By Oluwole Talabi
Before my mother died, she used to tell me old Yoruba folktales while we huddled around the lower platform heating vents or waited in line for rations. As with all good African stories, they were always garnished with proverbs. That’s the unique thing about our stories, isn’t it? The proverbs. Well, that and the tortoises. But there is more. Even though as everyone who as ever read Achebe knows, proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten, sometimes it’s the palm oil that stains your clothes that stays with you long after the hunger had passed. My point is, many of those proverbs stuck with me long after I forgot the stories she told me. Some even stuck with me long after she died. But one of them will probably stay with me forever. It goes; Ọ̀nì ní ojú máa ńti òun láti gé nǹkan jẹ, tóun bá sì ti gée jẹ, ojú máa ńti òun láti fi sílẹ̀.Ọ̀nì ní ojú máa ńti òun láti gé nǹkan jẹ, tóun bá sì ti gée jẹ, ojú máa ńti òun láti fi sílẹ. What that all means, once you manage to translate it, is something like this; “The crocodile always says it is shy to bite, but once it has bitten, it is shy to let go.”
And that was exactly what happened to me. Not that I’m saying I’m a literal or metaphorical crocodile or any sort of crocodile really. It’s just a proverb. Actually, maybe I am a crocodile and maybe, just maybe crocodile nature is human nature too. But I’m not being clear. I suppose if I’m going to tell you this story, then I have to have to tell you about Ariannamaka.
By the time I met Ariannamaka in person, she was twenty-one and we’d already been friends for two years.
Our first encounter was online, in a government sanctioned voidspace chatroom. Her family was rich; they lived up in the Chancel, where gravity had been artificially adjusted to original Earth levels for the deacons, the ushers, the committee of saints and of course, those who gave the greatest offering to the Prophet. Her profile avatar was beautiful but grim. In it, she wore a crop-top, and lay in a plush, purple-sheeted bed, unsmiling. I’d seen it before, that look, it was common with the girls in the Chancel, the ones brave or bored enough to surf the open voidspace anyway. But there was something uniquely fiery and intangible about her that fascinated me in the bizarre way that fires fascinate moths.
I gazed at her avatar on my portapod for a few minutes, twiddling my thumbs, and then I swiped right on her profile and sent her a private virtual reality message.
[Hi], I said.
It only took her three minutes to reply.
[Hey there], She said. The voice and image that projected into my mind were so clear, I knew immediately that she was using a full VR resolution portapod model that most people down on the platform would kill me for having, assuming I could ever afford it. She was short at about five and a half feet; with wide, sensual hips visible behind the flowing silver gown she wore in her VR avatar. She had a mane of wild natural hair that looked like bunched-up brambles and her eyes were oak brown. My portapod model was a cheap second-hand so I probably just looked like a nondescript, boxy and angular stock character wearing platform rags in her mind.
[What’s it like, living up in the skydome, with the blessed richfolk, saints and the Prophet?] I asked, trying for sharp charm since I could obviously not impress her with my looks.
[Boring. That’s why I’m in here, chatting with lowly platformers like you]. The sarcasm slid smoothly off her high resolution tongue, and into the virtual reality we were sharing.
I laughed, and we exchanged a few more VRM’s about what it meant to be the last ones left, to be the future of the human race. Once she sensed that I shared some of her own sentiments, she ported me into a shielded virtual reality sharespace that she and her friends had written out of the government base voidspace network. It was only later that I realised she had been looking specifically for someone like me.
Everyone there was of varying resolutions, standing awkwardly in that dark corner of electronic shared reality. They remained silent as Ariannamaka introduced me to them one by one and when she was done, the messages started to come. Cautiously at first, then in a flurry as I echoed them as my thoughts too. Finally, Ariannamaka told me what they were planning to do and how they planned to do it. I was intrigued. I was excited. They encouraged me to join them; they said that they would need my help when the time came.
[This Ark is a corrupt, elitist system, and we have the chance to change it,] Elegebde said to me, gesturing energetically with his hands. His avatar presented a high resolution, big, bulky and solid fellow with broad shoulders, brown hair just verging on black, and the kind of face I was sure people would describe as intimidating if they saw it in reality. He did most of the talking after I ported in. [But we will need someone from the lower platforms to set things in motion. Someone the people of the platform will listen to, follow.]
[The kind of person we can make you if you join us.] Ariannamaka added.
Her voice was soft and pleading in spite of the harsh warping effect of the electronic VR filter convincing the Prophet’s eavesdropping spies that all we said was benign.
I asked to be given a moment and thought myself out of the shielded voidspace, back into the reality of my platform bunk. I took in the dark, cramped monochromatic space; a dilapidated old metal board on the door bearing an efficiently ugly poster that reminded us that “2077 IS OUR YEAR OF DIVINE DIRECTION”. Above it, the ubiquitous image of Prophet and Prophet Mrs smiled down on our, squalid and overcrowded quarters. The other twelve people I shared Ark platform sector A-589 with were also all plugged into their own portapods, killing time until ration distribution. They were probably chatting up random girls on the voidspace chatrooms or worshipping in one of the prophets many VR centres and praying that they would be chosen this year in the annual ‘blessing of the twelve’ ceremony where one twelve platformers would be declared saints and asked to go up into the Chancel and serve the prophet, helping to find a new home for our species and leaving this meaninglessness behind. And make no mistake that was what it was, meaningless. I looked back down at portapod, shook my head and thought myself back into the shielded voidspace.
[Fuck yeah. Count me in], I said.
I know now that it was a mistake, but I was sixteen. I was an orphan. I was a lower platformer. I was bored and my life had no purpose. I didn’t know what I was getting into. But even though all those things are true, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think the real reason I agreed to their insane plan was that Ariannamaka was just beautiful and interesting enough for me to be that stupid.
Ariannamaka told me she loved me on the day we took the Ark. The same day, she also told me she was the Prophet’s daughter and that Earth was still standing; that it had never been destroyed. It also happened to be the first day that we met in person.
We were in the bright electronic embrace of the Sanctum – the Ark’s Control Bridge – and she had plugged her external mod disk into the Ark’s central control systems. The centrifugal artificial gravity generators, the air and water processing units, the Prophet’s central voidspace network – we were taking control of it all, and once the override was complete and the people of the Ark heard my voice, we would control them too. Outside, Elegbede and the others stood guard, they had killed a path to the Sanctum for us and were defending it while we jacked into the system and took over.
I had prepared meticulously for the day. I had read books; studied revolutionary histories of old earth; wormed my way into the right circles; seeded dissent in the hearts of the Prophet’s lackeys and even become Youth Leader of the lower Ark Church with the help of Ariannamaka and her rebel friends. I was primed to topple the government. Expose the prophet and his coterie. So you can imagine that being told that the earth was still standing and that my handler and best friend was both in love with me and the daughter of the man I had learned to loathe, especially at such an inopportune time, threw my mind into something of a tailspin.
“No,” I said, because it was the only thing I could think to say. I loved her, I always had but how could she be the prophet’s daughter? And why was she telling me then? Everything in my head was hazy, woolly and unsubstantial.
Arriannamaka made a strange, confused noise that sounded like, “Hoin?!”
So I repeated my own confused objection, “No, Ariannamaka, no. Not like this,” I said. “Not now.”
Her words seemed stuck in her throat for a moment like a fluid behind a pipe constriction and then, when enough pressure had built up, they exploded out of her, “I’m sorry. It just came out of me. It’s all just coming now. I mean, it’s been two years, and today when I saw you, really saw you, it made everything real. I really want real. I don’t care about taking control of the Ark anymore; I want to go back to earth, to have a real, normal life with you.”
I grunted in confusion. “What? Earth is gone. What are you talking about?”
She quickly flicked her eyes from me to her black mod disk plugged into the central control panel and the motion of her eyes pulled mine with them. I looked at the panel and we both saw we had six minutes and thirteen seconds before the program completed the override. Around us, the electric datascape blinked streams of binary rainbows. She turned back to me.
“Hasn’t it ever bothered you?” She started to explain with a question, such a uniquely Nigerian thing to do. “That all the survivors of the Earth’s destruction happened to be members of the same Church?” She pronounced the word ‘survivors’ as though it was not the appropriate word for what we were.
“Yes, it’s a bit odd but that is just because god revealed to the Prophet the coming of the asteroid in a vision back when his heart was still clean, before all this bullshit.” I crossed my arms. “Why are you asking me anyway? This is basic Sunday school shit, you are his daughter.”
She shook her head and her hair shook with it.
“My father has never had a clean heart. He has never spoken to god. This Ark is not just unjust, it is a lie. There was no asteroid. Well, not really.” She stared straight ahead and spoke efficiently, forcefully, as if the words had to come out of her then and there or they would explode inside her, the way one blurts out things that have been kept secret for too long.
“Asteroids used to hit Earth all the time, like maybe once a century or so, everyone knew it, and every few centuries, a massive asteroid would come by the planet and plop down harmlessly in an ocean or some artic wasteland. Sometimes scientists only spotted these asteroids like maybe days or a week before they made their close approaches to Earth.” She paused for breath, glanced behind me, and pressed on, “My father knew all this, so when a really fucking big one was spotted near Pluto, on a trajectory towards earth and no one was sure how close it would come to us, he started all this shit about god ending the world and he being some modern day Noah. He rallied his followers with massive offering collections, built the Ark and brought us all into orbit here, around Mars. He wasn’t the only one you know. Some governments did it too. Hedging their bets. But the asteroid just passed by Earth. It was a biosphere-altering event for sure but it didn’t destroy anything. Everyone went back once it passed but my father? He just did not want to admit that he had been wrong to his followers. That his god had been wrong. So he made up the stories you heard and created the faked recordings you have seen of the Earths destruction.”
“Hian!” The exclamation snuck its way out of me and made Ariannamaka jump; I turned around hyperventilating and saw that we had only one minute and forty seconds before the full override completed. I tried to say something but found I was only gasping until I said it again.
“It’s true.” She assured me.
“No.” I repeated, the word, letting it explode like bomb in front of me. “No.” Another explosion. “No. No. No.” A chain reaction. I was shaking. I reached out and leaned on a Sanctum wall. The cool, smooth flow of the datascape passing through my hands in front of the metal panelling. My head was spinning. I understood then why my mother had given up everything she had to the prophet as offering just to be allowed a place on the Ark. She was pregnant at the time. But… Earth. It was there. We had been stuck on a metal tube in space because one man refused to admit he had been wrong about his divine delusions? My mother had died because of his lie? It was all too much.
“I will show you. Once the override is done, you will see.”
“How did you know the truth?” I said, turning back to her.
“I overheard him speaking about it with the deacons three years ago. That was when I joined the movement.”
“And you chose to keep it from me. From us.” I stopped. “Why?”
She advanced on me with arms slightly spread, ambient light caressing her figure. She stopped an inch from my nose. There was a rush of warm blood through my ears, my heartbeat rattled despite my shock and fear. “I love you,” she said, and it seemed to be a little bit of a declaration and a little bit of an apology but not quite either. “I just want to live a normal life. On Earth. With you.”
I stared down at her, breathing hard, until it occurred to me that I did not even know if I wanted this thing, whatever it was she was proposing, promising. Earth was a myth, an Eden from a genesis story, a folktale told by the first ones in the belly of the lower platforms by the heating vents to children. It was green, it was wet, it was paradise, they said and I had read. But in my mind, it might as well have been Oduduwa’s Ile-Ife or Plato’s Atlantis. I had no qualia for it. No sense of reference. And that scared me. I had been born on the Ark. Raised and orphaned on the platforms. Even if Ariannamaka was speaking the truth, what waited for us back on Earth? I had no idea. I had not been afraid to die taking the Ark but when I thought about this Earth that had been dead to me and was now risen again; I felt fear like a living creature claw its way from my belly to my heart and squeeze tight.
I pushed away from her and blinked rapidly, realising the mod device would soon finalize its override. I asked her, “Who else knows about Earth?”
Her brow furrowed briefly and then she said, “No one, just my father, his wife and three deacons. Maybe a few of the older saints. My mother is in the choir but she doesn’t know anything.”
“Good, let’s keep it that way,” I said quickly, the fear and the countdown forcing the words from me. “Don’t tell anyone anything; we can go back to Earth once we have control.” I said. But not all of us, I didn’t say.
We were seconds away from taking over the Ark. Seconds away from being able to take everything that made up our unjust world and make it pure. I had a devoted following of people from the lower platform who believed in the visions I had sold them. There would be a revolt. That much was certain. What came after was less clear. But I did not want Ariannamaka to know that so I kissed her eagerly enough for her to think all was well and set my mind back to the revolution.
Behind me, the timer ran down to zero. The flowing rivers of data in the sanctum halted around us, then exploded in a kaleidoscope of numbers and logic, green and yellow and blue and white and silver and orange, the colours flickering and flaring in fanciful fits as they first separated from and then merged back into one another to reconstitute the river of data and logic that controlled the ark, their new commands in place. I pulled away from Ariannamaka and spoke into the vocaphone, slowly, with what I imagined to be stately voice that propagated throughout the Ark, piercing into ears and virtual realities alike, through portapods and inline earphones, throwing revolution and uncertainty into the prophet’s carefully constructed world of lies.
Our revolution lasted all of thirteen minutes. I guess the Prophet had grown complacent with his security, his control. Once we took control of the Ark, his lackeys surrendered without even as much as a good fight. Perhaps he had begun to believe in his own myth, his own lie and thought no one would ever usurp him. Perhaps he’d started to think he really was our god. Perhaps we had planned the entire thing perfectly, if such a thing can be said of any coup. Perhaps we were just lucky, I don’t know.
He cursed us all, of course, before we turned off his private vocapohone and killed him. He said that we were children of the devil, that Satan had sent us to destroy and confuse what was left of humanity. He called upon all his people in the Chancel and implored those on the platforms to rise up and smite us. To pray that god would show them our true forms. The platformers were too busy eating the in vitro steak we’d sent to them from the Chancel biotech kitchen labs to listen. We killed him in his own bed, choked him with his own collar under a blood-proof sheet.
Thirteen minutes to take the Ark. Another hour or so to quell the minor prophet-loyalists and the opportunists. Two hours after Ariannamaka told me she loved me, I was holding her hand in the Sanctum and speaking into my portapod with Elegbede and the rest of our movement. I told them what she’d told me about Earth. I did not tell them that she wanted to go back, but I asked if it was possible anyway.
[Does anyone know how disengage from orbit and pilot this thing?] I asked the voidspace full of high resolution avatars that controlled the Ark.
[I think I do,] Bamidele, the youngest one of our group said, with unusual seriousness. Raluchukwu who was overseeing the food labs for now and knew him from when they were just spoiled kids living in the Chancel, nodded sharply, a quick shake of her head to indicate she thought so too. She seemed nervous, even in virtual reality. I think they all were.
Elegbede spoke up, [Good. As long as someone has some idea, we will do it. We will go back to Earth. We will take our people home. No more of this foolish, delusional Israelite journey in space. E don do abeg.]
No one said anything. Everyone waited for me to speak. I knew it. I had watched the balance of power in our group shift as they taught me what I needed to know to become a figure of myth and reverence down on the platforms while they plotted and planned up in the Chancel. They had watched as the fabric of my personality had slowly been straightened, dyed and embroidered with knowledge, power and self-awareness. They knew that the people of the platform would heed no one but me, believe no one but me. And without me, there would be chaos. The problem was, I knew it too. I had taken my first few bites. I knew the taste of power.
[This is a democracy now, Legbe,] I said, [We will take a vote.]
[But Earth…] Arianamaka started suddenly before stopping herself. I did not look at her but I noted the other voices, especially Bamidele’s, murmuring. I pressed on.
[Earth is home to the prophet. To our parents. To the people that created this corrupt system we risked everything to change. Not to me and not to you. Not to us. I have never seen its sky or touched its soil. Neither have more than three-quarters of the people on this Ark. Why do we want to give up this world we now have the power to remake into something wonderful for an uncertain one we have no power over?]
Elegbede chuckled, [You’ve been reading and watching too many histories, friend. What makes you think anyone will want to stay here when they know that all of humanity awaits us? That we are not the last of our kind? Eh?]
With that statement, and question, he’d showed his bourgeoisie, and that was his mistake. The others knew it was a mistake too, I think, even if they didn’t know exactly why. So I pressed the issue and eventually, they agreed that a vote was the democratic thing to do. I knew they would, they believed in freedom and democracy and all that shit and that was why they’d risked everything for revolution. We agreed we would reveal the information to our people on the Ark, and let them make their decision. We would vote to decide if we wanted to go back to Earth.
I just made sure that Elegbede agreed to be the one to make the announcement; he was our leader after all, I insisted. Of course, he agreed without thinking it through all the way to the end. He always did enjoy talking, hearing the sound of his own voice. Although, I suspected Ariannamaka knew what I was trying to do by the way she unclasped her hand from mine during the discussion.
Although most of them thought the vote could go either way, I already knew what would happen. I was a lower platformer, when it came down to it. Born and raised, you understand? And I had felt that exact same fear that I knew would squeeze their hearts the moment they were told about the unknown. The same fear that had kept them, us, believing in the prophet and enduring his faith of deprivation in spite of our squalor.
Fear. It was like a shadow to a platformer. And I knew it well.
In the end, when we went to a vote, of course no one believed. No one wanted to. I’d spent two years slowly convincing them to stop bathing in the rain of lies and unfairness coming down from the Chancel. There was no way they wold believe Elegbede. It was the wrong message. At the wrong time. From the wrong messenger.
It all came back to Ariannamaka in the end. She forced my hand. They forced my hand.
I only did what had to be done.
To quote another of my mother’s memorable proverbs from a story, “Ìbẹ̀rẹ̀ kọ́ l’onísẹ́, à fi ẹni tó bá fi orí tì í d’ópin.” Which, I think means, “Starting a thing is not as crucial as seeing it through to completion.” I think it came from a story she told me about the tortoise, the squirrel and the leopard. Of course, in the story, the tortoise tricked the other animals. But at the end of the story the tortoise’s mother dies.
Arriannamaka, Elegbede and three others convinced Raluchukwu to try to sneak into the Sanctum, free us from Mars’s gravitational embrace and set course for Earth. If not for Bamidele’s quick thinking, and timely warning, they might have even succeeded. They had tried to subvert the will of the people. I had to have them killed. And have it done publicly. What else was I to do?
I did not turn away at her execution. We had equalized the gravity in the entire Ark so that from Chancel to platform, everyone had to adjust but we had the gravity in the central Chancel area reset back to earth levels for the execution to prevent any possible blood globules leaking out of the dioxide helmets and floating up and into crevices between the panelling.
The five convicted of treason were made to kneel in the centre of a circle that included many of their friends and comrades in the lavish Chancel central area where the Prophet used to bless and ordain his selected ‘saints’. It was a blue and brown room at the apogee of the Chancel with retractable rows of silver panel seats that was not unfamiliar with power theatre although I don’t think anyone had ever been executed there. I made a speech. It was a good speech, I think. There was much cheering. In this speech I proclaimed the importance of the will of the people over the will of any individual, over love, over everything, over even life itself.
“The prophet took away our right to decide our own fates for decades,” I said, “We will not have it taken again. By anyone!”
“Never again!” Came the chanting response of the circle, “Never again! Never again!! Never again!!!”
It went on until the crowd and the entire Ark was worked up to a red, pulsing frenzy.
Elegbede spat but said nothing. Sometimes I wonder what he was thinking in those moments before the dioxide helmet went over his head. Arianamaka’s thoughts were clearly written in her eyes like program logic in a flowing datascape. She hated me.
Perhaps it was for spurning her love. Of course, there was some of that but I doubt there had been much love there to begin with. Besides, there were rumours she had given herself to Elegbede before they made their attempt. I think she wanted to go to Earth more than she wanted anything else and she had betrayed first her father with me and then me with Elegbede for the chance. She probably thought I was an opportunist who had used her to gain power and maybe she was right. In a way. But I did not set upon this path with the intention of having things turn out the way they did. It’s just that there is no predicting the results when you court chaos, is there? And she did most of the courting. Everything changed in the Sanctum on the day we took the Ark. Maybe too many things changed at the same time. I don’t know. But I do know this: we had begun with one purpose – equality and fairness for the people of the Ark. A classless system of what we believed was left of humanity in space and an end to the Prophet’s elitism and dictatorship. I had committed to it hastily, yes; driven primarily by youthful exuberance and Arianamaka’s beauty, yes. But I had committed to it completely, even if my commitment was partly corrupted in the end by greed and fear.
Still, the hate almost burned my eyes as she gazed at me from her place on the intricately patterned floor panelling of the Chancel, at the centre of one of its silver whorls. Bamidele had volunteered to be the executioner. He placed the dioxide helmet over her head last and then he turned on the carbon dioxide recirculation tube. Hypercapnia first caressed, and then seized her. She didn’t even try to call out my name as she choked and coughed, her lungs begging for oxygen. I watched the fire in her eyes dim and die and I felt something in me die with it but I did not look away until all the embers were gone.
I could not show weakness. I still cannot.
The same fear that keeps me here even after seeing the Prophets records and realising that all Arianamaka said about Earth was true, keeps me up at night. Fear, and that first bite. I have seen how Bamidele looks at me. I have seen how he speaks to the same set of people that had initially tried to counter our revolution all the time in their own voidspace chatrooms. I know he always volunteers to work the rations distribution and he likes to talk, make himself heard and seen. He makes the people like him. That’s exactly why I have to get rid of him now. I have read enough histories of old Earth to know what comes next so I also know what must be done.
There was always only one tortoise in every one of my mother’s stories; there can be only one crocodile on this Ark.