“That neverending nurturing you need, the sea has it.” – Nayyirah Waheed
Mami Wata is a water spirit celebrated throughout Africa and the Diaspora.
Believed to be the bringer of good and bad fortune, a healer of the sick and nurturing mother, Mami Wata is a complex representation of good vs evil.
Often portrayed as snake charmer or mermaid, Mami Wata is described as a woman of excessive beauty.
Taking the form of a mermaid, Mami Wata can be seen splashing in the waters at the end of a rainbow after a heavy storm before descending into the magical realm in which she resides…a whimsical world of unrestrained fancy.
Being an African fan girl is a strange, liminal thing. You’re never quite sure that you exist, you see. A part of you is rooted in your culture and its expectations for how a woman ought to behave – church, family, school – but another is flying off into the stars carrying a samurai sword and a machete. Not one thing or another, you’re both at the same time.
It doesn’t help that you’re invisible. In all the representations of geek culture, in all the arguments for inclusion, it doesn’t seem like your voice can be heard. After all, shows like The Big Bang Theory which are supposed to be modern representations of geeks and their culture seem entirely populated by white people with plenty of free time and disposable income. If you don’t look like that, don’t have that kind of money or time, are you still a geek? If a tree falls in the forest… Even in the niches that have been carved for ourselves on the continent, you are still a strange, semi-mythical beast – the only woman at Lagos Comicon who wasn’t working or attending with her significant other.
And what of those pop culture representations that have given you your identity? The books, movies, television shows and comics that formed the language of your childhood and helped you understand notions of heroism and virtue? Even in them your reflection is distorted.
The mutant Storm who you discovered in middle school is an African woman, certainly. But her tribe is made up. And remember that episode of the cartoon that took us back to her childhood in her village? Remember how you noted that her snow white hair was straight even then and you wondered where on earth she had found the time and money to relax her hair? And don’t forget your horror when you rewatched Conan the Destroyer and realised that Grace Jones’ Amazon, whom you’d long cherished for her fierceness, her beauty and her strength, was a racist stereotype.
You look on in anger and despair as the black female characters on your favourite shows are too often written as stereotypical or one-dimensional. They aren’t allowed to grow or learn and are too quickly dispatched to make way for someone or something deemed more interesting. Their bodies – and by implication yours – are the site for the unconscious racism and sexism of the writers and their fans. You wonder: “If people hate Tara from True Blood, or Gwen from Merlin, and Martha from Dr. Who – black women who are smarter, more beautiful, and far more interesting than I am – so much, then how much more will they hate me?”
You watch as your entire continent is reduced to a black man yodelling nonsense and white children dressed in feathers and face paint in an “Africanised” version of a popular song and you seethe. Quietly, for among your people it is not seemly for a woman to make too much noise.
You understand that geek culture is supposed to be the refuge of the misunderstood. All of us were at one point the kid who stayed inside during recess reading in the library rather than playing with the others. We were the ones pretending to have lightsaber battles when the other kids were playing soccer. Your Barbie dolls never played house; they were too busy exploring the alien landscapes of your bedroom floor and befriending the monsters under you bed. None of us fit into the easy boxes of our societies – you know this. But when you see that the self-appointed gatekeepers of the world you claimed before you knew they existed have erected wall to keep out members of your sex and race, it can’t fail to hurt.
So you turn away.
After all, you have always existed in isolation. Your favourite books were not ones you could discuss with your friends who always gave those puzzled, pitying looks when you mentioned them. You watched your favourite shows in your bedroom, laughing into the silence while your family avidly discussed the latest Nollywood film in the next room. You go to see your favourite superhero summer blockbusters by yourself, aware that you may be the only woman in the audience who has actually read the comic book that the movie is loosely based on.
You make sure to defend your beloved characters when they are denigrated, but you do so in your heart. You don’t have the unlimited bandwidth that your peers in richer countries do and in the empty spaces of the internet you’re never quite sure anyone is listening anyway. You pore over pictures of conventions far away, admiring cosplays you can’t afford to imitate and reading recaps of panels that you wish you could have attended. There are no libraries from which you can borrow the sci-fi and fantasy books being written today and you can’t really afford the few online portals which will accept transactions from your country and deliver to it, so you trawl e-zines for short stories. And in the eerie quiet of the early morning, you write your own stories. Worlds browner than the ones on screen, filled with women just like you who are torn between two identities.
You know you are not alone. There are thousands of women just like you all over the continent. They have fought to forge their unique identities outside of the prescribed roles they were expected to fill. They have kept that childhood sense of wonder and aren’t ashamed to squeal like schoolgirls when they get excited. They run when they are in a hurry and they take the stairs two at a time. Like you, they are still curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions, but they scattered like magic beans across a vast farm. They are growing into their own twisted shapes and no one around them can understand why.
So you call to them. You ask them to come and pour their hearts and stories into this space you’ve helped to create. You assure them that they are not alone, that in the vast spaces on the worldwide web, there are others like them. Like a song in the darkness you have put out your own story and you hope that they recognise its notes, and that they respond. For you may not have any answers; you may not have any original insights. But you know your own experience and you hope that that’s enough.
Chinelo is a writer, editor, journalist and dog person living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop which she attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. Her writing has appeared in several places, including the Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Jungle Jim Magazine and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. She runs Sylvia Fairchild Editorial Services, a consultancy providing writing, research and editing services to individuals and organisations. For more of Her work, check out her now-defunct blog: Chinelo.onwualu.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter via @chineloonwualu
Olachi’s head popped through the back door startling Taiye. “Your 4:15 massage is here!”
Taiye pressed the red button, cutting short the heated conversation she had been engaged in. Work was calling, village matters would have to wait. She tried calming herself down as she followed Olachi into the building that housed the elite spa they both worked in.
“What were you doing there?” Olachi frowned. “Your client has been waiting for a while now. Better pray Madam doesn’t come in.”
What was on Taiye’s mind far outweighed Madam’s wrath. Her brother needed money for a new laptop since his old one had been stolen, her younger sisters needed money for their school fees, the monthly allowance she sent to her mother was behind schedule…this did not even include the distant aunt who had called just now to demand why Taiye was yet to send the money she promised her into her account, a day had already passed since she had asked. Taiye dragged her hand across her face; at this rate she would be unable to pay the rent.
“This is the woman who will attend to you,” Olachi’s words dispersed her thoughts in four different directions. Taiye looked up to find her client seated on one of the sofas in the waiting area.
The woman’s skin was as yellow as a bar of soap. She wore an incredibly short skirt and a flimsy top that exposed a curved shoulder, her eyebrows were perfectly arched, eyeliner wings steady and lips zobo-red. The air around her screamed affluence and sophistication, she was probably one of those young women running around Abuja being sponsored by their sugar daddies, Taiye thought maliciously. The woman’s lips quirked, one corner lifted up slightly as she stared back at Taiye studying her. The slight movement made Taiye pause; she was suddenly assailed with the uncomfortable thought that the woman could read her mind. Impossible.
“Good evening ma.” she played subservient as Madam said the clients expected. Then came the introduction, “My name is Taiye,” and the apology, “I apologise for the wait. Kindly follow me.”
“I trust this room is to your taste.” Taiye shut the door to the dim room behind them. The scent of sandalwood along with the soft sounds of a gentle rain from the music player surrounded them. “You wanted the shea butter massage, ma?”
“Yes, and I hope it is good.” She dropped her bag on the floor. “I am already unimpressed with your services. It is just unfortunate that my usual spa is closed, I wouldn’t even consider coming here…”
Taiye blocked out her words and commenced preparing the shea butter, warming it up so that it melted and adding a few drops of calming lavender essential oil to it.
“I apologise, ma.” She said finally. “I will give you some privacy now, please take off your clothes and lie face up on the table.”
Taiye stepped out; her hands itched from wanting to slap that woman. It must be nice not to have any problems in one’s life apart from when and where to have a massage. They looked about the same age yet life had clearly dealt Taiye the heavier burden. She walked to the extreme end of the corridor and leaned towards an open window dragging in the dust-laden air deeply. Focus Taiye, she told herself. Five minutes later she was back in the room where her client waited. Shortly after, she started her work first stretching her client’s muscles. As she applied pressure on her client’s stomach, she admired the little ring that adorned her belly button. Taiye worked, kneading at the muscles and imagining how many men must be chasing after this woman, how she must entrance them.
She asked the woman to turn over, that was when things got strange. Taiye rubbed more shea butter on her hands and looked down on the smooth expanse of her client’s back in preparation. Just below the woman’s left shoulder blade was what looked like a painful bump, the kind that Taiye associated with being hit badly. Before Taiye’s eyes, the swelling shifted under skin and disappeared. A sharp pain pierced Taiye’s chest as she stood rooted to the spot, her hands unwilling to continue the massage. The bump appeared again, lengthened so it resembled a snake and slithered across her client’s back.
“Is anything the matter?” Her client’s lulled voice was a testament to her calmed state.
“No,” Taiye breathed. Then she shook her head so her voice came out stronger when she repeated, “No”.
She had to maintain her professionalism in the face of hallucinations. Taiye pressed her hands onto the woman’s shoulders; she slid them down her back and stared in horror as her hands sunk through the woman’s skin. She lurched, moving her hands back and forth but all she felt was lightness and all she saw were her wrists. Crying out her horror, Taiye jumped back pulling her hands with her. The woman lifted herself up on her elbows and regarded Taiye.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” Her demand was harsh but a lopsided smile occupied half of her face.
“I am sorry madam,” Taiye ignored the heaviness in her stomach.
“You seem distracted,” the woman continued. “Is everything all right with you? At home?”
She looked into the woman’s eyes; they seemed to change colour from black to a light hazel. At that moment Taiye thought the woman knew all about her.
“I don’t have all day,” the woman said. When Taiye did not reply, the woman lay back down on her stomach.
Taiye had never seen anything like this before – outside her dreams which, when she had them, always veered into the weird. She was definitely not asleep now. Taiye reluctantly approached her client’s prone form and tentatively touched her shoulder. Her skin was soft but not soft enough for her hand to be submerged in it, Taiye resumed the massage. By the end of the day, she had convinced herself that it had all been an illusion. A peculiar illusion drawn from the horror movie her boyfriend had forced her to watch last week.
She must have looked over her shoulder a hundred times as she walked down the dark street to her one-room home. The prayers she said before sleeping that night were more fervent than usual. They were ultimately useless because when she slept, all she saw was her 4:15 client.
The only business Taiye could do and excel in was in her trade. On her day off, she kept herself busy by borrowing clients from Madam’s spa, offering them home treatments at rates that were just slightly lower than the standard home-service rates dictated by Madam. She not only borrowed clients, but equipment as well and had her boyfriend drop her when she needed to make things happen.
That day Taiye found herself stranded outside the gates of a high-class estate tucked away in Maitama with a folded table to her left and a box of aromatic oils and butters in her right hand. She tapped her right foot; Gregory had promised to pick her up and he was already fifteen minutes late. Taiye knew intimately how the guards at this estate enjoyed mistreating anyone who they regarded as poor, Nigerian and local, she did not want to give them a chance to embarrass her. The guards had already given her a tough time when she had entered the estate and were shooting daggers at her from their post five feet away. Taiye wiped her sweaty palm on her side and observed a fancy Mercedes SUV drive past her. She admired the dark red colour of the car and thought she recognised the person driving it, which was out of the question; no one she knew personally could afford such luxury. There was a loud screech as the driver pressed on the brake and shifted the car into reverse. When the car stopped before her, Taiye remembered where she had met the driver.
A month must have passed since that fateful day, yet standing in such close proximity to the woman, it felt like only yesterday. In some ways it was only yesterday considering the nightmares that had plagued Taiye since then. Taiye never recalled the dreams in detail beyond the strong impression that this woman had been in them. She had grown convinced that the woman was involved in some kind of occult activity, and that the woman wanted to initiate her – if she had not already. There was no other reason for her to be dreaming about someone she had only spent an hour and thirty minutes with.
“Taiye!” the driver called her as if they were friends. “Imagine seeing you here. How are you?”
“I am fine,” Taiye dared not to look at her. She did not even know this lady’s name.
“How come you’re just standing here?” The woman eyed Taiye. “Come on, let me give you a lift.”
“I don’t think you’re going my way,” Taiye pointed in the opposite direction of the gilded main gate.
“Come on, I can drop you off afterwards.” The front door slammed behind her as she exited the car. “How much longer do you intend to stand under the sun; those look heavy.”
If this woman was engaged in evil, would she be so eager to carry the folded table and deposit it in her car in such a carefree manner? There was always the option to run away, to find protection between any hallowed walls. Then there was the option to succumb, especially if it meant Taiye would be sitting behind the driver’s seat of a car like this Mercedes. There was also the possibility that Taiye’s imagination had run wild. Taiye chewed on her bottom lip and decided: she would only put up the least resistance. She settled into the plush leather passenger seat and reached for the seatbelt.
“I’m Lila.” The car was filled with a strong heady fragrance as she closed the door with too much force.
“Nice to meet you,” Taiye replied.
Lila’s laugh was high-pitched. “Why are you so formal? See you.” She slapped her hand on the wheel. “Sha, don’t start calling me ‘ma’, this is not the spa.”
As the car lurched forward, Taiye was suddenly assaulted by a memory that could only have come from one of those nightmares she had had recently. Lila standing still and nude; Taiye recognised her even though her face was distorted, as if she was wearing a mask. Her eyebrows seemed bushier, her eyes bigger, her mouth wider and higher on her face and her chin long and pointed, curved outward. Despite her grotesque appearance, Taiye recalled shamelessly lamenting to the Lila in her dreams. Her issues with her family and her need for money poured out of her mouth like water from a kettle’s spout. It was always about money, right until she would find herself wrist deep in Lila again but this time Lila’s body took her arms, then her torso and her head. Worst of all, it had felt good. Heat flooded through her, but Lila was saying something and Taiye was not listening.
“…so I will just branch by my place and pick up a few things.” Lila finished.
“I said I needed to pick something from my house, I live in this estate.” Lila snickered. “Or did you think I was here to meet my sugar daddy?”
Taiye squirmed in her seat; luckily Lila did not even wait for her to reply.
“We’re there already. See.” She swerved right and pressed on the car horn in a long and protracted way until the gate shifted.
The black gate was pushed back by an old woman almost bent double. The elder looked like she was going to fall over at any moment yet she continued until the gate was wide enough for Lila to drive through. Taiye’s eyes met the old woman’s sombre ones; surely there was a limit to who should be doing the work of a housegirl. Taiye sat still while Lila jumped out of the car.
“Mama!” Lila screamed at the old woman. “We have a guest.”
Taiye’s mouth fell open. She looked from Lila with her curly weave-on and shiny nail tips to the old woman modestly dressed in an old worn blouse and a faded wrapper around her waist, its dull print suggesting it was as old as the woman. The door to the passenger’s side jerked open.
“Don’t tell me you plan on sitting here, the windows are rolled up, you could die!” Lila laughed. “Abi you’re scared? Don’t worry, I don’t bite.” She winked.
The entire episode was too strange. Knees throbbing, Taiye looked at the gate that the so-called Mama was sliding shut. She could still run away. Then she mentally slapped herself; why, this was an opportunity! Even if there were no occult activities or initiation involved, there must be some goodness that would come her way from rubbing shoulders with someone like Lila. If she looked on the bright side, soon Taiye would cease her lamentations of poverty. She slid out of the SUV. The house was two stories high, and looked too grand for just one person, Taiye could not picture a family behind the bewildering Lila. Inside the mansion, everything looked new. There was no helping it, Taiye thought back to where she lived, her one room with the mattress she slept on in one corner and the stove she cooked on in another. It was a huge stroke of luck that she had her own bathroom.
Lila led her straight to her bedroom on the upper floor with its queen-sized bed overflowing with stuffed pillows.
“I just needed to change…but I’m sweaty, I should have a bath too.” Lila peeled off her jeans while Taiye averted her gaze. “I hope you don’t mind. Mama will bring something for you to eat.” She shouted the last sentence, as if she wanted Mama to hear her from downstairs.
Taiye found herself alone, her feet sunk into the plush carpet as she looked around. There were no personal effects at all; no photos on the walls, in fact apart from what looked like wallpaper the walls were bare. The door opened and Mama entered in carrying a tray of juice and small chops, she set the goodies on a low table beside the bed. Mama’s head cocked as she regarded Taiye.
“You are one of the ugliest that witch has brought home.” Her whisper was harsh and her English was peppered with an accent that suggested some time spent abroad, it completely contrasted with her image.
Taiye frowned as Mama fired on. “You should see yourself, standing and gaping like a poverty-stricken idiot. You must be a fool for choosing the company of that harlot.”
“Mama…” Heat flooded Taiye’s face.
“Don’t you dare call me Mama, do I look like your mother?” She kissed her teeth viciously. “You idiot.”
Taiye flinched at being berated by an elder for no apparent reason. The woman words cut like a knife and she fired on so Taiye had to block her out. She sipped at the juice and marvelled at the smoothness of the mango. Despite her best efforts as she nibbled on a samosa, words like “worthless” and “mumu” passed through her mental wall. She must have really looked like the fool Mama thought she was perched at the edge of the bed, eating quietly while being insulted when Lila emerged from the bathroom with a wrapper tied over her chest.
“Mama is that really necessary?” Lila stood akimbo. “You know better than this, go feed on someone else.”
Taiye watched as Mama shrunk visibly, and despite her harshness she felt sorry for the elder.
“Mama, you’ve grown horns to be insulting my guest in such a manner.” Lila pushed open the door to the closet. “Sometimes it is like your forget it is a blessing that you’re even alive.”
“I have done nothing wrong.” Mama’s eyes followed Lila’s movements, hands clutched to her chest. “I have not eaten in days and you forbade…”
“Will you get out of this room!” Lila eyes were white in rage. “In fact get out of this house, of this estate! Go back there and see what will happen to you. And if I hear that you fed without my permission…”
Lila’s glance fell on Taiye and softened.
“Leave this place, Mama.” Rolling her shoulders, she inhaled deeply. Two sets of eyes watched the old woman as she scurried away. Lila smiled at Taiye, her smile was so wide it reached her eyes.
“I am sorry about that.” She turned her attention back to the closet stuffed with clothes. “Mama can be unseasoned.”
“But should you…” Taiye’s voice broke, she pushed herself to continue. “Should you be talking to your mother in that manner?”
“I shouldn’t, right?” Lila extracted a red top. “But I give her all the respect she deserves by calling her Mama and providing a roof over her head. How did you feel when she was talking to you?”
“I…I felt bad.” Taiye lowered her gaze as Lila lowered her wrapper.
“Imagine, I grew up with that every day. That woman feeds on negativity.” Lila said. “She has not one loving bone in her body.”
Lila had mentioned her mother feeding but it seemed she meant it figuratively.
“Help me zip up, Taiye.” Lila showed Taiye her back. What Taiye had mistaken for a top turned out to be a dress. “Tell me, how do I look?”
She twirled round playfully. Taiye took in her bare feet and let her gaze travel up to the curls she had packed in a bun. She looked stunning. Taiye knew such a look would never befit her.
“You look great.” Taiye breathed. Such skimpy clothes would look horrible on her; there was no need to even imagine herself decked in such a daring fashion.
“Would you like to try something on?” Lila read Taiye’s mind. “Actually I have a dress that would look excellent on you.”
Taiye had to decline. “I have overstayed…”
“Nonsense.” Lila held a green flimsy thing in her hands. “Today is your day off Taiye, let me take you out.”
“The truth is my boyfriend is waiting for me.” Taiye swallowed.
Lila advanced until she stood in front of her. “Forget Gregory.” Reaching for Taiye’s hands, she pulled her up.
“I did not…” Taiye stammered. “How do you know his name?”
“I think you know.” Lila’s fingers were on the buttons of Taiye’s shirt, undoing them one by one. “At the very least you should have an idea. Now, are you coming out with me or not?”
Taiye held her shirt closed with both hands, nodded her consent and slipped into the bathroom.
“Taiye, you look gorgeous.” Lila remarked. “Your skin tone complements this colour.”
This was the first time anyone had complimented her on her skin tone, no one had teased her, but no one had offered her honeyed words for her sepia tone either. It felt akin to sacrilege to put a designer dress on her dirty sweaty body. Her dimpled thighs should not be exposed, and her father would roll in his grave if he saw her wearing a dress that revealed her back. But Lila had called her gorgeous. Taiye stared at herself in the mirror; she looked wild, like an alluring temptress. Was it possible that one dress and a bit of makeup could have this effect? Or was Lila’s aura rubbing on her already?
“Thank you.” She wanted to pinch herself, there was a longing in her voice; she did not want to give up this dream.
“You look delicious.” Lila’s head appeared beside her own in the mirror, her chin burrowed into Taiye’s shoulder. “Are you ready to join me for an adventure?”
Downstairs there was someone waiting before the front door, from the distance Taiye could make out a slim figure shrouded in a green caftan
“Olokunfemi,” the woman in the caftan cautiously turned to face them. “You’re going out to eat and won’t even show the slightest mercy to Mama.”
“Before you start accusing me sister, I have a guest.” Lila stooped to slip on her high heels. “Taiye, this is my sister Yazmin.”
As Taiye greeted her, she noticed Yazmin’s eyes were murky, unseeing. Nonetheless Yazmin was as beautiful as her sister, though plainly dressed in a caftan and without makeup.
“We will have this discussion when you come back.” A frown marred Yazmin’s brow as her blind gaze moved over the wall near Taiye. “I did not notice you had company.”
“That’s rare of you.” Lila let her bought hair down from its bun and dragged her fingers through its mass. “Before you disappear at least come and open the gate for me.”
Taiye would not ask questions. Her nails dug into her palms as her phone vibrated in the bejewelled clutch bag Lila had lent her. She would not ask why her sister had called her by that name, nor would she demand to know the sense behind sending a blind woman on such an errand.
“I can open the gate.” Taiye offered. Lila shrugged and headed for her car.
“Taiye,” Yazmin called out as Taiye followed Lila’s footsteps. “You should know that anyone you meet in this house is more than you can possibly imagine.”
Her hands stilled on the doorknob. “I don’t understand.”
“That is the least you should know if you are going to be hanging around my sister.” A blaring horn startled Taiye into action. She was out the door before Yazmin had the chance to say anything else.
As the SUV wound through the streets of Abuja, Taiye studied her phone. Eleven missed calls, most of them from Gregory. She turned off her phone; if she wasn’t here she would be at home preparing efo-riro for the dinner she would share with Gregory. At that moment Taiye decided she much rather preferred Lila’s company. It must have been the years of repression, the years of taking responsibility for her siblings as the first daughter, the years of looking for work so that money could be sent home after her father had passed away, it must have been a culmination of all her experiences that made Taiye this eager to give herself over to temptation unheeding. As night drew closer, Lila drove them to a inconspicuous-looking house. Past the gates and behind the multi-storied building, a party was in full swing in the backyard. Taiye kept her head down, ignoring most of the crowd as Lila wove her way through it.
“Ah there is Chairman.” Lila reached for Taiye’s hand and walked towards the short man decked in a pricey suit. She introduced him as the owner of a successful supermarket chain in Abuja and Kaduna. To the Chairman Taiye was “my friend.”
The three of them settled down on lawn chairs and as the evening progressed, Taiye felt more out of place. Her two companions were discussing things that were foreign to her, like the benefits in importing used cars from South Korea as opposed to China. There were servers carrying trays of colourful drinks that exploded in Taiye’s head making her groggy. When the Chairman rose to his feet and Lila with him, Taiye mirrored their movements. It was not long before she found herself in a room with the two of them, the intention of the Chairman clear as day.
The penthouse suite of D-Suites in Maitama was a muted affair. It was not exactly how Taiye would have pictured the most expensive room of such an establishment. She barely had time to scrutinise the brown and gold décor of the sitting room when Lila took her hand and dragged her through to the bedroom behind the Chairman. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and the two lamps on each side of the bed were lit, all of them highlighting the queen bed in the centre of the room.
The Chairman lay on his back on the wide bed, Lila straddling him. It seemed normal enough when Lila lowered her head to kiss him. Taiye had to look at something else other than those two. The colourful clock on the wall by her left was a good enough distraction; it was frozen at five minutes past seven. Even with her gaze somewhere else Taiye could hear them; the wetness of two lips meshing, soft groans and low moans. Then there was a faint gurgling sound like the last of water going down a drain. The strange sound drew Taiye to tilt her head slightly in the direction of the bed in the hopes of catching a glimpse. She blinked. From where Taiye stood she could clearly see what looked like water spilling out from the side of Lila’s mouth, which was glued to the Chairman’s. Lila’s hands were flat on the Chairman’s chest and below her the prone man struggled. Someone as slight as Lila was, compared to the Chairman’s broad frame, should not have been able to hold the grappling man down, yet Lila did not loose her grip on the Chairman until his movements stilled.
“Finally!” Lila gasped, flinging her head back. She turned to smile at Taiye who shook in her shoes. “Taiye help me with this.” She was pulling at Chairman’s tie. When it loosened, Lila’s deft fingers were slipping buttons out of their holes exposing a hairy chest and a slightly paunchy stomach. The sound of her own breathing was heavy in Taiye’s ears. She should leave.
“There’s no way you can leave now Taiye.” Lila placed both hands on the Chairman’s still chest. “Sit down.”
There was a magnet in the lone chair situated near the bed and it drew Taiye’s behind. She sat on it just in time to see Lila’s hand sink through the Chairman’s skin. Lila moved her hands, drawing them apart and down, opening the Chairman up. Taiye tasted blood in her mouth; her teeth had gnawed at her inner cheek. She had seen this before, back at the spa and then again in those nightmares. Instead of guts and gore, a grey light spilled out from inside the Chairman. Lila leaned over breathed in this glow, inhaling the grey through her wide nostrils she moaned.
“Absolutely delectable.” Lila shifted off the Chairman, kicking off her heels she stood on the bed. “Taiye, see you soon.”
With those parting words Lila stepped into the glow, slipped her foot into the open stomach and sunk into Chairman’s body. The gaping hole sealed behind her. Taiye stared at the bed unseeingly, persistent quivers racked her frame.
Despite it all, Taiye slept. She awakened to the sun on her face, she was lying tummy down on the bed. She was not aware of the exact time, but years of habit told her that she was late for work. It took two breaths for the events of the previous night to slam into her. Taiye jerked off the bed and was surprised to find it empty. The white covers on the bed, the marbled floor and the mahogany bedside desk let her know that she was still in the guesthouse they had driven to the previous night. There was no deadly stiff Chairman lying beside her, Lila too was nowhere to be seen. Taiye’s hand reached for her throat, last night definitely happened. She did not conjure it up. Something so unnatural was beyond her scope of originality.
The loud gurgle of a toilet flushing told Taiye that she was not alone. The door to the bathroom swung open and in its frame stood the Chairman, naked as the day he was born. The sight of his nudity caused Taiye’s mouth to fall open, panic to flood Taiye’s veins. Had something sexual happened between her and the Chairman? But she was fully dressed…
“Calm down, Taiye.” The Chairman’s mouth moved but it was Lila’s voice. “That did not happen, but it can if you want it to.”
The laughter was undoubtedly Lila’s. Flabbergasted, Taiye’s eyes followed the Chairman – no it was Lila that leapt across the room in a movement that would be considered strange on a pot-bellied man like the Chairman. Standing in front of a full-length mirror the Chairman looked at himself.
“No matter how many times I do this,” a hand reached between his legs. “I can’t get over it.”
“What…” Taiye’s voice croaked, she cleared her throat. “What is going on?”
“Haba, you should know Taiye. I thought you were perceptive.” The hand stroked and a light giggle burst forth from the Chairman’s lips. “I am borrowing Chairman’s body. Tell me Taiye would you let the Chairman fuck you?”
“No!” Taiye recoiled. “What are you?”
The Chairman pouted. “You’re no fun.” He stepped away from the mirror.
“Why involve me in this?” Taiye hugged herself bringing her arms across her midriff.
“Because I like you, Taiye…plus it always pays to have a human sidekick.” The Chairman pulled on his boxers but the eyes that were trained on Taiye belonged to Lila. “You knew there was something off about me yet you still came along with me. Now that is sexy and I shall reward you immensely.”
Her ears perked at “reward.”
“You’re not going to eat me, or use me as sacrifice…”
“We only eat emotions.” The Chairman laughed, high and feminine as he slipped on a shirt. “I like lust, Mama eats shame, Yazmin fear – although the goody-two-shoes likes to fast.”
“Do they borrow bodies too?” Taiye felt the knot between her shoulders loosen.
“That’s my speciality.” The Chairman knotted his tie. “I thought it was useless before I discovered that this is the least stressful way to learn personal information like account numbers, PINs and the like.”
Her knees did not feel wobbly; Taiye lifted herself up from the bed. “This is all to steal people’s information?” She helped the Chairman put on his suit jacket.
“At its core.” The Chairman smoothed the silver jacket. “You have no idea how nice this is. You should let me borrow your body.”
Taiye shook her head. “Haven’t you already?” At the Chairman’s raised eyebrow she continued. “I mean in my dreams, you…we…”
“That wasn’t me!” The Chairman dissolved into laughter, bending over and slapping his knees. He sighed. “I said you were perceptive, but could someone have been warning you about me?” he stroked his chin.
“This is not funny.” Taiye began to feel unsure again, just when she had gained some confidence.
“Okay Taiye,” the Chairman pouted. “We’ll investigate that later, now need to go to the bank to effect some transfers.” He winked. “Coming along?”
There were still questions that needed answering: What would happen when Lila posing as Chairman walked into the bank? What kind of reward would Lila give her? Taiye’s fingers dug into her palms, she nodded her consent.
Arrows in front of my eyes tell me where to go ↑ along a busy market street lined with immigrants selling cheap wares from makeshift stalls. It’s awash with colour, purple and blue saris and Kashmiri scarfs, red apples, green grapes, and the smells of freshly caught fish, cooked corn, herbs and spices – paprika, cumin, ground chilli – sold by the pound. Loud voices call out random prices and bargains as I (and I am still I) turn → into a narrow alleyway with puddles of water from last night’s rain, full up trash cans and cardboard stacks from the shops inside.
←. Sat-homing means I see where I’m going, feel the experience, but it’s more of a sleepwalk. It’s like doing something by instinct, the same way your leg kicks out when the doctor taps your knee with a plexor. My muscles move, I feel the ground beneath my feet, taste the salty air from the sea close by, and feel the chilly wind; I’m here and not here. ↑.
Status Green: Y/N – Y
Prepare For Symbiosis
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
A ton of force presses down the top of my head, crushing me. Everything from the top of my cranium moves down like my skull is travelling down my neck into my oesophagus. It feels like I’m eating my own head, swallowing it down to my gut, can’t breathe, a wave of nausea overcomes me and I’d gag if a big lump wasn’t obstructing my throat. It’s like being ripped out of your skin and having everything shredded and crushed, leaving only that, the largest organ in your body, hollow, while a new skeleton ent…
i’m at the beach again, look at it, so beautiful. If only the sky wasn’t covered by those grey clouds. Never mind. Best birthday present ever! Is that? – no, it can’t be.
‘Hey dad, you in there?’ Holy crap.
‘Joe, is it really you?’ i ask. ‘i can’t believe it.’
‘We’re all here for you,’ he replies and sweeps his hand to show the rest of the family behind him.
my sister Ethel’s in a blue frock, covered up with a cardigan. Her hair is so grey, all those wrinkles on her face, the moustache on her lip. i hug her tightly, haven’t seen that face in over ten years; not since my eyes gave out. Joe’s wife, Natalie, holds a big box with bright pink ribbons on it, the smile on her face warms me up. We embrace, just like we did on their wedding day. Happiest day of my life. The grandkids, the tall one must be Darren and the little one, blonde hair, Craig. On the beach with my family again, it’s a miracle.
‘That’s not Grandpa,’ says Craig, taking a step back behind his brother.
‘Craig, what did I tell you? Don’t spoil this for everyone,’ Joe replies curtly.
‘It’s me, don’t be afraid. It really is me.’ i go over to the boy, pick him up and tickle his belly like i used to, he squirms and pulls away.
‘You’re not Grandpa,’ he says, and walks off towards the white pier in the distance. i make to follow, but Joe grabs my arm.
‘Let him go, we’ve only got an hour. He’ll be alright.’
A woman in a yellow mini walks past with her dog and i feel a yearning inside me i haven’t felt for years. This isn’t the time. It’s family time. There are strollers in beach shorts, a couple having breakfast on a towel near the changing rooms, sanitation workers taking away litter from the car park up ahead. And the wind is just glorious, i close my eyes and try to inhale every atom of air i can.
i hit Darren on the shoulder – ‘Tag you’re it’ – and begin to run on the beach. That’s right, I’m running, the sand underneath me, giving way and crunching as I go, seaweed washed ashore, and, boy, am i running like a pro-athlete. i slow down to allow Darren to tag me and off i go after him. My grandson can run like a gazelle, but it only takes a few strides, i catch up, grab him by the waist and lift him high in the air. Joe and Natalie laugh, Ethel laughs, we’re all so happy. Best birthday ever.
We walk on the sand, checking out sailing boats in the distance. A few folks stare at us for a bit, but i suppose that’s normal given the circumstances. i’ve not felt this strong in years. Even as we walk, i’m holding back because i just want to run. It was on this very beach that i proposed to Lenore fifty years ago. Wish she was still here with us to hear the seagulls circling above, squawking.
Joe calls Craig over and we sit round a table. It’s a bit nippy, but we order ice-cream anyway. The taste of it is just divine, so sweet, so sharp, like every nerve ending in my body is awake and it’s every bit as great as I remember from the rations during the war. Vivid flavours explode in my mouth.
i feel an overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss at the thought of leaving all this behind. It’s like being given the power of a god for a day and having it taken away the same way Phaethon was hurled off Apollo’s chariot by Zeus’ thunderbolt.
‘i suppose it’s time for me to say goodbye again,’ i mumble.
‘I’m sorry, if we’d had more money, we could have bought more time,’ Natalie says, her eyes welling up. ‘Maybe we could…I’ve heard of charities that buy time for people in special circumstances.’
‘Don’t bother yourself; you have kids to look after. i’ll remember this day forever. It’s been wonderful.’
i get up to hug them, each in turn, and this time Craig lets me. He feels like dough in my arms, soft, yeasty, full of goodness and potential, young and invincible, as though I’m touching the future right now. There’s a joy in my heart that can’t be compared to…
Prepare To Disengage From HostBod
SyncCorp Hopes You Had A Pleasant Experience
Please Come Again
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
I arrive at a warehouse in Mullhill, the east side of the city, near the industrial zone. There’s no sign on the diamond fence around the perimeter. HGV trucks laden with goods from the factories around run up and down the road towards the city and beyond. The noise of the mills is a sonnet to the plumes of smoke that pour from the coal powered station in the centre of the perfect grid of intersecting streets. The air is acrid and full of unknowable particulates. Men in overalls and hard hats walk in rows carrying little backpacks to their various factories.
There’s no guard as I walk past the boom gate into a desolate car park. I take a deep breath and follow the arrows. I have no choice. Some bods have been used in criminal enterprises before and it’s a growing problem. But not with SyncCorp, the leading bod provider in the western hemisphere.
A HostBod walks towards me. Hard sculpted cheeks, fair lips, flat east Baltic head, another immigrant. His blue t-shirt tells me he’s from RentaBod, cheap eastern European bods usually. He’s in Sat-homing and manages to turn his head a fraction to acknowledge me with his dead blue eyes. I blink, a moment of brotherhood that lasts a microsecond.
I walk into the bare warehouse and my Sat-homing is deactivated. I’m in loiter mode until the uplink command is sent. The warehouse is a bare shell, high windows, floors caked in pigeon droppings. At the far end is a red door which I walk through, into a waiting area in which two other bods sit in injection moulded chairs.
‘What’s this about?’ I say taking the seat nearest the exit.
‘I don’t know,’ replies the bod opposite me in a South American, maybe Brazilian accent. He’s caramel skinned and bald headed. Every bod has their head shaved for the implants.
‘Some kind of test,’ says the other one sitting nearest the second door.
Their yellow t-shirts tell me they are both assets from PleasureBodInc, usually procured for the M2M industry. The florescent light above makes a slight humming noise. It flickers at intervals. The room seems to have been set up recently, with new fixtures that smell of plastic.
‘How long have you been in business?’ the Brazilian asks.
‘Four years, nine months,’ I reply.
‘Wow, without a burnout? Amazing! I’ve only been here six months.’
‘Good luck,’ is all I can say. And that’s what this game is, Russian roulette, you spin the barrel until you don’t hear the empty click of the chamber anymore.
He’s called in by a curly haired man wearing a white coat and holding a notepad. The scent of disinfectant wafts into the waiting room. The Brazilian follows him in and the door shuts behind him.
Half an hour later, the Brazilian walks out and I’m called in before the other PleasureBodInc bod. I get up and walk into the next room. The man in a white coat asks me to sit on what looks like a pink dentist’s plinth. I comply.
Status Green: Y/N – Y
Prepare For Symbiosis
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
‘What do you think of this one, Doctor Cranmer?’
‘Near the end of service which means it’s stable. It’s the oldest one we’ve got. As you know, they usually break down around the twenty-four month mark. Only a special few last this long.’
‘i don’t know. The features…’
‘Will take some getting used to, I admit. But race is the least of your worries, sir. Stability is all important.’
‘Let’s take it through its paces, shall we?’
I’m not supposed to be here, to see or hear any of this. It’s as if I’m a child hiding in a dark closet, looking into a room through a keyhole. HostBods are not supposed to be conscious during symbiosis and the Corp would reconfigure me if they knew. But I’ve been in this closet, hiding away for two years. The doctor instructs me/him to open my/his mouth, shines a light down my/his throat. Then he draws some blood, runs me/him through an x-ray machine – Doctor Cranmer can’t use the MRI because of the electrodes – but he takes my/his blood pressure, resting pulse and performs lung function tests. He puts me/him on a treadmill at high speed for three minutes and then repeats the test. I/he is moved to a large hanger where I/he does something that resembles a football fitness test, some sort of biomechanical assessment looking at endurance, speed, strength, agility and power. I watch it all from my closet, not daring to breathe or move.
‘How old is he, doc?’
‘Just coming up to 21. Prime specimen right here.’
‘I’m not sure about this.’
‘Look at these stats, he’s 99.25% compatible, that’s 5 percentage points over anything else we’ve got. He’s perfect.’
‘I need time to think it over.’
‘We’ve got a few more to look at, so don’t worry, but the sooner we make a move the better.’
Prepare To Disengage From HostBod
SyncCorp Hopes You Had A Pleasant Experience
Please Come Again
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
↑ ↑ → ←↑ ↑ ↑ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ → ↑
Status Green: Y/N – Y
Prepare For Symbiosis
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
No rest for the fucking wicked. Stan calls me up, wants me to raise 40 mill for some shit-arsed indie flick. Who watches that crap? Must be shagging the director, that’s what. Still, who’s gonna pony up 40 mill for some piece of cunt? Okay, relax, chill out. Only get this shit one day a week. 40 mill. Forget it. Forget about work for two minutes. It’s her. Is this shit even legal?
There she is, look at that, fucking curves on that. Phwoar, even forget she nearly sixteen sometimes. Check out those blonde locks, how they bounce around on her head and those tits, dear God, those motherfucking tits. i ain’t doing badly for an old fart. i mean how many blokes my age actually get the balls to hit it with their daughter’s best mate, hehe. Pure fantasy shit. That’s why i gotta cover me tracks. Put her arse in a HostBod and shit’s supposedly legal – at least that’s what me lawyer tells me. Grey area, he calls it.
‘Ello darling, come ere to daddy.’
Feel those tits pressing against me chest as i hug her.
‘How’s school and everything?’ Gotta seem like the caring, reasonable old man, hehe.
‘It’s alright. I missed you,’ she says. Hear that – if me missus only said it once or twice a month i wouldn’t be up to no good. Swear it on me mother’s fucking grave.
‘i missed you too, darling. Give daddy a lil kiss.’
Feel those sweet teenage lips, wow. Wouldn’t be able to handle this sort of action if i was in me own body. Check out me lump, proper Mandingo going on here.
i push her back a mo just so I can check out the view, see the curves. i like that lil shade of brown pub that lingers just above them lil panties. Wow, wow, what the fuck? Who’s this? Fucking Chinese woman appears in front of me outta nowhere.
‘What’s wrong, daddy?’
‘You, you’ve fucking turned Chinese!’
‘You’re Chinese, honest to God. Look at you, all bald with some metal wire shit all over your head, the skin, everything. Oh, my fucking God!’
‘I think it’s like the visuals that’s gone bust on your bod, coz I can see you just fine.’
‘What the fuck am i supposed to do?’
“Call the company and have them fix it.’
And that’s how i spend the one afternoon of peace i get a week, down the phone speaking to some call centre trying to get this drone to remote patch me visuals. Little girl’s sitting on the bed, staring at me out of her fifty-something year old chinky fucking eyes. Total mindfuck coz she’s talking like her out of this bod and it’s doing me head in.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve fixed the fucking visuals because all i can see in front of me is a fucking Chinese bird, alright? i pay top dollar for this shit, i expect service. You even know what that word means?’ i’m screaming down the fucking phone, would have had a heart attack by now if i was in me own body. ‘Fine, i’ll take a full refund and a free session next week, sounds freaking fine by me. i should be suing your incompetent arses.’
i hang up and turn back to the girl:
‘Looks like this week’s fucked. We’ll hook up next time, okay love? Come here, give daddy a kiss… on second thoughts, don’t.’
I’m back in Sat-homing mode. I’m not supposed to know the last assignment was a complete dud, that I’m, in effect, malfunctioning. Visuals need to get reset. I’ve been sent back to base early, my next assignments have been cancelled. So I’m free – sort of.
Funny thing happens when I sync up, I seem to store some of their memories in me. This isn’t supposed to happen, none of the other bods report anything similar, but it’s like I know stuff I’m not even supposed to know.
Passing by City Square, the giant advertorial screens above, the Coke-red next to the Pepsi-blue, the giant golden arc, Papa Chicks, Massa Space outfits, people walking around, bodies pressed against each other, sub 20Hz speakers blaring out subliminal advertising, shops spraying lab manufactured pheromones to lure consumers. I adjust my hoodie, doing my best to cover my temples even though this is one of the safer parts of the city for a bod to pass. The poorer and rougher western neighbourhoods like Westlea and Pilmerton are a different matter altogether. I walk by The Stock Xchange. When I first came here I didn’t understand any of it, the arrows going up and down, the numbers sprinting across the top and bottom of the screen. But a few sessions synced with Brad Madison, and I know it all as well as any broker. Viviset stocks have been fluctuating, but they’re still overpriced, best time to sell and get out before it comes crashing down. I’d buy Tanganda now and sell it next week. ↑ Can’t stop to look at the rest in this mode, but I’ll check out the markets online when I get back to base.
Silver space blanket puffs seem to be the fashion of the week for ladies under 30. Then again, when you’ve been synced with a famous fashion designer… Wish they’d get me on the underground for the journey back. My feet are killing me. That’s the problem with Corp, they’ll squeeze every penny in savings if they can. Truth be told, knowing what I know now, that’s the same thing I’d do especially when staff turnover isn’t a factor.
Base is a huge building which used to be a budget hotel in the east side, near the space&airport. You can see planes and shuttles taking off and landing, going to exotic destinations around the world or to orbit. It’s noisy as hell, but it’s home. Our conditions here, I hear, are much better than the dormitory set-up other bods get elsewhere. Retinal scanner lets me in.
‘You’re home early 4401,’ says Marlon on the security desk.
‘Malfunction,’ I reply.
‘You’ll be seeing Dr Song then,’ he replies. ‘Go up to your room. I’ll call you when it’s time.’
‘Thanks Marlon,’ I say and then I remember, ‘hey, is it okay for me to call home?’
‘I’ll give you access. ten minutes max per day.’
‘Come on Marlon,’ I say in my best whinny voice.
‘Fifteen, and that’s the best I can do. Now get outta here before I change my mind.’
‘You’re a legend,’ I say and give him the thumbs up.
The door to my room is unlocked. We have a toilet cubicle to the left, a bunk bed on either side of the wall, and a desk with a small computer/TV at the far wall. There are no mirrors in any of the rooms. Raj6623 is asleep or in hibernation mode. He usually starts up at 22:00 and returns the next afternoon. He’s a fightbod and gets a full eight hours’ sleep plus practice time. For most bods it’s 20 hours work with four hours sleep as standard.
‘4401 authorised call to rec-number Harare,’ I say to the computer.
It kicks up with a whirr and then I hear a dial tone. Half a minute later mama’s face appears on screen. A sad smile cracks on her mouth like a running fissure when she sees me. At the right angle, all she can see is my face, bald head and the two electrodes implanted through my temples into my frontal lobe. They’re titanium and shiny, but at least she can’t see the full device. The other implants are at the back of my skull and are drilled into the amygdala, so the sync takes place in the oldest and newest brain, the primitive and the conscious part for full immersiveness. We talk about home, my little brother with Westhuizen’s Syndrome, which is the reason I’m here. The money I make goes straight towards his medication. I’ll get a bonus after completion and after that, I’ll have to either sign up again – no one’s ever done that – or find a new way to make money for his drugs. Either way, this job is the only thing keeping him alive. He pops up on screen, nine years old, handsome as a teddy bear, braces in his mouth, and smiles. I wave. He tells me about school, his friends, games, all the things any nine year old should be doing. This makes it worthwhile. Mama’s just sitting there, slightly off screen, watching her boys. I’m sure she’s proud. I get a beep, time’s nearly up, say, ‘Good-bye, I love you guys so much,’ blow a kiss and log off.
I’ve just slid into my lower bunk when Marlon buzzes via the computer and tells me to go see the doc. I get up and leave Raj6623 snoozing, go into the corridor and squirt some alcohol gel on my hands and round my temples. The corridor is bare, just blue vinyl flooring, perfect white walls, directional signs every couple of meters and a purple strip that runs in the middle of the wall as a sort of decoration. I go round a few turns and into the infirmary, just in time to see a new bod leave. I nod my head and stroll in.
Doctor Song is a small Korean man, barely reaches my chest even with the Cuban heels he wears to give himself an extra inch or so. He’s typing notes into his computer and points to a chair. The keys go tap, tap, tap under his furious little fingers.
‘4401, why you tell Marlon you have malfunction? How did you know?’ he says. I should have known better.
‘My assignment ended early, you called me home and cancelled the rest of my day, that can only mean one thing,’ I reply coolly.
‘You doctor now?’
‘You’re the doctor, Doctor Song.’
‘Uplink scan has been showing spikes in your wave function post sync.’ I blink like I don’t understand what he’s saying. Doc likes that sort of thing, but I know what he’s going to say next before he even says it. ‘Don’t worry it’s not the most reliable instrument anyway.’
That’s code for I’mtoolazytofollowupandyourcontract’snearlydonesoIdon’tcare. I nod along like an ignoramus.
‘You’ve been taking your antibiotics?’ he asks.
‘On time, every time,’ I reply. We have to take long term, prophylactic, broad-spectrum antibiotics because of the risk of infection at the insertion points. You don’t wanna mess with meningitis or encephalitis.
‘Corp has new job for you. Contract nearly over so easy work. You go Hillside in North, single user for last three months. Congratulations,’ he says, looking at me for once.
‘Thanks Doctor Song,’ I reply with a smile, though every instinct in my body is screaming out, alarm bells ringing, spider senses tingling.
‘Good. Go into next room. I test and remodulate vis configuration,’ he says and grabs a white helmet with flashing green and blue lights at the fore. It’s the user’s uplink device. It works by reading the wearers brainwaves and transmitting low level radiation to tune the user into the HostBod. Nowhere near as invasive as the electrodes bods must wear because their own consciousness must be suppressed in sync, which can only be done surgically. The electrodes not only transmit electric impulses but also carry neurotransmitters direct into the brain structure. I got this off syncing with Doctor Song himself and he doesn’t even know that.
We can’t be in the same room during sync because of the infinity loop problem which tech has failed to overcome. That’s why, for safety reasons, user and HostBod only interface via remote transmission. He marches me back and forth, I squat, pinch myself, stick my tongue out, and do a dozen other psychomotor and spatial awareness exercises before he signs me off.
I walk back to my room and find Raj6623 standing at the door.
‘They came to get your gear. Looks like you’re shipping out,’ he says. The scar that runs across his face moves as he speaks.
‘I got lucky,’ I say.
‘Stay alive,’ he replies and crushes me with a bear hug. 12 months we’ve been here together and this is the most intimate we’ve been.
‘Say bye to the others for me,’ I say, knowing full well he won’t bother.
A woman with vibrant red hair, the sort that can only come from a bottle, stands at the reception desk next to a guy in a chauffer’s outfit with a bag at his side. She has milky white skin, almost matching the shade of the walls, and from a distance all I see is hair, eyebrows and blood red lipstick where her mouth is. She wears a retro ivory silk slip covering one shoulder, revealing a large ruby choker around her neck. It’s like she’s ephemeral, a wisp of an image from another dimension.
‘So this is father’s new toy,’ she purrs.
‘That’s him, Ms Stubbs,’ says Marlon ingratiatingly. ‘Here’s your papers, 4401. Follow this lady and the gentleman. Good luck.’
I shake his hand and follow my new employer into a black limousine waiting in the car park. The chauffer opens the door, she walks in. I wait to be invited. She beckons me with her index finger. The chauffer closes the door as I sit with my back to the driver, facing her. The cabin smells of freshly polished leather. She pours a glass of champagne for herself and a finger of whisky in another, which she slowly hands to me.
‘We’re not allowed,’ I say.
‘Don’t be a pussy, drink it,’ she replies, rolling her eyes melodramatically. I take the drink and hold it. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Your real name, idiot.’
‘That’s what I thought. I saw you in those hospital garments you call clothes and said to myself, there’s a Simon alright.’ The lady is a little tipsy, but not drunk, the intoxication of someone who’s used to consuming a lot of alcohol all hours of the day.
The Limo cruises onto the 105 which takes us past Marlborough and Bury, skirting round the rough neighbourhoods. We go past gleaming skyscrapers, the glass reflecting the orange glow of the setting sun, images of clouds cast on windows, the city glistening like a thousand orange diamonds. She says nothing to me for the rest of the journey, only eyeing me like a predator stalking her prey. A lump sits at the top of my throat; I swallow hard.
Initiating Protocol Transfer To
Username: Howard J Stubbs
SyncCorp Wishes You A Happy And
0% – – – – – – – – – – – – 100%
That’s me wired up to the Stubbs’ MF now, which means they own me, which means I wasn’t hired but they bought out the rest of my contract. It happens from time to time, bods get passed around between different companies, usually traded down. Stubbs must be pretty loaded to afford this. No shit, Sherlock, is that your deduction or it’s the 200 year old southern plantation style mansion in front you? Kind of looks like a wanna be White House, only bigger. The wheels of the limo crunch on the gravel driveway. A Roman style fountain with mirthful nymphs squirts water high into the air. So much woodland around; it feels like we’re in the country. Light pouring out of every window in the mansion illuminates the lawn as we park near the front door.
‘Come on, I’m sure Father is just dying to meet you,’ she says, dragging out the word dying.
‘We don’t usually meet users.’
‘Things are different here,’ she replies as we walk into the mansion.
There’s a vulgar mix of paintings lining the walls. Expensive paintings: a Picasso here, a Van Gogh there, Pollock next to Gauguin with a Palin underneath. It’s clear that this is a nouveau riche acquisition with little acquiescence to aesthetics. I find this somewhat disturbing as I walk on the dark hardwood flooring polished to within an inch of its life.
Ms Stubbs leads me up a winding staircase to the bedrooms. An oak drawer along the wall has a Chinese vase (I reckon Qing but can’t be sure) on top with geometric patterns in bright shades of blue and a bunch of chrysanthemums set inside. I can’t help but smile behind her back. We enter a large bedroom in the centre of which is a poster bed. An old man sits underneath layers of quilts with his back propped up by a bunch of pillows. The oxygen tank on his left hisses away.
‘Go to him,’ says Ms Stubbs.
I walk over and kneel beside the old man. From this close I can smell his decrepitude, malodours churning under the quilts and from the catheter that dangles at the bedside. I notice he has an electrode transference device just like mine, complete with implants boring through his skull into his brain. I’ve never heard of a user having to go through this before. The device looks like a giant tarantula resting on top of his skull. ‘Hello,’ I say. He reaches out with his left hand and touches my face. It feels bony and rough against my forehead and cheeks. He takes a deep breath and whispers in a raspy voice:
‘Make yourself at home, boy.’
I’m in my room in loiter mode. The chauffer left my bag with my few clothes and possessions which I unpack into the drawers. The window gives me a view down the hill past the silhouette of trees to the brightly lit city in the distance.
I go over to the bed, slide into the soft cotton sheets and for the first time in a year, I’m allowed to sleep for more than four hours even though the dreams I have are still not my own.
I wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Can’t believe I slept for so long. The sun pours into my room because I forgot to close the curtains. It’s been too long since I had a window in my room. I wash my face in the basin in the corner and spray alcohol gel around my implants. There are real clothes in the closet, just my size too, so I wear those instead of the Corp crap. I grab a red hoodie to cover my head in case I’m taken outside. I walk past Mr Stubbs bedroom and down the stairs into one of the rooms where a breakfast buffet is laid out. It smells great.
Ms Stubbs is at the opposite end of the table, listening to the news and eating toast. The day’s barely started and she looks stunning in a crimson gown, an eye mask on her forehead.
‘Morning,’ I say.
‘You can have anything you like,’ she replies.
I bring out my feeding pack of Soylent and pour myself a glass of water. This is how bods start the day, you can’t fill yourself up because a lot of users like to go out for meals, so it’s important to keep the stomach as empty as possible. I drink from my pack, it tastes like dough with grainy bits in it. After a while, you get used to it.
‘Can I call home?’ I ask.
‘Nope,’ she replies without even raising her head to look at me.
‘We had 30 minute privileges per day at Corp,’ I say.
‘Firstly, it was ten minutes and, secondly, this ain’t Corp.’
Status Green: Y/N – Y
Prepare For Symbiosis
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
‘Morning Lesley,’ i say. What is that weird taste in my mouth? Quick, grab a coffee to rinse it out.
‘Morning Father. You started the day early. Who was that?’ she replies, nonchalant. i wonder what she’s scheming.
‘Just the lawyer first thing before dawn and Doctor Cranmer should be here any minute now. Justin makes the finest coffee. He deserves a raise.’
‘What did you want with the lawyer?’
‘A bit of business, nothing you should worry your pretty little head about. i’m not a cabbage up there you know.’ i point to the second floor where the bedrooms are. She raises a single eyebrow and gets back to her food.
i leave her to it. So much to do, so little time. i could get used to this, yes. Stop beside the mirror, look at the face: bold, square jaw, angular, very manly. Yes, i could definitely get used to this. Cranmer is in the foyer already.
‘Good morning, doctor,’ i sound a little too jovial.
‘It’s too nice a day to talk indoors. Shall we go out into the grounds for a walk?’
‘I need to see the… the other body.’
‘You can do that later, come, let’s go outside.’ i take him by the elbow and lead him out. Sweet sunshine hits my face. ‘Nothing like the scent of freshly mowed grass.’
‘I came to check if you wanted to see this thing through. You must understand the tech is experimental. I’ve only done one other procedure so we don’t yet know what the long term effects are,’ Doctor Cranmer says.
‘Run it by me one more time.’
‘When user and bod are comparable, you can put them in sync and then transfer consciousness through the process of quantum entanglement. Essentially we are just reversing the quantum states in the brain, no matter is moved between A and B, so theoretically there’s a zero chance of post-op rejection. It’s not a brain transplant, it’s a consciousness transfer. Post-procedure we isolate the bod, who is now the user, to prevent attempts at reacquisition. That’s the long and short of it.’
‘Okay, first thing tomorrow morning. i have nothing to lose, but i only have one proviso, doctor.’ i stop near the gazebo and look him in the eye. ‘If the procedure fails, the bod dies too.’
‘That can be arranged.’
Loiter mode. Fuck me royally. I need to get out of here right now. Only getting out doesn’t solve the problem because I can be Sat-homed back easily. Gotta find the mainframe, disable it, no, destroy it completely. I’ll look around the house, nah, that’s crazy, who keeps a fucking mainframe in the family home? Swear to God, I’m going insane. This ain’t what I signed up for.
I need to call mama, my little brother. Won’t even get a chance to say good bye. Okay, think, for a minute, just think.
I once saw a bod who committed suicide in the most spectacular fashion. It was my first year with Corp and I was passing through the main reception area. This guy just stood cold staring at the guards. And then he casually brought his hands up to his electrodes and just started pulling. The guards were screaming ‘stop’ or something like that but this guy just goes on pulling and blood squirts out. Out came these grey chunks of brain matter. He just pulls the tarantula off the top of his head and leaks water, blood, brainy goo down his sides. He stood there for a minute or two before he keeled over. It was horrific.
I could fight my way out. Face it, the law frowns on bods anyway. A rich guy like Stubbs, forget it. I need to think.
I’m terrified, can’t sleep all night, my mind racing through different options, adrenalin and cortisol coursing through my blood stream at toxic levels. That drink from the limo would have come in handy right about now.
The door opens, she walks in like a ghost floating through. Her white nightdress hangs off her frame and swoops as it follows her graceful movements. ‘Shhh.’ Her finger is on her lips as she crawls into my bed.
She moves like a python, slow, seductive, and sensuous, as if she hasn’t a single bone in her body. Her skin feels warm against mine. She straddles me, pulls my pants down with one hand and then all I feel is her wetness and heat on me. It’s the most exquisite feeling in the world.
‘Your dad’s going to kill me,’ I say.
This moment, I’m in her, it feels as though nothing else matters as she carries me like a leaf in the ocean and takes me to places I never knew…
Prepare For Symbiosis
‘Get off, your dad’s syncing with me,’ I call out in panic.
‘Oh, what a spoil sport,’ she says, pulling off and gliding out of the room
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Well, this feels a bit strange. i couldn’t sleep, can’t wait for the morning so i thought i’d sync up. Get up, out of bed, my bottom half naked and walk out of the bedroom. Lesley is in the corridor.
‘Have you been playing with my toy, Lesley?’
‘Hello Father, isn’t it a little too late for your old ass to be out and about?’ she replies. Has the same stubborn, bitchy traits her mum had. She’s up to something and must be stopped. You don’t get to where i got in life without the instincts of a croc. i grab her by the shoulders.
‘i think we should lock you in your room for a little while,’ i say. ‘For your own good.’
She struggles and squirms. The little bitch is strong, but i’m stronger. She breaks my grip and runs towards my bedroom. Now i know what she’s up to. Got to stop her.
‘Don’t be pathetic. You really think you can stop me, Lesley? Come here!’ i sprint after her. The floor is polished and slippery but in this bod i can do anything. i grab her flailing nightdress, pull her and slam her against the wall. ‘i’m not your enemy, i’m your father.’
She scratches my face, i slap her with the back of my hand which fells her to the floor. i bend over, pick her up and lift her in the air, feet dangling, her mouth wide open, a scream caught in her throat. i put her back down and slap her again. ‘You’re going to bed, young lady.’ i see a quick movement, a leg twitch, then i’m on the floor, both hands cupping my balls, they are on fire. It winds me for a moment and she runs into my room. Got to stop her. Ignore the pain in my groin and stagger after her. i burst into the room.
‘Stop it, Lesley.’
She’s covering my face with a pillow. The oxygen mask is on the floor, hissing away. i run to her, grab her around the neck, put her in a choke hold. i’m gonna kill this bitch. i lift her up, her head against my chest and squeeze. She gags, coughs, splatters, kicks, but I’m too strong. And then I look at me looking at me
me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at me looking at
Only takes a second to realise i’m trapped in an infinity loop. i should have stopped her before she came in here. my head feels like it’s cracking. The pain is blistering hot. i scream and grab my head in both hands to stop it from exploding. The scream is magnified and bounces around like a million echoes in the loop. Everything in here is a cave of infinity mirrors, reflecting everything back to itself. Only i am the image and the mirror and each iteration of both. Subject and object. i fall to the floor. Oh, the pain. As i convulse on the floor, i see, through the corner of my eye, Lesley cover my face with a pillow.
White hot supernova, synapses breaking, an explosion, the universe tearing apart.
I wake up and she’s beside me in bed, we’re both naked. My head feels like I have the mother of all hangovers, as if I drank all the tequilas in the world. She rests her head on my chest.
‘Did you sleep well?’ she asks as if nothing happened.
‘Have you got any Vicodin?’ I sit up and the world is spinning around me.
‘Get dressed and follow me.’
The world shatters into tiny pieces floating around my bed. I shake my head and tiny fractals swim in and out of focus. It takes a minute or two before the pictures coalesce into one coherent world. It feels good to be back. I’m so thirsty and I drink straight from the pitcher beside me.
I find her in the corridor and follow her to her father’s room. I can barely stay upright. Doctor Cranmer sits on the bed, a stethoscope around his neck. There’s a shiny aluminium suitcase on the floor before him. He looks at Ms Stubbs.
‘Morning doctor,’ she says.
‘It’s not a very good morning. It appears your father is dead,’ he replies in an even voice.
‘What a pity,’ she says with a shrug. ‘Old people, hey.’
‘I find it rather curious that his oxygen mask is on the floor.’
The doctor stands up and walks towards Ms Stubbs. He looks at her then at me. I pretend as though I don’t remember him from our first encounter. I act like a good little bod.
‘I suppose my services are no longer needed here,’ says Doctor Cranmer.
‘You served my father well. I don’t see any reason this association should end. Because of my gratitude, as his sole heir I will double your monthly retainer for life and hope to keep your services,’ she says, her face neutral and cold.
‘It is always a pleasure to serve the Stubbs. If you will excuse me, I have to record this death by natural causes.’ He bows slightly and walks to the door, dragging his aluminium case behind.
We’re left staring at her father’s body on the bed. His eyes are wide open in shock.
‘One more thing, doctor, since you work for me now,’ she says.
‘Anything,’ he replies.
‘This.’ She points to the electrode transference device on my head.
‘I can remove it straight away,’ Doctor Cranmer says, stepping back into the room.
‘On second thoughts, I think I’ll keep it. It looks rather nice, don’t you agree, Simon?’
The doctor sighs and turns to leave once more. It’s at this moment I realise that she owns me now. Certain secrets will come out, like how the old man changed his will yesterday to include HostBod4401 as the sole heir and beneficiary to his estate. Lesley doesn’t know it yet, but there’s going to be a battle for that money. For now, all I have to do is to stay alive.
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.
My name is Ibrahim Adeola Abidemi Ganiyu, (AKA Sir GAI). I’m a creative person by birth, graphic designer by education, illustrator by choice, animator by design and an all round artist by everything else. I was born in Ojota, Lagos on November 28. I am the second child in a family of three boys and two girls.
I’m a graduate of graphic design from the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, and presently run a creative products and services company called Imperial Creations Studios Limited (ICStudios). I am also a partner at Playfactor Games Limited and have worked with and consulted for companies in product design and development, video production, advertising and TV content development.
My core strength is my creative mind channelled through my illustrations, animations and, most importantly, through my comics. I also lecture at Orange Academy and Graig Phillips College of Technology, both in Lagos.
I am an entrepreneur and creativity coach. I believe in creativity as a channel for human growth, development and societal advancement. I believe in creativity without limits.
I am married and have three boys, two of them are twins. I enjoy drawing, creating, developing ideas, reading, watching a good movie, playing video games, travelling and cooking.
What comics or characters inspired you to be an artist and illustrator when you were growing up and why?
Hmm … I would say the first major comic character who influenced me was Superman, though I had come across Spiderman earlier. Superman just embodied the ideals of heroism to my young mind. I was greatly influenced by the art as much as the stories then. I got a lot of artistic influence from the works of artists like Bart Sears, John Byrne, Brian Bolland, John Romita Senior and later Junior, Jim Lee and others.
My greatest artistic (and creative) influence and drive came from Leonardo Da Vinci. When I came across the name in early secondary school, I was struck by his passion/thirst for knowledge and his continuous creativity. Even when he had no way of immediately actualising his ideas he would still draw them. The man’s thoughts, zeal for knowledge, exploration, diverse skill-set and style have remained constant sources of inspiration. Da Vinci remains my number one mentor.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a comic book artist in Nigeria?
The most challenging part of doing comics in Nigeria is hard to pin point to a single thing. It’s a composition of things: Creative excellence on the part of contractors (often arising from limited knowledge of the comic book business), the unavailability of good hands in story writing, art and graphics, and of course distribution remains a headache. Print production is still a game of chance. In all, these challenges are being confronted and I can see a break happening. We are creative people after all; we’ll find a way to change the situation!
You’re involved in a lot of other projects outside your regular job. Can you tell us which ones you’re currently most excited about?
I am quite excited about our new games development partnership and the projects we are working on. We have a fighting game set in a bus garage tagged GARAGE KOMBAT. We also have one loosely based on Chief Duro Ladipo’s work tagged FOREST OF A THOUSAND DEMONS in the works.
On other fronts, I am enjoying my integration into the Nigerian literary circle as I am seeing great opportunities for comic book production and partnerships. Our contact marketing arm EMPERATA is looking more into that. Also, our flagship comic book title DARK EDGE is coming up with some exciting stuff! We are looking at a short movie early next year as well as a stage adaptation of the DARK EDGE story. Our work on the INDOMITABLES Indomie Noodles advertising campaign also has me giggling with excitement. The brand is growing and a lot of stuff will be coming out from them soon!
We just also set up SYRUP COMICS, an entry-level, creator-owned comic book imprint that’s getting lots of young guys to create and draw some amazing new stories, characters and concepts. In fact there’s so much I am excited about!
What strategies do you use to carve out time for sketching?
Drawing is my therapy. I use drawing as my stress relief and I always find an excuse to do it. My sketches are only therapeutic when I’m not doing client’s work.
Sometime in 1997 I drew an Igbo lady dancing in a trance pose and this morphed into the first sword carrying woman I drew in 2001, and by 2003 I had started my collection of Angel drawings who were women representing various emotions: rage, love; ecstasy, love, etc. and usually carrying some bad weapons! (The whole Angels idea is now developing into a comic book and a novel graphic book – not a graphics novel).
I try to squeeze in at least 48 hours of free sketching time per week – snuck in between meetings, during lunch, on the BRT heading to a meeting, at home at night after the kids have gone to bed, as a time-out when work gets too tense and even in the bathroom! The trick is to know that the sketches are your life blood and for me I think best when I am drawing.
What are the most exciting comic books on the Nigerian market right now?
Well for me, comic books excite me based on content, concept and public reaction. Without mentioning own my stuff like JUNE XII and DARK EDGE (I just mentioned them didn’t I?), It’ll have to be GUARDIAN PRIME, UHURU, STRIKE GUARD and ERU.
What was the most discouraging time in your career and how did you overcome it?
Hmm … I guess the first one came when we had to close our second office at Onipan in 2003 due to Zenith Bank acquiring the building when we had not gotten enough strength to start out. It looked like a reset back then and that was the good thing about it. It was an opportunity to reset the business, check the model and reassess the structure of our operations so that when we finally rented an office in 2006, I knew what we had to do differently. And we did it.
The second was in 2009 when the company, ICStudios, practically folded up due to the global financial crisis. The company was in debt to the tune of N3 million and my staff all had to move on. Only my admin manager, Taiwo Lawal, stayed on and together we worked to get things back on track. It taught me about making hard decisions and it was during that period that I realised that if you’ve never ever have to question what you are doing then you may be in the wrong business. Also I knew that was the time to test if we had a solid business model or not. Thankfully we did and the waves passed. Determination, willingness to learn and grow and a large dose of creativity got us out of that crazy period and it’s kept us out of it since.
Omenana, a monthly speculative fiction e-magazine, is open to submissions from writers from Africa and the African Diaspora. Stories and art must be speculative fiction (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror or Magical Realism) and must involve characters, settings or themes directly related to the African continent. Stories and art should challenge normative ideas about gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious belief. All stories and art must be in English (translations welcome), must be original works (no fan fiction, sorry) and previously unpublished.
We are very much interested in works that explore alternative futures for Africa and people of African descent – with a preference for positive iterations (though dystopias are welcome too). We would also like to see explorations of the past as well as new interpretations of myths, folklore and magic. We do not accept graphic violent or sexual content.
Above all, we are looking for original ideas, excellent writing and a strong emotional core.
We are also open to essays and reviews that deal with our interest in African speculative fiction. We DO NOT accept poetry, drama or film scripts.
All work must be submitted by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org as a single attachment in one of the following file formats: .doc, .docx, .rtf, .odt.
Submissions will open by January 1, 2015 and close by midnight (GMT+1) on January 31, 2015. Work submitted after this deadline will not be considered.
All text submissions must be 12-pt font, doubled-spaced. We prefer standard manuscript format which you can find here and here.
Short fiction should be no more than 7,000 words.
You can send in two flash fiction pieces but they should not exceed 1,000 words each.
We encourage submissions of creative non-fiction of no more than 3,000 words.
Reviews should be between 800 and 1,500 words.
Essays should not exceed 3,000 words.
Graphic fiction and visual art should be sent in as .jpeg.
Please don’t send revised drafts of works that are already published (both online and offline) unless we call for them.
Include a cover letter in the body of your e-mail providing contact details (name – not the pseudonym you write under, address, email and phone number), a brief publication history, a bio of no more than 100 words and a profile photo.
We will respond only to selected writers. If you don’t hear from us by February 15, 2015, please assume your work was not chosen and do not send a query.
We intend to make this a paying platform in the future, but this is not something we can do at this point.