The Disappearing Lights of Cape Toqmaq

Chirpy and synthetic, the gaming sounds from Madina’s tablet burrow into my brain like an annoying earworm. 

“Good heavens, Dina, can you lay off the games for a minute?” 

Turning around, I am slightly startled, as always, by the constantly morphing stranger’s face where my daughter’s should be. This one is blue-eyed and blond, with the hint of a boyish whisker on top of the artificially plump lips.  

“You do realise this used to be offensive back in my day?” I ask, knowing full well she is about to roll her new eyes at me. “Wearing makeup to make yourself look like someone ethnically different?”

“It’s not makeup, Mum, how many times?!” The crackling falsetto doesn’t suit her. “It’s a filter. It’s a safe space to explore my identity. If you don’t like it, just change your own perception and leave me alone!”

“Fine!” I snap, “Explore away, just tone down the damn noise, will you?”

It’s no use: she’s already put me on mute. Sighing, I turn back in the passenger’s seat to face the road.

“How are we with the battery?” 

“Should be enough till the next solar,” Daniyar says dismissively. 

Good. I am not going to let anything spoil this family holiday at Cape Toqmaq, not when I’ve fought so long to get everyone on board, what with all the tantrums and wet-blanketing, and near-constant mental resets to keep myself sane. 

When I was little, we used to go to Cape Toqmaq in the languid Caspian summer, a time of mellow heat, and sand, and warm waves: just Papa and Mama, and Salta and me. For two and a half hours we drove along the coastline, the electric lights of Port Aqtau following us along the way. We would spend the night camping out in the shelter of stony dunes overgrown with tufts of dry grass, and during the day we would lie splayed out on the flat rocks above water so limpid you could see the soft white sand beneath the surface as if through a magnifying glass. Then Mama would lay out a feast of dried horsemeat and sourdough bauyrsaqs, all the more delicious because they were a day old and ever so slightly stale from the journey; and she would pour sweet tea from metal thermoses and cut creamy slices of layered honey-cake. I don’t think I ever came across water so clear and inviting, sunlight so golden, or food so mouth-meltingly good again.

Even the wafts of petrol from our car were intoxicating, mixed with the heady smell of the sea and dunes, and I would take a few furtive breaths before Mama or Papa noticed and shooed me away from the petrol tank opening. 

“You’re so weird,” Dina had said when I told her about this. “Petrol is vile, everyone knows that. Thank God for solar and electric.”

“I know,” I said dreamily, “But back then electric tech was still nascent, and virtually non-existent in this country, so petrol was our only option.” 

An ear-splitting honk, a dizzying turn, followed by a loud bump that sends me flying toward the roof of the car. We have just swerved, barely missing a huge truck. 

“What happened?!” I yelp, “Dina, are you ok?”

She’s fine, just startled, it seems. In her alarm, the filter has slipped from face, giving her a lopsided look: half-blond hair, one eye round and blue, one almond-shaped and black. The moustache is gone, thankfully. 

“What happened?” I repeat. 

Daniyar shrugs, but his eyes are glazed over for a split second – a tell-tale sign – before he blinks the mental screen away. Understanding crawls, hissing, through my brain.

“Oh my God. Have you been watching sports again?!” I mouth at him.

He is defensive, but I can see his useless fingers grip the steering wheel.

“So what? Thank goodness for self-driving. See how it swerved in time? Leaps and bounds faster than a human reaction. Relax, we’ll get to your precious Cape.”

A hot wave of acid rises up my throat. 

“My Cape?! – may I remind you that I insisted on this vacation because we need it? The whole family needs it – we’ve been strung high, and stressed, and –”

“Oh, would you just chill, Mum,” Dina pipes up from behind. “You know this entire trip was your idea.”

I turn to Daniyar for help, but he has already sunk back into his ridiculous sports reruns.

Furious, my eyes welling up, I press a trembling finger into my temple, then slap the pump on my shoulder.  

The effect is immediate, the pump releasing a trickle of endorphins into my nervous system, the mental reset rearranging the past few minutes, storing them in my long-term memory for later processing. I still remember what happened, but the memories have lost their heart-pumping, tear-squeezing immediacy.

I let out a sigh of relief from deep within my chest. I know I shouldn’t be doing this too often, but with these levels of stress, who can blame me? Daniyar self-medicates all the time, too. Everyone does.

Restored once more to laid-back complacency, I turn to look at Daniyar. His profile is starting to sag a little in the chin area, the soft lump of flesh hanging off the jaw like a rapidly deflating balloon. My perception filter must be glitching. That’s no wonder. Coverage is bound to be patchy in these parts.

Mechanically, my hand reaches to the space between my temple and my eye, adjusting my filter to tighten his jawline back to its movie star quality. I wonder if Daniyar knows I modelled him after my favourite actor at our first date, so long ago that I barely remember what he really looks like?

Best not to ask. I don’t want to know what filters he’s put on me. It’s enough that I have to outwardly project the perfect image of blemish-free skin and seductive curves, without obsessing over my husband’s appreciation or lack thereof. 

Before that first date, I had been so excited to meet him that I put on a gorgeous filter: a flawless complexion, a slender frame, soft curls of chin-length hair. But when I arrived at the restaurant, one glance at Daniyar told me he hadn’t bothered to make any adjustments to himself at all, down to the stained hoodie and flip-flops.

Well, maybe he’d made himself look a little taller. 

To add to my humiliation, his eyes immediately scanned my chest and his hand slid up to his temple, cranking up the lever to mentally enlarge my breasts. The fool thought he was being discreet, but it was clear to see.

Almost as an act of revenge, I had slowly raised my hand to my own head to make him look like the man of my dreams. 

If only I’d had the strength to resist him after that.

The road outside the window is growing darker and darker: now only the headlights of the car illuminate the lonely road. Dina must have finally had enough of her game, because she gives an almighty stretch and peers out into the darkness.

“Where are your famous lights then, Mum? It’s weird how dark it is.”

It is strange enough. In the long-past days of my childhood, the whole coastline was burning as brightly as a string of bonfires.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I haven’t been in this part of the country for years. What does it say online?”

Dina fires up her tablet once more.

“So apparently the lights have all been switched off to guard against light pollution,” she says approvingly, “Our built-in brightness enhancers make streetlights obsolete. Good for them! It’s not as bad as I thought.”

The car rolls soundlessly on through the thickening darkness. In the dim distance, abandoned oil rigs protrude out of the water like skeletal hands. The scene makes me shiver: none of this is as I remembered.

With a sigh, I adjust my perception filter. I thought I’d be able to enjoy the beauty of this place unspoiled, but sixteen years of married life have finally taught me that nothing ever happens the way I want it to.

It’s almost as good as the real thing, I tell myself, as flame-like electric lights from my memory storage begin popping up in front of my eyes, brightening the coastline and taking me back to the long summers of my childhood.

“There it is. Cape Toqmaq. We should reach the camping site soon,” I mutter contentedly to Daniyar. “I hope it’s not too crowded.”

A strange sound, akin to the moaning signal of a battery running out, rings out in the quiet car. Daniyar gasps, the glow of the game in his eyes going out again: the self-driving mode has switched off. With a shout, he hits the brake, stopping the car just before it veers off the road. Dina screams, and so do I; we skid to a halt as the control panel goes completely dark. There is no light anywhere now, except for the fading dusk outside.

“What the hell just happened!?” Daniyar yells, breathing hard and jamming his fingers on the dead touchpad.

“We must be offline!” Dina says in a voice that vibrates with an imminent panic attack. She is shaking her blackened tablet, trying desperately to get it to light up again.

“It’s ok,” I say, trying to keep my wits about me. “We probably hit a patch with no coverage. Stay calm!”

I reach out into the glove compartment, feeling for the old torchlight that my sister used years ago, when we played detective. Thank goodness I managed to reload it with the right battery. I slide the switch, and the car floods with blueish light.

“It’s your fault, Mum!” Dina screams from the backseat, her face contorted with rage. “Dad never wanted to come on this stupid trip, and now we’re stranded here, and we don’t know where we are, and the Internet’s down, and none of the filters are working!”

“Dina, calm down!” I say, but my own heartbeat is accelerating, not least because my mental safeguards are slipping, too, and for the first time in decades, I am looking at my husband with unfiltered vision.

A misshapen old man with sagging skin and bloodshot eyes, his skin pockmarked in the harsh light from the torch, his hands shaking like an addict’s. He is an addict, I remember with a strange clarity. We all are.

The filters keep glitching, making the cognitive dissonance even worse: this constant skipping between distorted, augmented visions and the stark ugliness of reality. In Daniyar’s bulging eyes, I see the same horror of recognition that I feel within myself.

But I have other things on my mind. In the back seat, Dina’s voice is breaking apart, her speech warped and slurring, as if she were merely a projection on screen when the connection is down. The whole image of her is glitching, like she isn’t here at all.

“M – mu – m – mum,” she stutters, switching off and on with a horrible static sound.

“Dina!” I yell. “Janym, what’s wrong? Tell Mummy where it hurts!”

My hair stands on end, and the torch falls out of my shaking hands; fear seeps through every nerve ending in my body, and instead of climbing to the backseat to comfort her, I cast down my eyes, refusing to look at her, at the dark mass of my husband beside me.

“Mummy will go and take look around,” I stammer, “See if we can get help!”

She is still saying something in that terrible glitching voice, but I’ve already opened the door, racing up the road toward the dunes, away from the car, from the insidious sound of static behind me.

Stretched for miles along the coast is an expanse of dunes, opening onto the moonlit beach. Dark figures move in front of me; some are human, but the majority are not. Oddly misshapen, crawling on the sand, they move at an unexpectedly quick pace – a jiggling mass of dark blobs by the water.

“Seals!” someone says, their voice shaking.

Seals. Once on the brink of extinction, I heard that they abound on the Caspian once more, but I never thought I would see them like this: out in the open, with nowhere to hide from the forces of nature that we gave up trying to rule.

Like me, the people huddled by the rocks are wearing tattered sweatpants and hoodies. I don’t need to talk to them to know how naked, how vulnerable they feel without their filters, afraid to approach each other, afraid to turn back to their cars, of the beasts crawling on the beach, forces of nature that we gave up trying to rule.

I am one of them. Through the dead filters, the dried-out hiss drip of the pump that I keep compulsively tapping, I, too, am terrified of what waits for me in the dark.

Because right now, there is a constantly resetting blank in the sacred mental space that my daughter used to occupy – a black hole where it hurts to look.

I shake my head violently, my insides howling with memories I don’t want to resurface.

My Dina. My little flash of luck, the only sweet thing that Daniyar and I ever managed to create. Some would choose to forget she ever existed, to let the doctors make a small incision inside the brain, cutting the pain out forever.

I chose to keep her with me. Every day, always.  

Keeping her takes everything I’ve got: daily mental resets, injections, extortionate fees to maintain her digital avatar, to feed new words into her reaction generator. But what does it matter when I get to see her sweet face at the dinner table – peeking out from the backseat – soft and sleepy on her pillow? Her appearance might change sometimes, because memories are fluctuating and capricious, and avatars break down despite the expensive upkeep. I don’t care. I’ll reset myself, and I’ll still get to keep her.

“It must be a glitch in the system,” someone says desperately. “Just a momentary break in coverage. It happens. Please, God, let it be a simple break in coverage…”

There is a gentle revving sound, as if in response to this prayer, and I sense my filters switching back on. With shouts and groans of relief, people convulsively press their reset buttons, injecting themselves with medication, erasing the horrors of the past hour.

Slowly, deliberately, I raise my hand to my temple.

Soon I will go back to my car, a loving mother about to rejoin her family. And together, we will watch the lights of Port Aqtau in the distance: a string of fire along the Caspian coast.

Scroll to Top