By Wole Talabi
Your name is Asake and you can tell that you are being taken south because the wind is in your face and the clayey redness of the soil is slowly becoming a yellow sandiness. The soil is all you see.
Everything else is a blur.
You scream for help in desperate, high-pitched shrieks but it seems there is no one willing to save you. Desperation claws at your belly like unanswered hunger.
You remember that you had only stopped walking briefly, pausing as you navigated your way back from your mother’s farm at the place where the Imu and Buse pathways met. You paused to make the seemingly mundane choice of which route to take when a powerful arm suddenly wrapped itself around your torso, hoisted you onto a sturdy shoulder and began to run. A moment was all it took.
Screaming even louder, you consider that you did not really need to go to the farm today, or any other day for that matter. There was no need for the daughter of the great hunter Ajiboyede, the niece of the Baale of Olubuse, to go to the farms – your family has never lacked anything. Your father’s lands began along the banks of river Elebiesu and ran all the way down to Olubuse’s limits where great big trees stand like soldiers guarding your uncle’s territory. But you went anyway because you like to work with your hands, you enjoy the feel of soil beneath your feet and you relish the sight of verdant life around you. You decided to go to the farm today because the quiet beauty of the rising sun at dawn had spread over the sky, cloudless and taut like a drum skin. You went seeking nature’s touch.
Now, you are being carried along a snaking pathway carved into the reeds that stand beside the river like a loyal spouse – a path that takes you far away from home. You writhe and wrestle and fight with all the might you can muster but it is futile. The hands that have you are iron and do not loosen their grip. You remember the stories that sad visitors from nearby villages would sometimes tell of children who had been kidnapped and sold to strange men from faraway lands, and you wonder if this is what is happening to you. Just then the wind carries the unmistakable briny tang of the ocean air to your nose.
You scream louder.
Your name is Newton Brookes and it is your turn to go into the hold and take stock of the slave cargo. But you do not want to go into the belly of this wretched whale where men, women and children are chained and crammed into every available space like beasts. The stench is appalling, even the walkway is mired in filth. Starved of food, kindness and humanity, many of them have little choice but to die.
You tell the chief mate that you were never meant to be aboard this abomination, that you are no slaver. You are just a man who was seeking his fortune, whose brother-in-law offered him free passage to the new world in exchange for your services as a crewman on his ship. If you had known this was his vessel, you would have refused his kindness.
The chief mate spits a gob of something brown and viscous and tells you to stop talking and start counting before he puts a bullet in you. He looks angry, but the clearer emotion plastered across his thickly bearded face is impatience. You choose not to test him.
You clamber down the hatch reluctantly, carrying a lantern and some rope and begin to audit the ship’s misery, counting corpses and trying to ignore the sunken, accusing eyes of the living that stare back at you. You steel your heart, close your mind and try to do your duty, aware that these eyes will haunt you for years to come.
You reach a column and see a young girl lying still on the wooden floor, delicate and angelic, even as she is surrounded on all sides by her own filth. You tally her as dead and turn away but something gnaws at you, small but persistent in its urging. You turn back and walk toward her, set your lamp on the floor and take her hand in yours to feel for a pulse. Her eyes open slowly, revealing brown orbs set in a sea of jaundiced yellow. An alien emotion overwhelms you – a bizarre admixture of tenderness and something not unlike love – that you are frightened of. You decide suddenly in that moment, what you will do, knowing what it will cost and that it will change the course of your life forever.
You are twelve years old and you are running through your grandfather’s cornfield, laughing, carefree and wild as the summer breeze. You are being chased by Tom Wiggins, your best friend and the overseer’s son. He is desperate to turn the tide in the game of hide-and-seek that you are currently winning. You bank left, hard, and burst through the curtain of stalks and leaves onto a dirt road. You realize too late that you are going too fast to keep from colliding with the regal man talking with your father and Brutus Wiggins, the overseer.
You crash into him clumsily and he falls to his knees. When you manage to get up and reorient yourself, your father is glaring at you, his caramel skin glimmering in the hazy shine of the afternoon sun.
“Amira Brookes! How many times have I got to tell you not to keep running around this here cornfield like you’re being chased by the devil, child?”
“Sorry Papa. Tom’s running real hard behind me and I didn’t wanna ruin the cucumbers but I was running too fast to stop and I was gonna run into them, so I turned. I’m sorry.”
The man rises slowly, dusting at his trousers with his callused hands. He has a thick imperial moustache and his skin is darker than yours but he reminds you of your white grandfather, whose thick beard and strange mannerisms always make you smile.
“That’s alright,” He says with a smile of his own, “I have two young boys about your age and they run around and knock me down so often, I’m used to it now. You’re the one I came to see anyway.”
He looks directly at you and you decide you like him because he has honest brown eyes.
Tom appears from behind the curtain of corn and is seized by Brutus who takes him by the shoulder and starts to walk with him toward the shed. You hope Tom isn’t in trouble because of you. The regal man with the moustache watches them briefly and then asks, “Tell me Amira, do you like school?”
“Of course! I love it!” You exclaim eagerly, because it is true. You love learning about things and ideas and numbers and how if you put them together in just the right way, they can describe the most amazing things.
The man says, “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Your teacher Miss Emily said you were the smartest girl she’s ever come across.”
You blush and looking more at your father than the man, you say with puffed up cheeks, “Miss Emily is wonderful! She taught me some real fancy math she called differential calculus and it’s just the most wonderful thing!”
You watch the old man’s eyes dance in their sockets, animated and alive with an idea or a thought or a vision that has seized him like a fit of epilepsy. He says something to your father in deliberately hushed tones. You father says something back. Then the old man bends over and extends his hand to you.
“My name is George. George Elijah Culver. From Michigan, up North. Pleased to meet you, miss Amira.”
You take his hand. It is hard but it is warm.
And then he says, “How would you like to come with me to Michigan? We have a special boarding school there for bright young coloured kids just like yourself where you can learn about differential calculus and lots more things they won’t ever teach you in regular school. Would you like that, Amira?”
You are sitting with Akin in his sprightly ’62 Opel commodore, parked beside Iowa State University’s Lake Laverne. The Temptations’ ‘My girl’ is on the radio, it is two weeks to Valentine’s Day and the heater is on even though the car is not moving. Somewhere in some recess of your mind, you are wondering how much gas the vehicle is consuming just to keep you both warm. He is telling you something in his lilting Yoruba accent and you are staring at his face intently – wondering in another little recess of your mind what your grandmother would have said if you told her you were dating someone from West Africa, from Nigeria. . The words are spilling out of Akin furiously. Then, unexpectedly, he slows down and measuring his words, asks, “Darla Culver-Brookes, will you marry me?”
Your breath catches and all your diffuse thoughts condense like water vapour from a breath blown against a window in winter. His proposal is unexpected but not surprising; you have both discussed the possibility for months now and you have been, in some way, waiting for it – even though you did not know when it would come.
You feel tension in your neck and dryness in your throat because you know that what you say next could close the door on choir practice with the lovely girls of First Baptist, on the weekly dinners with your parents and perhaps, and even, perhaps, on the annual thanksgiving dinner with your large, loving family.
You gaze and you wonder just how much your life will change, having only been to Nigeria once and seen it not just for all its beauty and potential but also its shortcomings. The unknown beckons and you gaze into its eyes in that moment wondering about the new friends and colleagues that you will make, the heat and the food and the potential of the country you will call home and if you will receive the same warmth and love as you have now from the family that will adopt you as their own. And then you stop wondering about things and let yourself be overwhelmed by how happy Akin’s proposal makes you feel. How much you want to hold him, make love to him, bear children with him, grow old with him. You let yourself say, “Yes.”
Akin leans in to kiss you, his soft brown eyes locked on yours. You let him. Then you kiss him back, urgently. Outside, on the lake, the mute swans are gliding along the surface of the water, made vitrescent by the empyrean caress of a full moon.
You stare through the observation panel at the planet’s moon – a pale alabaster orb with streaks of bright brown criss-crossing it like the etchings of a great cosmic artist. Up close, with nothing but black space framing it, the vision is beautiful, almost worth the year-long cosmic trip to this satellite that you hope will tell humanity something new about its place in the universe. For some reason you are not entirely sure of, the sight of Jupiter’s moon sends a pang of familial hankering through you.
In your pocket is an old picture of you with your family: brother Femi, father, Akin and your mother, Darla. In it, your father still has his afro, you and your brother are young children and your mother’s hair is dark and braided. She is holding you tight against her chest and your brother is pulling at her skirt, smiling. You have been thinking a lot about your family – there was not much else to do on this voyage. Now, you are about to land on Europa, and the constant thoughts about them have become a longing for them. You wonder if you made the right choice, volunteering for this mission.
Ivor, the Russian navigation officer who has become your friend and lover, is floating lazily beside you.
“Moyin?” he calls to you.
You turn, still thinking about your family, to see him pointing at an electric orange patch splashed against the mostly blue and green background of his display screen. His broad, heavy-set shoulders partly obscure what he is looking at.
“There are active cryo-volcanoes in our primary landing zone,” He begins, “It will be too hot to land there for the next seventy-two hours or so, but…”
He smiles and points with stark, heavily veined hands to something on his screen, “…I already asked Agatha to check for alternate landing zones for the explorer and she found two that are perfectly safe. We can either head for the Conamara Chaos, which Agatha assures me isn’t as bad as it sounds, or we can descend onto the Rima Lenticle which was our original landing zone before Houston redirected us anyway.”
“Agatha,” You call out into the small empty space around you.
“Yes, captain,” The AI responds.
“Which of the landing zones is preferable, given the current and projected conditions over a seventy-two hour cycle?”
“Both have landing safety factors between zero point eight and zero point nine.”
“I already checked, captain,” Ivor says, his face and greying hair illuminated by his display screen. “Basically, once you factor in the uncertainty window, there’s no significant advantage going either way in terms of safety, so it’s really up to you. Where do you feel like going?”
You reach for your own display screen to check the explorer’s metrics and the picture you are carrying in your pocket slips out, drifting away from you and spinning so that in one moment you see yourself and your family, in the next, white emptiness. You freeze and find yourself struck by a kind of clarity. You see yourself for what you are – an aggregation of the choices and decisions of all that have come before you stretching back into infinity and beyond. All of these choices, uncertain and fearful and hopeful as the people who made them were, all conspired with each other to bring you to this place, to this point, to now. Choices, not unlike the one you are about to make. This clarity gives you a comfort you did not know you needed but you are grateful for.
You reach for the picture, take it and smile.
“Right,” you say. “Let’s head for the Lenticle.”
“Aye captain,” Ivor is smiling too. You suspect he already knew your decision before you made it, but he asked anyway.
You swipe away your personal display screens, float to the main control panel and strap yourselves into your chairs. The translucent input surface before you beckons. You key in the landing initialization sequence and begin to descend, rightwards, to Jupiter’s sixth moon, with the fortitude of an eternity of humanity behind you.