off, allowed the camera to do all the watching. Sticky endings could follow. Zoë wanted to be prepared for the unexpected.
About a year in she’d decided to give in to her new line of work, immerse herself in the training, force herself to believe and become the lies she was fed daily through mantras and PowerPoints and drugs. Resistance was not futile; it was deadly. She wanted to live. So, she prepared for each job into the early morning hours, figured out how to lock away her conscience, forced herself to see a target as a “target” instead of a person.
Zoë’s body was a well-oiled surveillance machine, but some part of it was dislodged that night. The fact that Themba’s every move and turn of phrase was being recorded and watched in real time through her, that she was supplying Control with constant images and noises to generate her next line to entrap this woman made her want to look away.
She was relieved to be able to spend so much time simply taking in the exhibition, which was transfixing. It enveloped the entire space, its architecture and flaws. Fusion between artworks, between art and its surroundings. Movements merged into one another as pieces shimmered into the next form. A strange sensation, a different kind of game. The audience responses seemed choreographed. The final movement propelled them into a series of gasps. Zoë abruptly swallowed the air in time with several others and their sounds struck a… major chord? Then pieces were slowly vanishing, or flattening, into the surfaces they rested upon or hung from: all mirror. By the end they were staring at themselves—stunned—in the walls, ceiling, floor. During drinks the room reverted to its original state without Zoë noticing.
“Are you ready for our drink-drink?” Themba had snuck up behind her while she was inspecting a sculpture. The crowd had thinned to a handful.
Themba suggested a place about a block away. They walked briskly, not speaking. A passageway between buildings turned into stairs leading down to a dimly lit bar. Elaborate pairs of eyes were painted all over the white walls, donning whacky false lashes from butterfly wings to bird feather designs. Angular mismatched couches and armchairs of black, grey, white and navy tones were clustered around polished aluminum tables.
Zoë couldn’t shake the sense she was being watched by the wall eyes. She became disoriented every time she looked up at them. Piercing. She tried focusing on Themba, the furniture, their hands, the floorboards, anything else; but they sought her out, those damn eyes.
On day one at the Bureau-run residence, the first thing they did after confiscating all her belongings was leave her alone in her room, locking the door behind them. A silent initiation ceremony. Her mobile phone had been taken, so she had no way to communicate with anyone outside. She sat on the bed, swinging her legs back and forth. Her feet didn’t touch the floor.
She stared at the wall for about ten minutes before clocking the vision: printouts, snapshots—bizarre designer wallpaper? She moved closer and was confronted by hundreds of emails she’d sent and received, transcriptions of her phone conversations, photos of her and her friends and colleagues, even her love life for Chrissake. Distorted, desecrated memories. Nausea. Jelly legs moved her back to the bed. Tears squeezing out the corners of her eyes were liquid spears. Then she vomited, yellow mush splashing the ends of her shoes.
The next two weeks were the most difficult of her life. Knowing she was being watched messed with her head, pressing unease into her gut and heaviness around her brain. She’d slowly grown acclimatized to waking and going to sleep surrounded by her private life, constant monitoring by CCTV gaze. But the wall eyes were triggering some kind of memory of that first, sickening rush of protest.
Themba had a pear-shaped face, accentuated with smoky eyes that sized you up above an almost-smile. Her hair was shaved short. Her body moved effortlessly. She was economical with language, not because she didn’t know what to say, but because she said only what she knew.
When she sat forward, placed her hands on Zoë’s thighs and kissed her, Zoë briefly experienced something altogether new—freedom, from the drug’s control. A feeling they wouldn’t be able to direct her. Although she’d been intimate with targets before, this had never been a byproduct: You won’t be able to resist the commands while the drug is in your system.
Intimacy with targets was sometimes planned. It wasn’t an option that’d been flagged for this job. She suspected Themba was playing with her somehow. Whatever her motives, she seemed keen to meet again and discuss working together. In a week, at her hotel.
Maybe she’d imagined the severing from Control’s grip. She couldn’t be certain but she hoped they hadn’t detected any changes. The room grew colder as Themba walked away, leaving her with the bill.
This job was more unsettling than most. She’d dedicated the last year of her investigative journalism career to a project focused on the “shamarts”. Her pursuit of any lead, no matter how risky, had moved her onto The Bureau’s radar. She’d become obsessed with uncovering the secrets of the mysterious underworld but hadn’t believed the hype.
Her research into the field of shamartistry had only scratched the surface, but it was enough. She was made redundant. A cycle of rejected job applications followed. Eventually she gave up. Empty days turned into long nights bawling her eyes out, a glass of whiskey her constant companion. The Bureau had been waiting to scoop up the remains of her hollow life, welcoming her into a ghostly domain. She soon came to understand how they’d facilitated her defunct employment status, without it ever being spoken. Interfering in a subject that was too… political. Negative security assessment.
On the way back to the residence goosebumps tickled her arms as her mind traced over the evening’s moments. Finally seeing the artistry—the craft and magic in action—removed all her doubts. Themba’s work was breathtaking. Visual art pieces tempered with a burgeoning technique causing them to… shift shape.
Eyes Without Faces
The next time they met, they fucked and it happened again. The severing. She trembled into an alien feeling of owning her sounds, her senses. Underneath it all a slippery, unspoken pain. Past lives buried alive. A hollow feeling grew in the space between her heart and her stomach when she thought about what was planned for their next meeting: Themba “missed”.
They were never told what would happen to their targets, what “missing” meant in each case, whether they’d be killed or removed for endless interrogation or worse. Each brief was limited to need-to-know details. Their role ended after target capture, so what happened afterwards was technically irrelevant.
Now all the work she’d done, over years, to switch off her emotions—unravelling as she looked down at Themba’s hand on her bare stomach. Her chocolate brown looked pale against Zoë’s skin. Touch that made her feel fleshy and substantial. Returning some of her edges, containing parts of her that were spilling over.
“My dad wanted to take us back to South Africa, to start a new life there,” Themba said quietly.
This reaching back to the time before things changed was a shock. It made Zoë uneasy… Everything got locked down around the time her mother came around to the idea, Themba continued. By that time, they couldn’t afford it. The family had only visited the country once.
“I’ve never left this country,” said Zoë, speaking as Beth. This was true for Zoë also. Beth changed the topic. Too messy, too dangerous. Truth, Zoë thought, was an accident, a theme sometimes picked up, then quickly discarded.
Half-naked, they scrolled through photos of Themba’s latest work on her laptop. Individual pieces, silver accents, a melding of materials: timber, pressed flowers, shelves constructed of china saucers, seashells, string, computer hardware, snowflakes made of sequins and metal…
Zoë had never met the people in Control: eyes watching, ears listening through her. Sometimes she wondered if Control was run by humans at all, or whether it was artificial intelligence occasionally being massaged by them. Anyway, she knew something it didn’t. Their preliminary assessment was that Themba wasn’t a “real” person of interest. It was a regular art exhibition. I reckon she’s a genuine sham. There was no magic in it. They assumed their vision through the camera, of the recording, was authentic.
A Choking Sound
They stepped out of the Surry Hills hotel on the corner of Crown and Fitzroy, once the highest building in that stretch, now overtaken by high-rise apartments looming between buzzing bars and restaurants. Across the road, a woman sat on the top level of a building reading a book, framed by crimson flowers in hanging pots. On ground level, a scatter of people lingered in a café.
They meandered along Crown Street in the direction of Redfern, leaning into clicking heels, whooshing cars and music beating out of pubs. Past a boarded-up convenience store, glass doors lined with Excel spreadsheets, a medical center, a burger joint. As they walked, Control started to question Themba intensely through Zoë: where exactly did she live, when was she heading back there, did she have a day job, who were her connections in the art world? Themba answered evasively.
Arriving at Shannon Reserve, they made their way to the fenced playground area. Moving towards the swings instinctively, they maneuvered themselves into the low seats where they rocked and watched passers-by. How many times had Zoë sat in this park with friends, drinking coffee, eating gelato, gossiping, ranting? A lifetime ago.
The chaotic interrogation eventually petered out and they could enjoy the soundscape. A chorus of cicadas cushioned the rush of cars. Voices chatting and joking carried over through the windows of the pub opposite them.
A bird with a graceful, long white neck, spotted black down the front of a slate-black body was standing beyond the fence.
“A Pacific Heron, wetland bird,” said Themba. “A long way from home.”
The heron started croaking. Harsh guttural calls changing pitch rapidly. A choking sound.
Pressed against each other in the hotel room doorway, they would have resembled a regular couple to anyone passing. They agreed to meet at the fake address of Beth’s gallery the next day at 10:30am, where Control would be waiting to bring her in. Beth’s words were closing the deal. Zoë’s thoughts rebelled, raging above them. She knew how to silence the drug’s dull drumming. Mid-sentence she kissed Themba, pressed her tongue between her lips, felt the reply. Suddenly she could speak: Tomorrow. It’s not safe.
Themba’s eyes widened. She whispered: Leave with me. Zoë was frozen. Themba nodded abruptly and Zoë understood, then, that she’d been in this place before—between realms. She glided swiftly towards the fire stairs and through the door, disappearing.
Smells of sweat, cigarettes and shit in the air. Perhaps the last prisoner had rubbed their feces on the wall of the concrete cell. A rancid taste in her mouth, her throat burned. No food and a daily trickle of cold water. She was famished and wilting. It was the fourth day of this hell. Suffocating heat. She couldn’t hold herself up any longer. Collapsed in a corner, she fell in and out of consciousness. They’d asked endless questions long into the night.
What did you see the night of the launch?
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Did the target communicate with you using alternative methods?
What do you mean? You saw and heard everything.
How did you resist the commands?
I don’t know. It just happened.
Do you think the target had something to hide? Why else would you warn her away?
No, I didn’t—
What was the nature of your feelings for the target?
Why did the target ask you to join the escape?
She had kept her mouth shut and focused on the knowledge they’d given her: escape.
How had she felt about Themba? An echo of warmth … She remembered melting into her hands and gaze that night at the hotel. This time the target had been a woman she might ask on a date if they met in real life. After they’d gone, she let the realization sink in.
She woke up in the early hours of the next morning. Sleep had replenished some of her energy. She dragged herself off the floor, staggering, steadying herself against the wall. Craning her neck, she could peer out of the small, barred window. A leafless tree stood outside. A clutch of black veins against a purple-grey backdrop.
The back of her head was itchy. Reaching into her curls to scratch the sensitive spot, her fingers touched something hard. She yelled and yanked her hand away. Taking deep breaths to calm down, she moved her hand back to the foreign object. She twisted and tugged until it came loose from the tangle. It fell to the floor: a feather. She couldn’t make out the color—green or blue, gold verging on silver, metallic shades running through the hairs along each side.
A crash of thunder drew her back to the window. The rain came quickly, a static pour steadily scratching the ground. Then the lightning. Pulling open snatches of electric blue sky, X-ray clouds. The flashing outside reverberated up her spine.
She heard the door open, their approach. Lightning struck again as they hit her from behind at the same moment that she vanished, emerging beneath the moon. She was flying within the storm and the storm protected her, took her into its mountainous arms, held her close. She was a ship tossing in a violent sea, yet guided through it all in the direction of home. Soon she was soaring through a calm sky, wings fanning the air in long, light strokes before stretching into stillness, again and again.
Her lengthened sight and sharpened hearing zoomed-in on far off details. Geometric patterns of roads enclosed smaller and smaller shapes, green and trees shining like beacons, bodies of water rippling with cellophane waves. The songs of friends, acquaintances, strangers, predators prodded and pulled her. Underneath these chirps and calls, one of their questions played on a loop: Was the target communicating with you using alternative methods? She burrowed inside this invitation. It urged her to investigate new ways to navigate shadowy spaces.
When Zoë came back into her body, the storm had quieted. Rain drizzled softly. She ached everywhere and there was a jagged pain in her chest. A broken rib or two, she guessed. There was a decent chance the incident would be treated as a misdemeanor. She’d seen others work their way back from those after a month or so of scare tactics.
She was standing awkwardly, leaning back against a wall, barely able to move in any direction, when the door opened later that day. She didn’t meet their eyes as she walked past them.
Fleur Lyamuya is a queer writer and researcher of Tanzanian and Anglo-Indian descent. Her work explores themes of dislocation, diaspora, belonging, and intimacy. Fleur’s poetry has recently appeared in Rigorous, Scum magazine, Social Alternatives, Meniscus, Pure Haiku, and 404 Ink Literary Magazine. She lives in Sydney, Australia.