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).

.