By Biram Mboob
Addo was woken up by the rumbling of machines. He looked outside his window. There were digging machines in the park. Screeching giants that must have arrived during the night. He returned to bed and fell asleep. He continued his strange dream. A dream of falling into a red rupture in the old earth. Falling and falling; his body consumed a million times to ash, then to neutrinos, then quarks and charms. Such dreams. He was growing old.
He ate breakfast in his room. There was a Community Chop on the top floor of the Enkang but he never ate there. Addo was 93 years old. This made him the oldest person that anyone in the building would have ever seen. They looked at him strangely. They walked around him as if they might break him. When he spoke to them they replied as one might to a small child.
He dressed himself for work. It was the first of August, but he still wore a long coat. The city had installed a Yún acclimatiser more than fifty years ago. And for more than fifty years Addo had been bitterly cold. That was one practical reason why all his peers had gone to the Islands. He put on his gloves and left his room.
The glass elevator zipped through the Enkang. It dipped down a few floors and then moved horizontally through each of the building’s sprawling onion layers, coming to a stop when it reached the foyer. This was Zebra Enkang. The foyer walls shimmered with moving murals of the leaping and galloping striped beasts. Real zebras had never moved that way, but he’d stopped worrying about such things a long time ago. What did it matter? None of these people would ever see one.
He went outside and walked to the nearest General Chop Machine. He selected the sequence of numbers that instructed a coffee. Then he stood facing the park, observing the screeching machines. An exceptionally tall boy in a yellow hardhat was flitting between the machines, checking screens and turning dials. Noisy. Noisy. How long would this last? He could always move, of course. All it involved was walking around the city until he found a building he liked with an empty room. But he liked it in Zebra Enkang.
As he sipped his coffee, he observed the young men and women streaming past him on the moving thoroughfare. They grew stranger to Addo with each passing decade. This was not surprising. In the Saharan Uniformity Homes they kept conditioning their children. They were changing them physically too, he suspected. Making them bigger. Removing the final genetic vestiges of tribe and making them uniform. To Addo, they were aliens. Their confident and total immersion in disciplines that he barely knew existed. Their instinctive ability to work the new ghost computers. The future and the miracles that they assumed. Their August bearing.
Addo liked to think that he was useful in his own right. He had worked as a translator at the Culture Ministry for the last 65 years. He selected approved historical works and translated them into Pan Swahili. There were not many people left who could speak as many languages as he could. Five dead Tribal languages and three banned Oppressor languages. He took great care with his translations. Even though he knew they were mostly just humouring him. When he died they would replace him with a ghost computer that would translate the approved library in an instant. The translations would be technically correct but Addo was sure that they would lose their meaning. But no-one would know and if they did, they would not care.
He crushed his coffee cup and dropped it on the sidewalk. Within a few moments, a spider seized it and bundled it down a service drain. Useful materials would be diverted to underground factories where they would be reconstituted for use by general machines. Needless things would continue their journey downwards into the old earth where they would be consumed a million times to ash, then to neutrinos, quarks and charms. As if they had never existed at all.
He crossed the footbridge over the moving thoroughfare and entered the park. As he walked, the boy in the hardhat hopped off a machine and approached him.
Even at first glance, the boy was unusual. He walked a little more boisterously than most. His face was dirty. His stained dashiki was tucked unevenly into his trousers. The Uniformity Home had clearly failed this one.
“Are you master of these machines?” Addo asked.
“Yes,” the boy replied. “For now.”
“How long are you digging?”
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling broadly. “It depends what I find.”
“It’s just the noise, you see.”
The boy’s smile melted away. He took off his hardhat and shrugged. “I only have a Joule budget for twenty-four hours. I’ve applied for an extension, but they probably won’t approve it. So it may not be too long.”
“Oh. Okay. Good,” Addo said. “So what exactly are you looking for?”
The boy perked up again. “Well, I look after the excavating probes. One of them found a burial site here.” He pointed his hardhat at the ground. “If I’m right then one of those fossils is Mitochondrial Eve. So I’m bringing her up.”
Addo was silent. The boy shifted about uncomfortably. He put his hardhat back on. “So, what I mean by Mitochondrial is…”
“I know what that means,” Addo interrupted. “It means that you have found our mother. Sleeping underneath the city.”
The boy considered this a moment. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose you could say that.”
Addo pointed a finger at one of the machines. “If you only have a day then maybe you could use another pair of hands? Help you along?”
The boy grinned. He wiped a dirty hand on his dashiki and thrust it outward. Addo took off his glove and shook it.
“Welcome aboard,” the boy in the hardhat said.