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Oh the things you humans do to each other... at least sometimes there may be a way out...
The Thursday Plan
James Mfaxa fiddles with the cotton strap that encircles his neck, then touches the back of his neck to ensure once more that the jammer is still in place, directly over his spine, three finger widths below the base of his skull. He knows the pain that the implants can produce, having experienced it far more often than Johnathon has, and he is uneasy with Johnathon's decision to hold their meeting here in a house less than one hundred meters from a police station known to have a transmitter. Johnathon Themba also has an electrothalmic implant that can be triggered by the police transmitter, and although he and James are each wearing a jammer, hidden beneath the collar of a turtleneck sweater, meeting here is still risky. "Yeah, it's close to the police station," Johnathon gleefully told James and the others at their last meeting. "That's exactly why we're gonna meet there ‑- they'd never expect us to gather right under their noses." As far as James can tell, both Ruth and Richard have accepted Johnathon's logic and seem unconcerned about where they are, but of course neither of them has an implant.
"The Thursday Plan," Johnathon says once everyone sits down. "It will happen before our next meeting."
Ruth says what she has said at other meetings: "So soon? I don't like this ‑- it's too desperate!"
"Oh, please," moans Richard. "We've made our decision. Let's just get on with it."
"I agree it's risky," Johnathon says. "A big risk, but it's gonna be a big payoff, and the people need to see something big like this if they're gonna get their determination back. Are you against us participating?"
"Can't you find some other way?" Ruth sighs.
Richard answers her, saying what he has said before, "This racist regime must be punished ‑- for Biko, for Mandela, for Tutu. Especially for Tutu."
It has only been four months since Desmond Tutu was killed after being arrested ‑- according to their sources, tortured to death ‑- and it is still fresh in their minds. Mandela's death in '97 was bad enough, letting an old man die alone in prison (at least they had more or less provided for his physical needs); but the government has become more bold since then, not only arresting seventy-seven-year-old Tutu, but torturing him to death.
"Ruth, are you against us participating?"
She shifts uneasily, then looks to James who says nothing, his face expressionless. She relents with a tired whisper: "No."
James has considered alternatives to the Thursday Plan. The steel workers union in Johannesburg, for example, might be capable of effecting a satisfactory demonstration. Almost two dozen of the workers have the implants, and the union membership as a whole is united and courageous ‑- a strike, an old-style strike with marching, dancing, speeches, and blockading the work site would surely provoke a response from the authorities. It would be a demonstration not only of the movement's newfound ability to jam the implants but also of its unity and resolve. James has already discussed the possibility with Johnathon, who prefers the Thursday Plan because it would be far more dramatic, because it would do more to polarize the political climate, and, James suspects, simply because it is more daring. James also prefers the Thursday Plan, but for his own reasons: he is afraid that the more their cell becomes involved in mobilizing and instigating the workers, the greater the chance that someone in the union will turn informer; he is afraid that his role as point-man in the Thursday Plan is his big chance to make his mark on history and that if he passes it up it will be gone forever; and he is afraid that if he argues against the more audacious Thursday Plan, the others will question his resolve.
An image descends unbidden into his thoughts, two sets of railroad tracks running parallel for some distance then diverging, and he realizes that the police transmitter has been turned on. (These hallucinations only seem to happen when his jammer is engaged, screening the signals that would activate his implant.) Then, as his imaginary field of view widens, he sees that further back other tracks have branched off from the main line at various points in the past, such as when the PAC ended all cooperation with the ANC, and when Botha died of a heart attack halfway through his second term in office. There are personal moments, as well ‑- his decision not to marry Izzie, his decision to go to Angola for special training, and now his decision whether to support the Thursday Plan ‑‑ and all of the moments are now manifested in diverging railway tracks. As the picture settles into his mind, gradually it becomes more than just a mental image; it becomes something sensory and tangible. The dark room and his three associates disappear to be replaced by a flatcar speeding along the tracks. There is another flatcar, part of another train, traveling beside him, and if he were to time it right, he could jump over to it, but only if he does so immediately, for the two sets of tracks are about to diverge. Instead, he wills the vision away.
Johnathon is repeating his question: "James, you got any objections to our cell participating in the Plan?"
"None. Let's get on with it."
* * *
Sunday morning, less than five days before the execution of the plan, James is surprised to find a man at his door. He is tall, perhaps in his early forties, and wearing the new unofficial uniform of the anti-Apartheid movement: a turtleneck sweater.
"I would like to speak with you. May I come in?"
"Who are you?"
Immediately, James' heart is racing. He knows the name, knows it very well, but the security protocol is that he is never to meet Luke Tshatshu ‑- unless something goes wrong. His first thought is that something has happened to Johnathon. Luke Tshatshu, not his real name of course, is from two levels above him in the organization, the captain of Johnathon's cell just as Johnathon is the captain of James' cell. Luke Tshatshu has been, until now, nothing more than a faceless series of directives conveyed through Johnathon. James invites him in.
"Are we alone?"
"My sister and her children have gone out ‑- we're alone. What's happened to Johnathon? Is he hurt? Arrested? What's going on?"
"No, nothing like that. But we're..." The stranger pauses, searching for a word. "..concerned. Concerned about Johnathon. There's some indication that he's become a free agent, planning his own radical measures without the knowledge of the organization. Unfortunately, the nature of this sort of compartmentalized organizational set-up makes such a thing very possible: you, for example, have no choice but to trust that Johnathon is working in conformity with the wishes and plans of the organization and of those above him; in the same way, he has no choice but to trust that I am."
Until now, it has not even crossed James' mind that the Thursday Plan might not have been sanctioned by the organization; but he knows Johnathon and is not really surprised. Johnathon is committed, determined, and passionate, but he also loves the thrill, the kind of thrill that would accompany the execution of something so grand, so dangerous, against not only the defenses of the government but also the wishes of the organization. The only real surprise is the scale of Johnathon's temerity.
"So, what is it that you think he's planning to do?" James asks.
"Well," says the stranger, sitting down, "why don't you tell me what your cell has been working on?"
In a way, James admires Johnathon's audacity, but he realizes, as well, the precariousness of the situation. Johnathon is potentially in a great deal of trouble. He suspects that he is quite likely in just as much trouble himself, along with Ruth and Richard, but what frightens him even more deeply is knowing that the Thursday Plan is in jeopardy.
"We've been working with a few trade unions and student groups," he says, "looking, you know, for an opportunity to demonstrate the jammers." He lurches uncertainly to the old computer desk in the corner, opens a drawer, and pulls out the little plastic box attached to a black, cotton strap. "Ever seen one of these?"
The stranger smiles and pats the back of his neck. "I know them very well." Then, hearing screaming from outside, somewhere down the street, he turns his head toward the window.
"It's not what you'd call a peaceful life here in the townships," says James, laughing nervously. "So, you have a jammer?"
Turning back, the stranger nods. "I was sentenced to 'preventative electrothalmic probation' three months ago. They're resorting to implants more and more, I'm afraid."
The South African government began using the implants in twenty-oh-five; by now, three years later, over four hundred activists have received them. Based on very simple electronics and very complex European nerve regeneration technology, the implant is wired directly into the central nervous system, in particular, the pain centers in the thalamus, and is activated by signals on any one of several different radio frequencies. Once activated, it will produce one of two effects: excruciating pain or unconsciousness. Each implant is also booby-trapped against tampering or removal with a lethal dose of poison. Different poisons are used and, of course, the recipient is not told which poison his implant contains. It is not impossible for a sympathetic surgeon who knows what he is doing to remove the implant safely, but such surgeons are rare.
A person with an implant can also protect himself by staying at least one kilometer away from any police transmitter, but this amounts to defense by compliance, so until now the implants have been effective. Nevertheless, change seems to be on the horizon: the jammers, which were developed last year by an Angolan engineering student, have so far proven to be 100% effective.
"What were you saying about a demonstration?" the stranger asks.
"Oh, right. So anyway, we've been trying to assess, you know, which group actually has the capacity to pull it off. So far, the answer is none of them, but we're trying to help the groups to develop and mature."
"And has your cell been working on anything else? Anything related to your special skills or Richard's?"
James tries, with little success, to calm himself, not knowing what to do. In fabricating a major scheme like the Thursday Plan outside of the organization's proper channels, Johnathon has deceived and endangered his subordinates, Ruth, Richard, and James. At the same time, James does not want to abandon the Thursday Plan and what it represents to him, fearing that if he loses it, he will lose the last source of purpose in his life. In his thoughts, he fires a prayer like a signal flare into the sky, begging someone or something for guidance and clarity. As he does, he notes without time for a second thought that the distant screaming they have been hearing has still not stopped.
"So, are you saying," James asks, "that you think Johnathon is involved in some sort of sabotage operat‑‑"
Suddenly, he feels bolts of agony searing through every fiber of his body, and every muscle tenses, fighting against every other muscle. Finding himself on the ground, he tries to somehow crawl away from the pain, but is unable to coordinate his arms and legs. He realizes that the police must be nearby with a mobile transmitter, but he is unable to form any other coherent thoughts, and then, without any sort of transition, he is detached from his body. The pain is still there, still extreme, but it now seems slightly less immediate and relevant. Looking back to his body, he sees two ‑- two bodies in two very different worlds. One world he knows very well for he has lived it, but beyond it his other self is neither screaming nor writhing on the floor. As he begins to access his memories from this alternate world, he sees that it is a saner place in which Apartheid is more than a decade dead. He tries to approach it but is blocked by a solid wall of pain. And the pain continues, until. . .
He feels the stranger, "Luke Tshatshu", pressing the jammer against the back of his neck. Suddenly the pain, along with any perceptions that remained of the two realities, disappears, replaced by a more abstract hallucination of the kind he is familiar with. The two realities collapse into two slits in a card toward which he has been cast like a beam of light in a secondary school physics experiment. Were he merely a beam of light, he would simply pass through the two slits to the other side. Even a single electron would somehow find a way to pass through both slits. But he is a mortal being, and he knows that by Thursday, at the latest, he must choose.
* * *
"Bloody hell!" says Richard peeking through the curtains down to the street. "What the hell are those protesters doing there?"
James, pretending to be concerned, comes to the hotel room window to look down to the street with Richard, where police are strung across the road blocking a group of about forty people, a few carrying drums, the rest placards. James, turning his back on Richard, nods to himself ‑- the student activists have positioned themselves perfectly, and he knows well enough the way the police will handle a situation like this. They will assume that at least some of the protesters have implants, which they do, and with the President so close, they will undoubtedly have a mobile transmitter nearby. James only hopes that the police will not have finished using it before the President emerges from the building sixty meters down the street where he is addressing the local Chamber of Commerce.
"Never mind," he tells Richard. "We will just, you know, have to make the best of it. Close the curtains."
Richard steps away from the window and goes to sit beside the door, a pistol in his hand. His job is to keep watch and to protect James. "Are you wearing your jammer? It looks as if you'll need it."
James pulls down the front of his turtleneck to reveal the cotton strap that circles his neck just below his Adam's apple. Then he pulls it back up, sits down on the bed, and opens the suitcase that he has been carrying. Inside are a pair of binoculars, two sandwiches, a pair of gloves, the rifle and its scope, and three magazines of ammunition. He tosses a sandwich to Richard, puts on the gloves, then begins to assemble the Steyr-Mannlicher SSG-69, the same rifle he trained with in Angola. Once assembled, he sets it beside the window, opens the curtains a sliver, then checks his line of sight: completely unobstructed. He checks his watch. It is 3:49, and if their information is correct, the President will emerge from the building any time between 3:54 and 4:09. James picks up the binoculars and begins to watch.
He has been watching for seven minutes when he hears a quick succession of sounds from the street below: vehicles pulling up, shouts, and then screams from several different voices. He pulls the binoculars away and briefly looks down to the street, seeing that police reinforcements have arrived to deal with the protesters.
"What is it?" Richard asks, getting up from his chair and moving toward the window.
"Stay by the door," James commands as he puts the binoculars back up to his eyes. "It's only the police. It looks as if some of those protesters have implants."
"The police are using a transmitter?" Richard asks, returning to his seat. "Oh, my friend, you must be glad for that jammer you're wearing!"
"If I didn't have it, I would be trying to jump out this window just to end--"
James stops in mid-sentence, throwing the binoculars on the bed and quickly taking up the rifle. He tucks the butt against his shoulder and tilts his head slightly, peering through the scope with his right eye. It only takes him half a second to sight on the first of the men that have emerged from the building: bodyguards. He tries to calm himself, to stop his heart from pounding in his ears, but his uncertainty about what he will do next makes this impossible. Everything seems to be happening with perfect timing, just as he has planned: they have successfully kept the plan secret from Luke Tshatshu, he and Richard are in the hotel room, and the police transmitter is broadcasting, sending the signal to activate any implants in the area. And, most importantly, his jammer is on, transforming the signal and co‑opting his implant to create, instead of pain, choices.
Yet, as he sights on the next man and the next, he realizes that part of him still doubts the visions he has had, wonders if they have been merely the hallucinations of a madman who was driven insane by three days of police torture when his implant was first installed. Part of him is still terrified at the idea of not going through with the Thursday Plan, of having to accept that his two years of planning and training for this day have been a sterile, vain lie. And part of him is terrified that the real reason he is searching for a way to not go through with the Plan is that, after two decades of actively fighting Apartheid, he has finally discovered the limit of his commitment and resolve. Yet despite the doubts and the fears, even as President Groenewald comes into his sights, James can feel, deep in his soul, that this is unnecessary, counter-productive, and wrong, and that having the steel workers union in Johannesburg go on strike to demonstrate to a wary and demoralized populace the efficacy of the jammers and the ability of united people to defy the oppressors is a better way.
And then it happens. He can feel it, spreading quickly from the implant at the back of his skull to all parts of his mind ‑- one of his hallucinations ‑- and he briefly feels some sense of relief. He sees himself as a bird, flying beside a tall cliff, high, high above a rocky plain, unable to find an updraft. With his mind's eye he observes the scene solidifying and becoming more and more tangible, but he knows that he must focus on the reality frozen in time around him and make a decision. The mental image that he is a tired bird, as it becomes more palpable, supplanting the hotel room and the street and the magnified image of the President in his telescopic sight, does not distract him from the choice that he has before him; instead, the vision ‑- for it is no longer just a mental image ‑- seems to make the choice more immediate and real. He wants to keep flapping his wings, but he is exhausted, and all he must do to relieve the pain in his muscles is let himself pull the trigger. There is no perch on which to rest: he must climb or drop.
Somehow, he is able to see the plateau above him, and compared to the rocky plain below it is a world of surpassing beauty, yet beyond it, majestic falcons are ascending to even higher plateaus. So with an effort of will James beats his wings, removes his finger from the trigger, and flies up to another universe.
"James, what are you doing? James‑-"
As the rifle disappears and the telescopic sight becomes a television on the other side of the changing room, he watches President Groenewald transform into a different man, a black man whose face he knows ‑- one of the ANC leaders. James begins to remember this new universe, how Tutu did not die in prison, nor Mandela, how Apartheid was brought down in '94, how the nation has struggled since then to foster healing, justice, and prosperity, and how he has been active in that struggle.
He looks over and sees that Richard is still with him, but now accompanied by Johnathon and Ruth, all of them sitting at a table waiting for him.
"He's not saying anything new," says Richard, pointing to President Mbeki on the television. "Put it off."
"The stay-at-homes," Johnathon says, once James joins them at the table. "We must decide about them now."
"A general strike. A bit desperate, don't you think?" Richard objects.
Ruth leans forward. "These austerity measures have to be stopped. The government has lost touch and doesn't understand that it's the poor who are bearing the weight of these reductions."
Out of habit James reaches behind his neck to fiddle with his jammer but finds that it is not there. He is not even wearing a turtleneck sweater. Then he remembers that in this universe there have never been implants, and he smiles. As he remembers more about who he is and what he has been fighting for, he realizes that he has some difficult decisions ahead of him. But with no implant and no jammer, how will he know what to choose? As Johnathon asks for his opinion, he mutters a prayer for clarity, trying to envision the type of world he would like to create.