Once, Tena Na Tena had been certain when she sang. Injustice gathered within her, swirling tighter until it solidified into a beat, lyrics, melody. When it clicked into place, she let it out. It wasn’t as if she planned carefully, weighing the implications of her words or the mode of release. She knew right and she knew wrong. And when the Interplanetary Trade Authority denied formal recognition to the Pan-African Alliance in their negotiations with the Mars delegation, it was wrong. So she sang. That was all there was to it.
Now, another song stretched up from the chaos within her. She pulled it back, mental gravity making escape velocity impossible. She’d lost everything last time—accounts, access, even the life of a friend in the fallout. Everything, except Furaha. And for Furaha’s sake, she couldn’t do it again.
“Eti, Tena? You ready?” Furaha adjusted her tight-fitting kitenge dress, smoothing the fabric over her hips.
Tena lifted her eyebrows slightly in assent. “Only let me fix my headwrap, then twende.”
“OK, dear, I can go to the lobby to call a taxi.”
“I am coming.”
Headwrap done, Tena remained seated on the hotel bed in an unflattering black dress, staring at the mirror. The idea of going to the ITA gala tonight sent frost seeping out from her heart, until she felt as immobile as an iceberg. Able to do nothing but drift where the frigid seas of fate willed.
Visions of the frozen blocks danced in her mind, holding tender memories within their rigid restrictions. Ice wasn’t something people wasted energy making kijijini. Before moving to Dar es Salaam, Tena had rarely seen it. But in the city people made useless things in order to impress. And after three dates, Furaha had wanted to impress her. She’d known Furaha’s work in the Tanzanian representative’s office paid well, but she hadn’t really understood until soaring up in the elevator that night. When the doors opened and she stepped into to the rotating restaurant overlooking Dar es Salaam, Tena felt high and strong as Kilimanjaro itself. Only glass separated her from the vast world spread out below. She occupied the far reaches of air, where even water stopped flowing, frozen into its crystalline form. She hadn’t understood enough to be frightened of those reaches yet.
One hand linked across the table with Furaha’s, Tena had swirled the translucent squares in her glass. Watching them dance. Entranced by their tragic tale. Water, once boiling over with joy, ferociously ridding itself of contaminants, only to then be forced into a box and trapped there. Frozen.
Tena had wondered then how long it would take to melt again. To be free. She wondered again now.
She couldn’t feel her toes in her new shoes. But Furaha told her they were perfect—restrained, remorseful. Since the ITA had stripped her data from every internationally recognized cyber system, she did what Furaha told her to do. Even if that meant wearing these stupid heels and putting on the performance of a lifetime. Swallowing her rage and smiling at the gala.
Furaha was no fool. She understood why this was hard for Tena, to attend a celebration of opulence while her people struggled to eat. Consorting with those who stripped her community’s resources and replaced them with toxic waste. Those whom she sang against, all those years ago, when they tried to prevent the Pan-African Alliance from trading their solar-powered machinery with the Martian colonists. Who decimated her life. Furaha understood, but she didn’t feel it. Instead, she calculated. Scouring for opportunities, taking losses in stride, focusing on the long term. She was strong. Stronger than Tena. Able to work inside the system without burning out.
Furaha had laboured for years on her plan: phased infiltration of the ITA with international webs of saboteurs leading to a multipronged coordinated cyberattack. And tonight, part of that labour was rehabilitating Tena’s image to bring her into the fold. Cementing the impression that Tena was no longer threatening, but a cautionary tale. The radical brought to heel at the feet of power. The reasoning was sound. And it was only a small sacrifice, really, to go the gala tonight.
Even if it hardened her once boiling soul into a compact cube of shame.
Sucking her teeth, Tena turned away from the blank gaze reflected in the mirror and swept out of the room.
Like many things in New York, the elevator felt excessive. Glazed glass and silver filigree, complete with an operator to ensure passengers literally needn’t lift a finger. God forbid their hands graze anything touched by those less desirable. Tena was under no illusions as to who was considered less desirable here.
She greeted the operator. Poor man, in his ridiculous suit. “How are you, sir?”
“Just fine, ma’am.” He nodded over his shoulder to be polite. Eyes widening, he turned around. “No way. You’re Tena Na Tena!”
“True,” she acknowledged.
“Is it also true what you sang? That your mother named you Tena because—”
“Tena na tena we must rise up, ’cuz again and again they force us to fall, make us crawl, take it all. Tell us to be grateful,” she lightly rapped. And tensed, reflexively.
His warm grin loosened the ice beneath her skin, the structure that had been holding this made-up version of her together. Tentatively, she wiggled her toes, testing the shoes’ limits. She could see now that the face under the operator’s hat was younger than she expected, and only a few shades lighter than her own.
“You must have been a child when I last sang,” she clucked.
“I was! I grew up with your music! I’m Peter. Mama Angie, that’s my grandma, she used to tell us about the day you sang outside the ITA meeting in Switzerland. She was watching the original vidstream, even before it cut out and everyone else took up filming.” Horror flashed across his face. “I mean, I’m so sorry about your friend. He was doing a good thing, he—”
“He did not deserve that death.”
“No, he didn’t. And you didn’t deserve any of that shit they did to you either. But damn, you got them scrambling. They had to recognize the Pan-African Alliance after that! Even with the restrictions they eventually slammed down, I tell you what, it gave us a lot of strength knowing those stories.” He paused. “You doing OK, though?”
“I am … doing what I have to.”
“I feel that,” he said, grimacing at his operator’s outfit.
“Exactly,” she commiserated, gesturing at her own bland black gown.
In the ensuing pause, Tena felt herself stiffen with each floor the elevator dropped.
“Oh hey!” Peter interrupted before the weight of silence could crush her. He rustled in his pocket, pulling out a small flyer folded in half. She raised an eyebrow. Paper was unusual in these days of digital domination.
As she took it, he explained, “It’s sort of embarrassing, but, uh, you’re kinda an inspiration for us. We have a weekly meeting named after you. Tena Na Tena. We mostly keep it analog, you get why. But we’re looking into this Zimbabwean platform that has some pretty wild features! Gets around restricted neuralink access, for one. It’s even rumoured they’re training anticolonial AI to protect servers from ITA interference …”
Tena gently unfolded the flyer, Peter’s words turning to a buzz. Tena Na Tena: Queens Branch #5, the heading read. Underneath was an ink drawing. Wings of flame spread high, encircling a head that resembled both bird and woman, topped with kitenge patterning. The same pattern intertwined with the feathery flames below, making the figure’s gown look both undeniably African and woven from fire. The image was only ink on paper, but it seemed to move as Tena stared at it, mingling until bird became indistinguishable from woman, clothing from embodiment.
“… the potential, right? A coordinated interruption of ITA systems!”
She felt a crack inside her as a song leapt fully formed from her mind, melting through her defenses. Water, liquid once more, filled her eyes. She must have looked wild, because Peter quickly added, “Don’t worry, camera up there’s a dummy. The wealthy-ass folks as stay here pay to not get caught. We’re completely off-the-record.”
The elevator stopped abruptly, knocking her off-balance. She almost twisted her ankle—these damn shoes!—but recovered quickly, backing into the corner as a pale man in a fitted suit stepped into the enclosed space.
They rode quietly. Peter faced forward once again. Tena stared at the paper in her hand. She kept it carefully hidden from the other passenger’s sight, even though the hand lifted to his temple indicated he was scrolling through a neuralink interface. Tena had never bothered to get one, after her data had been blasted from cyberspace. After her last song had burned down her life, leaving her unable to lift herself from the ashes.
Wait, had Peter been saying—
With a soft ding, the elevator opened on the lobby. The other passenger quickly strode away. But Tena didn’t move. She spied Furaha across the crowd of people, bright colour in a sea of grey. The only light in a vast darkness. She wished she were the type of strong that Furaha needed. A woman who could stand with her, undermining the system from within, facing injustice every day without yielding. Biting down her rage, holding the flames behind an impenetrable shield of ice.
The heavy metal door slid shut.
Peter shot her a glance. Reaching over him, Tena pushed the button for the top floor.
Her strength was not in persistence. It was in explosion.
“Tell me more about this platform out of Zimbabwe.” She yanked the restrictive shoes off her feet, stretching her toes wide. “And do you have any more of that paper? I have an idea for a song.”
Copyright © 2023 Jenna Hanchey
Jenna Hanchey has been an actress, particle physicist, Peace Corps volunteer, and afterschool-space-program teacher. She is currently a professor of critical/cultural studies whose research looks at how speculative fiction can imagine decolonization and bring it into being. Her own writing tries to support this project of creating better futures for us all. Her stories appear in Nature:Futures, Daily Science Fiction, Medusa Tales, Wyngraf, and Martian Magazine, among other venues. Having once been called a "badass fairy," she attempts to live up to the title. Follow her adventures on Twitter (@jennahanchey) or at www.jennahanchey.com.