The device scanned her skin and logged her on to the Universe.
‘Safo: English, French, Mauritian Kreol? Good evening. Is there anything you wish to learn today? Is there anything you wish to see – is there – is –’ Safo flicked through the different options until she got to the world map.
‘Safo, do you wish to send a message to the Universe?’
‘Yes, yes, yes.’
‘What is your message, please?’
Safo didn’t need her piece of paper anymore, but she clambered for it in the dark, just in case.
‘Hello, Universe. Greetings. This is Safo Therese, from Port Louis, Mauritius. Our country has been devastated by natural and man-made disasters. We lack food, but most importantly medicine and healthcare. We no longer receive medical supplies, and doctors are extremely scarce. We need aid, to fortify our defences against the weather. We are already in cyclone season. Eagerly awaiting a reply, yours sincerely, Safo.’
‘Error.’ And then: ‘Safo: English, French, Mauritian –’.
‘There are more important things you should be doing,’ Elise murmured. She was busy mapping coordinates, not keeping any hope where the Universe was concerned. They had already set up their surveillance space, blankets, solar lamp, thermos. Safo had her khat tea ready.
The McDonalds they used as their viewpoint must have been the prettiest fast food joint in the world, once upon a time. It had the best positioning, among all the waterfront shops and restaurants: high enough to give customers a view of the whole harbour whilst they ate their beatific Happy Meals. The waterfront had been deserted ever since the spills. Safo imagined people walking about like they used to, shopping and laughing and forgetting everything else until their credit cards were refused. Then one day, a smell that travelled over the water. A sheet of black mucus, excreting a substance that seared lungs. Ten years on and she could still feel it, the fire rot.
‘The two A-BIOTs are still here,’ Elise said, adding a cross to her map. ‘And the five INDIA MILITARY FLEET, about 500 metres away from the A-BIOTs.’ For the past three months, it was the same thing. The ships moved incrementally, a snail’s dance around each other.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Just look around. Tell me if you see anything different from the last time.’ It was cute, the way Elise tried to give her some importance during surveillance. Safo knew she was just a bodyguard at night: couldn’t read a compass, couldn’t sketch for shit. Bodyguard and sleeper-stopper. Tonight was going to be especially difficult: down on the Church’s stone floor they had rested for a while, after submitting their report to the Council, but whatever hours they had clocked weren’t enough. Elise’s hands were slower than usual, fumbling.
They had spent a whole week in Tamarin: talking to families, stripping facts from grief, condensing narratives down to a fifty-page report. Once again, they had been sent as a salve. Radjiv had said something like, ‘Women are always better at comforting other women, no?’ Had there been any women in the Tamarin Council, this wouldn’t have happened. What did he think: with a handshake and a few pats on the shoulder, the widows would be okay? Some of them couldn’t speak, some shook, confused. Unable to accept the Council’s orders, unable to question their religious devotion, unable to love their husbands any less. These were the wives of the fishermen who killed themselves by the sea, on the balconies of abandoned villas, on concrete seawalls. The region’s Council members ordered that the men’s bodies be thrown into the lagoon, no burials for undignified deaths. The wives hadn’t even seen the corpses after they were taken down. The women were asked to confess themselves, to admit to any wrongdoing, any pressure they may have put on their husbands. Any nagging. Word got up to the High Council. Then Radjiv summoned the girls, told them they’d be taking the tram to Tamarin that evening. The girls went door-to-door, harbingers of the good news: the husbands were forgiven by the Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Tamil powers that be. The whole Religious Council apologized for what had happened. These women received their blessings with stiffly nodded heads. Of course, the girls would also have to write a report on the situation: possible start date of the suicides, number of deaths so far, name, age, registered religion, possible motives. Nothing exceptional. It was all common knowledge: the suicides began at the time of the Deal, when the government sold the island’s waters to the American-British Indian Ocean Territory for fracking. The world’s resources had to be expertly managed, but no one could have possibly foreseen the oil spills, the progressive death of ecosystems. Safo’s unwritten conclusion: the sea burial was the purpose of the suicides, to go back, even though back meant dead coral and no fish. Whatever survived in those waters would nibble at them until there was nothing. Maybe they would float south, to the Antarctic Ocean. Or perhaps the petrol would gelatine their corpses. The fishermen wouldn’t make it past the rigs at Tromelin, the drilling stations, the permanently posted ships. They wouldn’t have minded. The sea had already contaminated them: the petrol in the fish, the acid in the water that burned their skin, the other things they couldn’t name and didn’t know, that caused them to rot from the inside out.
Elise cracked her neck. ‘Where are the pillows?’
‘Merde. They must still be outside the house.’ Elise had erupted in hives when they had arrived back home. Some birds had pecked through the fencing over the windows, others had smashed their way in. Anything to escape the 50-degree heat.
She waved Safo’s words away with a ‘doesn’t matter, don’t worry,’ and leaned back against an overturned table.
‘I’m just… I’m just going to take a little break, okay?’
Elise closed her eyes, angled her neck until she was comfortable.
‘Hey. I didn’t tell you the worst part of this morning,’ Elise said proudly.
‘I spared you the worst sight. Some of the birds came in when they smelled the dead birds in the house, I think. They had bits of their bodies missing, the more decomposed ones. I think they ate each other? Ayo. Dégeulasse. I swept them all up.’
‘Bravo. That’s it?’
Elise made a lazy swatting motion in Safo’s direction.
‘Should’ve let you clean it. You keep telling me I’m not tough. You would have thrown up.’ Safo couldn’t bother to disagree. Her muscles still ached after they had scoured the floor with vinegar, taken the mattress, pillows, furniture outside to be cleansed by the sun. The smell of the feathers and vinegar felt tattooed at the back of her throat. She wanted to retch, coughed up some phlegm instead.
‘Hey… we put the drawer back though, right?’
‘Did we… did we ever take it out?’ Safo’s family heirlooms were in there: faded snapshots of palm trees that grew in curves, their fronds always dipped in the cobalt lagoon. Sepia-toned ancestral tombstones
‘I’m going to trust it’s in its place.’ Elise’s voice seemed to come from the other side of the harbour. Safo’s mouth felt hot, sticky, like the fumes which rose on the tarmac after torrential rain. She imagined her mouth filled with them, curling from her throat, escaping from her eyes.
‘Yes, it was outside. We put the drawer out because the birds shat all over it. Hey, are you okay? You’re not speaking to me. How are you feeling?’
‘Just resting, too, and in case you hadn’t noticed, fucking exhausted.’
‘So much for the bodyguard.’
‘Listen, can we take it in turns tonight? Or… or it doesn’t matter, I’ll just close my eyes for fifteen minutes, then I’ll drink the khat. Is that okay?’
Elise patted her on the head, and with a grunt made her way back to her desk.
She shook Safo awake at about one in the morning. The ships still bore the same coordinates. Safo rubbed the sticky residue from her eyes, amazed at how quickly it formed in just an hour. She poured tea from her thermos, watched Elise eat the bitter gourd leftovers from lunch. Her face bobbed a few times as she chewed. By the time Safo had removed the bowl from her hands, her head was slumped forward in sleep’s assent.
‘Your turn. Aller, go sleep where I was just now. My table’s nicer than your table.’
Elise collapsed against the hard red plastic. ‘Safo, there’s one more thing I heard–’
‘You’ve told me the Tamarin thing enough times today.’ Elise was out. Probably fell asleep mid-sentence.
Safo took the binoculars, made the necessary checks. There was no one on the waterfront. There was never anyone.
Time for her arbitrary mathematics.‘2042 minus one hundred, 1942. October, the 10th month. 10 plus 1942, 1952. 20th of October. 1952 plus 20. 1972. Universe. Show me the recommended films made in 1972.’
Her uWatch projected the search results on the McDonald’s tricolour walls. Safo had already seen Planet of the Apes and The Godfather: when the girls were first assigned surveillance duty, they watched all the films on the Universe’s Top 100 Old-Time Classics list.
‘Universe. Play Solaris.’
She draped the blanket over her arms while the Universe played the pre-film adverts. You could see things like shape-shifting dome structures, garden towers, transparent and multiform. The ads for weather-resistant cities recurred the most: they were filmed in 56-degree heat, in cyclones, in flooding. The camera would pan to the faces of children, palms stuck to the windows of the dome cities, mesmerised by nature’s wrath before them.
At four, Safo pinched Elise’s waist.
‘Nothing’s happening, but I feel weird. Also, the movie’s finished.’
‘Mm. Why do you feel weird?’ Elise’s words came out in clumps.
‘About what you said, before. About me vomiting if I saw the birds.’
‘But you would.’
‘Before you get any ideas about my bravery… do you know why I don’t think you’re tough?’
‘You believed in Tuni Minwi, Minis Prins and the whole carnival of ghost demon sorcerers until I told you they don’t exist.’
‘My mother saw Tuni Minwi, I tell you,’ Elise slurred, eyes like knife slits.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself. After all you’ve seen. If the dead were to come back don’t you think they would have returned by now?’
‘So what, you want me to tell you that you’re brave and I’m not? Fine.’ She got up and stretched.
‘I didn’t say that.’
Elise hmph-ed, and sat back down again.
‘Oh my God, don’t fall asleep again.’
Elise shook her head in reply. ‘You know, maybe I was a coward before. But now,’ she smiled, knowing how irritating her next phrase would be, and pleased she had come up with it, ‘but now I feel like my feelings have been cut away.’
‘I’m just wondering when exactly were they cut away, since it’s been less than 24 hours since you’ve cried.’
‘You would have cried if you heard the screaming.’
‘Ayo. Stop with that! Enough!’
‘I don’t see the bodies in my head, but I can hear that sound again and again.’
‘Like a bad song.’
‘That’s it, keep not taking me seriously. We’ll go back to Tamarin next week and I’ll show you and then you’ll know. You would have cried, too, after. I felt like someone took my intestines and shook and clawed at them, but that I only felt the pain afterwards.’
‘I keep telling you, it’s not possible, your story. Besides, you only heard them. You didn’t see anything. It could have been cats in heat.’
‘Ugh! I’m not going to talk to you anymore.’
There were some non-hysterical deductions that could be made from Elise’s story, but Safo couldn’t possibly tell them to her. They were nine when the first Recalling happened, when the national television station broadcast French expats taking planes home. Some were crying as they left their houses. There was a documentary on one of the families – she remembered one boy saying goodbye to his kitesurfing equipment, something ridiculous like that. Completely plausible, that the rich foreigners who were left shut themselves up in their gated communities. They rarely mixed with locals anyway, before all the petrol and the politics, when terrorism was the big thing everyone was worried about.
Outside each community was a small sign proclaiming ‘Europa.’ The Tamarin people had taken Elise to a hill nearby, to hear the mass the residents held for themselves three times a day. Safo wouldn’t have believed any of it, if it weren’t for the chants Elise flawlessly sang back to her, a perverted Gloria in Excelsis Deo:
We stem from the majestic European race
We did not heed the calls from our Mother
We shall be Recalled again
We too shall go Home
To be with our Mother
The singing was just too bizarre. Europa were a legitimate political organisation now, with at least four members in each parliament across North America and Western Europe. One of the founders had come to Mauritius on holiday, very long ago – Le Pen? There were local links, as absurd as it seemed. But not a religion, never a religion.
‘Hey, are you listening? Hey. I don’t even think they have a collective organisation, it’s not possible, you know? In the Europa communities. Not everyone living there is a French expat. There are – there must be – some South Africans, poor Franco-Mauritians who couldn’t leave.’
‘But they’re all white.’ The Tamarin people were convinced there was a slavery operation going on there. People had gone missing. Elise repeatedly swore on the cross that she had heard brief, intermittent screaming.
‘And all their ancestors had slaves.’
‘Yes, but that’s just too much. To think of something like this. Too much.’ Safo pinched Elise’s arm. ‘You’re lucky I’m not your mother. I would have slapped your nonsense straight out of your brain.’ She flicked Elise’s temple.
‘And look at you, all logical with your equipment. You are clever. Act clever.’ Elise looked down. Safo grabbed her chin, pulled her face up again, snorting. ‘Are you angry?’
Big black eyes with two hyper-dilated pupils, red veins and yellow stains that she could clearly see, even in this light, even as Elise did her best to look away. Big lips forming a thin line now that she was upset.
‘Merde, you’re angry with me. I’m sorry.’ She reached forward for Elise, tumbled on her as she gave her a hug.
‘Merde.’ They both forced out a laugh.
‘Okay, now you get to make fun of me.’ Safo stood up, spun around like a ceiling fan.
‘Tell me this, you, little girl, wielder of the compass who knows everything. Which way is home?’
‘You tell me!’
Safo pointed south.
‘Ha! So the girl who mocks me doesn’t know where her own house is.’
‘Show me then.’
‘Okay, spin. Wait – slower, slo-wer – stop!’ Safo pointed southwest, to scorched hills, to stacked tin houses, to corner stores where you could get some hair mayonnaise from the 2000s, Chinese fans, woven plastic baskets. To the men perpetually playing dominos on the floor outside those stores, white bone bouncing on cement. To the streets where they ballet-stepped over used needles, red nails. To the jaundiced flora bordering those streets, vomiting over the tarmac road. They took turns pointing to where their families lived, to the different towns they had visited recently. Safo grossly missed the mark each time, to Elise’s satisfied shrieks.
‘How on earth, after nineteen years of life, did you think that Curepipe was east?’
Safo collapsed on Elise’s lap. ‘It’s nice to act young sometimes.’
‘Because we’ve seen too much shit?’
Safo dropped her voice, let the solar lamp dance around her cheekbones. ‘We’ll see more shit soon.’
Elise’s grin widened, happy to rehash an old fight. ‘And then you tell me my Tamarin story is too much. Your theory is insane.’
‘But you agree with me now, on certain things. When they first came I told you that we all should be cautious of them, when they first arrived for the petrol. The boats always said A-BIOT, never company names. Always American-British Indian Ocean Territory.’
Elise shrugged. ‘Your hate for them blinds you to everything. And so what, if they developed other intentions? The point is, they’re here, they know how we are suffering. They’re going to do something about it, one day or the other. They can’t keep extracting petrol and ignore us.’
‘But then why lie? Why kill the lagoon? We all know they don’t need the petrol anymore. Nothing runs on petrol in their countries. Everything is green or nuclear.’
‘Why don’t you understand! At first, maybe they needed the petrol. You keep telling me how Americans are like that. It doesn’t matter if things are useless.’ The girls had seen the printing devices that could create anything, like a God. ‘Maybe they are just keeping stock.’
‘It worries me, that fighting for useless petrol makes sense to you.’
‘It worries me, that you still can’t read a compass.’
They both laughed.
When she was a child, Safo thought her life was a perpetually-unfurling question mark, one bracketed in happy parameters. She didn’t know where, but she would travel. She would have an old-time, good-time job, a lawyer, a businesswoman, an accountant. Now everything seemed fixed by people she would never know or understand, except through violence. A gun to her back: maybe time really is repetition, as the Hindus say. A circle. She would be evicted from her island the way her mother was evicted from hers. A double exile.
‘It worries me, that you don’t take my point seriously. Petrol is useless to them, a base is not. You’re right, they like excess. They collect military bases like it’s Monopoly. Twenty years ago, the A-BIOT had 1,000 bases around the world. Do you know how many they have now? Two thousand, one hundred and forty-three. Two thousand, one hundred and forty-three. Radjiv told me.’
‘I don’t agree. It makes no sense. Also, why are all the other ships here, then, if it’s not for the petrol? Huh? What about the India Military Fleet?’
‘You don’t have to agree!’ Safo was ashamed as she felt the anger acid rising within her. Repetition didn’t dull anything. The thought of that worked her up even more.
‘They’re not fighting over who owns what share of petrol. They’re not sitting in their ships calculating how much our ex-government owed to this country or that country. They’re fighting over who gets to claim the island as their military base.’
She could see Elise still giggling, thinking Safo was pretend-upset. Elise rolled her eyes. ‘They have all the others, I don’t see why they need a tiny island.’
‘They don’t need two thousand-plus military bases around the world, but they still built them. They didn’t need to sweep the islands clean of inhabitants when they built their base on Diego Garcia, but they decontaminated Chagos anyway.’
‘That’s a different story, and by the way it happened seventy-five years ago.’
‘It’s always the same story. And the story is always about control. These are the men who do not sleep. These are the men who do not die. You’ll see.’
Elise’s face changed. She shifted a little further away.
‘They’ve already started cutting our food imports. They’ll cut them more and more. They’ll blame it on the turbulent sea near where the Maldives used to be. They’ll say boats were lost. They will send us a nice warning at first, pretend to act for our interests. Tell us about the new homes they have waiting for us, somewhere safe. They’ll bring their boats. And then, for those who don’t want to leave, they’ll bring their guns.’ Elise was back at her table, mapping stagnant bearings, creating stick-shaped flower designs with her equipment. Safo scrambled over to the ledge like a dog, bent over and coughed until she retched some blood. She watched it splat onto the oily water. Head propped on the ledge, she breathed in slowly, absorbed the intergalactic mess above. Space travel was seventy-three decades old. Her kind of people wouldn’t be able to go up there.‘You’re biased because Chagos is your story, I understand.’ Elise spoke with her back still turned. ‘But still, okay, let’s imagine that they are just about to evacuate us. That the soldiers and navy people are coming very soon. Whatever their reasons, you can’t possibly think it’s not a good thing. They won’t need the guns. Tell me, who wants to stay here? Everything is ruined. We have nothing.’
A chain link of destruction. The rising sea, the eroding beaches, the collapse of tourism. The ban on air travel. The Deal to save the economy. The spills. The Recallings. The New Borders. The Alliances. The supplies that arrived by boat, always too little. A perfect domino effect.
‘It’s still home. If they wanted to help us, they could send us proper things to rebuild our lives.’
‘Home is a place where we eat bitter gourd each day. And what, you think they’ll just ship over a cyclone-resistant city to us? How on earth are people supposed to rebuild anything here?’
‘Mauritians will never understand.’
‘Weren’t you born here? Didn’t you just say it’s home?’
‘A clever girl like you doesn’t know about collective memory?’
‘And even if the theory is shit, don’t you think there is a difference when you leave with the option to come back, and being forced to leave? Yes, I was born here. Even I don’t know Chagossian sagren. I never felt it like they did. The grief that killed them and drove them mad. Perhaps this will be our fate, there. Wherever they send us.’
‘Perhaps, perhaps not.’ Elise huddled back towards her. ‘You should really be thankful. No more nothing. I’m convinced that they can’t deal with it anymore, our faces on their Universe screens, whenever they search for us. Maybe a sense of responsibility, finally.’ Elise put an arm over Safo’s shoulders.
‘But why don’t the messages go through, then?’
Elise shrugged. ‘Technical glitch? They are here to save us. Just accept it, for once. That people can still be nice. That they can give us a better life.’Elise exhaled. ‘Listen. Don’t start screaming. I didn’t know how I was going to bring it up with you, but I overheard Radjiv today in the Church, talking to some people. Some officers are coming tomorrow, along with a priest or a pastor, I think, I’m not sure. They’re going to discuss how they’re going to organize our big Recalling. Now I think this is what I heard, but I’m not sure.’ Taking Safo’s silence as a good sign, Elise continued. ‘You had better start adopting a positive attitude, in any case, because it’s starting tomorrow.’
‘Ah.’ And so the question-mark had finally become a full-stop. A flashing dot in the ocean.
‘There was some logistics talk. The Council will spread the word in all the churches, temples, mosques. They’ll ask for volunteers to help with the process.’
The sky was still clear. The temperature must have dropped.
‘And if it reassures you in the slightest, I heard nothing about the base, or even petrol. It’s like I said: they’ve finally decided to help.’
‘We’ve both heard the way the A-BIOT talk about us, same way they talked about the Chagossians. Primitive. Backwards. We should be left behind, because we don’t drive flying cars and can’t afford to go to space. We haven’t seen ourselves from a hotel on the moon, so we lack perspective. You think they’ll be nice to us on their ships? You’re dreaming.’ She could see herself speaking to Elise; measured voice, relaxed tone.
Elise smiled, pinched the bridge of her nose in mock-exasperation.
‘Ask the Universe. Go on. You want me to do it? Fine: Universe. What is there on the Chagos Archipelago. Now, look.’
A naval officer had been blogging about his time in Chagos for over two decades. The blog posts had been scarce of late, but that didn’t matter. His point of view, his knowledge on the island was as ingrained in his worldview as his American exceptionalism.
Safo adopted her very best accent:‘The toughest thing I had to get used to: the sheer isolation of the place, I mean literally–’ she enjoyed it, the way Americans produced vowels from their stomach like a growl, their lazy tongues articulating words so different from the click-clack of Kreol. ‘–in the middle of the Indian Ocean. You don’t drink and feel sorry for yourself, you take correspondence courses, learn how to windsurf, get your ass in shape. You are on Paradise Island. For sure, some folks think it’s a non-stop party, but remember: if you can’t control yourself, yo-ou’re iin trou-ble!’
They laughed for a bit, Elise doing her own impression. One hour until dawn.
‘They never mentioned the natives, did they? Even before.’ They both knew it wasn’t a question but skimmed through the blog posts anyway, going as far back as 1999. There was nothing. There would be nothing. Pilger’s documentary vanished from the Universe three years ago. Newspaper articles, too. It wasn’t an erasure, since nothing had truly been marked in the first place. Decades ago, whatever was concealed fragmented into dust, a narrative that no longer existed. Dust to dust. They would wrench the photos from her once she was on board. They would burn, dust to dust.
‘Hey, I’ve realized something. This whole thing means that you could ask to go back,’ Elise said with great pride. ‘If they are rescuing us, they could drop you anywhere, no?’It took Safo a while to make sense of this.
‘You don’t even know where they are going. And there’s no way that that’s even a possibility.’
‘If they erased all the stuff on Chagos, they erased the stuff on the ban. Plus you’re registered as Mauritian. You could ask to go back.’
Safo didn’t want to think anymore.
‘Even if they don’t take us to their countries… you think I’m naïve? Maybe they have an agreement with the African cities. Lagos. Nairobi. They have robots. Over there, lots of people don’t need to work anymore.’ Elise closed her eyes and smiled. ‘I want to see robots.’
‘They’re not how you think they are.’
‘It doesn’t matter. They are more developed, whatever they have.’
Elise went back to her bearings, her final markings. There was no wind, so you could hear the pulsing sound of the ships, some kind of signal that they sent out there, into the void.