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SHORT STORY Unathi Battles The Black Hairballs by Lauren Beukes

As part of the SFX Summer Of SF Reading, here’s a short story from this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner

Lauren Beukes is, quite simply, one of the hottest writers around today. And we don’t just mean among SF authors. She’s the kind of writer who gets attention from the mainstream press, mentions on arty programmes on Radio 4 and was even congratulated on her success in the South African Parliament. Her debut novel Moxyland was published in the UK by Angry Robot in 2009 to rave reviews. Her second novel, Zoo City , won the Arthur C Clarke Award and had even ravier reviews. The heroine of Zoo City , Zinzi, is named in the current issue of SFX as one of the 20 Greatest Heroes of SF Literature.

And here’s a chance to savour some of her considerable writing skills

Unathi Battles The Black Hairballs

by Lauren Beukes

Unathi was singing karaoke when the creature attacked Tokyo. Or rather, she was about to sing karaoke. Was, in fact, about to be the very first person in Shibuya’s Big Echo to break in the newly uploaded Britney come-back hip-hop remix of the Spice Girls’ classic ‘Tell Me What You Want (What You Really Really Want)’.

It was, admittedly, early in the day to be breaking out the microphone, but Unathi was on shore leave, and the truth was that she and the rest of Saiko Squadron weren’t up early so much as they were still going from last night, lubricated on a slick of sake that ran from here to Tokohama.

Unathi stepped up onto the table in their private booth, briefly giving her madoda a flash of white briefs under her pleated miniskirt. When she was on duty as Flight Sergeant of the squadron, she kept strictly to her maroon and grey flightsuit or the casual comfort of her military-issue tracksuit.

In her private life, however, Unathi tended to be outrageous. Back in Johannesburg, before she’d been recruited to the most elite mecha squadron on the planet, she hung out at 44 Stanley and Newtown, where she’d been amakipkip to the max. Named for the cheap multicoloured popcorn, the neo- pantsula gangster-punk aesthetic had her pairing purple skin-tight jeans with eye-bleeding oranges and greens, and a pair of leopard-print heels, together with her Mohawk, added five inches to her petite frame.

In her newly adopted home, she tended towards Punk Lolita. And not some Gwen Stefani Harajuku-wannabe Lolipunk either. In civvies, she wore a schoolgirl skirt cut from an antique kimono that had survived the bombing of Hiroshima according to the garment dealer’s providence and she’d grown her hair out into little twists that were more combat-friendly than her Mohawk. But the highlight of her look was a pair of knee-high white patent combat boots made from the penis leather of a whale she had slaughtered herself.

Now, standing on the karaoke booth table, the light of the disco ball glittered behind her head like a halo. As she raised the mic to her perfect, pierced lips time shifted into glorious slow-mo.

Or maybe that was just the impression of First Lieutenant Ryu Nakamura – a street fighter in his spare time and in love with Flight Sergeant Unathi Mathabane like a plant is in love with photosynthesis.

Around her, Ryu found that time went gooey at the edges, like unagi on a hot summer’s day. Unfortunately, so did his tongue, hanging limp and useless in his mouth in her proximity, unless he was responding to a direct order. He’d been planning to spill his guts about what was in his heart via a romantic duet already queued in the karaoke machine.

But that was before a flailing phallic tentacle ripped through the wall of the Big Echo, sending glass and brick and people flying.

The tentacle was monstrous, a thick and glossy tendril of black hair the diameter of a compact Japanese car. It was equipped with eviscerating spikes and, on the bulbous, eyeless head, a mouth full of spiny black teeth.

The force of the initial attack flipped over the table Unathi was standing on, sending her crashing to the floor. She hit the ground head-first with a crack like a rupturing tectonic plate. A moment later the table smashed down onto her chest, driving the air out of her lungs. The black bubbles of a mild concussion popped across her vision. In the background, Britney rapped the Spice Girls classic over a thudding raunchy beat.

While Unathi struggled to get up, the tentacle made sushi of Saiko squadron. It snapped Chief Engineer Sato’s spine so violently that his vertebrae erupted through his stomach. He twitched and flopped obscenely, only inches away from her on the carpet. A spike gutted Ensign Tanaka and another tore Corporal Suzuki in half. And then the tentacle bit off Ryu’s head in one neat snap of those spiny teeth.

The karaoke jukebox clicked over to the duet. Looking in your eyes, there’s reflected paradise . And that might have been true if Ryu still had eyes, or, for that matter, a head. His body stood swaying for a moment, like an indecisive drunk. And then a bright, hot jet of blood fountained from the stump of his neck, spraying Unathi in the face like some vampire bukkake video. She managed to suck in enough air to scream. She’d had an inkling of his crush. It was in the way he showed all his teeth and scratched the back of his head whenever she gave him a direct order. The cheesy 80s duet cemented it. And now he was dead. The whole of Saiko Squadron was dead. And, worse, there was blood and spilt sake on her white patent whale penis leather boots.

‘Someone is going to fucking pay!’ Unathi growled in the back of her throat.

She shoved the table off her chest and yanked herself to her feet, drawing her sabre. But the tentacle was already withdrawing, slithering back through the carnage. She vaulted the upturned table (and the still-flopping Chief Engineer Sato) and leapt through the smashed remains of what had once been a wall. She landed in a crouch in her heeled boots and looked up to see the creature looming above the couture capital of Shibuya 109, a mall that made Sandton City look like a fong kong fleamarket.

The creature resembled a Godzilla-sized hairball matted with blood. Inside the tangle of black hair, gaping mouths lined with rows of sharks’ teeth gnashed opened and closed. Tendrils of hair thrashed from the thing’s body like an epileptic cartoon octopus, leaving gashes ripped through high-rises, laying waste to historic pagodas and skyscrapers alike.

Unathi got to her feet and started running, not towards the creature, but towards her mecha, stashed eight blocks away on Takeshita Street – the only place she could find parking.

The giant robot – a Ghost VF-3 – was painted in zebra stripes as a little homage to her hometown. It was sitting dormant, exactly as she’d left it, bar the parking ticket pasted onto the ergonomic claw of the mecha’s left foot. Unathi yanked it off, folded it into an origami unicorn and left it on the pavement as a little ‘fuck you’ for the meter maid – no doubt, like all of Tokyo’s public servants, an android who could only dream of being human.

She scrambled up the front of the robot using the multiple revolving turrets of the massive chest cannon as footholds, only to spend the next five minutes sitting on the mecha’s armoured shoulder, searching through her oversized Louis Vuitton bag for her keys.

They were right at the bottom, sandwiched between her Hello Kitty vibrator and a bento box containing yesterday’s uneaten lunch. She bleep-bleeped the immobiliser, and with a hydraulic hiss and an actuator hum the robot’s blank-faced head folded back on its shoulders, revealing the cockpit. Unathi pounced into the pilot’s seat and started flipping switches.

Beneath her, the Ghost VF-3 started to thrum as the engines powered up. The decorative samurai armour spines on its back flipped down and fanned out to become interlocking fighter-jet wings. The whole street was vibrating now with the throbbing force of the engine. Windows in the neighbouring skyscrapers were rattling. Unathi happily hummed the Top Gun theme to herself while she calculated the sudoko puzzle on the virtual display unit that would unlock the VF-3’s weapons systems.

‘Weapons activated,’ a serene female voice said as Unathi plugged in the last digit. A four. Like the four men of Saiko Squadron lying in pools of their own blood and spinal fluid back in the Big Echo. With a grimace, she hit the thrusters and the Ghost VF-3 burst into the sky, leaving a crater behind it in the tarmac. On the pavement, the origami unicorn caught fire.

The battle was a blur. Literally. Possibly because she was still drunk.

There were sweeping colours and motion lines as the Ghost VF-3 launched towards the evil hairball. There was a shuddering frame-by-frame slow-mo as one of the tentacles smashed into the mecha. Another as the VF-3 doubled over from the blow and catapulted backwards – and straight through Shibuya 109. In the streets below, ducking the falling rubble and the flaming, tattered ruins of high couture, fashionable teen girls screamed in an agony of loss.

Inside the cockpit, Unathi jabbed at the controls and broke out her nastiest tsotsitaal . ‘Come on! Come on! Msunu ka nyoko !’ until the Ghost VF-3 wrenched itself free from Shibuya 109, leaving a mecha-shaped imprint in the rubble. One of her wings had snapped right off with the impact. ‘For the love of kawaii!’ Unathi cursed, pulling up the systems diagnostics check. They sure didn’t make them like they used to. She had told her superiors at High Command they should buy Korean.

Apart from the broken wing, which would throw her flight patterns for a loop, the damage wasn’t too serious. Some minor bruising to the VF-3’s sidian heat diffusers, an annoying fritz on the rear-facing starboard camera visual systems, but at least the Reaver cannon hadn’t taken a hit. Unathi yanked the joystick forward and the VF-3 bounded down the street towards the hairball, leaving a trail of cracked concrete under every armour-plated footfall (and at least one squished teen fashionista).

.

.

Unathi awoke feeling as if the oni of hangovers had squatted in her mouth. She sat up, her vision still bleary, and immediately started hacking up blood. She wiped her hand across her mouth and looked around. The world oozed in and out of focus. A shadowy figure loomed towards her and resolved himself into a mild-looking middle-aged man, his hand extended to offer her a handkerchief. ‘Here,’ he said, as she dabbed at the bloodstains round her mouth. From the carpet, a black cat with one white ear looked up at her curiously. There was jazz playing quietly in the background. Miles Davis, she guessed, but then her knowledge of jazz was pretty much limited to Miles Davis.

‘Where am I? What happened?’ she said, handing back the gobby, bloodied handkerchief. The man folded it up and tucked it into a pocket.

‘Perhaps you should tell me?’ the man said, tilting his head at the smoking VF-3 wreck lying sprawled in the ruins of what was once a tidy little kitchen. Actually, it was only part of the mecha; the head, one shoulder and the ripped chassis of half the chest cavity partially melted to fuse with the shredded remnants of the Reaver cannon. Unathi felt a hitch in her throat at the sight. First her boots, now her VF-3. Was there no end to the horror?

She closed her eyes. The memory of what happened came in Polaroid flashes of the action.

The Ghost VF-3 crashing down into Shibuya station.


The hairball swallowing up half a train which disappeared into one of those gnashing mouths like it was a tunnel.


The VF-3 seizing the nearest thing to hand, which just happened to be a panty-vending machine, and hurling it at the beast.


Scorched panties drifting down through the sky.


Launching into the sky, locked together like fighting hawks, her damaged wing sending them spiralling in crazy loops.


And then, weirdest of all, in the moment just before two tentacles seized the legs and chest of the Ghost VF-3 and twisted, shearing through the metal with a horrible, mangled screech, she had plunged the mecha’s hands into the heart of the thing and yanked the hair apart like a curtain, revealing … a multicoloured smiley-faced flower.

‘Would you like some spaghetti?’ the man asked. He ducked under the sparking wiring of the VF-3’s amputated arm to the stove, miraculously still intact, where a pot was bubbling.

Hai, baba . I have to get back. I have to destroy that thing!’ Unathi snapped, lurching to her feet.

‘You shouldn’t go into battle on an empty stomach,’ he said mildly, dishing out a bowl of spaghetti for himself. He added fresh basil.

Unathi narrowed her eyes. ‘You know, for someone who just had the flaming wreckage of a mecha crash through his kitchen, you’re being suspiciously calm about all this. Who the hell are you?’

‘Oh, I’m a writer. I used to work for an advertising agency, but I left. Not for any particular reason. I just didn’t like it.’

‘What do you like?’ Unathi said, still suspicious.

‘I like music. I like to cook. I like to think about jogging. And you?’

‘Who am I or what do I like?’

‘Let’s start with the first.’

The question made Unathi philosophical. ‘Mecha-captaining and monster-battling aside, I guess I’m still just a girl from Soweto.’

‘That must be nice,’ the writer said.

The phone rang. It seemed to have an impatient tone. ‘Oh, excuse me one moment.’ He ducked back under the mecha’s arm and went down the hall to pick up the phone.

It was a grey phone, slim and somehow nostalgic. ‘Hello?’ he said into the receiver and then, ‘You again? I thought I told you already I don’t have time for these phone games.’ He listened for a moment and then held out the phone for Unathi. ‘It’s for you.’

Unathi limped over, holding her side. She’d definitely broken a rib. Maybe several. She took the phone receiver and held it to her ear.

‘Hello,’ a woman’s voice said. It was a serene voice, like her mecha’s vocal system.

‘Hi,’ said Unathi, taken aback.

‘Did you have some of Haruki’s spaghetti?’

‘No,’ Unathi said.

‘You should have some. He’s an excellent cook. You’ll like it.’

‘Excuse me, do I know you?’ Unathi was getting annoyed now.

‘Yes, we’ve met many times. Have I mentioned I’m naked? I just got out of the shower.’

Oh great. Phone sex. Like she needed that. ‘Have I mentioned I have a giant hairball to track down and destroy before it consumes the whole city?’

‘Oh. No. No, you hadn’t. Perhaps you should go do that,’ the woman said.

‘Is there some kind of point to this phone call?’ Unathi thought about hanging up, but there was something about the woman’s voice. The situation was eerily familiar. Not like déjà vu exactly, but like she’d seen it in a movie or maybe read it in a book.

‘Not really. I just wanted to say hello.’

‘Hello and goodbye.’

‘Oh and you should go to the suicide forest. It’s beautiful this time of year.’

‘What?’

‘Aokigahara. It’s under Mount Fuji.’

‘I know where it is.’

‘I think it might be helpful for you. Well, that’s all,’ the woman said pleasantly and then, ‘Goodbye.’

Unathi listened to the dial tone for a moment and then replaced the receiver. ‘What was that about?’ she asked Haruki.

‘I don’t know. She phones sometimes. I don’t mind so much.’

‘She said I should visit Aokigahara.’

‘Why would she say that?’

‘I don’t know, you tell me. She’s your mystery lady phone caller.’

‘Well, maybe we should go check it out.’

‘Maybe we should. Maybe it’ll lead us to the hairball.’

‘It could be a wild sheep chase,’ Haruki mused.

‘You mean goose chase.’ Unathi hated it when people got their idioms muddled.

‘Yes. You’re right, I don’t know why I got that confused,’ Haruki apologised. ‘But I know a short cut. It’s this way, through the alley.’

He led her out the back door into a small garden behind the house. There was a white and green deck chair with a book beside it. He helped her climb over the breeze-block wall and into an alley that ran parallel to the backs of the houses. The black and white cat jumped up onto the wall and watched them.

‘I call it an alley, but it’s not really an alley,’ Haruki said. ‘It’s also not a way, because, technically, a way should have an entrance or an exit, but this doesn’t. It’s also not a cul-de-sac, because a cul-de-sac should have an entrance. This is more like a dead end.’

‘You’re going to be a dead end if you don’t stop talking and get me to Aokigahara.’

‘All right, all right,’ the writer said, ‘Sorry.’ He was quiet for a while, leading her behind the houses. Both ends were fenced off with barbed wire. He was right: it wasn’t a way or a cul-de-sac. Above them, in the trees, a bird sang like a wind-up toy or a spring unravelling. The cat jumped down and padded after them.

They came to a well and she helped him push the cover off. The cover was made of wood, faintly damp with moss that had grown over the edges, with a metal handle set into it. Inside the well, it was very dark. A metal ladder descended into the black. It looked new and well maintained. There was a rich, cloying smell, like saron gas or dead bodies. Maybe both.

‘Ladies first,’ Haruki said. The cat jumped onto his shoulder. It looked like it was coming along for the ride.

Unathi sighed, looking down at her boots. At this rate, she was going to have to go on another whale hunt.

Unathi counted 439 rungs until she stepped down onto loamy earth.

‘It’s man-made,’ Haruki said climbing off the ladder and brushing the dirt off his hands, ‘Possibly an old storm drain. Or maybe it connects to the subway. An abandoned line that used to lead to Aokigahara.’

‘Or straight to hell,’ Unathi said grimly.

‘That seems unlikely,’ Haruki said. The cat jumped down off his shoulder and padded ahead. It looked back at them with an inquisitive meow, as if to say ‘Well, are you coming?’

They followed after the cat and, after thirty minutes or so, the tunnel opened into a cement bunker with a rusted metal door that was wedged shut. There were signs that someone had been there recently. There were paintings stacked up against the walls. The top one featured a colourful theme park monstrosity. In the corner, there was a life-size sculpture of an anime boy with spiky hair and a death-grip on his erect penis jizzing spunk around his head.

‘I recognise this,’ Unathi said. It was hard to forget a sculpture of a naked anime boy with a sperm lasso. ‘This is the work of that art factory. The one run by that famous guy who formed a collective of hungry young talent to mass-produce a range of work? What’s his name again?’ Before the aliens attacked and Unathi had been enlisted, she’d gone through a rigorous geisha cultural immersion programme, which had left her surprisingly well versed in a number of suitable conversation topics, from fine art to politics, and a thousand ways to brew jasmine tea.

‘Ah, my namesake,’ the writer said, ‘Takashi.’

‘Yeah, okay. Whatever.’ Irritated, Unathi flicked through the paintings stacked up against the wall, until she hit one that was horribly familiar. She hauled it out to get a better look. It featured a lunatic grinning flower with rainbow petals. It was almost identical to the glowing face at the heart of the hairball.

‘And I definitely recognise this,’ she said. ‘But why is this here?’

‘Never mind that,’ the writer said, yanking at the rusted door. ‘This door is stuck.’

‘Not for long.’ Unathi grinned and broke it off its hinges with one well-placed karate kick (another advantage of the cultural immersion programme).

They emerged into a forest. Sunlight streaked through the leaves in pale golden bars. Mount Fuji loomed through the foliage, tufts of cloud ringed under the peak like a hula hoop. The cat stopped to lick itself. The wind in the leaves sounded like ghosts laughing.

‘It’s lovely,’ Unathi said, surprised. That was before she saw the bodies hanging from the trees like gruesome Christmas decorations. Their faces were black, their eyes popping out. Asphyxiation does that.

They were hanging from belts or cables or the kind of mesh straps you might use to secure a mattress to the roof of your car, which Unathi had done only a few weeks ago when helping Corporal Suzuki move into his new apartment pod.

‘The suicide forest,’ the cat mused. ‘Second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in the self-murder popularity stakes. Partly inspired by the tragic double suicide ending of the novel Kuroi Jukai or Black Sea of Trees .’

‘I didn’t know you could talk,’ Unathi said.

‘I can’t,’ said the cat. It licked itself huffily and gave her a black look from beneath its eyebrow whiskers.

‘Why are they all bald?’ mused the writer.

Unathi started. He was right. Whatever state of decay, whether their faces were still intact or the birds and squirrels had eaten their eyes and lips, whether their clothes marked them disgraced salaryman or despondent housewife or lovesick teens playing out Kuroi Jukai , every corpse had one thing in common: their heads were entirely shaved.

‘Something weird is going on,’ Unathi said, subconsciously reaching for her joystick and the diplomatic power of the Reaver auto-cannon’s 20mm uranium-depleted tank-killer bullets the size of milk bottles.

‘No shit, Sherlock,’ the cat said and then pretended like it hadn’t, earnestly rubbing a saliva-moistened paw over one ear and then the other.

‘Shhh. What’s that sound?’ Haruki said. Unathi listened. There was a buzzing whine, like a sick lawnmower or the purr of her Hello Kitty vibrator when it was running on maximum speed.

‘This way,’ she said, and ran off between the trees, quiet as a ninja in a library.

The buzzing sound was emanating from an electric hairclipper, wielded by a young man in a neon-green jumpsuit. He was dangling from abseil gear with his feet wedged on either side of the unfortunate corpse he was shearing. It was a young mother, judging by the burp cloth still draped over her shoulder. No doubt the victim of the social shame inflicted by one of the cruel mom cliques that ruled the city’s playgrounds. As the dead woman’s long black hair parted company from her scalp, it came to life. It writhed and twisted, so that green jumpsuit guy had to wrap it round his wrist to keep it from slithering away into the sky.

‘Hey, you skabenga ! What are you doing?’ Unathi yelled, which was perhaps not the most prudent of plans. The young man startled so badly that he lost his grip on his anchor line. The rope screamed through the carabiner. He grabbed for it but it burnt through his palm and came free, dropping him out of the air. He landed on his neck with a sickly crunch. The spasming hair wriggled free of his wrist and slithered away into the mossy hollows between the tree roots.

‘Is he?’ the writer asked.

‘Dead,’ Unathi confirmed, kicking the corpse. The hair clipper was still buzzing in his hand. ‘Now what?’

‘You could always follow the extension cable,’ the cat said.

‘We could always follow the extension cable,’ Unathi said, ignoring the cat. She yanked at the electric cord attached to the vibrating hair clipper and started reeling it in.

The cable wound between trees, over glens and at some point, with little heed for electrical safety, right through a babbling brook.

‘I wonder why they didn’t use batteries,’ Haruki said, jumping over the brook. The cat was back to riding his shoulder.

‘We ran out,’ a voice replied from the shadowy glade up ahead. Unathi and the writer stepped into a ring of trees to find a slight man with glasses and a rumpled suit sitting atop an oozing mound with Mickey Mouse ears, pointy fangs and gargantuan cartoon eyes swivelling in opposite directions. Bright paint leaked down the sides of the thing and saturated the grass beneath it in camouflage whorls of colour. It grinned at them and rolled its eyes.

Beside the mound an oversized generator hummed happily, a tangle of extension cords like medusa dreadlocks running away from it to feed power to other hair clippers in other parts of the forest, shearing other suicides of their bewitched locks.

Gathered around the mound were young men and women in various shades of neon and states of industry. They’d formed an assembly line of sorts. On the far side, apprentice hipster artists in grey jumpsuits sat at workbenches besides boxes and boxes of bowling balls. They removed the balls, stripped off the paint, sanded down the surface and delivered them down to the next workbench where a girl with bright-pink hair and huge goggles airbrushed the iconic smiley flower designs onto the balls.

.

.

The flower balls piled up next to her, blinking happily, while they waited their turn at the next station, which aptly resembled a sumo ring. Several huge men and women wrestled with tangles of writhing suicide hair to wrap it onto the flower-faced bowling balls. The hair resisted. As they watched, a tentacle of hair squirmed out of one man’s grasp. ‘Look out!’ he yelped. The hair slapped him aside. He flew out of the ring and landed with a fleshy thud at Unathi and Haruki’s feet. ‘Urrrgh,’ he said.

Back in the ring, an artist in a red jumpsuit grabbed the end of the hair and cracked it like a whip. The hair collapsed limply to the ground, stunned. Two other artists leapt on it and wrapped it round the flower face before it could recover.

The final stage was a wooden platform raised like a dock. Cute artist boys and girls in school uniforms released the finished artworks into the sky. ‘Byeee! Sayonara ! Get big and strong, you hear! Have a nice life!’ They waved their hankies in salutation as the hairballs drifted off like balloons, already springing gnashing mouths and spined tentacles.

It was horrible.

It was brilliant.

The man atop the mound gave the mecha pilot and the writer (and the cat) a chance to take it all in. Then he stood up and threw his arms wide. ‘Welcome. I am Takashi. And this is my heap. I am king of it and all artistic endeavour.’

‘So you’re the guy?’ Unathi snarled.

‘Ob-vious-ly.’ The cat rolled its eyes.

The slight, bespectacled man smirked. He stood up and skidded down the side of his mud creature, leaving behind a swathe of blues and greens. It groaned and swivelled its eyes to watch him. ‘It depends,’ the man said. ‘By “the guy” do you mean one of the most challenging and thought-provoking artists of the 21st century? Who innovated the superflat style combining the best of otaku culture and Japanese pop aesthetics? Whose factory puts Andy Warhol’s little art manufacturing industry to shame? Whose art has the capacity to shock, to titillate, to overturn the world as we know it?’

‘I meant, are you the fucker responsible for ruining my boots?’

‘Your boots?’ Takashi shifted his gaze from Unathi’s tits to her patent boots which were no longer remotely white. They were splattered with blood and mud and spinal fluid and bits of writhing, haunted hair. ‘Is that whale penis leather?’ Takashi admired them.

‘Killed it myself,’ Unathi beamed.

‘Divine.’

Unathi turned grim. ‘And one of your hairball creatures has destroyed them. Along with half of Tokyo. And the whole of Saiko Squadron. Although, technically, they’re replaceable. I mean, we have new academy graduates practically begging to be recruited.’

‘What can I say?’ The artist shrugged. ‘Good art should exact a toll.’

Hamba’ofa ! Exact this, motherfucker,’ Unathi said, as she pulled out her ladies size .357 Magnum from the holster on the side of her boot and pressed it to his temple.

‘Wait!’ yelled the cat and the writer at the same time.
‘You got a better idea?’ she said, her finger itchy on the trigger.

‘Don’t you know anything about art?’ Haruki said. ‘Look at him.’

Unathi looked at Takashi, beaming lunatically like one of his flower balls.

‘He wants to die.’

It sunk in. ‘Fuck. And then his art will live forever.’ Unathi eased her finger off the trigger.

‘And grow bigger and more infamous and ravage the whole world!’ Takashi crowed.

‘Shut up,’ Unathi said, lowering the gun and jamming it up against his crotch. ‘Unless you want to bleed to death slowly from a bullet hole in your hairy balls.’

‘Even more sensational! I’ll take it!’ Takashi grinned.

Unathi ignored him. ‘This writing you do, Haruki…’

‘Yes?’

‘Ever do art critiques?’

‘I haven’t … but I see where you’re going.’

‘What?’ Takashi said, panicky. ‘No, no, no, no. This is a time for action, not words.’

‘I’m thinking this suicide hair thing is interesting, but, you know, in my opinion…’ – Unathi paused for effect and rolled her eyes – ‘it’s sooooo derivative.’

‘No!’ Takashi yelped.

‘Shock for shock’s sake.’ Unathi continued. ‘So tired. So very …’

‘Don’t say it. Don’t you dare.’

‘So very Damien Hirst,’ she finished.

‘Aaaaaagh!’ Takashi tore at his hair. ‘I am nothing like that hack. You can’t do this to me!’

‘Already doing it,’ Haruki said, tapping away at his phone. ‘I’m uploading a scathing review to all the arts sites right now.’

‘Have mercy,’ Takashi moaned.

‘Sorry, friend,’ Haruki shrugged, not looking up from his screen. ‘I guess the text message is mightier than the mass-produced pop-art gimmick.’

Takashi grabbed Unathi’s hand, wrenched the gun up to his temple and, before she had time to react, pulled the trigger. A bright twist of blood arced away from his temple in slow motion. The artist’s lips twitched in the faintest of smiles and then he keeled over sideways, revealing the bloody mash where the back of his head had once been. His blood started to mingle with the swirl of colours on the grass, muddying the bright hues.

Unathi looked down at the body. ‘ Eish ,’ she said. ‘That’s done it.’

‘Watch out,’ said the cat. Unathi and Haruki stepped back just in time to avoid being knocked down by the scramble of neon jumpsuits fighting each other to get to the top of the globulous, seeping heap of colour.

The battle was ugly. The hungry young artists climbed over each other, dragged each other down, punched each other in the face and the throat. And then they broke out the knives. After a while it got too messy to tell who was actually wounded and who was just slathered in paint.

‘We should leave,’ the cat said. ‘The succession fight is only going to get nastier.’

‘But the whole world is fucked. Takashi’s dead.’ Unathi gave the body a kick to emphasise her point, adding some of the artist’s blood to the congealed stain on her boot. ‘His reputation is going to grow; the haunted hairballs will only become more powerful …’

‘Nah,’ said the writer. ‘Ignominious suicide after a bad review? That’s not a scandalous death that will lead to centuries-long infamy; that’s just a pathetic publicitystunt. And his former students and factory colleagues will be the first to defame him. It’s over. The hairballs will eventually shrivel up and die or get bought up by advertising agency execs to display in their foyers.’ He added, ‘But only ironically.

‘Ouch.’ Unathi shuddered.

‘Yep. Should we get back? I don’t know about you, but I could murder some spaghetti.’

‘Early lunch?’ Unathi checked her watch. It was only twelve. But then, hey, Tokyo was a fast city.

They started walking away into the forest, back towards the bunker, the cat riding Haruki’s shoulder. Behind them, the artists were still engaged in violent in-fighting.

One of them had extricated herself from the melee and was filming the carnage. It would make a great video piece.

‘So why did you leave Johannesburg, if I may ask?’ Haruki said, heaving open the bunker door.

That city? Hayibo . That city is too fucking crazy.’ She shook her head, ducking under the dangling foot of a suicide. ‘Hey, you have any idea when whaling season starts?’

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