The hottest part of the damn day and Katleho is out in the thick of it, caught between the expanse of the reckless blue sky and the flat rocks, with the sweat crawling down the back of his neck and slick down his sides. He’s off on a wild Springkaan chase, because they need the eyes in the sky of the insectoid micro-drone if they are to protect themselves, protect their resources.
He tugs at the Scorchd Afrika! T-shirt soddenly clinging to his skin. It’s become a uniform, a way of telling Us versus Them, now that they’ve resolved Us versus Us. He doesn’t even like EDM, he thinks.
The heat has its own gravity, smashing down in a way that stuns everything, even the fat desert flies. He squints against the light, trying to spot the give-away gleam of the fish-eye lens of the micro-drone, hardwired into a grasshopper, with just enough brain-stem left to interface with the micro-circuitry. Maybe that’s all they are out here, Katleho thinks, bleakly, hollowed-out grasshoppers mindlessly responding to stimulus.
The gun holster chafes in Katleho’s armpit. He’s not stupid enough to carry it tucked into the back of his cut-offs. Time was he wouldn’t be seen dead in cut-offs. Time was he’d never held a gun.
Everything changes. Oh, you won’t believe how fast it changes.
‘Phase Three’. Words he wishes he’d never heard, everyone bandying the phrase around the camp, breathless with importance and the footage coming down the x-fi.
Eleven days ago, they’d pulled up to Scorchd Afrika in Jamie’s Audi A4, driving past the rusted sentinels of the gas drills that someone has strung with fairy lights, into the laager of converted shipping containers. A music festival in the middle of the remains of an old fracking opeation in the former nature reserve.
‘Helluva place for a party,’ Katleho sneered to Jamie, swatting idly at one of the buzzing drones that zoomed in to film them.
‘Open mind, baby,’ Jamie sang back at him and went to hug some bouncy girls in day-glo catsuits. That’ll teach him to date trendy white boys.
Helluva place for civilisation’s last stand.
Hippies, yuppies, techies, artists, aggressive young okes looking to get messed up, maybe score some chicks. Allsorts. Like the sweeties. He could do with some of those now, Katleho thinks, using his shirt to mop up the sweat on his face. Imagine: just walking into a café and buying a bag of multi-coloured liquorice over the counter.
They’re down to bugs now. He can get over the popcorn crunch, but the spiny legs that catch between his teeth still make him gag. Katleho wasn’t built for this. None of them were.
They got the news on the x-fi, before the Internet went down because the Internet, like civilisation needs power. Accident in the Thokoza coal plant, too much power being drawn – the coal plants couldn’t sustain. The grid overloaded. Eskom moved to Phase Three, which sounded innocuous enough – a little bit of load-shedding to keep things going. What they don’t tell you is that Phase Three means Eskom phone the army and tell them to ‘get ready’ because if the load-shedding doesn’t work, the whole grid goes down. It takes two weeks to come back online. That’s fourteen days of chaos in the dark. Get ready.
Scorchd had generators with petrol for a week, but gasoline couldn’t keep the x-fi connections up for long. The news on the Internet was bleak. They all huddled round while DJ E-lise projected the live-feed from her retina input onto the white fabric wall of the medical tent. There were scenes of people being shot in the street. Riots, looting, a necklacing on the Sea Point promenade. They all marvelled over the images of Sandton City in pitch blackness with people moving through the mall, the army searchlights lighting shattered windows puking up luxury handbags, abandoned in favour of canned food and bottled water.
Half the camp bailed on day one. They got in their four-wheel drives and their combies and their buckies and drove away until Crazy Eddie, the artist, got hold of a gun somehow and threatened to shoot anyone else who tried to leave. With his shaved head, he looked like a poor man’s Bruce Willis in bright orange Crocs and a camouflage kilt, but a man with a gun is a man with authority, even wearing stupid shoes. He got them all breaking down the towering wooden sculptures they were supposed to burn and turning them into fortifications. ‘It’s about preservation now, people,’ he pronounced, sitting on a leaning throne made out of car tyres.
On day two, the music died. Crazy Eddie shot DJ E-lise in the head when she complained. ‘Power is life,’ he said and told them to bury her under a pile of rocks.
On day three, the x-fi finally went down, taking the news with it. They still had the springkaan drones, a hundred-strong swarm designed to broadcast the party to the outside world. Eddie had the techies turn their cameras outwards, patrolling the perimeter, but their range was limited and their batteries were dying – their grasshoppers fell one by one, but not before they’d captured human shapes moving out there. Eddie told them they had to ‘go dark’. Katleho had no idea where he got all the military jargon. Video games maybe.
On day six, they took all the drugs and screwed for forty-eight hours straight – a baccanalian cheers to the apocalypse. They didn’t count on waking up the next day, hungover, reeling, a little bit crazy. Crazier. Or maybe it’s the heat that climbs into your skull and bakes your brain.
On day eight, they started planning the insurrection. A Mfecane of their own, dividing along tribal lines, not Moeshoeshoe versus the rednecks, but IT guys and hardcore okes from Midrand against the artists and musos and the hey-shoo-wows.
Katleho begged Jamie to stay out of it. They didn’t have any skills, not like the others. What part did a media manager and a junior investment banker have in an uprising? But he wouldn’t listen. Jamie had a strange light in his eyes, like a splinter of the bright broad sky had got caught in there. The desert does things to you.
There was fighting. Other people had brought weapons, in defiance of Scorchd party policy. They scrambled over the wood fortifications. They turned the sharp edges of mechanical sculptures into weapons. He can’t think about it too much – about stabbing the blonde girl with the dreadlocks in the throat and the fount of blood that drenched him like sweat.
But no one was as mental as Crazy Eddie. No one was as ruthless. The insurrection was squashed. The pile of rocks got bigger. A lot bigger. Jamie got a bullet in the gut trying to take control of the water tanks. It took him eight hours to die. Katleho buried him in there with the rest of them. He cried till his eyes dried out.
Crazy Eddie was very forgiving. He said it wasn’t Katleho’s fault Jamie was deluded. But now he would have to prove himself. There was one springkaan still transmitting, but it was down, somewhere to the east, among the rocks. They needed the drone. To find more water. To keep an eye out, because it was civil war out there and the drones had spotted people moving around the perimeter. Strangers.
‘Do you understand me Karabo? I know you’re bummed out about your friend, but it’s Phase Three, man.’
Eddie gave him the gun, placed it in his hands and patted it, like it was a baby needing burping. He had him pegged; that Katleho wouldn’t correct him on getting his name wrong, that he wouldn’t try to turn the gun on their leader.
Now, Katleho scuffs at the dirt with his designer sneaker, which is splitting at the seams. He wanted to live. Is that so bad? When this is all that’s left? He tries to imagine what the rest of the country looks like right now. Famine, death, cannibalism. He imagines the swanky little galleries and coffee shops in Braamfontein on fire, raging gun battles through Constantia, private security armies with machine guns taking control of the fenced off suburbs. What’s worse, he wonders, being ruled over by ADT or Crazy Eddie?
He swipes at his dry eyes with the back of his hand, too thirsty to be able to summon tears, and then he spots it: a glint in the grass. It’s the chip embedded in the dying grasshopper’s abdomen. The faceted glass of the lens is a cool, hard, all-seeing eye. He hopes Eddie is seeing this on their last monitor running on carefully hoarded gasoline. He hopes he gets extra water rations.
He scrambles up the koppie and falls to his knees in the dust beside it. He scoops it up in his hands, the metal wings of the micro-drone buzz in his hands. He could kiss it. His salvation. He looks towards the burning white orb in the sky and, sees, from this vantage, a shimmer of road in the distance, and a shape that he’d mistaken for another rotting drill bit – a water tower. ‘Thank you, sweet Jesus,’ he mutters.
‘It’s Jerome, actually,’ a stranger says, stepping up over the rocks, blocking out the sun, like a cowboy, with a floppier hat. Katleho shades his eyes, to take in his aviator sunglasses, his khaki uniform, the gun on his hip, the Parks Board insignia stitched on his epaulets.
‘You one of those party people?’ Jerome says, his voice disapproving.
‘Yes. No.’ Katleho is not sure what the right answer is. He wants to run to the road, to climb the water tower and sink into the cool black depths and let the water cover his head and never come up.
‘We’ve been trying to get hold of you.’
Katleho jabs the drone at him. ‘Don’t even try. The springkaan sees you. We got guns! You leave us alone! They’ll shoot you if you come near!’
‘Why would you shoot?’
‘The war, you idiot.’ Katleho is hysterical. ‘The civil war. Chaos! Cannibalism! ADT! We don’t have enough to go around! It’s safety first.’
Jerome takes off his sunglasses and folds them away, carefully, into his pocket. ‘You have heat stroke my friend. You need to get some shade and some water.’
‘Eskom! Phase Three!’
‘Oh that.’ Jerome says mildly.
‘Yes, that! All that!’ And all this. The insurrection. Lord of the Springkaans.
‘Ag, man,’ Jerome takes out rolling papers and sprinkles tobacco into the fold. ‘There was some kak around that, but we came through.’
‘We came through?’ Katleho repeats dumbly.
‘Sure. Come on, man. Are you kidding me?’ He sticks the roll-up between Kathelo’s lips and lights it for him. ‘This country doesn’t fall apart that easy.’