Lauren Beukes' novel Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. And her next novel, The Shining Girls, garnered a massive deal at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Here's her short story "Branded," which puts a South African spin on cyberpunk. It's an except from The Apex Book of World SF 2, which is out now.
by Lauren Beukes
We were at Stones, playing pool, drinking, goofing around, maybe hoping to score a little sugar, when Kendra arrived, all moffied up and gloaming like an Aito/329. "Ahoy, Special K, where you been, girl, so juiced to kill?" Tendeka asked while he racked up the balls, all click-clack in their white plastic triangle. Old school this pool bar was. But Kendra didn't answer. Girl just grinned, reached into her back pocket for her phone, hung skate-rat style off a silver chain connected to her belt, and infra'd five Rand to the table to get tata machance on the next game.
But I was watching the girl and as she slipped her phone back into her pocket, I saw that telltale glow ‘neath her sleeve. Long sleeves in summer didn't cut it. So, it didn't surprise me none in the least when K waxed the table. Ten-Ten was surprised though. Ten-Ten slipped his groove. But boy kept it in, didn't say anything, just infra'd another five to the table and racked ‘em again. Anyone else but Ten woulda racked ‘em hard, woulda slammed those balls on the table, eish. But Ten, Ten went the other way. Just by how careful he was. Precise ‘n clipped like an assembly line. So you could see.
Boyfriend wasn't used to losing, especially not to Special-K. I mean, the girl held her own ‘gainst most of us, but Ten could wax us all six-love baby. Boyfriend carried his own cue, in a special case. Kif shit it was. Lycratanium, separate pieces that clicked into each other, assembled slick ‘n cold and casual-like, like he was a soldier in a war movie snapping a sniper rifle together. But Kendra grinning now, said, "No, my bra. I'm out", set her cue down on the empty table next to us.
"Oh ja, like Ten's gonna let this hook slide. " Rob snorted into his drink.
"Best of three." Tendeka said and smiled loose and easy. Like it didn't matter and chalked his cue.
Girl hesitated and shrugged then. Picked up the cue. Tendeka flicked the triangle off the table, flip-rolling it between his fingers lightly. "Your break."
Kendra chalked-up, spun the white ball out to catch it at the line. Edged it then sideways so's it would take the pyramid out off-centre. Girl leaned over the table. Slid the tip of the cue over her knuckles once, taking aim, pulled back and cut loose, smooth as sugar. Crack! Balls twisting out across the table. Sunk four solids straight-up. Black in the middle and not a single stripe down.
Rob whistled. "Shit. You been practising, K?"
Kendra didn't even look up. Took out another two solids and lined up a third in the corner pocket. Girl's lips twitched, but she didn't smile, no, didn't look at Ten, who was still sayin' nothin' like. He chalked his cue again, like he hadn't done it already, and stepped up. The freeze was so tight I couldn't take it. Anyway. I knew what was coming. So, off by the bar I was, but nears enough so I was still in on the action like. Ten lined ‘em up and took out two stripes at the same time, rocketing ‘em into different pockets. Bounced the white off the pillow and took another, edged out the solid K had all lined up. Another stripe down and boy lined up a fifth blocking the corner pocket. "You're up."
Girl just stood there lookin' as if she was sizing up.
"K. You're up."
Girl snapped her head towards Tendeka. Tuned back in. Took her cue up, leaned over, standing on tiptoes and nicked the white ball light as candy, so it floated, spinning, into the middle of table like. Shrugged at Ten, smiling, and that ball just kept on spinning. Stepped back, set her cue down on the table next and started walking over to the bar, to me, while that white ball, damn, was still spinning.
"Hey! What the fuck?"
"Ah c'mon, Ten. You know I gotcha down."
"What! Game ain't even started. And what's with this, man? Fuckin' party tricks don't mean shit."
"It's over, Ten."
"You on drugs, girl? You tweaked?"
"Fuck off, Ten."
Ten shoved his cue at Rob, who snatched it quick, and rounded on the girlfriend. "You're mashed, Kendra!" He grabbed her shoulder, spun her round, "C'mon, show me!"
"Kit Kat, baby. Give it a break."
"Oh yeah? Lemme see. C'mon."
"Fuck off, Tendeka! Serious!"
People were looking now. Cams were too, though in a place like Stones, they probably weren't working none too well. Owner paid a premium for faulty equipment like. Jazz was defending Kendra now. Not that she needed it. We all knew the girl wasn't a waster like. Even Ten.
Now me. I was a waster. I was skeef. Jacked that kind shit straight into my tongue, popping lurid lurex candy capsules into the piercing to disseminate like. Lethe or supersmack or kitty. Some prefer it old-style, pills ‘n needles, but me, the works work best straight in through that slippery warm pink muscle. Porous your mouth is. So's it's straight into the blood and saliva absorbs the rest into your glands. I could tell you all things about that wet hole mouth that makes it perfect for drugs like. But, tell you true, it's all cheap shit. Black-market. Ill legit. Not like sweet Kendra's high. Oh no, girl had gone the straight ‘n arrow. All the way, baby. All the way.
"C'mon Ten, back off, man." Rob was getting real nervous like. Bartender too, twitchin' to call his defuser. But Kendra-sweet had enough now, spun on Ten, finally, stuck out her tongue at him like a laaitie. And Jazz sighed. "There. Happy now?" But Ten wasn't. For yeah, sure as sugar, Special-K's tongue was a virgin. Never been pierced by a stud let alone an applijack. Never had that sweet rush as the micro-needles release slick-quick into the fleshy pink. Never had her tongue go numb with the dark oiliness of it so's you can't speak for minutes. Doesn't matter though. Talkin'd be least of your worries. Supposin' you had any. But then Ten knew that all along. Cos you can't play the way the girlfriend did on the rof. Tongue's not the only thing that goes numb. And boyfriend knows it. And everything's click-clicking into place.
"Oh you fucking crazy little shit. What have you done?" Ten was grabbing at her now, tough-like, her swatting at him, pulling away as he tried to get a hold of her sleeve. Jazz was yelling again. "Ease off, Tendeka!" Shouldn't have wasted her air time. Special-K could look after herself all well now. After those first frantic swats, something levelled. Only to be expected when she's so fresh. Still adjustin' like. But you could see it kick in. Sleek it was. So's instant she's flailing about and the next she lunges, catches him under his chin with the heel of her palm. Boy's head snaps back and at the same time she shoves him hard so's he falls backwards, knocks over a table on his way. Glass smashing and the bartender's pissed now. Everyone still, except Rob who laughed once, abrupt.
Girl gave Ten a look. Cocky as a street kid. But wary it was too. Not of him, although he was already getting up. Not that she could sustain like. Battery was running low now. Was already when she first set down her cue. And boy was pissed indeed. But that look, boys and girls, that look was wary not of him at all. But of herself like.
Ten was on his feet now, screaming. The plot was lost, boys and girls. The plot was gone. Cut himself on the broken glass. Like paint splats on to the wooden floor. Lunged at Kendra, backing away, hands up, but still with that look. And boy was big. Intent on serious damage, yelling and not hearing his cell bleep first warning then second. Like I said, the plot was gone. Way past its expiry date.
Then predictable; defuser kicked in. Higher voltage than necessary like, but bartender was pissed. Ten jerked epileptic. Some wasters I know set off their own phone's defuser, on low settings like for those dark an hectic beats. Even rhythm can be induced, boys and girls. But it's not maklik. Have to hack SAPcom to sms the trigger signal to your phone. Worse now since the cops privatised, upgraded the firewalls. That or tweak the hardware and then the shocks could come random. Crisp you KFC.
Me, I defused my defuser. ‘Lectric and lethe don't mix. Girlfriend in Sea Point pulled the plug one time. Simunye. Cost ten kilos of sugar so's it don't come cheap an if the tec don't know what they're doing, ha, crisp you KFC. Or worse, Disconnect. Off the networks. Solitary confinement like. Not worth the risk, boys and girls, unless you know the tec is razor.
So, Ten, jerking to imaginary beats. Bartender hit endcall finally and boy collapsed to floor, panting. Jasmine knelt next to him. Ten's phone still crackling. VIMbots scuttling to clean up blood an glass and spilled liquor. Other patrons were turning away now. Game over. Please infra another coin. Kendra stood watching a second, then also turned away, walked up to the bar where I was sitting.
"Cause any more kak like that, girl, an I'll crisp you too." The bartender said as she sat down on the bar stool next to me.
"Oh please. Like how many dial-ins you got left for the night?" Kendra snapped, but girl was looking almost as strung out as Ten was now.
"Yeah, well don't make me waste ‘em all on you."
"Just get me a Sprite, okay?"
Behind her, Jazz and Rob were holdin' Tendeka up. He made as if to move for the bar, but Jazz pulled him back, wouldn't let him. Not least cos of the look the bartender shot them. Boy was too fried to stir anyway, but said, loud enough for all to hear, "Sell out."
"Get the fuck out, kid." Dismissive the bartender was. Knew there was no fight left.
"Fucking corporate whore!"
"C'mon, Ten. Let's go." Jazz was escortin' him out.
Kendra ignored him. Girl had her Sprite now and downed it in one. Asked for another.
Already you could see it kickin in.
"Can I see?" I asked, mock sly-shy.
Kendra shot me a look which I couldn't figure and then finally slid up her sleeve reluctant like, revealing the glow tattooed on her wrist.
The bartender clicked his tongue as he set down the drink. "Sponsor baby, huh?"
Sprite logo was emblazoned there, not on her skin, but under it, shining through, with the slogan, "just be it".
No rinkadink light show was this. Nanotech she'd signed up for changed the bio-structure of her cells, made ‘em phosphorescent in all the right places. Nothing you couldn't get done at the local light-tat salon, but corporate sponsorship came with all the extras. Even on lethe, I wasn't ‘blivious to the ad campaigns on the underway. But Kendra was the first I knew to get Branded like.
Girl was flying now. Ordered a third Sprite. Brain reacting like she was on some fine-ass bliss, drowning her in endorphins an seratonin, Sprite binding with aminos and the tiny bio-machines hummin' at work in her veins. Voluntary addiction with benefits. Make her faster, stronger, more co-ordinated. Ninja-slick reflexes. Course, if she'd sold her soul to Coke instead, she'd be sharper, wittier. Coke nano lubes the transmitters. Neurons firing faster, smarter, more productive. All depends on the brand, on your lifestyle of choice and it's all free if you qualify. Waster like me would never get with the program, but sweet Kendra, straight up candidate of choice. Apply now, boys and girls, while stocks last. You'll never afford this high on your own change.
Special K turned to me, on her fourth now, blissed out on the carbonated nutri-sweet and the tech seething in her hot little sponsor baby bod, nodded, "And one for my friend," to the bartender like. And who was I to say no?
Read more about The Apex Book of World SF 2 here.