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Virtual Snapshots

Today's Terraform, from rising Botswana author Tlotlo Tsamaase, offers a window into a future where climate change, digitization, and poverty collide.

Today's Terraform, from rising Botswana author Tlotlo Tsamaase, offers a window into a future where climate change, digitization, and poverty collide. It's at once beautiful and disturbing—enjoy. -The Eds.


Thirteen years ago when I was three years old, the sky used to be a clean blue, curving outward to meet the horizon. The sun was a bright burning spot and the stars candles in the night. Men's hearts weren't oiled in evil. The shift from day to darkness was seamless, dividing activities. It hadn't rained for so long, that all the water stored for the Harvest as the time was called, was insufficient. Our villages survived on an Aquaculture system, tending to the water-creatures to cultivate the food we needed. The dome had been created to protect us from the destructive environment we had orchestrated. It was a righting time.

The day it rained, we were shaken. The sound of a bomb exploded above us. First we thought the sun was dying, sending flames to torch our world. But the dome had shattered. Instead of shards of glass, soft drops of water soaked the cracked earth and moistened our bare feet. We screamed, "Pula! Pula!" The children ran into the heavy drizzle, mouths open to the sky. I remember that first taste of rain: exotic, addictive. Dangerous. We didn't know what we were drinking then. We were delighted: old women ululated whilst sweeping the ground with Setswana brooms. The paranoid ones got their metal bathtubs out to collect this last hope of survival.

It was the transformation from the old world to DigiWorld.

(I)

Now:

It has been seven hundred and thirty days since I left the house.

Two years.

Well, physically.

Our joints are painful due to immobility. No praying in the mosque, legs dusted by a beg for God. A god composed of zeros and ones, face etched in lines of lightening, the moon his nose, an impression of cloud in sky.

Our physical selves are latched to glass pistons by way of plastic tubes feeding medicine into our narrow veins. Machines beep our lives across limbs of time. We sleep in dark home-cells, little bulbs lighting our prison, and sweep through the door in our avatar versions.

These are things we are told to remain in safety's skin. Abide the laws. If you wake, do not detach yourself. If you pain, do not bend to relief. If you itch, do not scratch. In us, our souls are halos, waning, flickering—the light gone.

I can't remember the last time my skin was brown. Outside DigiWorld, it is expensive to maintain our health, which is why when we partially disconnect we must pay fees to keep us breathing.

But, today I must leave. A message had slipped into my visual settings:

Older sister: Hela wena! Mama is unwell. Get here now. Outside DigiWorld, you know she ain't connected.

Me: The minute I step out of this door, I will need funds to sustain me in the environment outside of my house.

Older sister: Chill, sisi wame, we will compensate you for your travels and your life. You are still family, mos.

Pfft. Family, se voet! They kicked me out and never kept in touch. I've been living in a servants' quarter for years.

If I hide behind these walls I won't see the thing they talk about: Mama's pregnancy. It could be her death. I will regret my life if I don't see her.

(II)

I have a few financial units that will last me on my journey. I push open the door. Stars fall in streams of light, soft as rain. Slate blue eyes mock the beauty of the sky.

Botswana. I don't want to denote it the common cliché term 'hot and arid' because I hate to be another stereotype of limited description. It's landlocked. It's suffocated. It's variety. It reminds me of the ocean, not in the literal sense, nor rather the freedom eloquence, but like the ocean it has borderlines you can't see. We understand technology. We sit at computers and understand what we type. Our cars are not donkey carts. Our houses have corners, and we don't have lions or animals of the wild parading the city centre but some men are more beast than human.

The rank is a chortling beast, fattening out into the city. A vendor scrambles to me, holding rotten goods to my face. "You want, sisi?"

A rumbling, croaking noise alarms the state constituents to a wake. Sun alarm. The sun creaks. Creaking, creaking, creaking—machinery screws, pipes twist, grinded by laborious mine-worker hands. Sunrise, sunsets beg to be heard.

Why was my sunlight rations depleted? Hadn't I been in line yesterday to escape the rise in sunlight prices, effective today?

I'm close to my mother's residence, a place of warmth. A place I was thrown out from because I had reached the age of independency—because I was not from her womb. I had to fend for myself, a pariah unfit for their royal homestead.

(III)

My mother is an anomaly in this society. She's one of those rare women who hold babies in their bodies instead of storing the to-be-born children in the Born Structure that sits in the centre of the city, its apex a dagger to sky. The Born Structure processes who'll be born and who'll die. It's how I was born, shaped by glass and steel. Unlike others, the lucky ones, I've never felt Mama's heartbeat close to my face.

My sister swore to me that Mama's current baby will last in the womb forever. "Sisi, I swear—nxu s'tru—that baby is not coming out," she'd said a few months ago, in her oft-confident tone.

I'd grazed passed her, muttering, "Mxm, liar."

"Come on, you're only jealous that you didn't get the chance to bloma in Mama's womb," she'd said. "You know I'm right, just admit it."

So I'd kicked her in the shin and ran.

She'd pointed a finger like she was bewitching me: "Jealous one," she'd swore. That was the last time I saw her.

Mama has been pregnant for a year this time. Water is her church. Baptismal if you think about it—crawling back to God.

I enter our horseshoe shaped settlement, bypassing the compounds into our own made of concrete and sweat and technology no one knows.

"Dumelang!" the family members shout in greeting.

I used to think that before I was born, Mama and Papa probably spat fire on my skin and rubbed warm-beige of fine sandy-desert soil to give it colour, and in particular hand gestures added dung-shit—for I'm not pure—to drive away malevolent spirits, insect-demons.

But, I am not born. I am a manufacture of the Born Structure.

"Jealous one," Sisi greets me, guarding the doorway. "Howzit?"

"S'cool," I whisper. "Where's Mama?"

"Hae, she can't see you now. Just put your gifts by the fire."

I don't move.

"Ao, problem?" she asks.

"Yazi, it took me my last units—the last money I have to get here, and you won't let me see her," I say through gritted teeth.

"Haebo! It's not my fault you're some broke-ass—"

I pull at my earlobes to tune her out. This means I am not allowed to stay the night here. My presence will jinx Mama's condition.

"Can you at least loan me some cash?" I ask. "I don't have enough to sustain me when I get home. Leaving home and disconnecting activated my spending. You know, there is no deactivation."

Her smile tells me it was the plan all along. "Then, you'll be prepared for death. Your reputation dilutes our family name's power. You understand why you must leave."

I don't understand how a sister I grew up playing games with hates me that much. I don't know when she disowned me—when she stopped thinking of me as a sibling to look up to. Is it just because I'm not her biological sister? That I'm a bastard shame in the family.

"Leave as in…forever?"

I can't run to anywhere. I don't know how.

(IV)

When I leave, Mama is still too unwell to see anyone besides my older sister, the gifted one who lived in her womb for nine months. Mxm.

So, Sisi stands by the door, waving, with a huge grin plastered to her face. "Hamba, jealous one."

The moonlight bleaches the village into a shockingly ghostly white. Air eases out from my lungs. My oxygen levels are slowly depleting. My sky is dead, but the blue ceiling is a magnet. Our thoughts, words and feelings evaporate from our minds like torn birds pulled by that magnetic force, and they light up the sky.

Our stars are composed of ourselves.

Maybe, tonight when Mama looks at the night sky she'll see me watching her.

On the way home I pass through a nearby village. In one house with the green corrugated roof, three women sit in the sitting room, their soles bruised with black marks.

"Heh Mma-Sekai," shouts one. "I tell you, a child born with one leg that's similar to the father's and the other leg that's similar to another man's won't walk. S'tru." True. The woman crosses her fingers, a sign to God. "Sethunya's child hasn't walked for years. I'm not surprised. Woman sleeps around. You don't believe? These things happen, sisi."

"Ah, don't say." One claps her manicured hands. "Surely, they can download software to update the child's biological software," the other says.

Twins—one an albino with pinkish-copper brown hair—and one pulls a younger girl from the sitting room onto the stoep.

"Hae! If I see you jumping the fence again, you will know me!" shouts their mother as their shoulders shrink. She gapes when she notices me. I am the child with legs from different men. I raise the middle finger. When will everyone stop gossiping about my family? So we aren't rich enough to buy all these gadgets to change our body size, our ethnicity, our hair—but we're poor enough to know true happiness is not bought. We're also poor enough to throw out one of our children because she wasn't born naturally. We're poor to not even care about that child, about the years that crawled into her sad heart because her father was an illicit man.

"Shem, and she's still so young," one woman whispers.

"Kodwa, would it make it right if I was old to take in this crap?" I want to ask, but I keep walking with my head folded into my chest.

The sky tenses, pisses, a hiss of warm. Air humid-empty. My lips press tight to my wrist to check the moisture. My water levels are too low. Low tear supply. There's only a few hours before the sun temporarily dies. Before I die too.

(V)

When I get home, the skin needs a scrub. But I let my scents accumulate so I won't forget the skin I wear. So I remember the mother who used to cradle me and sing lullabies. I will miss her.

Just when the sunlight begins to turn gold, the rain obscures the night-sky eyes into an eerie greyness. When my grandmother was still alive I used to ask her, "Nkuku, does the sky hurt and bleed like humans?"

She looked up from her knitted blanket. Wrinkles laced the contours of her face like rippled water. "The sky is the predator. All animals are humans but some humans are inanimate," she said. She was the only one in our family who loved me.

(VI)

I wake to noise blaring in my mind. How many megabytes of memory space will be depleted just to contact those bloody, poor-serviced customer lines?

Very well, psychomail it is:

#file report 22

Thought number #53897

Subject complaint: Skin malfunction; does not detect sun. Pre-requisite water levels contained in lungs reaching 53%.

Sent! Please hold for the next available customer advisor. All networks are busy. In case of emergency, please hold onto the nearest human for self-powering, explaining clearly your predicament to avoid violence and he/she shall be compensated within 7 days. Solar Power Corporations appreciates your patience. Goodbye.

A second is not long enough to send a message to Mama, to tell her, despite what's happened, I still love them all—my family. That is the only regret I have: no one to say 'I love you' to. No one to breathe my soul into. I cling to desperation halfway out the door as if a miracle will split the skies and save me. My neighbour half-waves from her stoep until she realizes what's happening. Her tear is the last grace I feel.

It is too late to remain alive.

In three seconds I am dead.