…because my guru in matters relating to use of social media, AJ Cann, has just subscribed…and there’s been nothing for months! B-)
So let’s see, what should it be…ah, I know!
I have been trying to write a novel for close to twenty years – and have got as far as a couple of chapters, and a segue into a series of adventure stories that pretty much wrote themselves (start here), but are peripheral to the main event.
Which is, of course, about conflict in central Africa, cynical exploitation of hopeless governments by powerful outsiders, the South African Police Services, a brilliant but flawed researcher, a multi-talented artisan – and viruses. Of course, viruses!
I started writing this thing when cellphones and good digital cameras were just a rumour; when Zaire/DRC was crumbling into anarchy (wait: has that changed??); when it could be seriously hazardous to walk around Cape Town at night (OK, no difference there, either!) – and when I still had time to do such things. As opposed to running 3 blogs simultaneously, obviously. And reading a truckload of SF. And…OK, I’ll try to finish the damn thing!
And here’s a taste.
Ngugi Ng’anga was dying. He knew this, with the crystal-clear certainty that comes with prolonged fever, when the brain is hypernaturally lucid, and everything is absolute. So did the creatures in white, the ones in helmets with one great glass eye, who clustered around his bed in the oh-so-noisy tent. Ngugi did not remember being brought here: he had fallen into a fever dream in his village hut, after three days of sweating and weakness, and had awoken here. Here, where the things in white strapped you down, where they cleaned away the bloody vomit, the nosebleeds, the stringy bloody diarrhoea, where they endlessly took pieces of him and samples of his fluids, in the tent where the noise never stopped, and where no humans came. He was convinced, now, that this was a punishment for what he had done; that the Christian God was wreaking vengeance for his theft. He was terrified of the things in white. At first, he thought he recognised faces inside them, men he had worked for; later, they all merged into one glassy-eyed monster. But there were several of them now, around him, touching heads, moving around. And none spoke to him; none ever had. As his vision clouded, as the strength ebbed away, he tried to sit up, weakly strained at the straps, tried to speak – and the final haemorrhage rolled out of his mouth as the weakened membranes ruptured, and life drained away. His last darkening glimpse was of a shining white head bending low over his; a clumsy big hand coming to touch his face…and he was gone. Dead and alone, away from his family and friends, who by now were mostly dead as well. And soon, like them, to be burned and buried in an unmarked pit, which would quickly be covered up by the everlasting forest.
I remember that night distinctly, without having to rely on notes electronic or otherwise. I can remember sitting, completely frazzled, gazing blankly at the 19-inch screen that was my pretence at a graphics workstation. My eyes hurt, I had heartburn, my back ached…. Hell, I can even remember what it smelled like: stale red wine, old coffee, older running shoes. I was stuck, well and truly bogged. OK, I had the building front looking good, the door opening slowly, the red stocking-covered leg appearing out of the dark – and whatever I did, the damn thing stopped there with a nasty set of grey horizontal lines appearing where I wanted the girl’s body to be, and the bannered “Triple-A Escor…” stopped in mid-promise. Never trust freeware, I told myself yet again in that long night; never trust something that comes for free to do what you want to be paid money for. I had taken the photos myself, as well, with about ten repetitions of Michelle – sorry, “Bambi”, wasn’t it? – coming out of the red door of the old terraced house; they made quite a good animation in the draft version. Attracted a pretty good crowd by the time I’d finished as well; first time I’d felt like a professional in my new career. But the final version would just not compile as a flash animation, whatever I did – and I had done a lot. There was nothing for it, then – I would just have to start again from scratch, and try a different tack. Pop tart, I thought; popping a tart out of a door to advertise easy sex for businessmen…. I looked at my watch: 03:05. The hell with it; Triple-A Escort Services aka Whores-R-Us could wait another day for their Web page.
And the low ringing tone that finally got my attention, that I would have ignored if I could, because of the way it changed my life from then on. I didn’t even answer it, in fact, the computer did it for me: another freeware program hooked up with the modem acted as fax and answering machines, and obviously decided I wasn’t going to respond. I heard myself say: “Yah, this is Bruce, leave a message after the beep…” – and the caller start to say something as the second, smart-arse part of the message cut in with: “…and don’t just hang up, because if you do, this machine will track you down and ring you up at 4 in the morning every day for the next two weeks”. What can I say – I was half cut at the time I made it, and sick of blank messages. They still used to mainly hang up immediately, anyway.
This one didn’t, however. I can still hear, anytime I revisit the file, that breathy, hoarse voice saying: “Ummm…Bruce? Bruce Davies? Is that you…? It’s Jerry here…I really need to see you….”, tailing off into a coughing fit.
The rest is all there, too, stored as a compressed sound file in computer memory: I never did figure out how to shut the computer off to answer a call once it had taken over. From me swearing as I tried to get the earphone and mike headset that I had thought was such a cool idea for the computer pro, right up to the tame goodbyes, and the final, racking coughing fit that was cut off as Jerry hung up. Possibly the last conversation he had with another human being, and it had to be with me.
I have nearly all the phone conversations I had from the office from then on recorded, in fact, and I’ve never let anyone else hear them. Now, of course, I’ve backed them up ten different ways, and scattered them as CD-ROMs from Australia to Hong Kong (or thereabouts), just in case. In case of what, I’m not quite sure – because if this never gets finished, they’ll never make sense to anyone but me, and I probably won’t be around to explain it. And if I am around, then they’ll be redundant…but what the hell, here goes my story. And if we don’t all die, and I make some money out of it, so much the better – it won’t make it any less true. So here it is: the story of the plagues that you missed (or which might even still get you); the people who made them, and what I think happened to let them loose.
The men in white biohazard suits had come into the compound suddenly, near dusk, from the road connecting it to the Institute. They came line abreast, five metres or so apart, carrying silenced machine pistols, covering the whole width of the beaten earth clearing. They killed everything larger than a rat that moved between the houses, and then a second detail following with flamethrowers torched the houses too. They backed whoever had survived the sweep and had tried to run up against the three-metre chain link fence that surrounded the complex, and shot them there. The flamethrower detail burned them where they lay, women, children and grandparents. There were not many; most were in the huts, dead from disease already, or now from the sterilising fire. There were no men of working age; they had been at the Institute, and were the first to go, after they had finally identified exactly what Ngugi had died from. The white suits were very thorough: once the people and dogs and goats were dead, they ensured all houses burned to the ground, and anything that ran out of them was clubbed to death and then burned. Nothing was to be left to carry the plague; no human, no pet, and no bat, bird or rat.
Inevitably, some people survived: there were some children and one older man outside the fence, where they had subverted their strict quarantine from the outside world by burrowing out to collect wild fruits and trap small animals. They heard the noises and the all-too-brief screams, and hurried back, until they saw the smoke and flames. The man stopped the children, then, and went back alone to hide at the edge of the trees outside the fence, to watch in horror as the white-clothed angels of death worked their ways of destruction. He moved back slowly into the forest as the suits came closer; finally, he broke and ran, back to where the children crouched, huddled and wide-eyed. They had survived the disease; now they had no home, and their former benefactors were trying to kill them.
The white suits finished their work and walked silently back, away from the fires and towards the Institute. Not fast – there was no hurry; the front-end loaders would only come the next day. Only more work awaited them, and even more dangerous: packing up the work of decades, to move out all evidence of what their masters had done for so long with the blessing of the regime. But no longer – the African winds of change were blowing gale force in this lonely corner of the continent, and the people who were coming would have no sympathy for their work.