Even in the early mornings we’d sweat under the summer sun, waiting for the traders to come in. My father always told me to stay at home while he went to the market.
“This is a man’s work!” he would say when I begged him to take me. He sold herbs and natural remedies, real pharma when he could find it, too. It wasn’t safe back then to have such valuable goods, but it put food on the table. Often, I’d leave our small house on the outskirts of town and head to the market, and get a solid beating for my disobedience. I remember those beatings, and I remember the dust rising into the air as I raced through the crowded alleyways, but I barely remember his face.
Of course, those alleyways now open onto wide, orderly streets and the old observatory that first made Sutherland a beacon for trading ships was long ago replaced with the tightly regulated terminus we now have. There’s little need for the muthi-peddlers of my youth.
I also don’t recall what I stole that day in the market. I was hungry, we had no money for sweets and what was an adventurous twelve year-old to do? I do remember running, though. To my advantage was my small size, allowing me to contort through the crowds more easily than an old man with a belly full of beer. Even so, I had to will every tiny muscle to push, lest I be found out by my father and face his anger again. Rounding a corner, I tripped in a concealed pothole, grazing my knee. Not daring to breath and too shaken to get up, I crawled around a nearby crate. Green metal, like those the army used to transport supplies, it stood with others like it, ready to be loaded onto a nearby ship. I hid between the stacks of containers, frozen.
I hadn’t noticed the tall man behind me with a scar sutured clumsily down his cheek, nor his friend who sat behind him shuffling a deck of cards. The fat trader rounded the corner, red from either anger or the effort of running, but when he looked up to find the scarfaced man towering over me, his face lost all colour. He whispered an apology and fled. For the first time in what felt like hours I drew breath.
“What have we here?” asked the scarred man, yanking me to my feet. “Some dirty little girl. Some dirty little thief!”
“I’m a boy.” I said, trying unsuccessfully to free myself from his grip.
“Leave her alone, San!” said the other man, eager to return to his game.
“No chance! I have an itch to scratch and the girl can help me scratch it.”
“You have two good hands to scratch with. Leave it alone and come finish here before Alwyn gets back.”
“Leave what alone?” I looked up to see a figure leaning against the crates. He was smaller than the other two men, with only a shadow of a moustache and hair shaved down to the scalp. Despite his size, his presence commanded attention and respect. Almost immediately I was dropped back to the ground.
“Just helping the little one out. She was in trouble with—”
“How chivalrous,” said the new man. “But I do believe he said he’s a boy. I’m sure he’s very grateful all the same. Now get moving. We only have an hour.”
The two men turned to the crates nearest them and heaved. When they’d disappeared over the cargo ramp, the man turned to me with a formal smile.
“And you, my friend?”
“What about me?”
“What about you? I saved you. Are children in this town so obtuse?”
“What do you want?” I caught myself sounding annoyed at the man, but in truth I was grateful, and afraid. I quickly looked down at my feet. My knee was still bleeding from the fall.
“In my crew, a man’s work is to labour. You can help me with these crates, boy.”
I noticed him smile when he called me that. It wasn’t a mocking smile like the others in town, rather a smile of fondness. I picked up a crate, barely strong enough to move it, and noticed the serial number had been scratched off the side.
“I’m Kai,” I said as I walked up the ramp.
“My name is Alwyn. And this is my ship. It has no name. You’ve already met Santiago and Mpenda.”
I never officially was hired by Alwyn or his crew. That morning I had no plans to escape aboard an old G-13 shuttle. I just wanted to avoid a beating. It would be almost a year before I saw the alleyways of Sutherland again.
I got to know the crew more intimately before long. Mpenda was from the Eastern States, with family in New Zanzibar, while Santiago, a Chilean, naturally came from Santiago. Nobody seemed to know or care about his real name. They took turns to fly, or rather, to keep watch over the vessel’s auto-control system. Those old models had a tendency to drift off course and few places still stocked the parts to service them properly.
Mostly though, they kept to themselves when off-duty. Alwyn seemed most reclusive. When not barking orders at us he would lock himself away in his quarters, and he insisted on privacy while flying. Mpenda displayed a much deeper respect for their leader than the ornery Santiago, but it was obvious that both were only onboard for the money.
Duties were varied as it was a small crew, and as cabin boy I was to lend a hand where I could. Mostly I cleaned and hauled goods up and down the steel ramp, but it wasn’t long before I started bandaging cuts.
“How is it that someone so young is so skilled at tending wounds?” asked Alwyn as I went to work on the result of a bar fight.
“My father.” I replied.
“Your father? Did he harm you or heal you?”
There always were all kinds of people coming through Sutherland to trade or rest, but the true diversity of the world never truly hit me until I left home. The few times we managed to sneak supplies into America I could barely make out what the locals were saying. I suppose our languages began to split after they cut themselves off. San did most of the talking on these trips with the Spanish traders, but we never stayed long enough for me to get a good sense of those people. The East was a different story. China and India traded much more openly with the African Union and our dealings there, while not always legitimate, were far more relaxed. I soon learned of Alwyn’s many women as well. He had one for almost every tradeport we docked. Devina was his lady in Kolkota, Sara from Volgograd, Palesa from Soweto and so on.
“Al’s never had a bitch in Sutherland. Neither have I.” San told me once as yet another round of sensual moaning filled the corridors of the ship. He winked at me to remind me I was lucky before heading off.
“I’m going to the market. The noise there will distract me from this noise,” he said, turning back to me, “need anything?”
I said nothing. I had asked for jeko-pads a month prior for my bleeding, much to his amusement. He clearly remembered the date and thought to repeat the joke. Alwyn quietly produced one from somewhere that time, when Santiago was elsewhere occupied, but seemed uncomfortable during the exchange. I felt so ashamed. How could I ask him again now that the bleeding was back?
Later, before dawn, Alwyn escorted young Palesa out. They were gone for quite some time and I assumed after saying a typically laconic goodnight to the woman, he had joined the others on Vilakazi Street for some of the typical big-city trappings. Inside his room there must be more, I thought to myself. Alwyn wouldn’t mind. It’s not like he needed them, after all. Palesa and the others, maybe. Surely he’d understand me needing one?
I slowly opened the door and dialled up the dim lights. The room was small, like the rest of the crew quarters, but much sparser. I was often tasked with tidying the other rooms, Santiago would watch me clean his, but had never done Alwyn’s. He seemed to keep things orderly to the point of sterility, except his bed which still had the signs of being freshly used.
I moved toward a desk opposite the bed. Old, made from real wood, it was the only piece of furniture in the room besides the bed, and had three drawers on the front-left side. The top one held some loose stationary, a digital drive to store logs I didn’t understand and a flexi-screen on which to review them. The second drawer was locked. I figured Alwyn had the key. The third contained needles, multiple glass vials of liquid and an assortment of pills. Strange, but I left it. Perhaps in the cupboards, built into the gunmetal-grey walls, I would have more luck.
I did find a jeko-pad there among his neatly pressed clothes, but I never had the chance to use it. Rummaging through Alwyn’s shirts and underclothes I found what looked like a vest, but unlike any vest I had seen. The cut and feel made it clear that this would be skin-tight on someone of Alwyn’s build, surely placing huge discomfort on his chest. It dawned on me that I never had seen him topless, and that underneath his lighter or thinner shirts there had always been the darkened shape of just such a tight vest. I looked down at my own chest, which was starting to bud painfully. I tried always to wear loose-fitting clothes, but my body was becoming hard to hide. I could feel Santiago staring, again.
I quickly returned the vest to where I found it, grabbed the sticky cotton pad I had come for, and turned to leave, but behind me, staring with fire in his eyes was not Santiago, but Alwyn. He looked down at me as I tried to form the words to apologise. To say anything at all. But I could not. With the back of his hand he struck me across the face and brought me to my knees. He dragged me out of the door. I lay there, dizzy and in shock.
“Go and help the others carry boxes,” he said before slamming the door in my face. I made my way unsteadily down the passage to do as I was told. G-13s aren’t very big as far as cargo-carriers go, but even so I didn’t see Alwyn again for nearly a month.
We continued to fly from tradeport to tradeport, meeting up with groups of men, sometimes grimy and unshaven, sometimes in impeccable suits with charming smiles, but never trustworthy. Twice I was knocked to the ground as we took off unexpectedly and the sounds of bullets ricocheted off our hull as we sped away. Though mostly deals went off smoothly and the men would drink to their success, leaving me would tidy up after them. When Alwyn eventually allowed himself to be seen by me I attempted to speak to him, but after a few days of his cold shoulder I knew better than to keep trying. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, and I understood, but never managed it before he skulked off.
Santiago had noticed this. He’d noticed I had lost the good favour of his boss and his comments about my chest were becoming more frequent. More physical. I would dream of cutting open his crooked scar only to see black, hollow nothingness inside the man. Mpenda was no comfort. He seemed troubled and preoccupied.
I bled several more times, probably in half the cities of the world, before my final trade job. Of all places, we docked on the outskirts of Santiago.
We had many boxes to unload, filled with everything from Ethiopian porcelain to protein blocks. It took hours to unload, and the result was a maze of crates across an empty field. When the work was complete Alwyn retreated back to his quarters, ordering the others to stand guard. Mpenda produced his deck of cards and started dealing. Santiago groaned.
“Can’t we do something else for a change?” he said as I made my way to the other side of the maze for some rest.
“You just don’t like that you can’t win this game,” I heard Mpenda say, as I drifted to sleep.
Again, I dreamt of Santiago and his scar, but this time he fought back as I tried to cut him. We were falling into blackness, wrestling for control over one another. I grabbed the pistol from his holster and where I had cut him in previous dreams, I pulled the trigger. There was no noise but the screams of a dying man which echoed around me. The void filled with hot, red blood. I jolted back to consciousness to find myself back among boxes and crates. The sun had set and in the distance the city lights were flickering.
Hearing voices a few metres on, I guessed the buyers had arrived and that the dealing was underway, but before I rose to join the group their words caught my ears.
“He was a bad cousin anyway. He left us to go make his money, and what does that boy give us for raising him into a man? Nothing!”
“So you will keep your side of the deal?” The second voice was a low murmur from Mpenda.
“As long as you keep delivering.”
I made my way quietly around the boxes for a better view. Staying low and with the ship at my back, I stuck my head up just enough to see the exchange. Santiago was dead. His eyes stared lifelessly at me. In the darkness I could just make out a pool of blood around the man I had so hated, branching out into dark rivulets in the dirt. Above him stood four men I’d never seen before, and Mpenda.
“I will, but the boss—” said Mpenda to the strangers, before being cut off.
“That thing is not your concern, my friend. Let us go and convince him.”
As they holstered their weapons I turned and ran up the ramp into the cargo-hold with the smell of dirt and blood in my nostrils. My eyes welled up and I could barely see even in the lit passages of the ship. I tripped while rounding the bend to the crew quarters, grazing my knee on a protruding bolt. Alwyn opened his door to investigate the sound and upon seeing me, retreated back. His door slammed just as I managed to call out to him. No response.
I limped over to his room and hammered at the door.
“Santiago is dead!” I screamed in desperation.
“Who was that?” A voice echoed from afar.
“Shit,” I heard Mpenda say, “the child must have seen us!”
Alwyn opened the door with wide eyes and told me to get inside.
“Who did this?” His usual terseness betrayed by the quiver in his voice.
“I—I don’t know. Mpenda was with them.” His face fell.
“And how many were with him?”
“I think four. They’re on board now.”
“Okay, stay here. And don’t touch my fucking binders this time!” He stood up and turned to his desk, tidy as ever, producing the key to the drawer I’d found locked. Removing a small pistol from within, he made for the door.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I snuck out to follow Alwyn. In the distance I heard shots, and so creeped through the passages in the hopes of helping, somehow. The lights above me flickered. Some of them had been shot out. Bullet holes peppered the walls. It seemed the closer I moved to the fighting the further away it shifted, until I found myself in the canteen. Grabbing a large knife, I moved to the doorway opposite me, back to the cargo-hold. I could hear movement on the other side. Slowly I opened the door, holding my weapon to the ready. Four dead men lay in wait for me. One of them draped backwards over some railing, three more sprawled out across the large empty space. Across the room stood Alwyn and in front of me, facing him, was Mpenda.
And this is where people ask if I stabbed the traitor, and won the day as a young hero. But no. I was but a boy. Alwyn saw me and his eyes pleaded for me to not intervene, so I stayed motionless, close to the ground.
“Why?” he asked, with sadness and anger battling for dominance within him.
“I had to. I owe people who don’t like to lose. I need this.”
“You never told me. We could have worked this out, man to man.”
“Man to man?” Mpenda sighed. “You’re not—”
Alwyn shot before his rival could finish. Mpenda shot back and Alwyn dived down before retaliating. Feeling like the fighting would last forever I held my eyes closed, still gripping the knife. Eventually everything fell silent. I opened my eyes and found that no man was left standing. Mpenda and Alwyn lay motionless at opposite ends of the room. From the far end, I heard a groan, before Alwyn, in his typically stark manner, called out.
“Kai, help me up.”
I ran over to him, bleeding but alive. He had been shot in the chest just below his left shoulder.
“Well, Mister Healer? What are we going to do about this?”
“I—I don’t know,” I said.
“Yes you do.” He gave me a stern look and pointed to my kitchen-knife.
I lifted his bloodied shirt to find his dark vest. It was too tight to remove without hurting him so I cut it off. As the cloth split open Alwyn’s body erupted outward to reveal a chest like mine and he exhaled with the extra comfort. I dug into my captain to retrieve Mpenda’s bullet with the tip of my knife. He had not done nearly as much damage to Alwyn as he had received. I applied some ointments and bandaged the wound as best I could, before helping Alwyn to his feet. Together we limped to the cockpit.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked as he raised the bay doors.
“I thought you knew from the binder.”
“Binder. For my chest.”
“Is this why you took me with you?” I said.
“Hey, you came with us, I never took you. But yes, I saw some of me in you. I don’t like to talk about these things though.”
“Me neither. It hurts.”
“Not as much as bullets,” he said thoughtfully as he flipped some switches and the old engines shuddered to life. “But mostly I kept it quiet so the other men would take me seriously. You need to be strong for them to respect you. But I knew they were just in it for the money.”
“So are you,” I said.
“Yeah, but only so I could get surgery for these things,” he said, pointing to his chest. “It’s expensive, but once I had the money I couldn’t trust the others to not snatch everything I had built.”
As the old G-13 lifted into the night sky, I sat quietly next to Alwyn. He told me he’d always thought it would be Santiago to betray him first, and that at least now we could go to the doctors out East.
“We can get you sorted, too.” He smiled as our craft’s auto-controls came online. “Two men against the world, forever.” I paused before responding quietly.
“No.” He looked at me with contempt. I repeated myself. “No. I want to go home.”
“Back to the desert?”
“This isn’t what I want.”
“There are no surgeons in Sutherland who can fix you.”
“I’ve had enough. I want to go home,” I said again. We were growing visibly irritated with each other now.
“You’ve been across the whole fucking world! You’ve got your hands dirty, done and seen more than most men do in their whole lives. Why give it up to go back to that backwater and get called a girl for the rest of your life?”
“I’m not a girl, though,” I said.
“Sutherland won’t know that. You must look and act like a man to be respected as one.”
“This isn’t the type of man I want to be,” I said, “I already know who I am.”
As we sped through the air he sat in silence before nodding gently.
“And who are you?”
I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to stay with this man who had saved me in so many ways. But he was dangerous. It wasn’t our first close call, and when his mood turned it would be business as usual, even without the others.
We set course for Sutherland where the sun was beating down as ever in the marketplace and the foundations for the new tradeport were already being dug beside the dilapidated observatory. I never did see Alwyn again, but before we parted ways he gave me one of his special vests, and of course some money to repay that old merchant. At home my father embraced me, tears in his eyes. My leaving didn’t fix our problems but things were better for those last years of his life.
“My child, where have you been?” he said, hugging me tightly. “Oh, my little girl!”
I smiled. In truth, I was still in that cockpit.
“And who are you?”
“I am a man,” I said.
Kellyn Botha is a writer and “social-media officer” at the Johannesburg-based NGO, Iranti-org. A journalism graduate of the University currently known as Rhodes, Kellyn’s work and education both lie in various forms of writing, and she has a passion for writing news, poetry and sci-fi short stories (an excuse to do some world-building).
Whether writing of dystopian futures or documenting the dystopian present, Kellyn tries always to bring LGBTI issues to the fore of her work. This in the hope of contributing to challenging social stigma, and to present LGBTI readers with characters and narratives with which they can identify in a world that often forgets them.