Whispr knew for certain that he was in Africa when the pair of black leopards shot past him in the airport corridor. His companion, cautious business partner, overbearing scientific advisor, and (dare he think it?) sometime personal physician, Dr. Ingrid Seastrom, let out a gasp and dropped to her knees as one of the big cats forcefully brushed her right leg in passing. Unlike their now panicky intended quarry the leopards tore through the terminal in complete silence. An equivalent airport Immigration and Security team back home in Namerica would have used dogs, an admiring Whispr thought as he watched the two carnivores take down their target. Amid screams and shouts, other equally startled arriving passengers were quick to scatter and give the cats room.
Pinning him to the ground beneath weight, fang, and claw they did not begin to devour the man they had trapped. In its excitement the larger of the two felines urinated on the frightened captive's legs. The smell of buttered popcorn filled the terminal. As Whispr had quickly assumed, both melanistic predators had been thoroughly maniped. Snapping against their muscular chests and flanks, loose-fitting lightweight vests flashing the SAEC's bright colors identified them as members of the Helen Zillie International Airport's security team. Strips of gleaming metal set atop their skulls between their ears testified to the skills of the biosurges who had installed the controlling implants.
Like the vests, the complex neuroplants were also probably South African Economic Combine products, Whispr mused. With impossibly slender and deceptively strong arms he helped the stunned Ingrid to her feet. The secrets of one peculiar kind of advanced SAEC technology--SICK technology--was what they had come all the way from Georgia and Florida to try to unlock. Less dramatic and more subtle, their purpose unknown, the quantum entangled nanoscale implants that had first intrigued and subsequently inveigled Ingrid Seastrom were infinitely more sophisticated than straightforward animal manips.
"Startled me." Ingrid continued to mumble to herself as she straightened her pantsuit.
She wasn't worried about her temporary dishabille or the fact that she had been knocked down. Overriding any and all other concerns was the need to keep safe the tiny silvery storage thread of metastable metallic hydrogen that lay hidden in a sealed security compartment within one cup of her brasserie. She worried about the shard's security because it represented a whole series of scientific breakthroughs and unknown social possibilities, some of them sinister. Whispr worried about it because if it were to be damaged or destroyed it surely wouldn't bring as high a price as it would if they could keep it intact.
Knowing her to be a consummate worrier, he wondered if Seastrom ever worried about him. Ever since he had obsessively but foolishly planted that scent-sucking zoe on her in Florida she had held herself even more distant than ever. Despite this her continuing disinterest in him no way lessened his feverish desire for her. But he had vowed to act the gentleman, much as that remained an abstract concept to a street survivor like himself. Not because he didn't feel the urge every day, every hour, to pull her close to him and press his mouth against hers, but because at this point in their relationship it would be a bad move from a business standpoint.
He looked at her, drank in the sight of her, with great pleasure every chance he got. Even in her current disguise mode with her blond hair blackened, her cheeks puffed with temp collagen, the additional weight she had put on, and the contacts that changed her eye color every couple of hours, he still found her irresistibly enticing. He loved the way she looked, the way she walked, even the slightly stilted professorial way she talked. His attraction had nothing to do with the fact that he was a Meld and she was a Natural. Knowing full well that she would find any such expressions of admiration on his part unutterably annoying, he kept them to himself. Besides, they had work to do and surveillance to avoid.
Unlike the terrified young man who had been taken down by the leopards and was now being rescued and arrested by the big cats' handlers, they had made it quietly through Immigration and Customs without any difficulty. Traveling with only hand baggage, they headed for the nearest Transportation kiosk. Some of the other disembarking passengers had stopped to watch as a trio of cops placed the unfortunate lawbreaker in securestrips. None of them were citizens of the SAEC, for whom such sights were old news.
"I wonder what they're holding him for?" As Ingrid looked back at the scene she saw that the young man still wore a look of utter terror. She didn't blame him. Not with two full-grown maniped male black leopards hoping to make hors d'oeuvres of his toes and barely restrained by their handlers.
Whispr was more interested in finding immediate transportation into the city proper. He had been witness to far too many arrests to find this one worthy of his time, the exoticism of the circumstances notwithstanding.
"Probably trying to sneak into the country illegally," he opined. In the old days, he knew, the frenetic apprehension and subsequent arrest would likely have involved drugs. Imagine locking someone up for possessing recreational pharmaceuticals! What little he knew of history never failed to amuse him.
"As I understand it there's three Africas: North, Central, and South. North is philosophically and spiritually confused, Central is like downtown Old Atlanta at two in the morning--only with a quarter billion people, and the South is where everyone in the Central and much of the North wants to be. Mostly because the SAEC and the South is where the subsist is." Turning, he nodded back in the direction of the now stripped and secured illegal visitor.
"Gotta give the crazy Natural credit. Instead of sneaking across the border through a tunnel up north he bought a ticket and tried flying in like an ordinary traveler."
In her mind's eye Ingrid could still see the black slash of the police leopard streaking past her. "What do you think they'll do to him?"
Whispr shrugged. Among the many welcoming flads trying to cozy up to them was one for a vehicle rental company. Sticking a finger into the glowing sphere had instantly activated its functions. It trailed hopefully behind them as they continued on through the Arrivals area.
"Deport him if he's lucky. Slap him in detention if he's not. Feed him to cats if the cops are in the mood."
Her eyes widened. Where medicine and science were concerned Ingrid Seastrom was utterly up-to-date, but concerning Real Life she could be woefully ignorant.
"I'm kidding." A smile cut his angular visage and she favored him with a look of disgust.
Actually he didn't have a clue what the local cops did with illegal immigrants. With a lineage that included sjambok-wielding Afrikaans security, bomb-making ANC revolutionaries, fearless Zulu warriors, and modern police melds, it wouldn't have surprised him a bit to learn that the cost of securing borders that were under constant pressure from desperate would-be immigrants was occasionally offset by offering up pieces of said intruders in lieu of expensive leopard food. Did illegals from Mauritania taste different from, say, renegade Somalis? The thought would never have occurred to a Natural like Ingrid. To an ultra-slenderized Meld like Whispr it was perfectly--natural.
Hovering close to his left arm, the basketball-sized floating advertisement fended off competing flads with barely audible bursts of static electricity. As it urged them forward it declaimed with soft mechanical enthusiasm on the advantages of renting a roadster from the company it represented. Whispr ignored the sales pitch. They had engaged with the flad merely to help them locate the Arrivals Transportation desk. Whispr had no intention of renting a vehicle immediately upon entering the country. SICK had managed to track them down and send someone after the thread while they were in Florida. Though Whispr was pretty confident they had managed to subsequently elude the company's inimical attentions, he had not survived this long on the street by taking chances or moving too fast.
Once they reached the government-sponsored Transportation kiosk he dismissed the flad. It evinced no disappointment as it drifted off in search of other customers. Modern mobile advertisements preyed effectively on emotions but did not have any of their own.
Ingrid was already playing her hands over one of the several available holos. In response to her gestures all manner of public transportation lit up beneath her fingertips: taxis, buses, rail, aircraft, even maniped animals-for-hire. The latter were strictly for the tourist trade, an interested but realistic Whispr knew.
She eventually lowered her hands. "I've figured out how to get there, but how should we go? Where should we stay tonight?"
"Same routine as Florida," he told her. "Small hotel. Not too fancy, not too cheap. Same for the part of town. A suburb always draws less attention than the center of a city." He altered his voice to mimic that of an ancient Namerican actor whose work he had always enjoyed. "Ah'm a stranger here m'self."
As usual, she didn't get the joke.
With a nod she turned and put the request to the Transportation vorec. Connected to every other component of the greater Cape Town box it quickly provided half a dozen suggestions. One was quickly chosen, two rooms (Whispr let out a sigh but said nothing) reserved, and a deposit put down via her aliased credcard.
As they boarded the transport capsule at the airport's station they did not notice the two figures who stepped quietly away from the far wall and set off in their wake.
A small community of historic importance on the western shore of False Bay, Simon's Town was sufficiently developed to provide the facilities they needed while offering exactly the sort of quaint surroundings a pair of Namerican tourists would be expected to enjoy. Anyone looking for them in this part of Southern Africa would have a natural tendency to first seek them in central Cape Town. Simon's Town actually lay farther from the downtown area, with its famous harbor and grand tourist hotels, than did the international airport itself.
The main transport lines ran west from the airport to Downtown or eastward to Stellenbosch, the center of the wine and marijuana growing region. Every one of the automated cars departing the airport station was crowded with tired arriving passengers--except the one marked Muizenberg-Fish Hoek-Simon's Town.
Of the half-dozen other passengers taking the MFS service from the airport the one standing nearest to Ingrid boasted a full restaurant service meld. It took her a moment to realize that the impossibly short man was wearing nothing above the waist and that his bow tie, long-sleeved white shirt, pearlescent buttons, and neatly pressed pockets were nothing more than an artful spark tat. Such full body dimensional tats could be easily removed or customized should the owner change professions. They were particularly prevalent in hot, humid climates. A tat didn't cling, didn't show sweat stains, and never needed to be sent to the laundry.
Now that she saw that the little man had undergone skin stitching she found herself comparing the local work to its equivalent from Savannah. In addition to the uniform tat each of his hands featured two extra fingers apiece, the better to juggle trays, plates, glasses, and other dining paraphernalia.
Reflecting his country of origin his face was a neat checkerboard of black and white. It was the favored local melanistic meld. First at the airport and now on the transport she had seen alternating black and white stripes, spots, ovals, crescents, and in the case of one especially large woman, a direct vertical separation right down the middle of her face and exposed arms--half black and half white. Other Melds featured a smattering of brighter, less nationalistic skin colors. Turquoise seemed particularly in vogue this year, most notably among a group of loud, visiting Italians.
Seen firsthand it was clear that the old Rainbow Nation wasn't black or white. It was black and white.
Whispr could have fit his attenuated frame into any vehicle no matter how crowded, but he was glad of the space for his carryon pack. "Wonder why the cars on this transport line are so empty?" he mused out loud. An answer was soon forthcoming.
"Most folks are heading downtown or to the other main parts of the city. You're on a west bay express." The man boasting the restaurant service Meld and tat grinned at them. Every other one of his teeth, Ingrid noted with interest, had been stained a gleaming porcelain-black. "If this car was a local that stopped on the Wets it would be full by now also."
"'Wets'?" Ingrid inquired.
"The Cape Wets. Used to be called the Cape Flats, which were just what it sounds like, but since the worldwater came up--well, you'll see."
As the transport line curved smoothly to the southwest the higher country around the airport gradually descended until they were traveling atop a guide strip mounted on pylons. The million poor people who had made their ramshackle homes on the flatlands of the Cape Wets before the Greenland ice cap had melted had not moved when the sea level had risen. They could not move. They had no money, and no place to go if they had. So they stayed, and were joined by another couple of million of the Central African Diaspora who had migrated to the SAEC seeking work and a fresh start.
"It's like Greater Savannah," Ingrid insisted as she gazed out the transport car's window. But it was not.
"They say the Bangkok boatland has more people," the restaurant worker declared, "but there are more here than in any other stilted community, I think. Except of course for the Ganges Float."
Whispr's face contorted. "Never heard of it."
"It's where a country called Bangladesh used to be," Ingrid informed him.
Her companion grunted as he peered out the wide transparency of the transport car's wall. "Can't be any worse than this. I've seen a mess of buildings in my time, but this is just a mess."
"Careful what you say, visitor," the worker warned him. "People here are proud of their community, tumbledown as it may be."
The sleek air-conditioned car continued speeding on its way through a townscape unlike any Ingrid had ever seen. She had watched travelogue vits of South Africa, but those she could recall that featured Cape Town had made no mention of the Cape Wets. Passing through them, she could understand why. It was as if someone had engaged Escher's ghost to construct a vast urban landscape out of tin cans and toothpicks.
Like the transport track on which their comfortable climate-controlled vehicle rode, every one of the tens of thousands of individual structures they passed, whether domestic, commercial, or industrial, rose above the surrounding shallow waters on pylons or pillars or stilts that had been driven deep into the ground. Once a vast spread of flat dry land, the Cape Wets had been swallowed by the encroaching waters of False Bay. Now several million people lived just above the waterline in buildings that rose four, five, or more stories above the sea.