A creative writing exercise in world-building, created during the University of Iowa’s MOOC in creative fiction and non-fiction:
Creative Writing Exercise: Operation Cixi
A day for whiskey
Tabitha looked up unto the hills from whence she expected plentiful whiskey to pour. Even mine dumps look beautiful in a certain light, she thought. A dilapidated taxi rumbled past carrying grandmothers and young women who should still be in school to their day jobs as underpaid domestic workers; its white exterior caked in dirt from the exhaust fumes.
The Joburg sun penetrated the dashboard of her beat-up Toyota Corolla that also used to be white once upon time. She fumbled around the cubby-hole for her sunglasses but could only find the 3D goggles from the night before. What was it that they watched again? It was something ridiculous like World War 5000 or another generic end-of-the-world action movie type with Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt at the helm.
A date from hell
Martin had picked the place, the time, and the activity. She brought her sunny disposition. Halfway through the movie, as she was dosing off and imagining that she was home watching Netflix and playing with her cat, she felt his large, pink hand on her thigh. Not on her knee, or her arm. On her thigh, nogal. She tried to move out of the position, but his grip was firm. Fed up, she stood up and mumbled something about needing to pee. Alright baby, he replied, but hurry back. His hungry eyes followed her as she walked out of the cinema.
Outside, she decided to ditch his horny ass. She didn’t have time for that shit.
She chucked the 3D goggles into the cubby-hole and cranked up the AC, i.e. opened all the windows. As she pulled out of the Rosebank Mall parking lot, hear head started to feel lighter. Her heart soared as she put distance between herself and the date from hell. She never wanted to use Tinder in the first place, but her friend convinced her it was the only way at her advanced age of 36 that she would ever find a man.
“What if I don’t want to find a man?” she asked over tea and scones at that overpriced bakery in Dunkeld; Glenda’s or Melba’s or something, where everything looked like it had been dipped in sugar.
“What a silly question,” her friend replied.
“I’m just saying, it’s not like finding a man is the reason for my existence.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” Friend took a sip of tea and expertly applied a dollop of low-fat, dairy-free, no-taste butter substitute to her gluten-free, sugar-free scone. That was the end of that, and Martin appeared on her reluctant radar shortly afterwards.
Reporting for duty
Finally, she found her sunglasses, just as the large steel gates were opened by the changing guard. He tipped his hat at her, and she nodded at him. It was time to put the unpleasantness of the weekend behind her and focus on the task at hand.
She drove through the gates to the bottom of the new Modderfontein development, parked in her usual spot, and walked to the front door. Her gait was sturdy and upright in her black trousers and navy shirt; her mouth set in a firm line.
She walked through the mahogany doors, down a passageway and three flights of stairs. At the end of the stairs, a large steel door was waiting for her. She scanned her retina on the screen in the top left corner and the door clicked open.
“Commander Frost, reporting for duty,” she announced as she walked down another flight of stairs.
“Welcome, Commander,” a computerised voice greeted her as the door closed behind her. “Have you had a pleasant weekend?”
“Pleasant isn’t a word I’d use to describe my weekend, Jane.”
Well, that’s too bad, Commander.”
“Status report, please.”
“The prototype is near completion, Commander.”
Commander Tabitha Frost entered the underground lab. Women in pristine lab coats and navy-blue berets marked her passage with nods of respect as she walked past rows upon rows of failed attempts.
“The prototype is 89 percent near completion,” Jane continued. “Heart, kidneys, liver functions are in working condition. Limbs are fully grown; hair, skin, eyes and teeth perfectly imperfect.”
“Brain function and speech?”
“Too early to determine, Commander.”
“She seems sentient, Commander. Her brain responds to external stimuli and her speech we will test as soon as she awakes.”
“How much longer, Jane?”
“Another eight to ten hours, Commander.”
“And the risks?”
“Like the previous attempts, Commander, we run the risk of short-term life. She could die in a few hours after birth, if we’re not careful.”
“So be careful.”
Tabitha went to her office in the underground bunker next to the lab. She powered on her computer to check her emails and Facebook messages. There was a lengthy voice note from gropey-McAction-movies-asshole on her phone, but she clicked delete and went about navigating the intricate narratives of friends and family.
At 36, Tabitha Frost was the head of a top secret human genetics laboratory, funded by a rogue branch of the Chinese government and hidden under the guide of a Chinese land development scheme. She’d graduated top of her class at Wits with multiple degrees in biology and engineering, and completed her PhD in genetics and artificial intelligence at the tender age of 27. She was widely recognised by the scientific community as a trailblazer and the brilliant mind behind Operation Cixi – although no one could tell you what it was for sure.
Yet, in the minds of her friends and family, she had failed her biological duty to reproduce.
“Seven hours to completion,” Jane announced. That was impressive, she thought, the prototype must be growing faster than expected.
She was still craving that whiskey. She saw a missed Skype call from China on her screen. She checked the time and hit the call button. After a short ring, she was greeted by a stern Chinese woman in a severe navy-blue beret.
“Commander Frost, how do you do?”
“I am well, Major General Zhu, and how are you?”
“How are the prototypes coming along?”
“Only one has survived, Major General.”
“How is that possible?”
“The specimen have had varied reactions towards their birth. But I am hopeful that the last one will survive.”
“I do not need to tell you of the consequences if she doesn’t?”
“No, Major General. I am fully aware of them.”
“What is it about this one that makes you hopeful?”
Tabitha hesitated, met the MG’s eye.
“She’s a fighter.”
“She’ll have to be.”
Tabitha nodded, and Major General Zhu ended the call.
Life or death
It was time for drastic measures.
“Bring up all the stats on our last prototype. I want to make sure nothing’s been left up to chance.”
“Technically speaking, Commander, if I may be so bold …”
“Perhaps chance is the one variable we have not yet included in our research.”
“Well, everything else has been so finely planned out that we haven’t allowed for spontaneity to play a role. Wasn’t that what brought me to you in the first place?”
Jane has a damn good point, Tabitha thought. She’d spent endless hours since her varsity days trying to create a computer presence like her, but it was only when she’d all but given up and threw caution to the wind that magic happened and Jane appeared.
“You might be on to something, Jane.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Tabitha hesitated for a split second. Fuck it, she thought, let’s do this.
“When the prototype reaches the last three hours of development, switch off all the machines.”
“Switch them … off?” If an AI could frown, Jane would be doing it.
“Even the oxygen?”
“Especially the oxygen.”
“Commander, that’s not quite what I had in mind. This is our last attempt at a prototype. If she expires, we will have to start all over again.”
“I know what’s at stake, Jane. But we need a fighter. Let her fight.”
“As you wish, Commander.”
“I’m going out. Keep me updated with her progress.”
Men don’t like smart women
To the outside world, Tabitha Frost was an analyst at an offshore corporate firm that specialises in digital ecosystem development. Few people in her inner circle knew what this meant, and when she did bring up work, no one asked her to elaborate.
“You know, men don’t like women that are too smart,” her mother told her once.
“What is ‘too smart’, Mama?”
“Smarter than them.”
“Well, then men better start shagging each other.”
“It’s a joke, Ma.” She had to wrap her arms around her mother’s shoulders to calm her down.
“Don’t you think about other women, you hear me? I won’t see my only child in prison.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
“You don’t know what could happen out there.”
Oh, but I do, Tabitha wanted to say, but bit her tongue instead.
She drove her Toyota through the steel gates and steered the nose towards the Greenstone area. The sun burnt through the windscreen into her forehead, and she regretted not putting on sunscreen. She stopped at the red robot, locked her doors and windows. A young man with a squirt gun and a squeegee appeared next to her car.
“I wash your windows, mama,” he said.
“Not today, thank you,” she mouthed, but he ignored her and poured soap on her windscreen.
Another day, another time, she would have become enraged. I told you, no thank you! She would have screamed as her face became beet red. She sat watching him as he raced against time; wiping the dirty water of her screen in one, two strikes; running to the other side to do the same.
When the light turned green, he was back at her window.
“I cleaned it for you, mama.”
“Thank you.” She rolled down her window and handed him a few coins. Her grandfather would have freaked if he saw the three R5-coins. You give a R2, that’s it, he always admonished her.
At the mall, she parked her car and walked towards the pharmacy. She picked up a moisturiser, a sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses. At the till, the woman commented on her ringless finger.
“Still no husband?”
I come here too often, she fumed as she got back into the car. She checked her phone for messages from Jane; saw that the prototype is one hour away from being left to fend for herself.
She steered the car back through the decadent malls and extravagant high-rises surrounded by shacks and people sleeping on pavements. Next to her at the traffic light before the turn-off the Modderfontein, she saw a woman in a shiny BMW scream at the same young man who washed her windscreen a short while ago. The woman’s glossy nails were tap-tapping away at her cellphone as she mimed calling the police. Her golden bracelets flew through the air as she demonstrated something, and the slim cigarette in her mouth dangled in a downward spiral of perpetual foulness.
“Chill the fuck out, lady,” Tabitha said out loud, realising too late that her window was open.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?” The woman directed her ire at Tabitha, who, in a moment of weakness, showed her the middle finger and drove off. The young man smiled and walked back to the side of the road.
“Fuck you!” she heard the woman scream. “You don’t know me! My husband owns half this town!”
Her voice petered out as Tabitha drove away, and she smirked at her own insolence. Your husband’s going extinct, bitch, she thought.
Back at the lab, the all-female crew of scientists, engineers and technicians lined up to see the fruit of their labour come to life.
“Welcome back, Commander,” Jane greeted Tabitha as she walked into the main area. “We are ready to switch off the machines at your command.”
“Let’s do this.”
The group of women watched silently as, one by one, each of the life-giving machines hissed to a stop. There was some ancient technology mixed with cutting-edge machinery in the lab; a strange assembly of whatever the rogue branch of Chinese female militants could spirit out of the country without their esteemed leader taking notice.
As far as both governments were concerned, Modderfontein was a real estate project. As long as their pockets were lined with profits from the luxury apartments, restaurants and prestigious private schools springing up all over the place, they had no reason to suspect that something went on down below.
And today, after nearly ten years of careful planning and execution, one of their wildest dreams was about to come
Tabitha’s eyes shone with more pride than if she had given birth to this miracle from her own womb. The woman lying on the narrow bed inside the glass incubator was beautiful, powerful, an intricate combination of genes donated by women from across the world.
“She’s breathtaking,” a doctor near Tabitha whispered to herself.
As the last machine ceased, the woman in the glass box began to move. She opened her eyes. She gasped for air, but there was none. Her brown-blue-gray eyes widened and grew bloodshot.
“Commander, I …”
The woman writhed and struggled against her bonds. Her mouth opened and she screamed; the sound pierced the air and every woman in the room who, like the Commander, felt they were personally responsible for her birth.
Then she stopped screaming, and in one clean motion ripped her arms free of the constraints. She sat up in her bed, gritted her teeth, and started to punch the glass wall closest to her. Her chest heaved up and down as she tried to breath; but she didn’t panic. She crouched down and kept punching the glass, over and over again, ripping tubes from her body; blood dripping down her arms and legs onto the floor.
“Commander, she’s not going to make it.” A voice in the group spoke up.
“Give her a few more minutes.”
“She’s three hours premature, Commander,” another voice, barely a whimper, declared.
Tabitha’s big green eyes stared at the specimen in wonderment.
They watched her as she moved around the incubator, and then she stopped. She looked through the glass, straight at Commander Tabitha Frost. There was a glint in her eye. She climbed onto her bed and reached her arms up to the glass ceiling. Slowly, like she was playing a game, she lifted the incubator over her head, and sent it smashing against the far wall of the laboratory.
The woman took her first real breath, allowing her lungs to fill and her organs to click to life. She stretched and yawned; naked but not afraid. Tabitha breathed out the air she did not know she was holding in.
“All vital signs are in order, Commander.” Jane reemerged from the chaos of birth.
“I can see that, Jane.”
“Shall I commence protocol 251?”
“Not right now.”
“Alert the team to commence phase two.”
“Yes, Commander, but …”
“We can bathe and prep her later, Jane.” Tabitha smiled. “It’s time for a whiskey.”
The woman smiled, as if she agreed.