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Life Without Z

by Alex Smith

Prologue

The clock was a quaint anachronism, especially in that lab, yet all eyes were mesmerised by its red hand jerking through the last five seconds of that unholy minute.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, it is 9am,’ said the professor overseeing the Advanced Realms 301 exam at the University of Cape Town. ‘You may now commence creating a universe.’

‘You have eight hours,’ was the last thing the professor said before he settled down to read a ludicrously expensive newspaper with a special report entitled ‘United States of Africa 2020: The New Global Superpower.’

At a desk in front of the professor, José Kabila studied the exam instructions and tasks labelled from A to Z. His FOR-screen, affectionately named Esperanza, panted as she awaited her first codes of instruction. The white dog (an Argentine Dogo) of the screensaver blinked, and occasionally glanced this way and that, as if picking up scents. Her ears were pricked.

‘We’re going to have to hurry,’ José said softly to Esperanza, whose nose was glistening. He pressed a key and Esperanza barked once before she dissolved into a developer platform.

Task A should have been easy: José called his universe #22 and modelled a chief protagonist, who he named NoLion Hadebe a.k.a ‘The Antichrist’. He included in NoLion’s profile some sketchy back-story. NoLion’s external design, his appearance, was based on a character in a painting by a Cienfuegos, a 21st century Chilean artist, but it was NoLion’s internal design that was going to take time. For months, José had been developing code for what he termed ‘psychological mirroring’. His goal was to enable his characters to become self-reflective in a fashion that almost perfectly mimicked human consciousness. The exam did not require it, but José didn’t give a toss about that – this was revolutionary. The night before the exam he’d made a small but vital revision to the mirroring algorithm and he believed he had finally perfected this string of artificial intelligence.

It was a monster algorithm though, and coding it properly into every character would slow José’s progress through the alphabet of exam tasks.

There would be flaws aplenty, but José was determined to try, regardless of the consequences; that day he felt like a god, and when did any god ever let a few glitches deter the production of a grand plan?

The Discovery of Numbers

It was not a good day to go missing, even for an unlikable person, even for the Antichrist in an abandoned universe of incomplete codes. When NoLion closed his eyes he had a vision of feet: maybe they were his, maybe not, and some unknowable hand was painting the balls of those feet in black, a very theatrical shade. Sleep wanted him to stay in bed, but life wanted him up and he would obey, but not before saying a prayer for the day, out of habit, out of fear. He was, after all, a priest, although he was more famous for being a troublemaker. The wind, the fierce South-Easter was picking up outside, and he dreaded its demonic wail and its wild strength. At times, it seemed like the wind knew his sins and wanted to strip him and shame him in public.

NoLion groaned, his eyes flickered shut and in the dark of memory he saw the cover of an old mathematics text book, one created to drill times-tables into his head, a task he had loathed at school. A door somewhere down the passage blew open and closed in a repeating loop. In the oak trees over his home, leaves dried by the heat of summer shook together and the sound, he thought, was like sand rushing through the waist of an hourglass. That sky he could see beyond the curtain was too beautiful, too blue to exist, but it did, and was empty until a traffic helicopter broke into its peace.

On the FOR-screen, a note flashed to inform NoLion that his anti-virus software was all in good order. Even with protection, though, NoLion would not be able to avoid the accident waiting for him.

He stretched and made a last effort to pretend the world beyond his bed and life as an accountant did not exist. His head filled with the voice of a teacher talking about composite numbers and semi-primes and divisors and aliquot sums. ‘Very well,’ NoLion said to the ceiling, ‘up we get, it’s going to be an important day.’ The ceiling did not respond; this did not stop NoLion discussing more how much he hated work, and how he wanted another job. ‘Bleak Mondays,’ was the last thing he said to the ceiling before he turned the sheet back and rolled out of bed. There he sat, staring at the clothes he planned to put on for that auspicious day. ‘It’s a pity they’re so crumpled,’ he said, this time addressing the coat-hanger he ought to have put the clothes on instead of abandoning them on the floor as he undressed.

‘NoLiion!’ Came a voice from the bathroom. ‘Get up or you won’t have time for breakfast. NoLiiion!’

‘Coming, Ma.’ He blinked. ‘I mean, Marcy.’ He slumped forward and rubbed his eyes. ‘My wife has turned into my mother,’ he said to his knees. But then, via some code fault, the lights flickered, the room altered and Kristina, not Marcy, came wandering in, and she was naked. ‘Or maybe not,’ said NoLion admiring the flawless, smooth beige of her skin and her long hair, which hung loose. She pushed the electric-blue curtains open and beyond the wrought-iron railing was a view of the city and a mosque and the turquoise river. Kristina’s thighs and one breast were reflected in the standing mirror. She was massaging cold-cream into the skin of her face.

NoLion gathered his clothes off the floor. It was too hot a day for a suit and a tie, but what choice did he have? If he’d gone home last night, home to Marcy, then perhaps he would have more options, but the depth of the sky’s blue told him the day was already too advanced for a trip back home. And what if Marcy was there? He’d have to lie and say he’d been at work all night. He was a man of morals: he knew it was wrong to lie; god knows he preached it to his congregation often enough. That’s right, he was a priest, not an accountant! Perhaps Monday would not be so bleak after all? When he put on his wire-framed spectacles, the beige of Kristina’s skin became less perfect – it had hairs, freckles. She turned to look at him.

‘Will you visit me in Argentina some time?’ Her eyebrows were arched, plucked artfully. Even with the detail of flaws, she was a beauty.

NoLion lit a cigarette. ‘Maybe,’ he inhaled, ‘but work is a problem, but adultery is also a problem. Maybe your husband will kill me.’ He noticed a woman in the opposite block was staring. ‘The people across the road can see you.’

‘And so? Should I care? Do you think in this universe it matters at all if I am seen naked? Does it even register on a scale of insignificance?’

He pulled on his jockeys and black trousers and zipped up his fly. ‘You have weak moral programming.’ He put on a white shirt.

She giggled and swept up his yellow tie, which looped around his neck. ‘And you, my darling Antichrist, have a wonderful sense of humour.’ She tightened his tie.

‘Why do you call me that? I’m a priest, it’s improper, don’t you think?’

‘Spending all night fucking your best friend’s wife is improper – it didn’t stop you from doing it, though.’ She walked away across a geometric rug in shades of yellow and purple. She returned to the window, so the woman in the opposite block could see her rubbing lotion into her legs and over her torso.

NoLion sat on the edge of the bed, with his back to her and slipped on his shoes. ‘I’m a priest for the Church of Africa, and a freedom fighter. I have led marches against corrupt governments. People respect me. I am a good man; it is uncouth of you to persist with that nickname. Antichrist? Do you call all your lovers the Antichrist, is that it?’

In full view of the world, Kristina began a yoga routine, the sun salutation. ‘Only you. There is only one true Antichrist and it is you.’

‘Stop it! Stop calling me that. It’s just plain bloody unseemly.’

She looked sideways at him from her downward-dog position. ‘Unseemly would be if you stuck your dick into my cunt from behind while I was doing my routine.’

He coughed, choking on a mouthful of smoke. ‘There’s no time now, I have to get to work.’ As he passed her, he gave her bottom a playful slap and collected the only item of his clothing not until recently on the floor: his jacket; it had been hanging on the brass knob of a tall chest of drawers.

‘Stay with me. It’s my last day.’ She stood up and pressed herself against him, but he was in too much of a hurry to respond to her hard nipples and caresses, and when she realised this she frowned, and gave a snort. ‘Fine. Maybe you will never see me again, but go, go to work, Antichrist.’

‘Don’t be difficult, don’t be so childish and for the last time, please, stop calling me that.’

She narrowed her eyes. ‘I know the future, and I know you will never see me again, and that you are, without doubt, the Antichrist.’

‘You should see a psychiatrist.’

To this, she only smiled an impossibly magnetic smile and drew him near, pulling at his yellow silk tie. She kissed him and looked at him. ‘Your eyes are small.’ She touched the tip of his nose. ‘Your nose is bulbous.’ She stroked, with her index finger, from under his lips, over a dimple, then down his neck to the point where his white collar took over from his skin. ‘And one day you will have a double chin.’

‘Is that the best curse you can manage?’

Her violet eyes darkened with fury, but her smile stayed in place. ‘You’re excellent at temptation, Antichrist, but I’m not squandering any more energy on you. Go, and don’t come back.’ She walked back to the window.

The march of time was unrelenting; he considered a last fuck, but had to get to work. ‘Women.’ NoLion shook his head and found his way out.

Or rather didn’t. What he was convinced was the door to the street turned out to be a door to another apartment, a gaping, open-plan affair.

It had been dark when they arrived, the building was something of a warren, but when he twisted the handle and pushed, it opened. But not onto a road, as expected. Instead, he walked in on a well-dressed and hatted couple with two children and a dog, all enjoying a large roasted turkey for breakfast. And champagne too. The dog looked at NoLion, but did not growl. A girl with her hair tied in two bunches and stained with green paint also stared at him.

‘Where am I?’

The child stared without replying. Another child came through the room wheeling a bicycle. NoLion rubbed his temples where a headache was beginning to form. ‘Pardon me,’ he said in the direction of the couple. The African signor in pin-striped trousers turned.

‘Oh, are we expecting visitors, Esperanza?’

The woman yawned and regarded NoLion with some surprise. ‘Not him.’

‘I’m lost, I’m terribly sorry I have no idea how I got here.’

The man chuckled. ‘None of us really do. Some of us pretend to. Would you like a glass of champagne?’ He stabbed a substantial carving knife into the turkey breast, where it lodged comfortably, and left the man’s hands free to top up champagne glasses.

It was a good brand, proper French stuff. ‘Ah, that’s kind of you, considering I’m a stranger, but no, I’m late for work. I must go. Sorry. Thank you, though … can you tell me how to get out of this place?’

A gurgle of laughter welled up from the man’s mouth. He twisted his little black moustache. ‘If I knew, I would not be here eating this bloody turkey.’ He flapped his pumpkin and khaki striped tie. ‘Only the code-maker knows where the exits are.’

The white dog, a bull-terrier with a black patch above his left eye, sauntered over to sniff NoLion’s trousers. Being excessively fond of dogs, NoLion couldn’t resist ruffling the creature’s ears and rubbing its snout. ‘Look I’ve got to get out of here. If I’m late for work, I’ll be in deep shit.’

‘You’re sure about that?’

‘Yes! The gods know it, this day is going so badly. Look, tell me where I can find the code-maker.’

The green-haired daughter burped and NoLion caught a whiff of turkey on her breath. ‘No-one can ever find the code-maker, silly,’ she said.

‘And why is that, young lady?’

‘Because the code-maker is in a different space.’

‘Well! Where is that space, that room? I must go there.’

‘No. You can’t,’ said the woman, who wore a yellow dress. ‘The code-maker’s space is not a room, and so you cannot ever get to it through any room.’

‘It is our lot in this irrational universe,’ said the man, taking off his hat to preen his slick black hair, and then he laughed. ‘So why not have some champagne and turkey while we all wait for the Antichrist to come along and put us out of our misery?’

Hearing that word again made NoLion uncomfortable. ‘And how would the Antichrist do that?’

‘By destroying the universe, I suppose, or maybe killing off every one of us poor sods afflicted with the disease of self-awareness.’ The signor shrugged. ‘But what do I know? I’m just a DJ from a township in the imploded first world.’

‘My girlfriend told me this morning that I’m the Antichrist. Is that possible?’

The man reached for the carving knife and slivered white meat from the roasted bird’s breast. ‘Let me think,’ he said, laying the thinly cut meat onto his tongue.

‘What’s there to think about?’ His wife in the long yellow frock asked the signor: ‘Surely, there is one thing you need above all else if you are to be in line for the role of Antichrist, and that is the ability to kill without conscience?’ She turned to face NoLion. ‘Most of us around here are coded to find murder extremely difficult, even if the person who dies does it willingly, but for the Antichrist, assassinations must come easily as sipping champagne.’

NoLion looked at the carving knife sticking out of the turkey. ‘You’re saying if I could walk over to the turkey, take the knife and slit all five,’ he remembered the dog, ‘all five of your throats, then I’d be in line for the role?’

‘Yes, yes! Indeed.’ The signor and his wife agreed heartily, and clinked their glasses, happy at resolving at least that problem.

NoLion scratched behind his ear, adjusted his glasses and walked towards the turkey. He stood over it, looking at the glistening skin, plump, well plucked and golden. ‘Smells good,’ he said, reaching for the carving knife. Once he had it in his hand, he admired its weight; it had a blade of very fine quality, and an ornate titanium hilt on which was engraved the number twenty-two. He lifted his gaze from the knife to meet the dapper signor’s stare. ‘I don’t understand though, why you think an Antichrist would be a saviour of sorts. How does that work?’

‘Oh, silly,’ the wife tut-tutted, ‘we’re coded to think that; we don’t know how it works, we just know it is: faith, you see. I have books about it: when the Antichrist comes to destroy everything, we will at last be free of the constraints of this room, and we will return to the pure pre-atomic state of numbers.’

NoLion’s brow crumpled his face. ‘You’re saying the reason you exist is to not-exist?’ He shook his head. ‘How pointless. That alone is enough to make me want to kill you.’

And so he did, and it was easy. While all five members (save the white dog) of the stranger family were bleeding into death, NoLion realised his purpose in the universe, but he did not feel particularly excited at the prospect of being the Antichrist. It was early, he was still tired, and actually, he would rather have gone back to bed. ‘How depressing,’ he said in the direction of the white dog. ‘Come here. Be my dog.’

The dog barked and trotted over to NoLion. He patted her.‘Let’s go.’ They walked out of that room, and along the corridor, until they came to another door. With some trepidation, NoLion opened it. ‘A desert?’ He and the dog stepped inside a room with a red sky at far-off horizons. It was filled with sand. In the middle stood an antique car, guarded by soldiers who had a distinctly colonial look about them. A man on a horse galloped up to NoLion.

‘Say, fellow, you’re not by any chance the Antichrist are you?’ The horseman had red eyebrows.

‘And if I am?’

‘By Jove, it would be a grand relief. We’ve been waiting for as long as I can remember for the arrival of the Antichrist, but the Antichrist never comes. And I for one am dying for a cup of tea.’

‘What makes you think the arrival of the Antichrist will in any way get you to a cup of tea?’

‘No, no… ’The horseman stretched his arms above his head, then to the right and then to the left, as if doing some form of exercise. ‘When the Antichrist is done with us, tea will be irrelevant to me; I will no longer be plagued with this wretched thirst, and I’ll be shot of this desert and this room.’ The horseman beamed at the thought.

‘You people are infuriating. Pathetic. Get me a gun then, and I’ll kill you all.’ NoLion shook his head, impatient with idiocy of his role in life.

‘Excellent,’ said the horseman, ‘I’ll be back now with a bazooka.’

While he waited, NoLion re-lit his pipe (did he have a pipe before? Well he did now), and looked in the direction he felt was ‘out’, and said to the code-maker, whom he assumed must be able to hear him, ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this? I want to resign from this Antichrist job.’ He looked for a chink in the red sky or some evidence that the unfeeling code-maker who had fathered him was paying attention. ‘You hear me? Can you hear me? Give me a sign or something. This is all so bloody pointless. I just don’t understand.’

Then a wind came up, and the sand beneath NoLion’s feet blew away revealing a tablet, upon which was a list. The horseman with red eyebrows returned with the promised weapon of destruction.

‘Ah! I see you have discovered the Parishaha-Jaya.’

‘What?’

‘We’re Jains in this room.’ The horseman dismounted and went to stand beside NoLion. ‘These are our twenty-two sufferings.’ He handed NoLion the bazooka. ‘Kill me first, would you please?’

NoLion obliged, and then read the tablet of sufferings from hunger at one, to lack of faith at twenty-two. ‘This is a godforsaken bloody place,’ he said to the white dog. ‘So who wants to die next?’

Postscript

‘Time’s up!’ The professor stood. He folded the pricey newspaper: they had become fashionable again among people who hankered for the days of printed media. ‘Please ensure you have saved your universe onto the mainframe. Unsaved work will score zero.’

José sighed. He’d made it through all the tasks except Z. It meant his game, his universe had no resolution: it would loop eternally without end. He would lose marks for that, but he hoped the mirroring algorithm, if it worked, would score him serious bonus points.

He turned off Esperanza and, exhausted after eight hours of universe-building, left the lab and headed home to go to bed, to sleep, perhaps to dream of his poor man NoLion, the unwilling Antichrist.

Copyright © 2011 by Alex Smith

Alex Smith’s third novel Four Drunk Beauties was published in South Africa by Random House’s African Imprint, Umuzi and in 2011 it was given the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. In 2010, she won the Sanlam Youth Literature award for the novella „Agency Blue’“and her short story „Soulmates“ was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. She was born in South Africa, has lived for short spells in London, Wuhan, Taipei and Chiang Mai, but is happy to be resident again in Cape Town. She’s looking for a literary agent.

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