Terra Firma


The metrics were flickering rapidly on the switchboard. Daily tasks were generated, assigned, and completed in a matter of minutes. Little dome-shaped metal robots (said to be indestructible, and commonly referred to as “digital assistants”) barked commands, flesh-and-blood set the programs in motion, while bright-eyed companion cyborgs looked on soberingly; the day had begun.

Salwa grabbed the ticket out of the companion cyborg in front of her. CAMPIER TROUPER. Like every other hominid in this new land, she had to decipher the anagram before taking on the job. Otherwise the job might as well not exist. And if she didn’t have the skills to do it, well… she had to try and swap it on the grey market.

Salwa hated the anagrams which started out as actual words. The other week, she received a string of anagrams she could crack in seconds; the words were unintelligible, but that was why they were easy to solveOtherwise, your brain would register the words, obscuring the answer–by already recognising the words, it made it seem more difficult than it actually was.

Her doctorate be damned.

She had moved on from her dying hometown to this new colony, Despite the dubiousness of the glossy brochures, and as advertised in massive billboards across any square inch of space possible, any option, then, had seemed better than her home on the brink of collapse. The previously famed architecture had gone, a mere remnant—a fading memory!—from its glory days before enemy forces had invaded. The troops had left long ago, but it felt like their ghosts were still there, staring down natives who were trying to contend with their lives in the aftermath. More and more people were packing up and leaving, it didn’t matter whether they had the means; it seemed like this new advertised location was the reset button that hopelessness required. Forgetting was a salve, the chance of starting over a drug.

At border control, the cyborgs had given her a once-over. Having glanced at her certificates, they informed her that they weren’t recognised in the new country.

She had tried reasoning with them, conscious that this moment in time would shape her new future, Surely with all the funds spent on advertisements they’d be more welcoming than that. “I spent ten years of my life working towards this. If you grant me an interview, I can tell you all about it,” Salwa whimpered meekly into the standard-issue instant translation interface. Everyone had a personal interface in townships all across the region–”Communicate Better”, they said–but this one was set up at the booth she was in with the cyborgs

One of the cyborgs reached over and switched off the interface. “Speak now, then.” They said, piercing Salwa with a challenging gaze. This was all in a day’s work. .

What followed was a cacophony of unbridled emotion streaming from Salwa, mere sounds transmuted through the air. the garbled whirring of machines communicating, distinct yet inscrutable. A language, incomprehensible to another, can sound like mere noise.The cyborgsseemed to be installed with a perpetual sense of contempt.

There was no way to make herself heard, no way to make herself understood, no way to make herself sympathetic.

Empathy is a by-product of common language.

Salwa looked on helplessly, then turned on her own interface as she fished it out of her bag. She wasn’t going to deign them the satisfaction of begging them to turn theirs back on again. The cyborgs were unimpressed. “Get in. You will be assigned to labour at random. We can upgrade you later.”

6 years later, and still no upgrades. Anagrams were spat out every day, jobs were completed.

On some days, she simply switched her interface off. What was the point of trying to understand these cyborgs if they didn’t want to listen to her? On other days, she trudged wearily to the Grey Market, a dilapidated complex on the distant side of town. This was where she would try to swap the jobs she couldn’t complete.

There were plenty of others like her there.

All kinds of things were traded and sold, each transaction was a desperate attempt at acclimatising to a new life. Some remained hopeful as they sat in corners with their translation interfaces switched off, a language program on constant scroll. If they tried hard enough, translation would become no use for them, and they’d be indistinguishable from the locals Local slang ricocheted out of speakers and echoed like parrots in bird cages. Familiar, government-approved garb and haircuts were in full display. Aliens half-versed in local speak bartering with other aliens like they somehow had the upper-hand. The swap shops were located all the way at the back.

FEUDALISTIC SNOB BETA had turned out to be BUILD A SET OF CABINETS. Salwa couldn’t build cabinets. Tough fucking shit, she heard herself curse. Almost immediately, she was taken aback by a sense of shame. Was speaking the language of her new country that much of a reflex for her? The swap shop guy looked at the slip that said FEUDALISTIC SNOB BETA, expressionless, and then back up at her quizzically. Nothing else needed to be said. Almost instinctively, the word for ‘fool’ flashed through her mind, which she very nearly muttered aloud. Why? So she could feel superior to a fellow alien in a land which made her feel inferior every step of the way? At least she was good at solving anagrams.

Looking through the various jobs up for swaps, one jumped out at Salwa: HOLOGRAM WHEEL THRICE. The more keenly I sought it, the further it receded. A proverb her grandmother would always say in her hometown. It felt like a grounding mantra. But the anagram made no sense whichever way she tried to decipher it. Namelessly and soundlessly, the swap shop guy looked on, eyes glazed over with boredom, his anhedonic demeanour at once refreshing yet startling.

“…Are you taking that or what?” Salwa slipped out of her trance, unsure if she wanted to swap for something simple or try and keep solving HOLOGRAM WHEEL THRICE. What good would that do? Some sense of purpose in this quantifiable desert, her neuroses magnified tenfold while her achievements were reduced to junk. Come hell or high water. The anagram made no sense. Salwa gripped the slip tightly, unsure if she had come to the right place. The swap shop guy shook his head, then shrugged, not at all bothering to turn on his interface. She wondered about her days ahead, wondered about the spin-cycle that would not eventually end.

Cher Tan

Author: Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Runway Journal, The Saturday Paper, Swampland Magazine and The Lifted Brow, among others. She is an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.