Below is a preview (the prologue and first chapter) of my 130,000-word novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon: a Calvino-esque psychological novel about transnational characters using varied art forms to struggle against a Southeast Asian surveillance state. With explosions.
On the day that the Range attacked for the very first time, Meghan Ooi was slumped in the back seat of a rented Toyota and sighing audibly as the dreary highway landscape rolled by the window. Instead of spending the Lunar New Year with her extended family, eating all the incredible Teochew dishes that her Auntie Keng would concoct, gossiping with her female cousins, and shopping for new clothes, she was stuck on the other side of the planet with her blur parents and annoying little sister. Their anticipated destination: Disneyland. What a cliché. They’d flown halfway around the world, from their home in the tiny equatorial island-nation of Tinhau, all to visit a theme park decades past its prime.
Her mother played with the car’s radio, settling on an NPR station; some boxer named Mike Tyson had just been sentenced to life imprisonment after accidentally killing two people with his car. Meghan’s mother tsked at the news and said something banal to her father, all of which was immediately forgettable. Meghan’s little sister Opal sat next to her, stroking the egg-shaped Tamagotchi in her hands; it was apparently a limited edition only available in Japan, and Opal had discovered it during their layover at Narita International Airport, cooing over the beeping little device thereafter.
Meghan brooded, tamping down the impulse to snatch the Tamagotchi and fling it out the window. This extended trip meant she’d miss a week of classes on top of the government-mandated three-day school holiday, and she had an important history test coming up; Secondary Three was already proving more difficult and stressful than Sec Two, and the thought of the time spent away from her studies caused her trapezius muscles to bunch up in tension.
“Aiyoh, Pa,” she said. “Why we no stay at the resort, ah? That way, roll out of bed and see Mickey and Minnie straight away instead of all this driving.”
“Ai Lin,” her mother said, turning around in her seat and using Meghan’s legal Chinese name in that emphatic way that always made it sound like an insult. “Is that the way to speak to your father?”
“Too ex, too ex, I already tell you, lah,” her father grumbled from the front seat. “You think I just pluck money out of the air? Don’t got to work hard, is it? And the school fees for you and your sister not cheap either. We be there soon, just hush.”
Meghan sighed again and leaned against the window, her antler stub striking against the glass with a soft tok. Her reflection was distorted so close up, but she was still able to detect the black stripes that stretched from the undersides of her eyelids to the corners of her mouth, and the slight natural elongation of her head. For the first ten years of her life, she’d put up with her mother calling her “my little gazelle”, until she made it clear in no uncertain terms that the nickname was no longer cute; she still recalled the hurt way that her mother’s face had crumpled at the news, but Meghan had stood her ground, and her mother had respected her opinion on the matter from then on.
She often wondered how different her life might have been had she been born this way only ten years earlier: labeled a freak, a deformation, a curiosity, shunted to surgeons to shave down the bones of her face into a more acceptable shape, or shipped off to special-needs schools to segregate her from the “normals”. But instead, by the time she had made her grand entrance, squalling and tight-fisted, the world had had over eight years to become accustomed to the birth of swees; she’d read in the Tinhau People’s News just the previous week that there was now more than a 25% chance of any given child on the planet being born a swee.
Not that she hadn’t put up with ridicule over the years, which usually combined her physical features with the onomatopoeic sound of her surname. “Horse Face Whee!” was a common epithet. There had also been some frightening recent talk about eugenics in the Tinhau Parliament, about which Meghan had been assigned to write an essay by her English teacher, a paper that had gotten a C, with comments that begrudged her for not taking a stronger stance because of who she was, as if her entire identity revolved around the fact that in just a few unremarkable ways she resembled an antelope.
As the road surface briefly roughened, causing her antler nub to vibrate with a quick tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap against the window, Meghan raised her head to stop the sound and simultaneously smiled and blushed at a memory from the beginning of January, just the month before. Her best friend Levana, the self-proclaimed Queen of Goths at Tinhau Chinese Girls’ School, had given her a small vibrator for her fifteenth birthday, hurriedly bought in one of the discreet sex shops on Coppice Road. It was silver, bullet-shaped and only half the length of Meghan’s index finger, with a stretchy silicone strap to fit over said finger, and Meghan couldn’t stop giggling as she finished unwrapping the gift. Levana had invited Meghan over to her flat on the pretense of project work in order to give it to her, and after determining that it worked behind the locked door of her bedroom, announced that they should “vibrate some stuff”. They started with innocuous things like Levana’s dresser, and Meghan’s school books, and Levana’s teeth, before she thought to place it on Meghan’s right antler nub; the corresponding thrumming of her skull made her feel as though she were getting an electric shock.
The silver bullet had sat in Meghan’s armoire drawer for more than a week before she’d had the nerve to test it for its intended use. One afternoon, before her parents had gotten home from work, and while Opal was still at her violin lessons, she extracted the vibrator, strapped it on her finger, then locked herself in the toilet, desperate for the extra privacy even though she was the only one there. She stood in front of the mirror, wanting to observe her own reactions as though conducting an experiment, then shifted down the skirt of her school uniform and placed the vibrating bullet over her underpants. She’d touched herself several times prior to that day, mostly in the dark of her room after Opal had gone to sleep, and she’d once let Levana put her hand up Meghan’s skirt, but the most that had been accomplished with this fumbling had been a small warmth localized in the immediate area of her groin; nice, but no big deal. But as she moved the bullet in small slow circles, she was astonished at how quickly the warmth progressed upward, all the way through her body to the top of her head and the tips of her toes. The sensation overwhelmed her after only a few minutes and she stopped, panting, startled into laughter at how wet her underpants had become. She’d only used the bullet one more time since, trying to draw out the pleasantly aching experience as long as she could; she was already planning how she could sneak more time with it once she returned to Tinhau.
And it was as she was thinking these private thoughts and smiling her secret smile that, directly in front of them, an arc of emerald lightning ripped a jagged tear in the late morning sky down from the clouds and connected with the ground in a massive explosion, in the exact location of the Happiest Place on Earth, which Meghan could feel in her bones even though they were still more than a mile away. Opal yelped next to her and dropped her Tamagotchi to the floorboards, screaming, “Ma! Ma! Shit, Ma! They blow up Disneyland, Ma?”
Meghan’s mother had been shocked into silence. The Toyota slowed on the highway, just enough that it was evident her father had lifted his foot from the accelerator. Opal was crying now, but Meghan felt a surprising lack of emotion at the thought that lightning had struck a theme park so hard that she could still feel the concussion vibrating in her body, and was about to say something to her sister when a second bolt of green lightning streaked down in the same location, then another, then another. Her father stomped on the brake now and pulled over as far as he could onto the shoulder. Meghan counted the flashes as her mother burst into tears and her father groaned, “No no no no no no no”: seven concentrated strikes in all before it seemed to be over, a huge plume of smoke billowing upward and outward in front of them.
The other cars on the highway had also slowed and stopped, a sight that scared Meghan more than the apparent destruction ahead. Her family’s gazes were all trained in front of them, and so Meghan was apparently the only one to see a shape rising back into the clouds, a shape like an upside-down mountain, which disappeared up into the cumulo-nimbus as though it had never been. They all sat there, stunned and in shock, for nearly five minutes before Meghan’s father snapped out of his observational trance, put the car in gear, and then headed forward once more.
“Javier Ooi!” Meghan’s mother shouted. “Where the hell are you going!”
“Disneyland. We going to Disneyland.”
“People are hurt, lah! I can help!”
Meghan admired her father in that moment. He worked as a civil servant in Tinhau’s Ministry of Infrastructure, and had differentiated himself from his colleagues (at least, as far as Meghan knew) by his generous spirit. At ministry functions, he was often held up as the model of selflessness, and was always helping their neighbors with little odd jobs that the town council never seemed to get around to. And now, he was planning to run straight into a disaster area to help those in need.
He might even have succeeded if Meghan’s mother hadn’t hauled back and slapped him hard across the cheek, making Opal gasp and bring her hands up over her mouth, and Meghan recoil as though she’d been the one to receive the impact.
“You think for moment about your family, you fucking fool!” her mother shouted, the first time Meghan had ever heard her use such strong language. “Are you going to drive your daughters into a war zone? Hah? Just so you can tell stories about it back home? You really so goddamn stupid, ah?”
Silence settled over the inside of the car like a thick blanket, and her father’s shoulders drooped, as though the air had been abruptly let out of him.
“You turn this car around right now and get us to safety. What use is being a hero if your family is all dead?”
In the coming months and years, as Meghan would suffer through the repeated psychological trauma caused by regular successive worldwide attacks made by what the mass media would dub “the Range”, pushed through empathy into depression, then blithe acceptance, then inurement, she would think back to this moment, to this feeling of helplessness and futility, to this exact coordinate in spacetime when her father turned the steering wheel of the rented Toyota and wove them back the wrong way through frozen highway traffic, Ground Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero, and she would know with utter certainty that this was the instant the world went crazy.
It was late morning when Zed arrived, incognito.
The passenger train slid into the Tinhau West station like an intruder, stealthy, quiet, a hiss and a sigh. Zed gathered his rolling suitcase from the rack above his head and departed the berth with heavy steps, leaving it empty behind him. He had been fortunate to have the cabin to himself for the final section of his journey across the Malayan peninsula then over the Kallang Straits and into the Republic of Tinhau. For the fourteen hours beforehand, he had suffered the presence of a Sri Lankan electronics merchant who’d droned on and on about the latest ordinator processors and advances in mobile phone technology, and, mistaking Zed for Mainland Chinese, praised the ingenuity and commitment of the PRC in their development of clean energy, and then at one point fell noisily to sleep and snored as if he had inhaled a jet engine; however, the man’s raucous and oblivious presence still had not been enough of a distraction from the purpose of Zed’s travel. When the merchant finally disembarked at Surat Thani in Thailand, Zed had collapsed into his exhaustion, and slept the rest of the way to his destination, coming awake with a start as the conductor announced the arrival into Tinhau West.
After enduring an insufferably long queue at the immigration lounge, during which more than a few groups of people around him with improper documentation were turned away from the border, Zed emerged into the stifling tropical heat with his British passport stamped, his shirt instantly soaking through with sweat. The humidity sucked at his breath and churned his stomach. For the love of the Buddha, had it been this fucking hot when he’d left? He proceeded around clots of travelers and tourists, following the signs outside the station to connect up with the TMRT subway interchange that would carry him the rest of the way. He descended via the escalator to the concourse level, purchased a single-use pass with his credit card, stepped through the turnstile to the platform, and stood in front of the glass doors for the East-West line. From one train to another.
The subway train arrived after a short wait, and the doors hissed open. Zed took a seat near the front of the car, and placed his suitcase in the aisleway. Above the windows were strips of adverts for skin-whitening cream and hair-straightening shampoo, as well as signs prohibiting eating, drinking, smoking, and the possession of durian fruits on the train cars. A poster to Zed’s right displayed a stock photo of a mushroom cloud in radioactive orange, captioned by: PENDERHAKA ARE EVERYWHERE—REPORT ALL SUSPICIOUS INDIVIDUALS AND ACTIVITY; fineprinted with: This message brought to you by PropaCorp. Zed also took note of the increased number of bio-mechanical scunts latched to the ceiling of the subway car, insidious barnacles protected by spheres of opaque glass, ever-vigilant, always watching and recording.
As if to punctuate the heightened security theatre and fear-mongering, significantly more pronounced in the years since he had migrated abroad, the square video screens that dotted the subway car’s interior amongst the advert strips all showed the same BBC breaking news report: an attack by the Range in the North American Union state of Texas, which had killed around fifty people and destroyed a number of refineries and a section of the Keystone Pipeline. According to the crawl, it had happened only two hours before, whilst Zed was just getting off the passenger train. The unleashed devastation had, like all reported Range incidents around the globe, come completely by surprise. The footage cut from firefighters battling the blazes and paramedics tending to the wounded, to a looped recording of the attack as it had happened, captured by a witness’s iPhone: the amorphous mountainous structure descending through the clouds and laying waste with green lightning, then disappearing back up into the stratosphere without a trace. The provincial governor of Mexico had swiftly pledged resources and emergency personnel.
The remainder of the seats on the subway train soon filled up, with families going on a day vacation down to Repose Bay, with teenagers headed to the shops in Negeri Draseleq, with tall rufous-skinned Pohonorang workers trudging to destinations of menial labor. All such normal activities, as though four dozen human beings had not just had their lives snuffed out on the other side of the world. Zed sighed. He looked into the faces of a people he hadn’t seen in twelve years. He was surprised to discover that he had missed them so much, and saddened once again by the reason for his return; he also perversely wondered at the potential pandemonium were he to reveal his true face, as he had done ever-so-sneakily to the immigration officer just now. He might have been able to travel unhassled and unrecognized in someplace like Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro or even parts of the NAU, but not in his homeland.
The doors finally closed, and the subway train advanced into Tinhau.
At Kennaway3, an extremely pregnant woman boarded with a toddler in tow. Every seat in the train car was taken, and the woman glared at everyone around Zed, daring them with her gaze. Zed was exhausted, having traveled for the past several days over the vast swathes of the Chinese mainland, then down through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaya; it would have been financially easy to hire a car and driver to bring him the whole way, to arrive in comfort and luxury, but that just wasn’t his way. He had at least twenty-five more minutes on the TMRT, and he didn’t want to spend them standing up, but none of his fellow riders were apparently going to give up their seats. So he got to his feet and motioned to the expectant mother, who smiled genuinely and sat on the proffered indentation in the plastiform bench. After she’d gotten situated, and heaved her squirming little boy onto her lap, she unleashed an invective in Hokkien at the other passengers, all of whom averted their eyes in shame. Zed couldn’t understand the exact words—he knew only a smattering of the dialect, being much more proficient in English, Teochew, and a passable amount of Bahasa Melayu—but the meaning was clear. He sat on his suitcase and tried to balance amidst the subway’s vibrations.
Zed disembarked at Ilianore5. The northern escalator brought him up to street level, and after waiting for only a few minutes at the streetcar stop, its overhead awning like a turquoise question mark, the vehicle arrived with a clanging of bells. The streetcar wound through familiar thoroughfares, passing the primary schools, the recreation center, the boarded-up Workers’ Party headquarters. The smells of his childhood came at him all in a rush, saturating his brain with memory. Past the Indian grocer, the Dutch chocolate shop, the British butcher, the Vietnamese café. Past the independent booksellers, tobacconists, tailors, luggage suppliers, liquor stores, and many many food courts. He recognized some, the businesses that had managed to hang on despite Tinhau’s relentless march of progress, but the new shops and stalls far outnumbered these, providing a familiar but altered landscape. The past and the present overlaid in his mind’s eye, a distinct disconnect between the two, an unmatched set.
At Negeri Ilianore public housing block 1008, Zed stepped off the streetcar and approached the looming concrete building, its blueprint ubiquitous all throughout Tinhau, as though gigantic filing cabinets had been knocked on their sides all over the entire country. In the foyer, sitting behind an enormous plywood desk, was the doorman, feet up, reading the Tinhau People’s News, the government mouthpiece. Zed cleared his throat and the doorman pulled a corner of the broadsheet down until his left eye came into view.
Zed relaxed that part of his mind that qualified him as a swee, and with a practiced mental click, his facial features flowed and reshaped and settled into their most familiar form; the feeling had been highly disconcerting after he’d discovered his ability as a teenager, as though nothing solid of him really existed, as if he were made of slow-moving tar that occasionally allowed itself to stiffen into a given form, but that had been long ago, before he had gained mastery.
At the physical change, the doorman jerked his feet off the desk, but to his credit did not fall over or even yelp in surprise. Swees were more common every day—there were some experts who proposed that in just one or two more generations, no human being would be born without some kind of special ability—but Zed would have forgiven the doorman for losing his shit, at least a little bit, at seeing a man change his face right in front of him. Zed dug his scuffed national identification card out of his pocket and flashed it at the man, who grunted.
“I know you, lah. You stay long?”
The doorman grunted again and motioned to the lift with his head. “Okay, you know where,” he said and then went back to his newspaper.
Zed walked to the lift lobby, rolling his suitcase behind him, his head stuffed full of cotton after the long voyage, his arms and legs abruptly heavy. He was so tired. He closed his eyes as the machinery that powered the lift in front of him hummed.
“Oi, superstar. Welcome home!”
Zed turned around at the doorman’s utterance, and flinched as the flash from the man’s mobile phone temporarily blinded him. A brief surge of anger rose up, daring him to charge back to the desk, snatch the man’s phone, and dash it to pieces on the tiled floor of the lobby, or at the very least throw the man his middle finger, but then just as suddenly the feeling dissipated. He’d been photographed so often by so many people over the past several years that he could make no claim to privacy anymore. Still, he’d hoped to be able to avoid the amateur paparazzi for at least a few days, until after the memorial service. He sighed. Too much to hope for. The man was probably already uploading the photo to Friendface or Instagram even as Zed stood there.
The doors soon parted and he stepped inside, pressed the button for seven. The lift hurtled upward and then dinged open at the seventh floor: the corridor was more run down than the last time he’d been here, more dirt and scum on the walls, a darker grey cast to the concrete. In one of the neighboring flats, an Indian soapi was cranked to full volume, and the melodramatic Tamil dialogue echoed in the corridor. At the third door on the right, he took a deep breath and knocked. After a few moments, the door opened.
A large Pohonorang woman stood there, mop in hand. At over two meters tall, she filled the entire frame, and her dark reddish-brown skin, coarse all over as if she were an ancient oak tree come to life, was shiny from work. Her deep green eyes glistened, and the corners of her mouth pulled upward slightly. The kind face and the looming presence of his early years.
Then a middle-aged Chinese woman in a flower-print dress appeared from behind, and elbowed the Pohonorang maid out of the way. The woman’s straight dark hair was cut short in a bob that accentuated her sharp cheekbones, and her eyes were rimmed with red, her smile bittersweet. As the maid turned to go back into the flat, the Chinese woman pulled Zed forward into a rib-crushing hug that expelled the air from his lungs. After a long moment, she released him and looked at his face, her eyes blinking quickly.
“Sayang, sayang,” she said in Teochew. “Tomorrow I expect you, leh! I have R going to fetch you from the station.”
“It is good you come home, sayang. We can put your sister to rest now.”