Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tlotlo Tsamaase: Satellite Hearts

Name: Tlotlo Tsamaase
Genre: Young Adult, science fiction, thriller
Title: Satellite Hearts
Mama shifts in the lounge—praying, always in the lounge as though it’s a mihrab pointing to God—my heart knocks a marimba beat. I squeeze myself, carefully, through a crack in the corrugated sheeting that forms the wall of our home. Outside, I can still hear her soft voice praying.
Praying won’t save me Mama.
I stare at the compound of Old Naledi: rusty shacks, unpaved grounds littered with broken glass, fizzy drink cans, plastics and trees. My childhood prison.
I don’t know what it is to cry, how it feels before and after the tears fall. I was as much a victim as the patients Papa and I programmed: Papa driving a screw into their hearts to extract their emotions as though they were juice from a fruit. I don’t want to be a Prog—thoughts deleted, emotions altered and body controlled.
This is my body. I won’t lose it.
A few minutes left to decide my freedom: I’m sorry Mama, to be another death in the family.
I run four huts down from mine—old, scraggy and made from scrappy sheet iron— along the Old Naledi fence, my hand scraping the diamond wire.  The Botswana heat melts into the air coating my skin with a layer of sweat. I strain my eyes to look up as the fence rises—shaking in the breeze—towards the deep crimson sky: the time when the sun begins to bleed.
The sky has a thousand eyes, a thousand insomniac moons: The celestial authority— The Beings of The Skies who’ve built a home in the skies from which to watch over our world. Want to know a secret? I think they piss on us, each time they gather for their monthly kgotla meetings and have a jol and they say, “Just rain people, just rain, move along.” Rain my ass.
During the day the Gaborone bus rank is full of bustling combis and hooting taxis, grey–clad commuters darting between them. At night, it transforms into a Death Train Station: a train the commuters board to death, having received the Letter of Resignation from society. It’s a desert of coldness, metal scraping against metal, empty pavements, and bare, derelict buildings. Tonight the wind whines a low wail, collecting paper as it sweeps through the station. Ghostly vapour creeps over the ground. I can see the old commuter bridge stepping over the railway to the rank area.
The breeze, controlled by the Celestial Authority, whistles through standpipes as if the night has a case of asthma. It snakes through the aboveground station, searching. I pin myself against a truck when the nearby trees rustle and hold my breath, afraid the breeze will feed on more than my fear.
The fencing is torn through, so I step over it without much harm and search and pinpoint a lenyora. He’s a shady looking boy with pants high above his ankles and hands tucked into his pockets, shivering from the chill. His dark eyes are locked down at a body huddled at his feet, hands tied together. Perfect. A crime-druggie boy never disappoints.
“S’beno,” I say.
His head jerks up in relief. “Ao sister, z’khipane? What took you long?”
“Time.” I stare down at the culprit on the floor.
Michael Mackerel, a white, fat beefy man. The Magi Bio-engineer stares at me with shocked eyes. “Little Zahra,” he says.
Tanki, S’beno,” I say. “No problems?” I add in Setswana.
I don’t trust the head-shake he gives me, but he delivered and I must pay him. S’beno holds one hand out respectfully while the other cups it and I drop a powdered drug in a plastic bag into his smoke-smothered hands.
He claps his hands together before kissing them. “Ah sho, sho skeem saka. Sharpo sharpo. ” He leaves, drawing a Craven-A cigarette from his pockets and lights it. I watch the smoke curl from his mouth as he turns to wave.
“What are you going to do to me?” Michael’s voice trembles.
“I came to see you off,” I say.

“See me off? What you going on about?”
I keep quiet and this keeps him on edge. Good.
“I need a ride, Michael,” I say. “Teleporting is far too expensive, and as you’ve seen money doesn’t grow on our trees. Hardly any trees grow in my poor Old Naledi.”
“You’re running away?” His laughter rolls him to the ground. “Where to? You can’t run from the sky, sweetness.”
But you can run to the skies, to where it all started; to where Papa started and died. The truth lies in the skies. Hung in the sky, the moon is a large lucent eye charging the air with a strange eeriness. The black clothing I wear won’t help hide me from that all-seeing eye.
“Each important national figure is given a Being of the Sky—a Thunder— as a protector,” I say. “And any threat or injury to their life is a calling. It used to be just a threat that could call a Thunder from the skies, but the expenses are too high—people die from their electrifying flight to our land. Now only damage so severe that it can cause death can call the Protector of a National Figure.”
The first time I saw a Being’s soul on fire, a kaleidoscope burst of intermixing neons: yellows, oranges, blues and greens across the dark skyline, aflame, wild and alive, I thought, how beautiful death can be sometimes…and how cruel.
 I was nine years old.
 Wunmi Nazer was eight years older when she killed a Being of The Sky along with 1187 others in Zaria, Nigeria. My fingers tremble at the thought, a shard of glass too sharp to swallow. I’m going to beat that record. My country, Botswana, a mass covered by the Kalahari Desert and baked under the sleepless, warm sun, will be listed as a country harbouring a child criminal.
I have to be brave. Brave, and get it over with.
Michael’s eyes glisten at the true essence of my plan, and he looks at the tracks dismally like I kicked him in the nuts. He is an important national figure like my father was, a creator of humans programmed to follow the nation’s Instructions for life, work and love. I don’t want to be a Prog. This is my body. It’s always been mine. I just can’t lose it.
He grits his teeth together and says, “How does it feel now to realize you were as much under the knife as the victims you and your father practiced on? Karma’s a bitch honey, and you ain’t no better than it.”
I ignore him. “History, it enjoys haunting the present day, coming uninvited. But today a memory of it will keep it alive to the future. You will be a constructive element of that memory. The thought that I will be the catalyst barely changes my mind.” I try to switch my heart off, like Papa taught me before we sliced a human open. “Ease the scalpel in slowly,” Papa would say, “it’s best people are distracted by the initial pain before you go out with a bang.”
“The way you speak, you don’t sound like a sixteen year old.”
“Well blame the man who designed me,” I correct him.


  1. Hi Tlotlo, Thank you so much for submitting such a compelling piece. The voice is very powerful in your writing. It feels purposeful and there are some gorgeous moments of imagery amid the suspense. Beautiful bits like the "insomniac moons" and the thought that's "a shard of glass too sharp to swallow" really make this piece stand out. I also love the juxtaposition of the gritty landscape blending with both futuristic science and technology, as well as spiritual power contrasted against the character's suicidal impulses. There's so much going on. You also unspool bits of information, like your main character's gender and her role in her father's experiments, at a nice pace.

    I think where you can focus on in revisions is in the worldbuilding and in the clarity of the prose, both of which feel uneven. The first sentence, which starts with Mama praying, isn't a complete sentence (without the offset phrase, it would be a comma splice). But beyond that, it's not clear what Mama is praying about. Is she upset? This is implied two paragraphs later, where the main character discusses not being able to cry...but the conflict is still not known. Why is she thinking about crying? Due to the impoverished state of her neighborhood? There's obviously conflict in her world and now we have information about her father's scientific (and unethical-sounding) experiments...but still, I'm not sure what the present-moment conflict is that is prompting her to leave her house/make her mother pray/have her think about crying, which she can't do. I'm okay with ambiguity and not-knowing things, and I know later it's revealed that she's suicidal and fears she will hurt others, but I want to understand her motivation a little bit more from the outset in order to feel grounded in her story.

    The passage of time as she moves to the train station feels awkward. The sun is just setting and she moves four huts down to the fence...but then it's night and everything is deserted. The transition just feels abrupt, although there is quite a bit of information dropped in about the Celestial Beings, the station, and I feel like the worldbuilding could be incorporated into the action in a more organic way. Are only a few moments passing? Or is it a matter of hours? There's tension in her movement when she leaves her mother, but then it comes to halt for all of the exposition.

    One other thing, Michael comments on it, but the speech she gives at the end about history does sound oddly stilted. This may be the point, but it does stand out.

    There are also some grammar things that could use attention.

    For example:

    Michael Mackerel, a white, fat beefy man. The Magi Bio-engineer stares at me with shocked eyes. “Little Zahra,” he says.

    The first phrase is a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments can be fine, but it's also not clear that the Michael is also the Magi Bio-engineer, so the whole description of him reads in a confusing way.

    I can't wait to see how this evolves, because I love the setting and language and the simple intensity of your character's voice. By smoothing out some of the worldbuilding so that the pacing/tension is maintained, and also clarifying and being somewhat more direct in motivation, while streamlining the prose, will really take this to the next level. Thank you again for submitting!

  2. Just wow. What a powerful piece of writing! Strong voice, compelling character. Nice work!

    I'd say, other than what's been mentioned, which by the way, covered everything I would point out, is to do a check on your punctuation. This would also help with pacing.

    Also mentioned was the world building. By clarifying your prose with grammar corrections and punctuation, and deleting some of the exposition that hinders the tension, the reader will be even more drawn into the story.

    I can't wait to see where this goes. Well done, and best wishes as you revise.

  3. I agree, the world you have created here is very intriguing! You really make it come alive with such beautiful, vivid imagery. The tense desolation of the setting feels very real, and your main character's motivations are clear and understandable.

    My main comment is in line with the others, that jumping back and forth between the worldbuilding details and the action is distracting and makes it a bit difficult to follow at times. But you're definitely setting up a conflict that is quite compelling, and pulling that out to the forefront in the first pages would strengthen the piece even more. It's very well done, and I'm looking forward to seeing your revisions!

  4. Awww thanks everyone for the suggestions, I've already started working on it, and your lovely suggestions really help the story. Thanks