This #WeekendRead comes from Masha du Toit's latest book, The Babylon Eye. It's a complex sci-fi thriller and we interviewed her about it earlier in the week. Now you get to see her sharp writing and the book's unique premise at work for yourself.
The dog lay, listening. The hunters were close now, so close she could hear them breathing. Smell them too. Scent of coffee and the sweet stuff they chewed.
Two, as always. Male and female. Male moved angrily, spoke angrily. “That thing can’t still be alive—”
“Look.” The female was angry too but her voice was softer. “ If you can’t keep your trap shut, go away and leave this to me. That dog can hear your whining a mile away.”
Their footsteps went past but the dog didn’t move. She knew all the tricks. They could pretend to go and circle back when she came out of hiding… The voices were distant now. Going up the stairs.
Her belly ached with hunger. Soon she’d have to emerge from her hiding place to look for food.
She could smell something interesting close by. Old food. Rubbish. Ben wouldn’t like her eating that. He would say, No, girl! and look at her, stern and disappointed, make her want to tuck her tail between her legs and crouch down low.
Not that Ben ever hurt her.
The only good food was food from Ben. But Ben was gone. Forever gone. And if she didn’t eat she’d die. Her body was growing weak. Cold and hunger slowed her wits. She would make a mistake, the hunters would trap her and that would be the end.
If Ben were here he would tell her, “Guard them, girl!” and “Packen!” She’d be the hunter, they the prey.
After a long, silent time, the dog crawled out of hiding and stood listening, ears swivelling, nose up, testing the air.
The hunters were far away. She was safe.
Until they came again.
Elke Veraart leaned against the bars of her cell and watched the guards approach. It was Uys, a big, slow woman who didn’t usually make trouble and Sandy, who was fine as long as you didn’t get her on a bad day.
“Veraart!” said Uys, a little out of breath from the stairs. “You got a visitor. We’re taking you down there.” She unclipped the keys from her belt. “Stand back, now.”
Elke moved to the back of the cell as Uys unlocked the gate. Hands in sight, eyes lowered. She’d learnt her manners by now.
They took her down to the visitor centre and into one of the interview rooms. Then, to her surprise, both guards left, closing the door behind them.
What’s going on here?
Her visitor, a man in a crumpled suit, was leaning against the table. A cop—there was no mistaking it—he looked at her in that cop way. Taking it all in, slotting her into the available categories. What would he make of her? Female. Mid to late forties. One point six metres. Visible body modifications—
“Morning, Miss E.”
His voice brought recognition. Inspecteur Ncita. He looked different out of uniform and it was three, four years since she’d met anyone from the gardag unit. That was all gone. Another life. But here he was, her old boss, large as life and she could not think of a single reason to explain his presence.
“Have a seat.” Ncita took out a box of cigarettes. “You still not smoking?”
She shook her head.
He sighed and put the box away. “I should stop. I did for a while.”
Elke pulled out a chair and sat, uncomfortably aware of her unwashed hair and the baggy prison uniform. He must have bribed the guards to leave us alone in here. “So,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I hear you got involved with that gardag flick.”
“That’s right!” Ncita seemed relieved at the safe topic. “The movie. Consulting. They said I might get a part, but I don’t know. Mostly it was helping them get the facts right.”
“If the movie’s anything like the book, they won’t worry too much about the facts.”
“Oh well.” Ncita seemed pleased as well as a bit embarrassed. “It’s entertainment, you know. Give people what they like. But I tell you it’s causing a headache at the unit. Some woman writes a book about gardags, that’s bad enough. Here comes the movie and everyone now wants to be a gardag handler. Recruits signing up in droves. Drives old Platsak nuts.”
Elke had to smile at that. “Platsak still there?”
“Oh yes. Don’t think he’ll ever retire. Puts the new recruits through hell and back. But listen. Here for a reason.” Ncita opened his shoulder bag. “Show you something.” He pulled out a pocket screen, flipped it open and held it first at arm’s length, then close to his face. “Where’s the damn— Oh yes. Okay, which one was it now? That’s it.”
He handed her the screen. “No sound, sorry. Something went wrong with it.”
A vid was playing on the screen, the kind she’d seen countless times before. It showed one of the gardag unit’s training rooms. Somebody was working an advanced obstacle course.
But that’s no gardag.
The dog making its way over, through and under the obstacles was a normal dog. No armour. No visible modifications. Like a German shepherd, but white. Female and on the small side—a pretty enough creature. Elke glanced questioningly at Ncita.
“Keep watching,” he said and took out the cigarettes again.
The dog was good, Elke had to admit that much. It had grace and power, clearing each obstacle with ease. It also had the total focus on its handler that she loved to see. Ears pricked, eyes bright. The sight of that look from dog to handler was unexpectedly painful. The easy communication, the perfect, wordless understanding.
Griffin. Griffin had been like that. But Griffin had been a gardag—a hulking armoured beast with who knows what mix of street breeds. Nothing like this pretty white pedigree lady-dog.
But she was good, this dog. No denying it.
The vid changed to a head-mounted view. Somebody working their way through a fieldwork setup inside a burnt-out building, smoke obscuring the camera. Small, confined spaces and Elke did not need the sound to know the level of noise there’d be. Rattles and bangs, people shouting, gunshots, all to test the dog’s nerve.
Elke watched, fascinated, as the dog took down a padded suspect, indicated the correct container, clawed her way up a slope that no dog should be able to scale and paused at the top. A glance back at her handler, proud, all confidence, never once losing focus. The screen went black and then to the Eckzahn logo.
Elke handed the screen back to Ncita, eyebrows raised. “What was that?”
“Interesting, hey?” Ncita drew on his cigarette, looked around for an ashtray. “That is our new-model gardag. No external armour. Still a tech-enhanced mech-dog. Mind-link capacity. Enhanced vision. Audio and video recording. Stops recording if her power source fails like any other gardag, but won’t wipe her data like the older models did, unless, you know, she’s dead. Also, not so dependent on electronics. Most of it's edited in from the genes up. Retractable claws, subdermal flexible armour.”
“Useful.” Elke pointed to a tin on the table and he tapped ash into it.
“Very useful,” he said, taking another pull on the cigarette. “Also, lighter bone density, stronger muscle fibre. You saw her climb? She’s lighter than a normal dog but far stronger, more agile.”
“Need weight in a fight, though.”
Ncita shrugged. “She can fight if she needs to. Not like your old boy, though. There’ll never be another one like Griffin.”
Elke shifted uncomfortably in her chair, wanting to change the subject. “So why are you showing me?”
“You saw the handler there?” said Ncita. “I don’t think you know him. Hoofdagent Duram. He and the dog—Meisje, she’s called—were assigned on a job in the Babylon Eye.”
Elke looked at Ncita in surprise. “Isn’t that—like—illegal?”
Ncita gave a grim chuckle. “Or something. We’ve never been allowed in there before, that’s for certain. Anyway, the higher-ups at Torka needed something looked into and pulled some strings. Somebody liked the idea of getting a gardag in there, especially one that can operate with no power.”
“I can see that.”
The Babylon Eye was well known for messing with anything electronic. Or so she’d heard. “So, an undercover job?”
Ncita nodded. “What I know is this. Some strange things turned up in the Eye. Torka wanted to know more. Ben Duram and his dog were assigned customs duty there. Nobody needed to know the dog’s a gardag. Seemed fool proof.”
“They disappeared. Handler and dog, both.”
“They disappeared in the Eye?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“But don’t you have a feed from the dog? Tracking?” Elke leaned forward, interested despite herself.
Ncita blew out a stream of smoke. “That buggering Eye numbs all our tech. The tracking gear works some of the time. But then it fails. We sent a team in there, they pinged her, but then the signal fails again. No good.”
“You think they’re still alive?”
“We don’t know and that’s why I’m here. We need somebody with gardag experience who can go in there and get that dog back.”
“Get the dog. What about the handler?”
“After a week, no contact, I doubt that Duram is still alive.”
Elke sat quietly for a moment, thinking about it. Pieces were missing, that was clear. Big pieces. “And what about—” She gestured at her prison uniform.
Ncita nodded. “We’ve got some high-ups in Torka very keen to get that dog back. We can spring you out of here for as long as the job takes. They’ve got an offer for you.” He tapped more ash off his cigarette. “Boils down to this. You get that dog, dead or alive. They’ll commute your sentence to time already served. Also, wipe your record. Clean slate.”
That silenced her. Clean slate. No criminal record. Ncita was offering her a future that was impossible to imagine. Too good to be true. What’s the catch? “How will they manage that?” She frowned. “Does Torka have that much pull?”
Ncita coughed into his fist. “They don’t need much pull for that. Pay for a good lawyer, that’s all it will take. In fact, I don’t understand why you didn’t fight the charges harder yourself. Trashing a restaurant hardly seems like enough to justify years in jail.”
“That wasn’t why—”
“I know. You broke somebody’s arm—”
“—and the terms of a suspended sentence.”
“A suspended sentence from when you were, what? Seventeen?” Ncita snorted. “And even then, all they had on you is that you ran with the Rent.”
His words gave her a jolt of surprise. In all the years she’d worked for him in the gardag unit, Ncita had never mentioned her past. He must guess why she hadn’t fought the sentence. Same reason I quit the unit. The truth is, that after Griffin died, I just didn’t give a damn.
Elke drew up her shoulders. “It was a bit more than that. But whatever, anyway, for this job, why pick me?”
“That’s easy,” said Ncita. “You’re the best.”
“Respectfully, sir, bullshit. Why me?”
Ncita smiled, eyes narrowed against the cigarette smoke. “Part of it is we need somebody who doesn’t look like a cop.”
That twisted a smile out of her. “That fits.” She touched the teardrop tattoo on her cheek, the all-too-visible legacy of her time with the Rent. That had turned out to be a distinct advantage in prison. Even the most hardened inmates respected the notorious eco gang. Then there were her horns, straight and sharp. She’d kept those filed down to nubs during the years she’d worked as a gardag handler with the Egoli police, but her horns had grown out all the way now.
“And if I fail?”
Ncita blew out a stream of smoke and watched it curl. He didn’t need to say anything. If she failed, she’d be back here serving out the rest of her sentence at the Jacaranda Female Correctional Facility.
“So how’s it going to work?” she asked.
“You’ll have to wear an ankle bracelet. Keep track of you in case you do a runner. They’ll assign a believable job for you to do in the Eye. You’ll report to some local Torka agent on your progress in tracking the dog.”
Elke swallowed. She was getting out. And what then? The thought frightened her. Maybe it was no accident she’d ended up in prison. It had felt so inevitable. No more decisions, just survival, day after day, safely numb.
Inspecteur Ncita stood up from the table. “And it’s not bullshit, by the way. You are the best gardag handler. I put your name forward for a reason.”
“Not the first time you save my ass, Inspecteur.”
“Not the first.”
Masha du Toit is an artist and writer living in Woodstock, Cape Town. She was trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture at Michaelis and went on to study bronze casting at the Natal Technikon. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing and illustrating her own stories. Masha can also be found on her blog and on Twitter, @mashadutoit.