By Mame Bougouma Diene
I can’t remember graduating from high school, I can’t remember applying to Sheikh Anta Diop University either, all I ever wanted was to get my ass to Zim and its space harvesting programs. Not that it’s the oddest thing here. I should remember though, the tassels and silly hats, borrowed from America when it still counted for something. Senegal changed along with the rest of the world, then the world changed with Africa. Then we messed up too. Some miscalculation in the atmospheric weather drones. It’s all desert now, everywhere… Anyway I need to get my ass out of bed, class starts at 7:45 am sharp, couldn’t tell you which class though. Must be forgetting something again…
Not a damn thing. Let me tell you about my name. Mame Bougouma Diene, literally translates into Grandpa doesn’t want fish. And this is Dakar, who doesn’t want fish? Or didn’t. When you could still get any. My parents really pulled a number on me. Tradition, man…
“I’m good Ablaye. Na’nga def?”
Ablaye isn’t much of a brain. He’s a hell of a wrestler though. Bare knuckle fighting will do that, plus seven feet and three hundred pounds of muscle. We grew up together, that’s to say he grew and kept growing long after I stopped.
“Mangi fi sama rak. Ran into your baby brother again today.”
Another oddity. Everybody runs into Djibril except me. The stupid kid gets his ass everywhere, and knows better than getting in my way.
“Next time, whoop his butt for me.”
Ablaye laughs the laugh of someone strong enough to halt a Chadian tank with one punch.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He says ramming an elbow into my ribs. “Elder bro’s privilege.”
What I mean is carbonated battery acid.
Another odd thing, but in a Harry Potter kinda way so I guess it’s alright, like Diagon Alley and the hearth, except it’s to the classrooms and through the shitter. Imagine having to fall backwards when you flush into the exact same place where you shit. I mean…. You get used to it, but then people got used to so many people you can’t walk down a city block in less than an hour, to eating people because we have nothing left.
So you get used to it. There’s no smell. It’s the sensation that’s weird, as if your body was stretched and snapped like a rubber band and then disintegrated. I mean that last bit exactly as I said it, and I know it’s true because of the consciousness. One moment there’s only me, one voice in my head and then upwards of a million, each one rehashing some random memory, and I can feel them all, or they can all feel me, or we can all feel each other or each self. Actually what’s truly bizarre is why waste such brilliant technology on a bunch of college students?
The Virtual College simulators we used in high school hadn’t mentioned that…
Anyway, whatever the reason, it only lasts a few milliseconds, multiplied by the millions of you, and you’re suddenly reconnected, stretched out again and dropped from the ceiling right into your chair for class.
Maybe it’s all for nothing. The likelihood of finding a job when I graduate are close to zero, but poor kids don’t get the opportunity for higher learning very often. Too little space, too many people. It’s a rich man’s privilege, so I’m gonna get my diploma. Then who knows? Maybe lightning will strike twice.
My butt hits my chair softly, and I’m staring out the window at the throngs of people trying to make it to the food banks and back in less than a day, streaming like sewage between seven-hundred story buildings. One hundred and forty million people crammed into a space that barely accommodated two a hundred years ago…
Apparently it still beats living outside the cities where the population densities are lower, but no food banks. Perhaps they recycle their own dead.
“Someone’s about to get zapped.” Sokhna whispers next to me. I hadn’t even noticed her, fascinated by the human anthill.
She leans over, smelling of synthetic coconut oil, and points at a group of people fighting over rations. Her eyes are good and a beautiful dark blue.
There’re always people too lazy to make it to the food banks. How many times my mother made it there and back is a miracle. Must’ve been hard for her, losing her husband to the Underworld Project, and raising two little knuckleheads.
“You have a hawk’s eyes.”
“What’s a hawk?”
“Never played Virtual Nature?”
“Never saw the point.”
She had one there.
The fighting party are causing a commotion, other people are hungry and in a hurry. It will turn into riot any moment.
A police helithopter drops between the buildings, green starred over red, yellow and green, contrasting with the bleakness of the buildings, and zeroes in on the fighters.
“They won’t zap them, girl. Why waste the protein?”
Sokhna grunts, but I’m right. The helithopter drops an antigravity beam on the crowd, glowing pale orange, and buzzing like a thousand angry flies, drawing the offenders into its hull.
“More food for the bank.”
The classroom filled up. Everybody busying on their lesson pads, hands over their eyes, mouths moving silently in last minute cramming.
“What’s all the fuss about?”
Now Sokhna laughs.
“Idiot. Forgot about the test didn’t you?”
“Exactly… You’re growing senile grandpa… The test Pr. Diop mentioned last week? If you pass you don’t take the final?”
Fuck! I knew I’d forgotten something.
“It’s cool, I’m good at this econometric stuff.”
Sokhna smiles. She really does have a beautiful smile, pearly white teeth, lips a mellow red, her straight hair in a ponytail and a nose that balances the symmetry of her cheekbones perfectly.
“You better.” She puts her hand on mine. “I’d hate it if you didn’t come back next year.”
“Alaikum Salam, Pr. Diop.”
“Take out your tablets, I hope you’ve studied hard.”
“Djibril, kai fi!”
“Wow, kai! Five more minutes!”
“Put that simulator down and come here now!”
“Why mom?! It worked for Mame didn’t it?”
“Your brother always had big headed dreams he couldn’t achieve. College and then what? He’ll end up in the Underworld Project just like your father, just like everybody else. A head full of garbage that won’t help swinging a hammer. Now get over here!”
Unless he makes management, Djibril thought, removing his Virtual College simulator, If only he’d write more often…
“Well, that was relatively painless.”
Truth is, I probably fluked the stupid test, but it’s better to fail because I hadn’t tried, than to try and fail anyway.
“You know you’ve messed up.” Sokhna snaps back. “You better kill that final.”
In a world of a hundred fifty billion people, you’d think the odds were higher of finding someone who cared for you. But it’s the exact opposite. The more people, the more selfish we get. So I’m lucky. The luckiest man alive. Perhaps she just wants someone caring for her and is playing her cards right, but she’s playing them with me, nobody else, me. And that counts for something. It counts for everything.
“Easy for you to say. Your father was an official.” I tell her, stating the obvious, “General Sankare. You’ve nothing to worry about.”
I’m a fuckin idiot. Acting tougher than I feel, despite needing her more than I’ll ever care to admit, just to keep her guessing.
“Was being the operative word. No one remembers the Sahelien War anymore. Competition’s hard at the top too, Bougouma.”
She’s right. Upper middle classes play assassination games to stay ahead, at least us poor folk don’t, but then we’re busy fighting each other for food bank scraps so we don’t end up food ourselves.
“Saw your little brother today by the way.”
“Don’t you all? Ablaye said the same thing yesterday.”
“Ha! He’s sneaky your brother, was in the cafeteria chatting up some girl. Family thing, huh?”
Hate to say, but I love the kid. Different planet, different time and he could have had the world.
“He’s better off out of my way.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” She heads down the hallway, “See you at the wrestling training bouts tonight?”
“Any chance of seeing you elsewhere?” I ask, grinning.
She caresses my cheek.
“I’ll try.” She answers with a smile and disappears into a wave of students.
But she won’t. That’s odd too. I still haven’t found the girl’s dorms. I can always snatch a kiss in the hallway, but she never makes it to my room. The toilets get us to the cafeteria at any time, but the moment I step away from the academic buildings, I can’t find my way anywhere. All I see is a pixelated maze, and lights that must be buildings that never get closer. I’m tired of jacking off let me tell you…
“So!” Ablaye says, slapping my back, jamming my kidneys into my lungs. “You actually passed? You need to quit all this thinking, and start punching.” He finishes, grinding his fists.
“Meatheads punch their way. I’ve got my eyes on the prize.”
He laughs again.
“Let me guess. Sokhna, huh? A clever one that one… Too good for you, look at me, I get all the girls I want.”
That’s true, wrestlers have their pick, maybe he can tell me how he finds their dorms or how they find him…
“You mean you’re not good enough for her, ox brain… Anyway, glad I still have friends around this year…”
The hall has filled up. I can’t tell half the faces. Sometimes it felt like they’d admit just about anyone, but where do they all go? There is no way the school can handle this many students…
“You’re back!” Sokhna screams, her arms around my neck, assaulting me by the yard between buildings. The heat blasts my face, but her smell, and the pressure of her chest against mine make me forget everything else.
“Told you I would…”
“And you know better than disappointing me, dé!”
Maybe I do. Had I forgotten how beautiful she was over the summer? Or maybe she just got prettier every day…
“How was your break?” I ask, taking her by the hand and away from the dusty heat.
She goes off on a litany of things she’s done, her family, her brother working on the Underworld Project, her friends who’d never left what was left of Yoff…
“What about you?” She asks, all pearly smiled enthusiasm.
“Good. Everybody’s good…”
And then blank.
She misinterprets my silence.
“Miss’em already, huh?”
I nod. I do miss them, I really do, but I also can’t remember the past two months. Nothing at all. I should remember my mother’s cooking at least. Who forgets that? And I must’ve kicked Djibril’s ass at least once. But nothing, not a single thing…
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
She holds on to my arm tighter.
“It’s ok. I miss them too, and your little brother’s bound to be around somewhere…Come on, or we’ll be late for class.”
“I hate this stupid class.”
“It’s the first time we take it.” Sokhna whispers back.
“That’s great, but if I wanted to train for the Underworld Project, I would’ve played Virtual Underworld in high school.”
“You know what they say: All the roads lead to Underworld.”
And they probably do. Twice the available space of the surface dug underground. A giant terrarium to relocate two thirds of the surface population. Fifty billion here, fifty billion there, enough space to spread your legs, grow plants and vegetal proteins. No need to recycle corpses anymore.
“Bullshit. It’s a plot to resettle people then drown us all.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
Maybe I don’t, but too many people do, and what does she know? She’d never lost anybody in there. Somewhere so deep they never got to see the sun again. She hadn’t heard that her father was dead before getting a week’s worth of free food rations. Maybe it had even been him. Nice and spiced up. It had tasted awful. Her dad had died a hero. Mine an afterthought in Underworld.
“Doesn’t matter what I believe.”
“That’s right. What matters is that you try your hardest.”
“Oh I do…”
“Underworld’s a vital part of our future.” Professor Diop’s drowsy monotone goes on, “In fact, it’s our only future, who knows why?”
“Because we only have one planet.” Someone answers eagerly.
That’s what everyone says, only this planet. Having one planet never stopped us from ruining it in the first place, why would Underworld be any different? Someone’s bound to screw up, wanting more of something, more sunlight, fresher air or misses the taste of human flesh for whatever reason, and try to tear the roof down and have the whole thing collapse. An unsatisfiable species convinced that we’re special, that’s what we are, without the guts to look extinction in the face and say fuck it… But then I’m here, right? Trying to get laid and get ahead so who says I’m better?
Focus, one more punch and I’m beating this level…
Inside the Virtual College: Athletics simulation, Djibril’s punch slipped passed his opponent’s nose, and he tossed the helmet off in disgust.
Why does she always do that?
She had a sixth sense his mother, and then a seventh and an eighth. Every time he would make progress she would call him. He couldn’t blame her, his brother hadn’t been back all summer. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t come back again. Who would stand to lose her husband to mining operations and then a son to college? She didn’t want to lose him either, but what did she think was gonna happen?
I gotta make something of myself too…
“Laamb lou reyna!”
Being friends with the Mighty Ablaye Gueye really has its benefits.
You can draw the humanity out of people until they’re nothing but shadows of their former shell and yet. It’s the vibrancy of the crowd. The electric tingling of static bouncing from every hair, even if it’s only to watch two giants bashing each other’s heads in. The staccato of sticks on drums and the wrestlers in their colored robes dancing a choreography, leg stomping right, arms flowing left, heads bobbing and grigris wound tightly around their biceps. Ready to fight, even ready to kill.
I’m not looking and don’t care, been seeing this since I was a kid, and the only thing I can focus on is Sokhna’s hand caught in my palm, her pulse beating fast, and trying to get to our front row seats before the fights start.
“You’re gonna tear my arm off.” She says.
If only it could be your clothes…
“Better me than those gorillas out there.” I answer, nodding at the arena.
I’m not, though I would be if she ever paid them any mind. Everybody else is jealous though. Most guys that is, who doesn’t wanna be so big you never have to worry about anyone or practically anything? Getting extra food rations and the adoration of all the ladies on campus and every competing campus? There’s a catch though: if you lose your bout you’re out. And then your strength might get you a bodyguard gig and keep you fed, but there’s a lot of hungry people out there, and enough of them will take you down and save themselves a few trips to the food banks. Still, some would try their luck, because who doesn’t believe they’re invincible?
Ablaye sees me sitting down with Sokhna, and waves and winks without losing his hundred-mile stare of pure focus.
Sokhna is sweating a little, the drops running down her temples glowing brown with her skin but she’s excited. You can’t help but let the tension work its way into you. Even I’m starting to feel it, my left leg beating uncontrollably. Sokhna rests a hand on my knee and stops it.
“Easy now.” She says, “Hasn’t even started yet.”
A classmate, Youssou, recognizes us.
“Sokhna! Naka soube si? Bougouma! Dafa nice? Just saw your little brother, man. Can’t have been more than a minute ago…”
I face palm while Sokhna pats me on the back. Damned kid. He should be in school or training on some virtual sim of his choice instead of running around campus.
Some people believe they’re invincible, but perhaps Ablaye truly is.
Sokhna has fallen asleep, her head on my damp shoulder, wisps of her hair tickling my ear.
Ablaye is on his fourth and final fight, the final as it turns out, and he’s barely broken a sweat. I nudge Sokhna awake gently.
“Hey, it’s almost over, I’ll never get front row seats again if Ablaye catches you sleeping.”
She raises her head grumpily.
“I’m only here because you insisted.”
“Exactly, make me proud.”
Ablaye and his opponent, a Guinean named Alpha Diallo, only a couple of inches shorter than him, are testing each other, slapping each other’s hands away as they try to lunge for a grab or a punch to the face.
Ablaye seems nervous, he usually moves in much quicker, but Diallo keeps him easily at bay, grinning confidently.
“Ablaye should’ve landed a few already…” Sokhna notices as well.
“Yeah that guy’s good.”
Both fighters interlock, twisting sideways, trying to force the other to his knees, and failing. Backing off, Diallo lands a sucker punch on Ablaye’s nose.
Blood gushes to cheers from the Guinean’s team that soar over the silent ring.
Ablaye wipes his nose staring at the blood. His nervousness turns to anger. He grabs Diallo at the waist and throws him to the ground. The arena roars.
“That’s more like it.” Sokhna says, but I’m not convinced, Diallo doesn’t seem phased at all, as if he’d let that happen to give Ablaye a false sense of confidence.
And it’s working, Ablaye flexes his muscles at the audience, his smile already spelling victory while the Guinean gets in position and the dance begins again.
Ablaye’s showing frustration, his attacks getting stronger but less targeted. The Guinean slips, losing his footing, Ablaye aims for his nose, but Diallo was faking and dodges his overpowered blow, grabbing him at the waist, lifting him off the sand, Ablaye’s face twisted in disbelief, slamming him to the ground with the resounding crack of his spine echoing across the wrestling grounds.
Sokhna leaps up and screams.
Have you ever been to college? There’s something fun about Freshman year. A sense of novelty I guess. But as a Junior it’s all played out. It’s like high school again, like probably everything afterward. Maybe for the better. Creatures of habit need just that. Growing in your shoes is the only place to grow, but fuck, don’t you wish there were other spaces to grow, and maybe other plains?
Sokhna’s arms around my neck, making me forget everything as the wind blasts from the yard. The wind that is our oxygen, the wind that is our death. I don’t care, and why should I; they are softer than silk…
“I am always…” I try to muster a little cheerfulness, but Ablaye’s death is a lump in my throat. The big lummox had it coming. We all lose eventually, but I’d expected it to be much later. As a champion, with enough credits to look into whatever future with confidence. The crack resounds in my head like thunder trapped in a cave, making it hard to hear anything, feel anything…
“Hey! Hey!” Sokhna’s shaking my arm, trying to kick me out of my daymare. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. I guess. Ablaye you know?”
The thunder stops rumbling. Sokhna’s looking up at me, her beautiful eyes puzzled.
“Come on girl, that’s not funny.”
She just shakes her head.
“Ablaye?” I insist. “Gigantic guy? Wrestler? You screamed when he died?!”
Sokhna’s face freezes and blurs… It’s gotta be the wind, her usually soft features wrinkle and change, her nose grows a little, her lips twist, her right side smiling the left frowning, dark blue eyes glowing yellow, and then it’s gone. Barely a second but…
She’s suddenly contrite, her hand caressing my arm.
“Of course I remember. How can I forget?”
Her tone is off, her face is nothing but honest, but she sounds like she’s reading from a script.
“Anyway!” She exclaims, back to her cheerful self. “How was your break?”
I never knew Sokhna to be bipolar… Must be the grief. Funny how we deal with it in different ways.
Take me for instance, can’t remember a thing again, only my childhood friend getting smashed into the ground on a loop.
“Alright.” I answer shrugging, trying to keep my cool. “Yours?”
She starts talking, not a care in the world. I can barely hear her, but something is off again. I get this sense of déjà vu, which makes perfect sense, we’re basically having the same conversation we had last year but it feels like her words are exactly the same. The same inflections, the same giggles, the same pensive pauses. Damn, my head is really fucking with me.
“Miss’em already, huh?”
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
“It’s ok. I miss them too, and your little brother is bound to be around somewhere… Come on, or we’ll be late for class…”
“Does Diop teach everything?”
“He’s the best. What more can you ask for?”
“The best at Econometrics, Underworld, Applied Physics, Climate History, and Arts and Crafts? I mean please.”
“Can’t you ever be happy?”
“I haven’t been happy in months.”
She points at the mobs of students marauding the hallway.
“Well this oughta cheer you up. Isn’t that Djibril over there?”
I lean forward over the clutter of undergrads, trying to recognize my sibling’s features.
Not a chance… But in a flash he appears leaning against a locker, whispering into a little freshman girl’s ear.
No way! When did he get so big?
The kid is taller. Taller than me and much wider, solid muscle too. What the fuck? I guess whopping season is over.
For the first time in two years I let go of Sokhna’s hand and start rushing down the hallway, shoving students out of the way.
Truth is, I’m really happy to see him. Ecstatic actually, if only because I was starting to doubt my sanity with everybody else seeing him on an almost daily basis.
“Djibril!” I yell again but he doesn’t seem to hear me, moving swiftly down the hall with the girl while students cram the way, making it harder for me to get to him.
He turns around a corner towards the cafeteria, but by the time I get there he’s gone.
Djibril drops his sim mask and rushes to find his mother.
She’s never sounded this panicked…
“Yes mama!” He screams barging into her room.
She looks up surprised.
“Well that’s a first!” She says smiling. “You have me on your mind don’t you, now?”
“You mean you didn’t call me?”
“Afraid not.” She says. “But while you’re here…”
“You sure you’re alright?” Sokhna asks me before I shoot myself back to the dorms.
“Of course.” I say, going for nonchalant, but I can hear it in my voice and so can she. Her no-nonsense look says it all. Not quite seeing Djibril has shaken me more than I can say. It’s normal I suppose. Coupled with Ablaye passing and Sokhna being oddly flippant about it, it would’ve been good to see family.
“I’ll be alright. Promised. I just need rest. I’ll be fine tomorrow. You’ll see.” I insist, forcing a smile.
She nods wearily, grabs my face, pulls it down and kisses my lips.
“Ok, I believe you. You’ve never lied to me…So I’ll see you tomorrow?”
She nods and walks away towards wherever the girl’s dorms were.
The trip back to the dorms is not through the shitter again. I’d asked why once, something about it being public restrooms, and insalubrious. I mean shit for shit…
Anyway, it’s kinda like a cannon. There are several docking ports, you lay on your stomach, and once you’ve crawled all the way in: snap! There goes the rubber band and the disintegration and the million, million Yous again, until you land in your bed…
A million other Mes echo back the same thing. The tunnel shoot is open but I can’t cross it. I can see my body on my bed, shaking in one giant epileptic seizure, my eyes flipped backwards, foam dripping from my mouth and urine slowly staining my pants.
One of the million egos takes over:
It’s high school graduation. The entire graduating body of Dakar is gathered outside the city. It’s impossible to count us all. I know my family’s somewhere out there, probably cheering me but more likely wondering where the hell I am in the formlessness of late teenage hood waiting to be sorted for college.
I turn to find them but the sea of students never ends, stretching ahead, behind, east and west to every horizon. The sky is uncommonly cloudy, dark with what should be storm clouds. There used to be a name for them but it doesn’t matter, the atmospheric weather drones have taken care of that, what little humidity’s in there will evaporate into the atmosphere and slowly dissolve. The air is heavy with the acrid smell of nervous sweat. This isn’t what I’d expected. Not at all what the intro to Virtual College looked like. No robes, no hats, no tassels, nothing. This feels more like triage.
“Congratulations graduating class of 2178! You can be proud of yourselves! You’ll be given indications on which route to follow to retrieve your diplomas, and shipped directly to your assigned institutes of Higher Learning. You are the pride of our nation. Un Peuple, Un But, Une Foi!”
The slice of me carrying that memory melts and reintegrates my shell. Another takes over…
It’s hard to remember where I am. It’s even harder to remember who I am. My nights are foggy with vivid dreams, more vivid than the moments of half-life between them. Maybe it’s daytime, I don’t know. The last dream was something about class. A pretty girl I never met. Or maybe I have. I don’t know anymore. She’s really pretty, and she looks like she really likes me. Beautiful eyes, dark blue and sharp as a knife. I must know her, she feels more real than my memories, if that’s what they are at all. And I keep thinking I’ve lost a close friend for some reason, a hulking dude. That can’t be real either but the grief feels real.
The helmet is uncomfortable but at least the restraints tying me to the bed are off. Apparently I shake a lot in my sleep, but that’s because I’m not sleeping. It’s the dreams, it’s like they’re trying to switch me for them.
The door is open on the hallway, a dark grey thing with a series of doors probably for other students. Not that I’ve met anybody since being shipped here. No one I can remember anyway. But it’s not the gloom that hits me it’s the smell: warm and metallic, with an aftertaste of liquid shit, like a decomposing body, and the sound, the heavy motion of a grinder.
Where is everybody and why did they let me out? Maybe I’m still dreaming.
The smell and the noise get worse as I walk down the hall. The stink makes my eyes water, and the grinding makes it hard to think, but there’s a light, more light than I can remember in weeks.
There are things dropping into the light from a chute above. Elongated, heavy things by the whooshing sounds they make against the opening before the grinding takes over and the smell explodes in redolent bursts down the hall. Bowels. Guts. Blood. Those words flash in my languid brain and I miss a step, my hand landing on the wall, and someone catches me.
“No need to go there Bougouma. Not yet at any rate.”
“What is that noise? What is that smell?”
“Nothing to worry about. A few more days and you’ll be ready to graduate!”
I want answers but I’m too tired to understand. They’re doing something to me, to all of us, but I won’t let them have all of me. I won’t forget it all…
All the Mes coalesce into one, and I’m lying on my bed all my memories one again. The shaking should stop. But it doesn’t.
I’m sitting next to Sokhna who’s holding my hand, and resting her head on my shoulder. Good god, she’s not, maybe in that dark meat grinder she’s dreaming that she is, maybe we’re all dreaming that we’re sitting here ready to collect our diplomas…
I can’t remember Senior year at all. One moment I’m convulsing in bed and the next I’m sitting here with my entire graduating class. Someone must have caught the glitch and fast forwarded me here…
I know it isn’t real, but I don’t wanna think about reality, not after what I’ve seen. Maybe I’m still alive waiting to be processed for the food banks, maybe I’ve been dead for years and am just an algorithm in Virtual College.
Maybe they’re gonna delete me. I don’t care, I won’t feel a thing anymore and that might be best. If they recycle the program, I hope I don’t remember because this isn’t about me anymore, it’s about who is playing my sim right now. Sitting at home, this close from graduating high school…
“Hey! Stop looking so glum, check out the stage, it’s your brother handing out the diplomas!”