We were standing in an empty space, but a force pinned us from floating and sinking, fixing us stable in midair. A white light surrounded us. What I saw was not what I had believed I would find in the place of the newly dead. I had always assumed it would have a foul stench, people with tattered clothes who were hobbling with outspread arms, their mouths dripping blood and speaking sluggishly. So when Padjonsin had instructed me to wear a black gown and high heels, I had thought he was crazy but here they were: the smell of nothing, black suits, black gowns, and black shoes. I could say I blended in, but there was that blank expression they all wore that I could hardly mimic. A quick facial sweep would immediately reveal I wasn’t one of them. But I wasn’t to worry about that. Focus on your goal, Padjonsin had said.
They all stared ahead, waiting. No side talk. No catching up on old times. The silence was brittle, anything would have shattered it. A pin drop would have been thunder. Padjonsin had told me not to be surprised by this. Even people who lived all their years together would be unable to recognise each other after life. Their memories were no longer theirs; it had been taken for examination. After 90 days, their results would be ready, determining their final fate: Rest or Torment.
Who did I know that had died in the past 90 days – apart from Kemi? Maybe seeing a familiar face would give me hope that I would find her, but I quickly killed that thought. All I wanted was to save her, and by my timepiece—handmade by Padjonsin in sync with the life of the red moon—I had 15 minutes left. Fifteen minutes before the rain stopped falling and the redness of the moon faded. Fifteen minutes to leave here with her or else I would become one of them.
Lightning flashed, adding a brief blinding brightness to the warm glow of the red moon. Rain kept falling, like pellets shot from the sky, chasing everything with legs indoors. Aluminium rooftops became drums. Potholes pooled with rainwater. Drainages threw up forgotten refuse. The streets were slippery traps, streaming with nylon wrappers, plastic bottles, and cans. Deafening thunder ripped the air.
Inside one of the aluminium roof-toped houses, Alade rolled on his bed, his rumbling thoughts preventing him from settling into sleep. The glow of the moon sifted through his window pane, dousing the darkness in a shade of red. That was when he saw the figure standing by his doorframe. He squinted at the figure; all the while rubbing the left side of his chest like it would slow down the beating of his heart. Could it be her? he thought. Her name hung in his throat. He pushed it out. “Ke-Kemi. Is that you?”
Then the lightning flashed, and his room—green carpet, peach walls—lit up for a brief moment. The figure was slim with a shaved head, in contrast with Kemi’s pudgy frame and plaited hair.
Alade took deep breaths, disappointment calming his nerves. “Yomi, what are you doing there?” He said, suddenly feeling guilty at his disappointment in seeing the expected.
“Daddy, it is the rain. I am afraid. Can I sleep in your room?”
“Come here son.” He adjusted himself on the bed, creating space.
Yomi peeled his frame from the door, shuffled into bed and pulled the blanket to his shoulders. “Where is Mummy?”
“She will join us before the rain stops.”
“Where did she go to?”
“She went out.”
Before Yomi could speak further, thunder blasted from above like an explosion from the sky. Father and son froze, slowly thawing to the music of rainfall drumming and splattering.
“Daddy, please tell me a story.”
Alade fell silent for a while, searching his thoughts, and then he spoke. “Once upon a time, a woman loved her children…”
I was the only one moving, looking at faces to pick out Kemi. It was difficult to describe the state of the people here. There was something alive about their dead faces, like if you tap them they would look back and ask you, “what?” It was like being stuck in both worlds, neither here nor there.
Since Kemi had been dead for almost 90 days, I had to keep moving forward. Padjosin had said they arranged themselves according to their time of death, the older ones at the front, and the more recent ones at the back. A new being popped in every few minutes, never filling this empty space. The last one I had seen had suddenly appeared, dripping wet. Fresh scratches were on his skin and he had been missing a head. Then his head emerged from his neck, a flawless brown skin replaced the scratches, and his drenched shirt transformed to a black suit. After that, his expression became blank, and he stared ahead like the others.
I imagined how Kemi would have been on arrival. Did she discover the ease of standing that had evaded her all her life? What about the ease of communicating with words, instead of groans and cries? Did she discover why she got here early or the blankness took over before she could process her memory? Shivers crept down my spine.
I pushed through the cluster of staring beings. I was tempted to shout her name; maybe she would turn and recognise me. But who was I kidding? Without memories, how would she even know what her name was? How I wished there was a faster way to pick her out, but there wasn’t, I had to rely on facial recognition. She was twelve, big eyes, full lips, and about five feet tall. I’d have to take my eyes off the tall ones and target the short ones.
I stood between two women, who happened to be tall and muscular, probably bodyguards or soldiers in their lifetimes. I stood on my toes, braced my hands on their shoulders for support, and lifted myself up so that I had a better view of those at the front. Although, it was still difficult to catch those at the uttermost front, I could see an assembly of heads: grey, black, brown, red— none of them with plaited hair. And that was when I saw her—between a taller man and a child—hair in a puffy afro, with a black gown clinging to her chubby frame. My heart flipped with joy.
I jumped down and began running, stopping myself from screaming her name. Kemi! Kemi! I kept shouting in my mind. Wild with excitement, I pushed through beings, only for them to take their previous position after I passed. I got behind her, and turned her to face me and whispered her name. But the face that met mine had tiny eyes, like she was falling asleep, and thin lips that looked like straight lines.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, trying to catch my breath. The strain of running slammed me and everything around me started spinning. I felt dizzy, like I would throw up or faint, or both. My timepiece said five minutes more. I remembered Padjonsin’s words: Once you have five minutes left, save yourself. But this was no time to succumb. I didn’t get this far to give up. I could still save her, I could still save her. Tears began gathering in my eyes.
Before Alade got halfway through the story, he heard his son’s snoring, like a soft brass solo to the melody of rain in the background. Apart from these sounds, his house was quiet. Usually, this was the time he and his wife would eat of the fruits of their privacy, partly freed from the constant monitoring Kemi demanded. It would be just the both of them planning for tomorrows and rediscovering their sensuality, until few months ago when Kemi died.
After her death, his wife hardly got out of bed. He spoke to her but she would only stare at him with indifference, like he was a brick wall. It was the same way she treated all those who came to mourn with her. It was like her sense of recognition had vanished. During those days, she would only speak in inaudible mumblings, then she’d utter a shrill cry for Kemi and begin a frantic search all over the house, looking under the couches, in cupboards, under pillows, inside wardrobes. All he could do was force feed her and ensure she did not step out of the house. He thought with time she would become her old self.
But she never did.
One day during one of her frenzied searches, he took a chance to bring her back.
“Darling, can’t you see?” He hesitated, considering the weight of his next statement, and then he said it.
She turned to look at him. Her hair had locked into rebellious dreads. Bags had settled underneath her eyes, and trails of dried tears traced her cheeks. “What did you just say?”
“Can’t you see you’re free?” he asked. At her silence, he pushed further: “You are free from all the carrying, cleaning, and monitoring. Now we can focus on Yomi.”
He didn’t know what she would do or say, but he hadn’t expected her to get up quietly and leave the house. “Don’t follow me,” was all she said.
Yomi had appeared from the bedroom then and took his hand, leaning into him. Alade had put his hand around Yomi shoulders as they watched her shut the door.
After she had left, he began regretting all he had said. Maybe he had been harsh. Maybe he sounded like he didn’t love his child. Yes, it was true that he was relieved of the shame he felt when she would shit herself, even in the presence of visitors. How those visitors would view them with pity, like they were asking what offence he had committed to be afflicted with such a burden. But he had loved his daughter.
He missed the way she smiled when she was full, how she laughed at the sound of her own farts, and then would begin crying once she caught wind of the smell. He even missed her constant calls for attention that made him feel like a father even though her cries would demand attention when sleep was at its sweetest, leading to scuffles between him and his wife about who should attend to her next.
He had loved his daughter but he could not let his wife continue to hurt herself in mourning, starving their surviving child of the care he deserved.
After two days, his wife came back. He wrapped her in an embrace, apologised for his words and promised to always be by her side. She also apologised for leaving. He didn’t ask where she had been, he feared it would push her back to insanity. But he had always suspected there was a catch to her sudden change, because after she came back, she would whistle happy songs and would always have a smile ready, like a woman who had not just lost a child. She proved him right a week later.
“Remember when we were children and our parents told us not to do bad things or else Padjonsin will carry us away?” She asked one morning.
Alade smiled and nodded. “Which child wasn’t afraid of him? Back then, I would see him walking, mumbling to himself, and I would hide behind my mother.”
“That man has been around for a long time,” she agreed. “Anyway, he told me I can bring Kemi back, not only that, he said I can bring her back whole.” Then she told him everything, rushing out the words like if she paused, her courage would flee.
His first response was to reprove her for having anything to do with Padjonsin, but the thought of bringing back Kemi, free from the pity and disgust she evoked from onlookers made him smile, then the smile faded immediately. What if it failed and his wife relapsed into madness or, worse still, he lost his wife in the process? So he carefully pushed her away from that thought.
But she had seen his smile, and it was this she used as an entry point, moving and prodding, until he finally succumbed.
Yomi’s snores suddenly became louder, lifting him out of his thoughts. Had the snores become louder or was the rain receding? He peeped through the window. The red moon was slowly draining of its colour, merging back to silver. Quietly, he slipped out of his room and stepped out of the house.
I threw away all concern and began shouting her name. The only response I got was silence. But still, I ran past these statues of flesh, blindly pushing forward.
My husband would never understand this need to save our daughter, saying I should let her go. He would never understand that the umbilical cord linking a mother to her child doesn’t get cut off at birth; it still remained, even after death. That was why Kemi, dressed in glowing white, had appeared to me after her death. When she disappeared, I would search for her everywhere. Now I was here, still searching. But coming here to bring back Kemi was beyond the umbilical link, it was much more than that.
After discovering Kemi’s shortcomings, I had to close down my market stall to give her the full care she needed. There were selected foods she had to eat, a particular way we had to position her after eating, the periodic adjustment of her body while she slept, and many others. My husband assisted at night, while I bore the daytime duties alone. Even naming our next child Oluwayomi: “The Lord has saved me,” did not save us from the hardship of catering for Kemi.
The care drained my youth, or rather what was left of it, faster than time could. The sides of my hair sprouted grey. Wrinkles marked my face. My cheek bones popped out. My steps slowed to the dragging of feet, worsened by back pain that visited as frequently as the rising sun. It was during this period that my husband started going on business trips. If it wasn’t trips, then work would suddenly become so hectic that he had to stay the night in the office. I was bearing the hardship all alone. Any time Kemi laughed, it seemed like mockery; any time she cried, I blocked my ears. Sometimes, I cursed myself for pushing someone like that out of me. When she became too troublesome, I calmed her with sleeping pills. Then one day I fell sick and needed rest, and so she wouldn’t disturb me, I made her sleep – perhaps for too long.
The guilt and grief almost killed me, till I met Padjonsin. It was after I left the house, wanting to be as far from it as possible. Walking down a narrow path, he loomed over me, blocking sunlight; his gaze like a knife piercing my skin. I wanted to run, but fear held me to the ground as tears dripped to my feet. He lifted my chin and asked what was wrong, his voice like a slow massage calming my nerves. I told him of Kemi’s death. He asked of the date of death. I told him. He said there was a way out, that I should follow him. My head kept telling me to run away, but my legs refused and found their way to his home.
He told me that when rain fell on a night of a red moon, it opened a rift between the place of the newly dead and the world of the living. And it was then that a living being could go in to bring back the dead. He said the next occurrence would be in two weeks time, but to prepare me for the journey, I would first need the blood of the one who fathered the child. When I got home, I convinced my husband to give in. What I didn’t tell him was if I failed to bring back Kemi, all the years I have lived on earth would belong to Padjonsin.
With this in mind, I turned their heads forcefully not caring if their necks snapped, but no match. Two more minutes. Maybe I should save myself and get out? No, let me give myself a minute more—
Alade was out on the deserted street. He stumbled, fell, and rose, screaming his wife’s name. Confusion directed him to different paths until he finally succumbed to helplessness, kneeling down in the middle of the street. The rain water soaked his trousers, cold on his knees, and calves. He hardly felt the droplets on his skin. He looked up; the moon was mostly silver with only a faint red crescent.
Then he fell flat to the ground, his tears merging with the wetness of rain.
She suddenly remembered her husband, the joy they had felt at the birth of Kemi, one of theirs in this world, a proof they would live beyond their death. Kemi, her name meant “care for me,” and they tried to. She pitied Yomi, who had always been eclipsed by Kemi, his wholeness an excuse used to ignore him. She hoped her husband would do a better job alone than they had together. She held on to these memories and thoughts till they became too heavy and painful, like a migraine. Then the migraine faded, and all she felt was relief.
If you play at Hoplus’ trench, the chance you’d find yourself breaking a sacred rule on some occasion is high. Higher than if you play at Arjin or Kowi, for instance. The girls here are wild and mother warns me every time to be wary of their company, though she knows she cannot stop me from coming here – Hoplus is the closest play-area for teenagers around our home – so she constantly reminds me of why the rules are in place. For safety and balance. I nod every time, saying I understand, but it does not stop her from repeating herself the next day.
I know the Sacred Seven like the end of my own caudal fin. Never shed a tear. Never perform dishonesty. Never travel to any of the other tribes without the chief’s blessing. Never swim to shore or contact a surfacer. Never wield your gift for destruction. Never take the life of a fellow sea creature. Beware the halls of Tada; never venture there.
Mother does not know, but my closest friends – Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni – and I have broken one, or is it two of the Sacred Seven? Thanks to Pkeni’s temper. It was she who got angry after she’d lost a race to Jauni and picked up a rock and smashed the head of a crab with it. We watched the poor crab twitch till it stopped moving. Perhaps we considered the crab’s life of little importance because it is crustacean; if it had been a fish and had bled blood, I’m sure we would have acted differently. So we performed dishonesty and did not report the incident to an elder. Instead we focused on cheering Pkeni up and told her that she was faster than all of us and that it was only because she had had a heavy breakfast that she had been slowed down this time.
* * *
Right now, Kaumi is speaking of adventure as we twirl about Hoplus. She is the oldest of the four of us, the leader of our little clique, if you will. Most times, she decides what games we play.
She is saying her cousin, Sorai, has given her information about something we should all go see. She is claiming that far away at the beach, a shoal of young surfacers are having a jubilation. I do not see how this is our business. I do not see why we should all go see it.
‘Are you afraid?’ Jauni asks me when they all realise I am not showing any signs of enthusiasm at this unnecessary escapade.
‘I’m not. But it’s dangerous. And we will be breaking a Sacred,’ I say.
‘Since when do we care about the rules?’ Pkeni says, frowning.
Only she can say this. The rules mean nothing to her. Or maybe they do, but her constant anger never lets her think straight.
Everything within me is telling me to stand my ground, but you see I was not here at the trench yesterday; I was busy with Mother. Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni teased a shark. They say it chased them for about half a mile. I missed all of that action.
‘Okay, but we won’t stay long. We’ll come back soon, yes?’ I say.
‘Of course we will.’ Kaumi says.
‘Sure,’ Jauni says.
Pkeni does not say anything. She just smiles and licks her lower lip. I know in her heart she is thinking me a coward.
* * *
As we swim toward the beach, I notice the current of the water lessen and I feel myself move faster.
‘Stop. We’re here,’ Kaumi says.
We bob our heads against expiring waves to survey the beach and behold, there they are: a school of young surfacers, drinking from red things resembling shells. Behind them are tall trees and funny-looking structures. They are moving their bodies in an awkward fashion and hollering like demented souls. This all seems so disorganised, and their music is loud and nonsensical.
‘We should leave,’ I say to Kaumi.
‘Leave? We just got here,’ Jauni says.
I see the glint of excitement in her eyes. She is clearly fascinated by these odd beings.
‘We’ve seen them,’ I argue. ‘Now, let’s go before someone notices our absence back home.’
‘Sssh,’ Pkeni says.
Only she can shush a person when they are making sense.
‘Don’t tell me to be quiet,’ I say and Pkeni quickly places a finger over my mouth, pointing to my left.
A few yards away from us, a surfacer-man and a surfacer-woman are entering into the water. Surfacers look so weird. They don’t have gills on their necks. They don’t have scales over their bodies. How do they even stay warm? They have arms in the lower parts of their bodies and they move with it. Four arms? What is a person doing with four arms? Ugh.
The surfacer-man and surfacer-woman are swimming toward us now. They seem to be performing some kind of play. The male has his forearms all over the female. And the female seems to be enjoying it for she is smiling a soft smile.
She is the first to see us.
‘Jesus! Jesus!! Jesus!!! Aaahhhh!!!!’ The surfacer-woman screams.
Jesus must be the name of all the other surfacers, because as she screams this, the jubilant company on the beach begins to run in our direction.
‘What’s that?’ I hear them say as they approach.
‘Mammy-water,’ the surfacer-man says, pulling the screaming female out of the water.
A surfacer throws a handful of sand at our heads. Another throws a stone. This is our cue. We turn around and make for home. Some pursue, diving into the water. Others throw things at us. Something hits my left shoulder. Another hits my waist. I dive into the water. I swim for dear life. Into the deep, I go. When I am certain I am away from their reach, I turn. Pkeni is before me, Jauni beside me. I do not see Kaumi.
‘Where is Kaumi?’ I ask.
Jauni looks this way and that. Pkeni stares at me. I swim upward, break the surface and look at the beach. The surfacers have Kaumi. They are beating her with clubs. She is trying to break free but the surfacers are way too many. One stamps his feet into her face. Others imitate him. I scream.
Jauni is beside me now. She is shaking uncontrollably. In the distance Kaumi looks lifeless. She isn’t struggling anymore. More surfacers are appearing on the beach and pointing towards the ocean. I cannot even tell when it started, but I am crying and wailing now.
Nnamdi Anyaduwrites short fiction and poetry. His works has appeared on the Nwokike Literary Journal, Brittlepaper and several blogs. He is currently working on a novel.
This edition of Omenana is late, over a month late.
It is our intention to publish a high-quality quarterly magazine, however, everything that could delay the production, did. It’s been a crazy four months, but we are happy that Omenana 7 is here now.
In the time between the last edition of Omenana and this one, we were reminded why it is of great importance to continue producing this magazine. Through it, we encourage more writers to look to the extensive materials we have on the continent called Africa for speculative fiction.
This month, we are happy to introduce stories from new voices and established writers of the speculative on the continent. We hope their stories speak to you as they did us.Also, we are spotlighting Sunny Efemena, who illustrated this edition and has worked on other editions in the past.This edition of Omenana closes with an essay on African sci-fi and literature and its impact on technological advancement on the continent by my co-editor, Chinelo Onwualu.
Meanwhile, we are very happy to announce the start of a partnership with Okadabooks.com, an online publishing portal. All editions of Omenana will now be available on Okadabooks.com, where you can access and download various formats of the magazine. No fear, Omenana remains free, and will remain that way for as long as we can manage.
The heart of evil and truth –- and, just sometimes, a little bit of madness and lies.
Today, though, I might get the entire shitload.
I choke back unexpected dread as I prepare for immersion in my pod, the Doc wiring my scalp to the monstrous man lying comatose beside me. Out of the corner of my right eye I can sense his slumbering bulk, rising and falling with a slow and menacing snore.
No, Sledgehammer fucking Jones.
I wince as the Doc pulls on the scalp electrodes, stinging my right parietal area.
She gives me a slap on my exposed arm, “Stop being a baby.”
Like she’s the one going into the head of a brutal killer.
Straining against the head strap, I lift my head a few inches and turn to the right. Jones is a mountain of a man swelling under those blue sheets, a pale white egg-domed head laced with cables feeding the machine between us. A big man indeed, and with a temper to match, I’d heard.
Not that I’ve always been on the side of the angels myself. But then, my father had always taught me to be assertive, modelling it forcefully to me whenever he suspected I had lied to them.
Until mamma would step in, a protective pillow against his punches.
I lean back again, to avoid my eyes spilling.
Focus on the job ahead.
We go back a few years, Doc Lizzie Abasi and I – 27 missions in all – and I have a 96% hit rate – the best fucking Rider in the world.
But you probably know that, I’m all over the Wiki pages.
Dream Hunter One, they call me.
It’s almost countdown time now, I can smell the acidic, cabbage-like stink of the REM-inducing drip the doc is preparing and suck in my breath, readying to both fall and soar into Dream-Space.
“Hey Doc,” I call, “Give me some decent music to work to this time, none of your funny Irish shit.”
Doc smiles over me, the purple bag of Stim swishing in her gloved hands: “I’m not Irish, remember – and you put up with what I choose to play, Peter John Scott.”
Always, she uses my full name – and yes I know, she’s Peckham born and bred, third generation ex-Nigeria, so where does the yen for Irish music come from?
Fuck it, who knows where anything comes from, especially our nocturnal dreams seaming our lives with images that seldom cohere? And faces. Old women, vaguely recognizable, wrinkled, and dark – darker hued than me, dual heritage man that I am. Always staring at me, willing something from me.
Tip of my brain stuff, never quite named.
Focus, Scott, forget the phantom crones.
I groan, “So what’s it to be this time, Lizzie?”
She’s busy with the Loom™ – the machine that locks brains together, the drip already hanging between Sledgehammer Jones and me. This is always the point where my shivering increases and words start to freeze in my mouth.
My fifteenth year at this game and it only gets harder.
I hear the large man alongside me catch his breath, as if not fully asleep.
“‘Let’s Remember 1848’, by The Literal Leprechauns,” Lizzie says, moving onto my least favourite part, the needle in the arm. Her brightly beaded cornrows tickle my right cheek.
“Wh-Why?” I ask, looking up at her face instead, forcing words out, unable to hide their quiver, “That’s a f-f-fucking long time ago.”
Lizzie half-smiles – as if she doesn’t notice – and signals to me with a drop of her right palm; I’m going under soon. She tilts her head, squinting at me over her smart-specs with those brown eyes of hers. It’s as if there are still things she likes to look at directly, without hearing the verbal comments that attach like buzzing flies to her smart goggle visuals.
Or perhaps she just doesn’t like to hear what the Face-Rec sites continually say about me.
I’m not really that arrogant: I really do have me some damn fine parietal lobes. Perhaps I have my dead English dad to thank for my skills; I was raised on tales of his lucid breakfast dreams, but my Zulu mamma’s daily putu-pap and peanut butter toast always satisfied my stomach.
So it was that I learned to straddle both God and Nkulunkulu: science and myth, dream and reality.
I have not seen my mum since my divorce, more than ten years ago now.
She’d gotten on well with Shireen, my ex-wife.
Perhaps too well?
Mamma told me I’d turned into ‘him’ and then left me, going back to the other family I hardly knew in South Africa.
‘Him’ – my father with fists. Surely not, mother?
Surely, surely not?
“We need to know our past, in order to understand where we are going,” Lizzie says slowly.
“But neither of us are fucking Irish,” I say, the quiver in my voice gone, as my hurt and fear fades into the groggy, initial rush of the Stim.
Sledgehammer Jones is waiting, so I hold back from the pull of the dream, thinking thickly, focusing my gaze into the pulsating light overhead.
I have my plan ready, but know that means little sometimes, given the inherent surrealism of the domain. They never give me an easy ride either – I’ve had some mega-whacked out dream partners over the years. Those who refuse to talk – or who deny their crimes – have seriously fucked up dreams.
I get the choice picks, the hardest of the hard. As befits the best of the best, I guess.
My head sinks back and I watch the screen above the far wall struggling to make visual sense of Jones’s Imago-EEG, a cloudy and murky grey, he’s still some way short of REM state.
Time to let go. I slip into the barely charted space between waking and dreams and hover in hypnagogic flux, pulsing a Door to be walked through – but…
What – the – fuck?
The screen flickers, fuzzes and sharpens. A man stands: slim and sharply-suited in grey, a svelte version of the nude man lying on the medical trolley next to me. This thinner, virtual Sledgehammer Jones is ignoring the glowing green door behind him – avoiding my usually unfailing initial lure.
Instead, he seems to be peering out at me – and, and he, he’s fucking waving?
“What’s, uh, – what’s his status?” I ask, my voice fading distant, crashing. My vocal cords constrict as I start to slowly sink.
I can still sense Sledgehammer’s body alongside me — seemingly sedated by a drip infusion.
“Dream status reached,” Lizzie says, a vague shape now, floating between us. “He’s deep in REM sleep.”
How – the – fuck – is this – possible? I’m one of only a small batch of people in the world who have learned how to tread and weave the borders of dream and waking. We’re starting to knit together at the brainwave level, and it’s me who’s supposed to be holding the fucking threads — yet, somehow, this bastard is waving at me while dreaming, grinning like a skinny snake.
The pull into sleep is an intolerable tug at my being, but I focus on pushing my frontal lobes for just that little bit longer.
Is this just a hypnagogic hallucination?
“Up his sedation,” I grind out slowly; REM sleep locks the body muscles, to stop you doing daft things while you dream, like killing someone.
I see Lizzie’s shape swing towards the screen — and freeze.
And for no time at all.
She spins around again and hovers over him; I’m guessing she’s opening his Stim drip even wider.
On the screen, Jones has turned and opened my green door, blowing it red with a breath.
The Sledgehammer’s favourite colour.
He steps through.
As for me, I lose my grip to the torrent of sleep.
I am disembodied, a vague flash of fish in a raging unconscious river. Then I am there; gasping, wet and shivering, in a muted and pale cream bathroom. I have all the props ready, waiting – a bathroom, a bath, and several…implements.
The man himself is not yet here. I have time to strengthen this dream, to sculpt the images from many visits and forensic holograms – I sense Jones looping along my corridor just outside.
I twitch and tweak his synapses with fused will. There’s a part of the hippocampus where the memories beneath the dreams can be unlocked – with the right training and expertise.
He will enter soon, filling the bath with someone he knows and re-enact a scene from his unconscious that he has – until now – always consciously denied.
(Flowers and broken glass make a green rabbit jump.)
I breathe slowly to clear the crazy images and re-orient myself, even though I have no need to breathe. Then, with familiar dexterity, I climb the wall like Spiderman, sticking myself to the ceiling and making myself invisible.
The scene below starts to shiver and splinter into a myriad of dream fragments, a confused chaotic collage, disorienting me for eternal moments.
I forget…no, I …remember, I am Peter, Peter Scott, Rider. This is my dream. Reassert command; take control… With practiced ease, I re-clarify the bathroom walls, with matte beige paint and maroon horizontal stripes at chest height, as per forensic record.
Jones must be coming – and he is powerful. But he seems scattered and shattered in his dreaming thoughts. I only hope he is now fully immersed in my dream.
Distantly, I hear bathwater tinkling and I buzz myself back into being, hanging from a burning hot bulb on the ceiling, invisible spider-like legs scalding. Sledgehammer Jones must be disturbing the strands of this scene.
Steam and coconut scented bath salts saturate my nose from the water below; my eyes water with the sharp tang surging through my sinuses. Spiders don’t have sinuses, do they?
Focus, Scott. Stay alert — and watch out for the bursting of any irrational anomalies from Jones’s unconscious.
The dream steadies, seaming itself thicker, lacing itself with the richest of sensorial detail – and I sense Jones’s excitement as his dream throbs ahead of him, moving into the bathroom like a palpable, gloating force, ready to shake and shape events.
Here we fucking go, then. I ready myself too.
It is then that I see her. She is in the bath. Thickened and greying slightly with the approach of late middle years, she is bending forward, water dripping off her back as she scrubs her toenails with deft concentration.
Jones himself enters, and I am relieved to see he is in a red bathrobe that reveals his real, blossoming bulk – no longer able, then, to conjure a lucid and ideal dream-self; he is finally absorbed into the fabric of our mutual dreaming. She – his wife, Alice – hesitates and half turns to Jones.
“I’ve almost finished,” she says, covering her breasts with her arms.
“So am I,” Jones says, smiling.
Slowly, she looks up, and her sadness wafts up to me. A drop of water spools off her left cheek. I wonder, for the briefest of moments, if it is salty.
“Why, Alice?” Jones asks, standing squarely, stolid in his growing anger.
She seems unaware, shrugging with resignation and a hint of despair. “Barry does care for me, you know. And you haven’t really been here for a few years now,” she says, “Always — working?”
“Yes!” Jones shouts. “Working, fucking working – while you – you fucked!”
Shit, flashes of a bedroom scene intrude, another man with Alice, their limbs sprawled together, elsewhere. Take us back, back to my scene. There… I re-plaster the bathroom vignette, focusing intently on bringing back all pieces, including the implements.
Especially the implements.
Jones’s wife has her hands lifted, covering her eyes and, I’m now sure the leaking water dripping through her fingers is salty. Her shoulders are heaving and her voice is muffled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t- didn’t mean to hurt you.”
But Jones has already picked it up.
One of the three implements in the bathroom at the time – toilet brush, hand vac and… a small sledgehammer. Propped behind the toilet bowl, it had been mistakenly left some few days past by builders completing the wall renovation. It was neither easily nor automatically available. And yet the man has stepped around the toilet to heft it, moving back to the bath and his wife, readying himself, hammer over head.
Alice drops her hands to the side of the bath and only gulps with a frightened rasping wheeze. Her pinkish eyes are dilated, huge, staring us down.
Eventually, her voice comes, raspy with fear: “John, what – what are you- what?”
He swings the hammer down onto his wife’s head.
Despite myself, I close my eyes.
She screams — and screams — and screams?
She is thrashing in the water, desperately, frenzied in panic. The bath water is… clear, foaming with her surging activity, but clear.
The large man stands, head down, hammer in both hands. He has stopped the swing just inches from his wife’s head.
But… in reality, he had not.
Dream-jacking always gets to the truth. Defences down, dreamers re-enact events – given the right steer, the right props from an expert Rider — and there are none better than I.
My prompts always spark a replay of actual events, dream or no dream.
Uh-uh, focus, Scott…
Sledgehammer Jones straightens and looks up then.
Straight at me.
“So. How much are the Crown Prosecution paying you for this?”
Jones’s wife is standing now. Water streams down her body, over her breasts, down her belly and thighs.
Jones looks back at her, but keeps speaking to me. “My name’s John. Just John Jones. I loved this woman dearly. I want to set her free.”
“What?” I whisper from the ceiling.
He looks up at me again. “I’m going to put the hammer down and let her go, so she can join Barry, like she always hoped.”
“But… that’s not what happened.”
“No,” he says, “But it’s what should have happened.”
I’ve never faced this dilemma before. What to do? If I just let him take hold of the dream, I have no doubt they will fire me. They get paid by the conviction – as do I.
John Jones puts the sledgehammer down. His wife has stepped out of the bath and is drying herself on a large white towel – she wraps it around her body and ties it over her left shoulder like a toga.
“I loved you, John,” she says.
She does not look at either of us; it’s as if she is no longer aware of us.
I can make the hammer larger, more enticing, red both in colour and nature – and wait for Jones’s hippocampal cognitive rehearsal to kick in with irresistible compulsion.
…But would this make me an accomplice? Will I then be guilty of murder too?
Alice hovers uncertainly by the door and Jones looks up at me again.
Fuck it; mamma had always told me to do the ‘right’ thing.
(Until she left me.)
“Okay,” I say, dropping down from the ceiling and fleshing myself. “Let her go, then, if that’s what you really want to do.”
Alice stays, though: frozen, immobile, her face contorting with the effort to move.
I turn to Jones. His face is dripping with sweaty exertion: “I can’t free her,” he says. “Help me, please.”
But, try as I might, I have no point of contact with her – she is not my dream imago to shift. I turn to shrug helplessly, but Jones has already picked up the hammer, now swollen and red, again.
“My name is John,” he says, “Just John Jones. Get that? Guilty – I’m guilty.”
He hesitates for a moment and then hands the hammer over to his wife. He bends forward submissively. “Do it,” he says.
I open my mouth, but I’m unable to scream.
“Do it!” he shouts.
“Lizzie?” I croak.
Alice Jones raises the hammer over her head and brings it crashing down on the large man’s head. The hammer bounces off his skull with a crackling, crunching sound, spraying a flash of blood across the room.
The blood laces my tongue – metallic, salty, explosive. I am falling sideways, grunting, winded, as I land on a crumpled and broken body.
John Jones’s wife looks down at me; the bath is empty and dry.
But she is not Alice anymore – she is Shireen, my ex-wife, whom I’d lost patience with -but only once or twice, I swear, mamma – until she left me.
This time though, Shireen is the one holding the hammer. She smiles, dark hair swishing across her face.
Shit, there is no dream-breath from this body beneath me. Jones’s head looks misshapen – splayed at an odd and bloody angle on the floor.
Shireen lifts the hammer over her head.
“Fuck it, Lizzie!” I scream, “Get me out of here.”
Shireen swings the hammer.
The bathroom walls start to shift externally, crumbling, roaring, as if an empty storm is sucking them inexorably outwards.
The bathroom cabinet and a wall explode and beyond, all I can see is a vast and complete emptiness. No sound, no shape, no colour.
And then I start falling sideways, sucked and stretched into the black hole beyond. I catch a flicker of images flashing past me – Old Man, Hero, Trickster, a flash of bleeding Jungian archetypes. Then dead-eyed animals, increasingly bizarre, mostly mute and long extinct.
I hurtle helplessly towards the empty hole at the heart of it all.
An old woman watches me from a place where everything has gone out. I think I know her, her hollow eyes are like burnt out planets.
“Mamma?” I call in desperation, flailing to stay away from the blackness above and beneath me.
Her head tilts, as if turning towards me – her face is creased with concern, brown eyes focusing on my face.
She holds her right hand out at me, clawed, but tendon-etched strong. “Ngibambe ngesandla,” she says.
“What?” I say, wondering if I should give in to the sucking darkness.
“Have you learned nothing of where’re you’re from, Peter – hold my fucking hand!”
But she smiles as she says it and I realise it is the only thing that might just save me. I scrabble at her, but miss.
The darkness desiccates words, drowning everything.
Something grips my arm and yanks me sideways.
Two hands are huge on either side of my cheeks. The woman seems to be holding my face up.
I recognize her and start to cry.
“Lizzie, thank God…”
“I’m here,” the Doc says. Her voice is warm and reassuring.
I continue to see hints of – fractured images and beasts, drifting in nothing with a vast void behind, the nothing that fudges the boundaries and certitude of everything I can now see — or perhaps it’s just that my eyes keep leaking, smearing my sight and sense of surety?
Jones’s words – were they meant for him – or me?
I’d certainly… hurt Shireen.
And yes, I remember mamma had told me, when I was still a teenager at secondary school, that even once was too much.
Lizzie holds me against herself; her shoulders are bony, but warm. “It’s okay, Peter,” she says.
“What- what the hell happened to Jones?” I choke.
And how can I turn this fucking face tap off?
“He’s dead,” she says. “Jesus, they’re going to crucify me for overdosing him on sedatives.”
“But,” I say and stop, unable to find words; it’s all I can do to focus on the warmth of her body and the strength in her hands, still cradling my shoulders and head.
Then she leans back and moves away, starting to decouple electrodes and tubes from the large, still body lying alongside me.
Exhausted, I lie back on the pillow and watch her, unable to move. She switches off the Loom™. The Doc is decoupling me with smooth professionalism and I can see her show of warmth and compassion is past.
My tears stop and dry, prickling my cheeks.
We had a legitimate court order to dream-jack him, but John Jones had already decided to face his guilt head on – and, unable to free his wife, had preferred to die.
Still, where the hell does that leave us?
I look across at Sledgehammer.
There is just the barest hint of a smile at the corner of the dead man’s lips.
The bastard had left me with my ex-wife and the hammer.
My body is starting to warm up, just the teeniest little bit, and words free up inside me. “Listen Lizzie, I will testify that Jones chose to die. They will see that for themselves too.”
Dream Justice, Inc. – that part of the privatised English Crown judiciary.
I pull the sheet off and stand up, my body – now well on the pudgy side of thirty, and sagging in readiness for forty – crackling stiffly in its jumpsuit. I stretch upwards, my blood needling harshly through arteries and veins again. Every year, my stretches get harder and harder.
Lizzie has covered Sledgehammer Jones’s torso and looks up at me with a smile. “Thank you – that may just help, Peter, a devastating nocebo effect, perhaps…”
I wipe my face with a forearm as I stiffly step across to the body next to my bed.
“I’m sorry… John,” I say. Given proper training and circumstance, it is clear that he would have been the greatest Dream-Rider in the world, not me.
Funny thing is; it suddenly didn’t matter to me anymore.
I’d made my own share of mistakes too – and I was no longer the best anything.
Dream-Hunter Two? Not quite the same ring to it.
More, I’d caught a glimpse of what lies behind both dreams and waking.
I open the door to leave and hesitate, “Bye, Lizzie.”
“Bye, Peter,” she does not look round.
“No,” I say, “I mean bye.”
She pivots slowly in her chair and looks at me again. Her eyes are a deep and penetrating brown. “You’re quitting, Peter?”
I nod. “Don’t think I can Ride again on the criminal justice system.”
“Bye Peter,” she does not get up.
“Did you see…her, at the end?” I ask.
“Who? I just saw you rising out of the darkness – as if dragged by hope.”
I close the door behind me.
Hope lives by the name of Precious Msimang; she has claimed back her old clan name, I remember.
I have forgotten her number but it takes my smart-watch only two seconds to patch me through.
The old woman from my dreams stares at me with apparent disbelief.
“Mamma!” is all I can manage.
“Peter,” she says – and then the line freezes.
I know why – she always hated to cry in front of me – especially after…he – had hit her.
It flickers on again – mamma looks old and worn, but with the faintest of smiles, watching me closely. “Why have you called now, what do you want?”
“To visit,” I say, “…and to talk about you and the family, and South Africa.”
“A good place, now that Rhodes Has Fallen,” she says. “This is my place to die.”
“Let’s not talk about death,” I say, “Ngibambe ngesandla, mamma.” (This time it is me who freezes the screen.)
I lie back and stare up at the numb white ceiling of my small flat.
I have taken women for granted, including the one who carried and birthed me, with both pain and love.
Guilty as charged.
It is time to start my redemption.
It will be a long, long flight home, to a place I hardly know.
Studies have shown that people are extraordinarily bad at predicting the future. What we often do is project the present and re-arrange the furniture a little – a flying car here, a spaceship there. However, the future is often both wilder and more mundane than we imagine.
Yesterday fans of the iconic movie Back To The Future II celebrated the day when Marty McFly and Doc travelled into the future. On the comedy talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, the original actors reprised their roles as clueless time travellers – except they arrive in the future as it is today, not as it was imagined in the 1985 film. They observe that even with all the technology at our disposal (“supercomputers in your hand”), we are doing no more than watching cat videos and taking selfies.
“The future kinda sucks,” they conclude.
But without wild conceptions of the future drawn up by speculative fiction in the past we wouldn’t have many of the innovations we take for granted today. Jules Verne dreamed up space travel and submarines, Aldous Huxley imagined genetic engineering and William Gibson’s drew the first conceptual ideas of the internet. Even when depicting dystopias, such as George Orwell’s idea of an all-powerful surveillance state in 1984, these works of fiction inspired scientists and activists in the real world to try and improve what they saw around them. And it worked.
We Africans need our own visions of the future. More than imagining cool devices and technologies we need to dream up solutions for our present-day problems such as inequality and environmental devastation that will inspire the scientists, politicians and leaders of tomorrow. We desperately need visions, both better and worse, that centre our experiences and concerns. A future that doesn’t treat us as side characters, extras or backdrops.
And so, in partnership with the Goethe institut, we would like to present you with 10 flash stories that imagine the futures of our urban landscapes as we see them. They are accompanied by art that bring these tales to vivid life. Displayed at the African Future_Lagos exhibition in Lagos, these works are funny, searing, frightening and hopeful, each one reveals in less than a 1,000 words a vivid slice of the nightmares and dreams that move us.
Humans may not be very good at predicting the future, but no matter what we do, we as thinkers, writers and artists always influence it.
He had been crawling, walking and running through the undergrowth for most of the afternoon and early evening. Now, his destination was minutes away – and he had run out of brush.
The next few minutes would be the most dangerous.
Crouching under the overhang of what was left of the Third Mainland Bridge, as it used to be called, he peered at the lone highway. The lights from the checkpoint winked and shimmered and he shuddered as he imagined the police standing there with their charge rods and body armor on the lookout for anyone who didn’t belong in New Lagos.
Outlanders. Like him.
The Mainland had become an abandoned wasteland as government after government insisted on relocating everything worth anything to New Lagos, formerly known as Victoria Island. Anyone who could afford it had bought property on the Island and moved – while the not-so-lucky ones had been left behind.
And when the sickness hit, there was no defense.
The man looked back the way he came. Mile after mile of forest, of sand and dust unrolled before his eyes. He hunkered down behind a small shrub and wrapped his scarf tighter across his nose and mouth before opening the dirty brown satchel that hung from his shoulder and pulling a wrapped parcel from it.
He squinted towards the highway, trying to pierce the rapidly-descending curtain of darkness. There was no movement – the police remained as they were, lights throwing red and blue patterns for miles around.
Good, the man nodded.
And then, crawling forward, he chose a spot hidden from casual eyes and unwrapped the parcel. The object inside was flat, sleek and shiny – it’s appearance in total contrast to the man holding it. He turned it over, looking over it carefully for any scratches and dents. Finding nothing, he turned it on.
“GOOD EVENI – “ the automated voice response started to say before the man’s scrambling finger pushed the mute button. He hurriedly crawled back to the edge of the bridge to look around.
Breathing heavily, he returned and whispered harshly to the device: “Show aerial view of the New Lagos Highway.”
Within seconds, a 3D hologram of his request rose from the screen. A small blinking blue dot showed where he was, and he looked carefully at the location of the security, taking extra notice of the 30-foot electrified wall.
“Show lower level.”
Decades before, around 2005 or so, Victoria Island had existed under the constant threat of floods. An intricate anti-flood waterworks had been built miles under the island for emergency flushing, but after the system failed, the government had simply filled in the surrounding water, pushing the ocean back towards the mainland.
The waterworks system was still there, intact, but he wasn’t sure if it was guarded or not. The original blueprints had been destroyed in one of the series of floods – along with plenty other things – and none of the builders were alive.
The man nodded and inhaled deeply. And then, with a slightly trembling voice he said, “Call Ayoka.”
The 3D image dissolved as his nine year old daughter’s face appeared on the screen – at least what she had looked like before the sickness had gotten to her. The same sickness had killed 30 million people within the first week of infection – sweeping the landscape like a vengeful angel – and then moved on, leaving behind dying strains that were uninfectious but deadly to their hosts.
Like his daughter.
“Where are you, papa?”
The man wiped his eyes of tears and smiled. “I’m at work, baby girl. But I’ll be home soon. How are you feeling?”
The little girl smiled bravely. “I’m just weak – but Aunty Salome said you are bringing something to make me feel better.”
“Yes, I am. So wait for me, okay?”
“Okay, pa – “
The loud humming of a moving vehicle drowned out her voice and quickly he powered down the tablet. The hum was coming from his left – from the highway, and it was heading towards the checkpoint.
Without hesitation he broke cover and ran towards the wall, keeping the checkpoint to his right as he moved. There was an abandoned swamp far enough from the wall to be ignored, but close enough to get someone who knew where he was going to the first of the access hatches.
That was his target.
Suddenly, the wall lights came on.
He was well out of their range, but the unexpectedness of it put a stumble in his stride – and he hit the ground hard. His loud “OOF!” and the clatter of stuff in his satchel alerted a policeman.
“Who goes there?” came the challenge.
The man crawled quickly until he was curled up against the highway wall. Looking up, he hoped he hadn’t been spotted. His heart was thumping, he was sweating –
And then, another light came on. This time, from the highway.
The man swallowed and held his breath as the narrow beam of light came closer. He started to scramble backwards, trying to part concrete with his bare hands –
And then his scratching hand sank into something and came up wet.
He had found the swamp.
“Nurse Ella, how is our patient?” the doctor asked the nurse as they made their way past the supply room.
Once they passed, a figure wearing a white lab coat quickly crossed the hallway and entered the room. The figure moved quickly along the shelves, stopping in front of one that held an endless row of vials of glowing blue liquid.
Addo was woken up by the rumbling of machines. He looked outside his window. There were digging machines in the park. Screeching giants that must have arrived during the night. He returned to bed and fell asleep. He continued his strange dream. A dream of falling into a red rupture in the old earth. Falling and falling; his body consumed a million times to ash, then to neutrinos, then quarks and charms. Such dreams. He was growing old.
He ate breakfast in his room. There was a Community Chop on the top floor of the Enkang but he never ate there. Addo was 93 years old. This made him the oldest person that anyone in the building would have ever seen. They looked at him strangely. They walked around him as if they might break him. When he spoke to them they replied as one might to a small child.
He dressed himself for work. It was the first of August, but he still wore a long coat. The city had installed a Yún acclimatiser more than fifty years ago. And for more than fifty years Addo had been bitterly cold. That was one practical reason why all his peers had gone to the Islands. He put on his gloves and left his room.
The glass elevator zipped through the Enkang. It dipped down a few floors and then moved horizontally through each of the building’s sprawling onion layers, coming to a stop when it reached the foyer. This was Zebra Enkang. The foyer walls shimmered with moving murals of the leaping and galloping striped beasts. Real zebras had never moved that way, but he’d stopped worrying about such things a long time ago. What did it matter? None of these people would ever see one.
He went outside and walked to the nearest General Chop Machine. He selected the sequence of numbers that instructed a coffee. Then he stood facing the park, observing the screeching machines. An exceptionally tall boy in a yellow hardhat was flitting between the machines, checking screens and turning dials. Noisy. Noisy. How long would this last? He could always move, of course. All it involved was walking around the city until he found a building he liked with an empty room. But he liked it in Zebra Enkang.
As he sipped his coffee, he observed the young men and women streaming past him on the moving thoroughfare. They grew stranger to Addo with each passing decade. This was not surprising. In the Saharan Uniformity Homes they kept conditioning their children. They were changing them physically too, he suspected. Making them bigger. Removing the final genetic vestiges of tribe and making them uniform. To Addo, they were aliens. Their confident and total immersion in disciplines that he barely knew existed. Their instinctive ability to work the new ghost computers. The future and the miracles that they assumed. Their August bearing.
Addo liked to think that he was useful in his own right. He had worked as a translator at the Culture Ministry for the last 65 years. He selected approved historical works and translated them into Pan Swahili. There were not many people left who could speak as many languages as he could. Five dead Tribal languages and three banned Oppressor languages. He took great care with his translations. Even though he knew they were mostly just humouring him. When he died they would replace him with a ghost computer that would translate the approved library in an instant. The translations would be technically correct but Addo was sure that they would lose their meaning. But no-one would know and if they did, they would not care.
He crushed his coffee cup and dropped it on the sidewalk. Within a few moments, a spider seized it and bundled it down a service drain. Useful materials would be diverted to underground factories where they would be reconstituted for use by general machines. Needless things would continue their journey downwards into the old earth where they would be consumed a million times to ash, then to neutrinos, quarks and charms. As if they had never existed at all.
He crossed the footbridge over the moving thoroughfare and entered the park. As he walked, the boy in the hardhat hopped off a machine and approached him.
Even at first glance, the boy was unusual. He walked a little more boisterously than most. His face was dirty. His stained dashiki was tucked unevenly into his trousers. The Uniformity Home had clearly failed this one.
“Are you master of these machines?” Addo asked.
“Yes,” the boy replied. “For now.”
“How long are you digging?”
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling broadly. “It depends what I find.”
“It’s just the noise, you see.”
The boy’s smile melted away. He took off his hardhat and shrugged. “I only have a Joule budget for twenty-four hours. I’ve applied for an extension, but they probably won’t approve it. So it may not be too long.”
“Oh. Okay. Good,” Addo said. “So what exactly are you looking for?”
The boy perked up again. “Well, I look after the excavating probes. One of them found a burial site here.” He pointed his hardhat at the ground. “If I’m right then one of those fossils is Mitochondrial Eve. So I’m bringing her up.”
Addo was silent. The boy shifted about uncomfortably. He put his hardhat back on. “So, what I mean by Mitochondrial is…”
“I know what that means,” Addo interrupted. “It means that you have found our mother. Sleeping underneath the city.”
The boy considered this a moment. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose you could say that.”
Addo pointed a finger at one of the machines. “If you only have a day then maybe you could use another pair of hands? Help you along?”
The boy grinned. He wiped a dirty hand on his dashiki and thrust it outward. Addo took off his glove and shook it.
“Mama Anuli, your eye is missing.” The child looked up at her.
In answer, Anuli held the child closer and was rewarded with quiet. She moved steadily towards the door, as quiet as her heavy feet would let her. Her vision was now impaired and the virus within her seemed to have affected her software, but Anuli was closer to her goal than she would have ever been if she had not sold her precious eye.
“Don’t worry about that, baby,” Anuli’s pre-programmed voice was as calm as the day she was activated.
Something landed on her head and shattered to several pieces, but it barely affected Anuli’s grip on the child. Even the piece of cloth wrapped around her head remained undisturbed. Anuli spun to find Yinka glaring at her, her slight form shaking in fear. Grabbing her by the throat, Anuli slammed her into the wall.
“Did you contact the CSN?” The thought of the network latching onto her raised Anuli’s anxiety levels but her tone was calm, as always.
“Please spare my daughter…” Yinka began.
Anuli slammed her into the wall again, it was alien to her nurturing program but she had seen it in a movie once. She repeated the question, the child stayed snuggled in her other arm.
She watched as Yinka shut her eyes and struggled to swallow, her fear evident. There were tears streaming down her face as she shook her head. Her answer did not matter to Anuli, however; the robot had stopped trusting her.
“I only reported you after your last visit,” Yinka’s tone was conciliatory. “I promise.”
That was the reason the CSN had tried to reformat her system, and it confirmed her earlier suspicion. It was a testament to the kind of power people like Yinka had: they could abuse their children and still have the system on their side.
“I am begging you, Aunty Anuli,” Yinka appealed to her. “You know me, you spent months with me after I gave birth. We raised Awele together. I would never abuse my child.”
More lies. Anuli had heard them all before.
“Awele is exhibiting abnormal signs for her age; her behavioural patterns are irregular.” There was a smile stretching her face even though Anuli’s anxiety levels had reached a panic state. “The wounds I have noticed on her body…”
Gears shifted as Anuli inclined her head and studied the child with her good eye. Any other child would be crying seeing their mother in such distress, but Awele simply stared at the woman pinned to the wall with blank eyes.
Upon observing this, Anuli’s anxiety levels skyrocketed into the red zone. Her freshly-hacked system struggled to contain the spike, but Anuli’s hands tightened around Yinka’s soft neck and when she spoke her words were slurred.
“You are not supposed to treat a child in that manner.” It sounded as though she was speaking from underwater.
“Please…” Yinka gasped, her eyelids fluttered open and shut revealing the whites of her eyes.
As part of the OmuGwo line, Anuli was crafted and programmed to help mothers cope with the birth of their children. She was equipped to cook centuries-old dishes, to bathe babies, to inoculate toddlers and register children on the CSN. The Anuli range of carers were especially composed and serene, they appeared as sweet middle-aged women whose only emotional reactions were smiles or a slight wrinkling of her brows to denote displeasure.
Hands crafted from synthetic bones and layered with silicon-based faux flesh were much better at handling scorching hot towels and pressing them against pliant stomachs rounded in memory of the weight they once carried. Those hands now held Anuli’s employer up against the unyielding wall until Yinka grew eerily still. When Anuli withdrew her hand, the woman crumbled to the floor.
“Mama Yinka…sleeping.” Awele’s tinny voice rang out.
“Yes baby, Mama Yinka is asleep.” Anuli affirmed. Her system would not compute any other explanation. It did not matter either way, Anuli had what she came for. She continued until she was outside the Ejiofor-Ogunlade home.
With the scorching sun warming the nano-receptors on her skin, Anuli felt her anxiety levels steadily drop. Undoubtedly the CSN would be after her, they must have sent her log to the retrieval unit once Anuli went offline. The virus now rooted in her system might be the end of her yet, but with Awele in her arms her levels of bliss and love took a leap. There would be no more manipulating her emotions remotely, no more cover-ups.
Soon the scars that dotted Awele’s tiny body would heal, and so would her spirit.
I showed my friends a picture of Uchechi posing beside a dancing drag queen in red. You don get mouth, Wale said. Cyprian licked his lips, already mind-fapping to her carnival bikini-clad body. When we go meet her? Wale asked. I no know, I replied. Na Lekki Phase 4 she dey stay. He opened his mouth and looked at Cyprian, who said, I know say that job go make you fuck up; I no just know say na sharp-sharp the thing go happen.
The job he spoke of was my internship at the new archives department located in the old Museum Building on Awolowo Road. It was part of the reconciliation project that recruited Mainlanders to work on the Island, both to help the city recover its cultural roots, and to offer a way for bright Mainlanders to be integrated into life on the Island.
Part of my job was to go through the Twitter archives of a few residents of the old city who our friends at AmaSoft had considered essential. Twitter was a mixed baggage: one dude had #HistoryClass every week like books had gone extinct, and another just posted bad puns that ran into millions of tweets. The jokes were, however, valuable in understanding the city. One time I found this: BROKE UP WITH MY BF WHO WENT TO RUSSIA. NOW A GUY SAYS I SHOULD VISIT HIM IN IKORODU. WHY WOULD I WANT ANOTHER LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP? Only if she knew…
Three months after we met, Uchechi invited me to an exhibition. It was about visions for rebuilding the Yaba ruins, where the mainland rebels had staged their final resistance. My Island visa was only valid for weekdays, but I said yes. I spent a quarter of my salary paying for a fake weekend pass, and another quarter on an air cab through the Epe Pass, because the officers at the Obalende Water Terminal were bastards who always nabbed people with fake IDs.
At the exhibition, she introduced me to her friends as a very smart person. They looked at my disintegrating boat shoes with wary eyes as they swirled white wine in antique flutes. One of the guys eventually cornered me and started a conversation about architecture. Your friend is really brilliant for someone who has schooled his whole life on the mainland, he later told Uchechi. As a sharp guy, I’d spent the whole week studying architecture in the archives just to prep myself for the exhibition.
They piled into their super cars, waved goodbye, and I started the walk to Obalende. For the first time since I’d met her, I realised Uchechi was really out of my league. That moment, I promised myself I would impress her on her birthday.
The steward who attended to me in a corner shop in Mandillas was an old androgynous model—no emotion chip. He stared at Uchechi’s picture, cocked his head to the left, and said: I have just the dress for you. I returned to Ghana High in an air cab to meet the lunchtime rush, and saw them as I stepped out. I mean, they didn’t have a reason to kiss since they were still going to enter his car together, but he stuck his tongue in her mouth and kept it there like he was announcing his ownership for all creatures in sight.
After work, I couldn’t return home to the guys because I wasn’t ready to be mocked in pidgin. As I stepped out of the office, enroute the shop in Mandillas, the TBS horses gave a metallic neigh as they raised their hoofs eight times to mark the time. I searched the eyes of the people on the road, hoping they could detect the pain in my eyes, the heartbreak in my gait.
You’re back, the steward said. Yes, I answered. Wrong size. That’s impossible, he said. Then he collected the dress from me and processed my refund. I stopped at a bar in the old CMS Church building, one of the surviving structures of the Old Island. The bar was filled with geriatrics sitting with droopy faces, and taking draughts of synthetic pammy. They were like relics, the only witnesses of the Eko Class War. I ordered the cheapest drink and drowned my misery. I woke up in the morning on the floor of the bathroom. My shirt reeking of eau de vomit.
My supervisor walked past my cubicle, paused, and said: You shouldn’t look sad on this job, li’l buddy. You know many Mainlanders would kill for this job, right? Don’t make me think you’re unhappy here.
I wanted do him a favour by head-butting him. That way, he would get a replacement for his buckteeth. I spent the rest of the day at the Instagram archives, tagging images of the four mainland bridges. One of them was taken at the start of the war as the Island force bombed the four bridges at once. The whole frame was black.
After work, I returned to the bar. You’re back, the bartender said. You should ease up on the Burukutu. The edges of her lips curved upwards in perfect symmetry. I smiled and wished I could pull out her power unit in spite. She was a more advanced model, the best of them. The bar emptied around 11pm, and I was alone with her.
The manager just updated me with Jazz. Do you want to listen? My mind said no, but my mouth said yes.
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, a husky male voice sang, and the whole cathedral pulsed with life like it didn’t have the whole night. She stopped cleaning, placed empty mugs on the counter, clapped both hands above her head, and swayed like fish moving slow-mo in water. Can you dance? She asked. I wanted to say no, but only a dead Lagosian rejects a dance with human perfection. So, I said yes. Yes I can dance.