Imaginary Numbers

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The Arrival

Cape Town, South Africa

Vivienne stared out of the plane window. Below her was the city of Cape Town nestled in a bay of tall cliffs and mountains. There was a layer of low clouds shrouding the famous flat Table Mountain. And in the north, way in the distance, there was a billowing black cloud from a massive fire.

The pilot announced the landing, and advised travellers that martial law was in effect for large areas of the north, and that Gauteng had been under severe threat from marauding beasts. He strictly recommended not leaving the Cape Province, but for tourists to enjoy their trips to lovely South Africa anyway. The seat belt signs flashed on, and the flight attendants prepared for landing.

“I’m sorry about earlier, professor.”

“It’s fine. But Vivienne, what happened?” He was referring to a spontaneous bout of panic she had felt earlier. She was staring out of the window, up into the navy blue sky, high above the clouds. “Were you reminded of your fall? Is that it?”

“No, I don’t know. I just felt the presence of someone high up. People much higher than us. I just started fearing for them.” The professor frowned.

“Do you mean to say, you sensed another airplane?”

“Not really. There were only 5 or 6 of them. And they were moving at tremendous speeds. I thought they were falling, but they just kept going and going. Maybe it was just a bad dream.”

“Hmmm… It might well have been that you were sensing the astronauts in the space station.”

“Space station?”

“Yes, there are some researchers in orbit. It seems to me that you are describing them. There’s no need to worry. They are safe.” Then he hesitated. “In fact, from the sounds of things, they will be much safer than we will be.”

Vivienne nodded, smiled. “Don’t worry, professor. I think we’ll be fine.”

While in flight they watched a special news broadcast about the rampaging beasts in southern Africa. These animals were currently being hunted by the military, who have, despite their tanks and helicopters, lost more than a few soldiers. Journalists have reported that the monsters are made from rock, or shale, that they are unnatural, bulletproof abominations. Conspiracy theorists believed they are alien imitations of our wildlife, or that these were escaped government projects. The religious right were saying it's the apocalypse, and that now was the time to confess sins and make peace. CNN warned people that these animals had spread into southern Europe, and that people should prepare for the worst. They showed a man who lives in a bunker complex underground made of buried school busses. It seemed to the professor that they are headed towards the nexus of some absolutely terrifying event.

The airplane landed in a light drizzle, and when they deplaned, it became clear that the country was preparing for the worst. There were soldiers with machine guns everywhere, tanks parked on the streets, and a convoy of jeeps that were no doubt collecting important international observers.

“What are we doing here?”

“Well, professor, the Pythagoreans believe that the world is under threat. And I believe them.”

“It’s easy to believe them when you see military everywhere.”

“So it’s up to us to save it.”

He sighed as they entered a line up for customs. “Vivienne, I’m not good with stress. In fact, dare I say it, I might be a coward when it comes to things such as this.”

“William,” she smiled a smile that warmed him up from inside, and placed her hand on his arm, “everything will be fine. Trust me.”

* * *

The air outside smelled sweet. The rain had let up, leaving the world covered in a glossy sheen. Cape Town is a vibrant city, lying low against the misty mountains. Traces of its spice route past remain everywhere in the fragrant food, and the jovial beige people that have been mixed from generation to generation in a port city that once traded as far afield as India and Indonesia. Xhosa people busk in the public squares, speaking in a clicking tongue, harking back to a distant day when the bushmen controlled the Cape.

Vivienne was mesmerized by the activity. She blended in well, and a diminutive man with light brown skin and curly hair waved her over and spoke to her at first in Afrikaans, thinking that she belonged in the city. He apologized in English and gave her a flower from his collection. “Sorry,” he said, “I thought you were a kleurling.”

“What does ’kleurling’ mean?” she asked the professor as they continued their walk to the warehouse where Marius had purchased the laboratory equipment.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “But I suppose he assumed you were a local.” And when he looked over at her, she definitely seems to fit in. Her complexion was dark, and her exotic features would seem at home anywhere in the world.

In front of the warehouse, a group of people were sat down, selling trinkets displayed on large quilted blankets. They were exquisite crafts made from wire and beads, carved from driftwood in an expert hand, and collections of jewelry made from an assortment of colourful seeds, bones, and mysterious dried plants. Vivienne bought a bangle made of tiny turquoise beads, while the professor entered to talk to the owner.

Dankie, miss,” the man said. “Where you from?”

“I am from the sky.” They both laughed.

“You a nice woman,” he said. “What are you doing in South Africa?”

“We’re looking for a man.”

“You can look, but people disappear here. It can be hard to find. And now, the government bans travel north. You must enjoy the Cape, then go back to your country. Trouble is coming soon.”

“We have to find him. It is very important.” Then she added, “Besides, I think he is here in the Cape.” The professor exited the building through the giant wooden door of the warehouse.

“Vivienne,” he said, “they delivered the equipment to an address in the north, near Magaliesburg in the Transvaal Province. The owner said that it’s impossible to get there now.” The black merchant, regarded them both, nodded, then spoke to his associate in a language that includes a few tongue clicks.

“Miss,” he said, “only travel north is by combi. My brother owns one. He can take you.”

“What’s a combi?” the professor asked.

“A kind of taxi. Iz a big car. A van.” The man behind him spoke again, continuing his beadwork. “He says, you can bribe the army. They don’t care if combis go north, but iz expensive.” He looked at the professor, then he added, “Normally, white people don’t ride combis.”

“Can your brother take us?” Vivienne asked.

“Of course, miss. But you are nice. Be careful.” She smiled. “My brother, Dembe will take good care of you.”

“Thank you for your help,” she said sincerely. “And thank you for the bracelet.”

“My pleasure. A beautiful woman needs beautiful things.”

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