I’m at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in. It’s how I usually start my day. This time it’s because of a wedding and a final exam. Not my wedding, not my exam. In my seat by the window I can see, but not hear, the city. This high above Rosewater everything seems orderly. Blocks, roads, streets, traffic curving sluggishly around the dome. I can see the cathedral from here. The window is to my left, and I’m on one end of an oval table with four other contractors. We are on the fifteenth floor, the top. A skylight is open above us, three-foot square, a security grid being the only thing between us and the morning sky. Blue, with flecks of white cloud. No blazing sun yet, but that will come later. The climate in the room is controlled despite the open skylight, a waste of energy for which Integrity Bank is fined weekly. They are willing to take the expense.
Next to me on the right side Bola yawns. She is pregnant and gets very tired these days. She also eats a lot, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I’ve known her two years and she has been pregnant in each of them. I do not fully understand pregnancy. I am an only child and I never grew up around pets or livestock. My education was peripatetic; biology was never a strong interest. Except for microbiology, which I had to master later.
I try to relax and concentrate on the bank customers. The wedding anxiety comes again.
Rising from the centre of the table is a holographic teleprompter. It consists of random swirls of light right now, but within a few minutes it will come alive with text. There is a room adjacent to ours in which the night shift is winding down.
‘I hear they read Dumas last night,’ says Bola.
She’s just making conversation. It is irrelevant what the other shift reads. I smile and say nothing.
The wedding I sense is due in three months. The bride has put on a few pounds and does not know if she should alter the dress or get liposuction. In my opinion, women have two beauties. The outward appearance that everyone sees and the inner, secret beauty that is true and that women show only to the one they love.
Bola is prettier when she is pregnant.
‘Sixty seconds,’ says a voice on the tannoy.
I take a sip of water from the tumbler on the table. The other contractors are new. They don’t dress formally like Bola and I. They wear tank tops and t-shirts and metal in their hair. They have phone implants.
I hate implants of all kinds. I have one. Standard locator with no add-ons. Boring, really, but my employer demands it.
The exam anxiety dies down before I can isolate and explore the source. Fine by me.
The bits of metal these young ones have in their hair come from plane crashes. Lagos, Abuja, Jos, Kano, and all points in between, there have been downed aircraft on every domestic route in Nigeria since the early 2000s. They wear bits of fuselage as protective charms.
There are those among us who are shining ones. We know them on sight-we are caught in a vortex and drawn to them as are everyone else. Bola is one of these. I often catch myself staring at her without knowing why. She often catches me staring at her and winks. Now she unwraps her snack, a few wraps of moin-moin.
‘Go,’ says the tannoy.
The text of Plato’s The Republic scrolls slowly and steadily in ghostly, holographic figures on the cylindrical display. I start to read, as do the others, some silently, others out loud. We enter the xenosphere and set up the bank’s firewall.
Every day about five hundred customers carry out financial transactions at these premises. Wild sensitives probe and push, trying to pick personal data out of the air. I’m talking about dates-of-birth, PINs, mothers’ maiden names, past transactions, all of them lying docile in each customer’s forebrain, in the working memory, waiting to be plucked out by the hungry, untrained, and freebooting sensitives.
Contractors like myself, Bola Martinez, and the metalheads are trained to repel these. And we do. We read classics to flood the xenosphere with irrelevant words and thoughts, a firewall of knowledge that even makes its way to the subconscious of the customer. A professor did a study of it once. He found a correlation between the material used for firewalling and the activities of the customer for the rest of the year. A person who had never read Shakespeare would suddenly find snatches of King Lear coming to mind for no apparent reason.
We can trace the intrusions if we want, but Integrity isn’t interested. It’s difficult and expensive to prosecute crimes perpetuated in the xenosphere.
The queues for cash machines, so many people, so many cares and wants and passions. I am tired of filtering the lives of others through my mind.
I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city …
On entering the xenosphere there is a projected self-image. The untrained, wild sensitives project themselves, but professionals like me are trained to create a controlled, chosen self-image. Mine is a gryphon.
The wild ones have self-images that are not accurate, that do not map to their current selves. It is not deliberate. It takes time for a mental image to correspond to the actual person, although it varies with individuals. A bald man may have a more hirsute self-image for years.
My first attack of the day comes from a middle-aged man from a town house in Yola. He looks reedy and very dark-skinned. I warn him and he backs off. A teenager takes his place so quickly that I think they are in the same physical location as part of a hack farm. Criminal cabals sometimes round up sensitives, yoke them together in a ‘Mumbai-combo’-a call-centre model with serial blackhats.
Either way, I’ve seen it all before. I am already bored.
During the lunch break one of the metalheads comes in and sits by me. He starts to talk shop, telling me of a near-miss intrusion. He looks to be in his twenties, still excited about being a sensitive, finding everything new and fresh and interesting, the opposite of cynical, the opposite of me.
He must be in love. His self-image shows propinquity. He is good enough to mask the other person, but not good enough to mask the fact of his closeness. I see the shadow, the ghost beside him. I don’t mention this out of respect.
The metal he carries is twisted into crucifixes and attached to a single braid on otherwise short hair. This leaves his head on the left temple and coils around his neck, disappearing into the collar of his shirt.
‘I’m Clement,’ he says. ‘I notice you don’t use my name.’
This is true. I was introduced to him by an executive two weeks back, but I forgot his name instantly and have been using pronouns ever since.
‘My name …’
‘You’re Kaaro. I know. Everybody knows you. Excuse me for this, but I have to ask. Is it true that you’ve been inside Utopicity?’
‘That’s a rumour,’ I say.
‘Yes, but is the rumour true?’ asks Clement.
Outside the window the sun is far too slow in its journey across the sky. Why am I here? What am I doing?
‘I’d rather not discuss it.’
‘Are you going tonight?’ he asks.
I know what night it is. I have no interest in going.
‘Perhaps,’ I say. ‘I might be busy.’
This boy is rather nosy. I had hoped for a brief, polite exchange, but now I find myself having to concentrate on him, on my answers. He is smiling, being friendly, sociable. I should reciprocate.
‘I’m going with my family,’ says Clement. ‘Why don’t you come with us? I’m sending my number to your phone. All of Rosewater will be there.’
That is the part that bothers me, but I say nothing to Clement. I accept his phone number, and send mine out of politeness, but I do not commit.
Before the end of the working day I get four other invitations to the Opening. I decline most of them, but Bola is not a person I can refuse.
‘My husband has rented a flat for the evening,’ she says, handing me a slip of paper with the address. Her look of disdain tells me if I had the proper implant we would not need to kill trees. ‘Don’t eat. I’ll cook.’
By eighteen hundred hours the last customer has left and we’re all typing at terminals, logging the intrusion attempts, cross-referencing to see if there are any hits, and too tired to joke. We never get feedback on the incident reports. There’s no pattern analysis or trend graph. This data is sucked into a bureaucratic black hole. It’s just getting dark, and we’re all in our own heads now, but passively connected to the xenosphere. I’m vaguely aware that a chess game is going on, but I don’t care between whom. I don’t play so I don’t understand the progress.
‘Hello, Gryphon,’ someone says.
I focus, but it’s gone. She’s gone. Definitely female. I get a wispy impression of a flower in bloom, something blue, but that’s it. I’m too tired or lazy to follow it up, so I punch in my documentation and fill out the electronic time sheet.
I ride the elevator to street level. I have never seen much of the bank. The contractors have access to the express elevator. It’s unmarked and operated by a security guard who sees us, even though we do not see him or his camera. This may as well be magic. The elevator seems like a rather elegant wooden box. There are no buttons and it is unwise to have confidential conversations in there. This time as I leave the operator says, ‘Happy Opening.’ I nod, unsure of which direction to respond in.
The lobby is empty, dark. Columns stand like Victorian dead posed for pictures. The place is usually manned when I go home, but I expect the staff have been allowed to leave early for the Opening.
It’s full night now. The glow from Utopicity’s dome is omnipresent, though not bright enough to read by. The skyline around me blocks direct view, but the light frames every high rise to my left like a rising sun, and is reflected off the ones to my right. This is the reason there are no street lights in Rosewater. I make for Alaba Station, the clockwise platform. The streets are empty save the constable who walks past, swinging her baton. I am wearing a suit so she does not care to harass me. A mosquito whines past my ear, but does not appear to be interested in tasting my blood. By the time I reach the concourse there is a patch of light sweat in each of my armpits. It’s a warm night. I text my flat to reduce internal temperature one degree lower than external.
Alaba Station is crowded with commercial district workers and the queues snake out to the streets, but they are almost all going anticlockwise to Kehinde Station which is closest to the Opening. I hesitate briefly before I buy my ticket. I plan to go home and change, but I wonder if it will be difficult to meet up with Bola and her husband. I have a brief involuntary connection to the xenosphere and a hot, moist surge of anger from a cuckolded husband lances through me. I disconnect and breathe deeply.
I go home. Even though I have a window seat and the dome is visible, I do not look at Utopicity. When I notice the reflected light on the faces of other passengers I close my eyes, though this does not keep out the savoury smell of akara or the sound of their trivial conversation. There’s a saying that everybody in Rosewater dreams of Utopicity at least once every night, however briefly. I know this is not true because I have never dreamed of the place.
That I have somewhere to sit on this train is evidence of the draw of the Opening. The carriages are usually full to bursting and hot, not from heaters, but from body heat and exhalations and despair.
I come off at Atewo after a delay of twenty-five minutes due to a power failure from the north ganglion. I look around for Yaro, but he’s nowhere to be found. Yaro’s a friendly stray dog who sometimes follows me home and whom I feed scraps. I walk from the station to my block, which takes ten minutes. When I get signal again my phone has four messages. Three of them are jobs. The forth is from my employer.
‘Call now. And get a phone implant. This is prehistoric.’
I do not call her. She can wait.
I live in a two-bed, partially automated flat. I could get a better place if I wanted. I have the funds, but not the inclination. I strip, leaving my clothes where they lie, and pick out something casual. I stare at my gun holster, undecided. I cross the room to the wall safe which appears in response to signals from my ID implant. I open it and consider taking my gun. There are two clips of ammo beside it along with a bronze mask and a clear cylinder. The fluid in the cylinder is at rest. I pick it up and shake it, but the liquid is too viscous and it stays in place. I put it back and decide against a weapon.
I shower briefly and head out to the Opening.
How to talk about the Opening?
It is the formation of a pore in the biodome that covers Utopicity. Rosewater is a doughnut-shaped conurbation that surrounds Utopicity. In the early days we actually called it The Doughnut. I was there. I saw it grow from a frontier town of tents and clots of sick people huddling together for warmth into a kind of shanty town of hopefuls and from there into an actual municipality. In its eleven years of existence Utopicity has not taken in a single outsider. I was the last person to traverse the biodome and there will not be another. Rosewater, on the other hand, is the same age, and grows constantly.
Every year, though, the biodome opens for twenty or thirty minutes in the south, in the Kehinde area. All the people in the vicinity of the opening are cured of all physical and some mental ailments. It is also well-known and documented that the outcome is not always good, even if diseases are abolished. There are reconstructions that go wrong, as if the blueprints are warped. Nobody knows why this happens, but there are also people who deliberately injure themselves for the sole purpose of getting “reconstructive surgery.”
Trains are out of the question on a night like this. I take a taxi which drives in the opposite direction first, then describes a wide, southbound arc, taking a circuitous route through the back roads and against the flow of traffic. This works until it doesn’t. Too many cars and motorbikes and bicycles, too many people walking, too many street performers and preachers and out-of-towners. I pay the driver and walk the rest of the way to Bola’s temporary address. This is easy as my path is perpendicular to the crush of pilgrims.
Oshodi Street is far enough from the biodome that the people are not so dense as to impede my progress. Number fifty-one is a tall, narrow four-storey building. The first door is propped open with an empty wooden beer crate. I walk into a hallway that leads to two flats and an elevator. On the top floor, I knock, and Bola lets me in.
One thing hits me immediately: the aroma and heat blast of food which triggers immediate salivation and the drums of hunger in my stomach. Bola hands me field glasses and leads me into the living room. There is a similar pair dangling on a strap around her neck. She wears a shirt with the lower buttons open so that her bare gravid belly pokes out. Her heavy breasts push against the two buttons keeping them in check and I wonder how long the laws of physics will allow this. Two children, male and female, about eight or nine, run around, frenetic, giggling, happy.
‘Wait,’ says Bola. She makes me wait in the middle of the room and returns with a paper plate filled with akara, dodo, and dundu. She leads me by the free hand to the veranda where there are four deck chairs facing the dome. Her husband, Dele, is in one, the next is empty, the third is occupied by a woman I don’t know, and the fourth is for me. Dele Martinez is rotund, jolly, but quiet. I’ve met him many times before and we get along well. Bola introduces the woman as Aminat, a sister, although the way she emphasises the word, this could mean an old friend who is as close as family, not a biological sibling. She’s pleasant enough, smiles with her eyes, has her hair drawn back into a bun of sorts, and is casually dressed in jeans, but is perhaps my age or younger. Bola knows I am single and has made it her mission to find me a mate. I don’t like this because … well, when people match-make they introduce people to you whom they think are sufficiently like you. Each person they bring is a commentary on how they see you. If I’ve never liked anyone Bola has introduced me to does that mean she doesn’t know me well enough or that she does know me, but I hate myself?
I sit down and avoid talking by eating. I avoid eye-contact by using the binoculars.
The crowd is contained in Sanni Square, usually a wide-open space framed by exploitative shops and travel agents, behind which Oshodi Street lurks. A firework goes off, premature, a mistake. Most leave the celebrations till afterwards. Oshodi Street is a good spot. It’s bright from the dome and we are all covered in that creamy blue electric light. Utopicity’s shield is not dazzling, and up close you can see a fluid that ebbs and flows just beneath the surface of the barrier.
The glasses are high-end with infra-red sensitivity and a kind of optional implant hack that brings up individual detail about whoever I focus on, tag information travelling by laser dot and information downloading from satellite. It is a bit like being in the xenosphere; I turn it off because it reminds me of work.
Music wafts up, carried in the night, but unpleasant and cacophonic because it comes from competing religious factions, bombastic individuals and the dome tourists. It is mostly percussion-accompanied chanting.
There are, by my estimate, thousands of people. They are of all colours and creeds: black Nigerians, Arabs, Japanese, Pakistani, Persians, white Europeans, and a mix-mash of others. All hope to be healed or changed in some specific way. They sing and pray to facilitate the opening. The dome is, as always, indifferent to their reverence or sacrilege.
Some hold a rapt, religious awe on their faces and cannot bring themselves to talk, while others shout in a continuous, sustained manner. An Imam has suspended himself from a roof in a harness that looks homemade, and is preaching through a bullhorn. His words are lost in the din which swallows meaning and nuance and shits out a homogenous roar. Fights break out but are quashed in seconds because nobody knows if you have to be “good” to deserve the blessings from Utopicity.
A barricade blocks access to the dome and armed constables form up in front of it. The first civilians are one hundred metres away from Utopicity’s dome, held back by an invisible stanchion. The officers look like they will shoot to kill. This is something they have done in the past, the latest incident being three years back when the crowd showed unprecedented rowdiness. Seventeen dead, although the victims rose during that year’s Opening. They were … destroyed two weeks later as they clearly were not themselves anymore. This happens. Utopicity can restore the body, but not the soul. The god told me that back in ‘55.
I cough from the peppery heat of the akara. The fit drives my vision to the sky briefly and I see a waning gibbous, battling bravely against the light pollution.
I see the press, filming, correspondents talking into microphones. Here and there are lay-scientists with big scanners pointed finger-like towards Utopicity. Skeptics, true believers, in-between, all represented.
I feel a gentle tap on my left shoulder and emerge from the vision. Aminat is looking at me. Bola and her husband have shifted out of earshot.
‘What do you see?’ she asks. She is smiling as if she is in on some joke but unsure if it’s at my expense.
‘People desperate for healing,’ I say. ‘What do you see?’
‘Poverty,’ says Aminat. ‘Spiritual poverty.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing. Maybe humankind was meant to be sick from time to time. Maybe there is something to be learned from illness.’
‘Are you politically inclined against Utopicity?’
‘No, hardly. I don’t have politics. I just like to examine all angles of an issue. Do you care?’
I shake my head. I don’t want to be here, and if not for Bola’s invitation I would be home contemplating my cholesterol levels. I am intrigued by Aminat, but not enough to want to access her thoughts. She is trying to make conversation, but I don’t like talking about Utopicity. Why then do I live in Rosewater? I should move to Lagos, Abuja, Accra, anywhere but here.
‘I don’t want to be here either,’ says Aminat.
I wonder for a moment if she has read my thoughts, if Bola matched us because she is also a sensitive. That would be irritating.
‘Let’s just go through the motions to keep Bola happy. We can exchange numbers at the end of the evening and never call each other again. I will tell her tomorrow, when she asks, that you were interesting and attentive, but there was no chemistry. And you will say …?’
‘That I enjoyed my evening, and I like you, but we didn’t quite click.’
‘You will also say that I had wonderful shoes and magnificent breasts.’
‘Er … okay.’
‘Good. We have a deal. Shake on it?’
Except, we cannot shake hands because there is oil on mine from the akara, but we touch the back of our hands together, co-conspirators. I find myself smiling at her.
A horn blows and we see a dim spot on the dome, the first sign. The dark spot grows into a patch. I have not seen this as often as I should. I saw it the first few times but stopped bothering after five years.
The patch is roughly circular, with a diameter of six or seven feet. Black as night, as charcoal, as pitch. It looks like those dark bits on the surface of the sun. This is the boring part. It will take half an hour for the first healing to manifest. Right now all is invisible. Microbes flying into the air. The scientists are frenzied now. They take air samples and will try to grow cultures on blood agar. Futile. The xenoforms do not grow on artificial media.
In the balcony everyone except me takes a deep breath, trying to get as much inside their lungs as possible. Aminat breaks her gaze from the dome, twists in her seat and kisses me on the lips. It lasts seconds and nobody else sees it, intent as they are upon the patch. After a while I am not sure it happened at all. I don’t even know what to make of it. I can read minds but I still don’t understand women.
Down below it begins, the first cries of rapture. It is impossible to confirm or know what ailments are taken care of at first. If there is no obvious deformity or stigmata like jaundice, pallor, or a broken bone, there is no visible change except the emotional state of the healed. Already, down at front, younger pilgrims are doing cartwheels and crying with gratitude.
A man brought in on a stretcher gets up. He is wobbly at first, but then walks confidently. Even from this distance I can see the wideness and wildness of his eyes and the rapid flapping of his lips. Newcomers experience disbelief.
This continues in spurts and sometimes ripples that flow through the gathered people. The trivial and the titanic are equally healed.
The patch is shrinking now. At first the scientists and I are the only ones to notice. Their activities become more agitated. One of them shouts at the others, though I cannot tell why.
I hear a tinkle of laughter from beside me. Aminat is laughing with delight, her hands held half an inch from her face and both cheeks moist. She is sniffing. That’s when it occurs to me that she is here to be healed as well.
I get a text at that moment. I look at my palm to read the message off the flexible subcutaneous polymer. My boss again.
Call right now, Kaaro. I am not kidding.
It’s the middle of the night when I arrive at Ubar. I come off the last train and there’s a car waiting for me. Ubar is an area between the North Ganglion and the widest part of the River Yemoja. We drive along the banks before turning away into empty roads and dark buildings. The driver stops in front of imposing iron gates and waits for me to get out, then drives off.
I walk into a facility that belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture. From the outside it is a simple, two-storey building with ordinary signage showing the Nigeria Coat-of-Arms covered in dust. Inside there’s a reception and an open plan office. There are framed photographs of the president on one wall and Rosewater’s mayor Jack Jacques on the other. Mundane. I’m buzzed through all of this without delay and my RFID is logged sure as cancer.
I go straight to the elevator down to the sub-levels. These are used and controlled by Section Forty-five, or S45. Most have never heard of this obscure branch of government. I have only heard of them because I work for them. Before that I was a finder and a thief.
Part of my job with S45 is interrogation. I hate interrogations.
It is 0300 hours and we are in a dim meeting room. There are two agents in black suits standing on either side of a prisoner who is naked and tied to a chair. The prisoner is blindfolded. The agents don’t speak and I do not know what information they need. I don’t bother trying to read them because the organisation would not have sent them if they knew anything. This is part of some bureaucrat’s idea of keeping the subject’s mind uncontaminated with expectations. What they want is for me to copy all the information from the subject’s mind, like making a backup of a hard drive. This is ridiculous and not possible, but no matter how many times I’ve written memos to the powers that be, this continues to be the manner in which they request interrogation.
Data does not spool into or out of the brain like a recording.
The man in front of me is black, unbruised, breathing in ragged hitches, and muscular. From time to time he says ‘please’ in Kanuri or Hausa. He tries Igbo and Yoruba sometimes, but I am not convinced he speaks any of the languages fluently. I am uncomfortable and stay two feet away from him. I connect to the xenosphere. I first establish that he is not a sensitive. His self-image is the same as the man in the chair. That’s good — it means I will not be here all night.
There is violence in this man’s head. I see two men beating a third in what looks like a backyard. The two men alternate kicks and punches between them while their victim tries to stay upright, using his forearms to shield himself as best as can be managed. The victim is bruised, dirty, and bleeding from the mouth and nose. He does not seem afraid. If anything, he appears to be mocking his tormentors. His attackers are uniformed, dark-skinned, with berets and sunglasses designed to make them seem identical. They do not look like the Nigerian police or Army, at least not by the uniform. Looking closer, the uniforms seem homemade, like from one of the militia. They have no weapons holsters, but one has a pistol stuck in a belt at the small of his back.
Something else that is odd: I cannot smell the yard or taste the dust that the three men kick up. I have neither the taste of blood in my mouth as the victim should, nor the pain of impact on my knuckles as the perpetuators should. Instead, this image is associated with the taste of food and drink, specifically kuli-kuli and beer. I also keep getting snatches of music from a cheap keyboard.
I briefly emerge from the xenosphere and inspect the prisoner. I walk around behind him and check his bound hands. His knuckles are dark, callused. You get this from knuckle push-ups and punching a hard surface like a wall or Wooden Man in order to remove sensation from the area, to make you a better fighter. I know this because I have done it. I check this because none of the participants in the prisoner’s memory seemed trained in hand-to-hand. He is not one of them.
Did he order the beating? Where did he witness it from?
Then it hits me.
‘Oh, you clever bastard,’ I say.
I re-enter the xenosphere. The ‘memory’ is staged. The prisoner watched it in a movie on repeat and was probably eating and drinking at the same time. He probably found a lesser known Nollywood film, which accounts for the cheesy music and the poor production values. He is not a sensitive, but he knows we exist and that he might be exposed to one on arrest. What it means to me is that he does have something to hide. I probe at the edges of the memory, which is like trying to peel off the adhesive label on a packet. I need to find purchase. I fix not on the image or sound, but on the other senses. Touch, smell, taste.
It’s the same woman as earlier in the night while I was at the bank, playful, curious, ephemeral. The interruption breaks my concentration and I see the beating looping around and around. I search for a linked self-image but all I can find is the noise of the general xenosphere. Random mentations. Useless. I am irritated, but my training kicks in and I focus my will on the matter at hand.
The sensation associated with the beating is gentle pressure on the buttocks and food, which tells me he was seated in some living room watching the scene on a wide-screen TV or a hologram. I discover the smell of cigarette smoke. The scene shifts, wobbles, dissipates and I’m in a smoke-filled room with five other men, all of whom are intent on the screen. Nobody speaks, but they drink beer, they smoke, and they chew the snacks laid out on a tray.
I don’t like interrogations, but I’m good at them. I feel proud of myself when I solve a puzzle, and then I feel disgust. I try to think of myself as a lawyer, operating within certain parameters that do not include morality. Focus on the task.
I pull out and say to the agents, ‘I need a forensic sketch artist. Now.’
I am debriefed by my boss, Femi Alaagomeji. Videoconference, of course. Nobody in the security services would ever knowingly be in the same room with a sensitive. I know for a fact that they are not even allowed to form relationships with sensitives and are required to report the occurrence of sensitives in their families. The last time I breathed the same air as Femi was six years ago, but before that was eleven years ago, when she shoved me into S45, just before my training, when Utopicity was new and Rosewater was nascent.
Femi is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is physically perfect in so many ways it hurts. In a sterile room, with a secure link, I videoconference with her. Today she wears burgundy lipstick. I happen to know she has a burgundy convertible Mercedes Benz. She must have driven it to work today.
‘Kaaro,’ she says.
‘Femi,’ I say.
‘Call me Mrs Alaagomeji.’
This is an old dance that we dance. She is not really irritated and I am not really impudent. We play the roles all the same.
‘Who is the prisoner, Femi?’
‘Classified, need-to-know, all that good shit. What do you have for me?’
‘Faces. Five of them. The artist did well and is running them through the system right now. She’s also looking at the location, the brand of the electronics, everything. That’s all for today. I’m tired and it’s almost time for my day job.’
‘It’s not a job. You contract. This is your job.’
‘Fine. My other job.’
‘How long will it take?’
‘I do not know. If you told me his name —’
‘— or what he’s done —’
‘Then we do it the hard way, inch by inch. I discover information, I stop, I let the artist know, we start again.’
‘So be it.’
‘Can I go home now?’
‘In a minute. How are you, Kaaro?’
‘I am alone, not lonely. It’s solitude, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’m keeping up with my reading. I’m going to learn to play the oboe.’
‘What are you reading?’
‘All right. Are you really learning the oboe?’
‘I don’t know why I bother asking. Go home.’
I’m barely able to keep my eyes open by the time the S45 car drops me at home. The night has lost the battle with the day and soon Rosewater will rise and go to work. The city wakes up in layers. Food comes first. Long haul drivers bring in crops from Oyo, Ogbomosho, Ilorin, and Abeokuta. Cassava, corn, yam flour, millet, rice from Thailand. Not a lot sourced locally anymore. These are delivered to the many categories of Bukka, the Mama Put, the Food-is-ready. Cheap, local, and essential for the unskilled workers who need a hearty carbohydrate bomb before tackling their less-than-minimum wage jobs where they go to use their biceps, triceps, and spinal columns to lift, hew, saw, join, shave, slaughter, and clean. They cook. The aroma draws out the first tier of office worker, clerks, secretaries, juniors. Over a two-hour period the middle-class professionals of Rosewater will arrive at their offices, surgeries, law chambers, accounting firms, and of course banks.
I will be joining them, but I need a shower and breakfast, perhaps strong coffee. I live in the middle floor of a three-storey in Atewo. An eight-digit code opens my flat, but there is an override key.
A series of phone messages come through as if the signal just became strong enough. I seriously consider skipping the bank, pretending to be sick and sleeping all day. I want to find out who is trying to reach me across the xenosphere. I strip and walk naked into the shower. I try that trick of using warm, then cold, then scalding hot water, but it does not refresh me. In the mirror my eyes look bloodshot and baggy like they’re from a pervert’s mug shot.
‘You look like an idiot,’ I say to my reflection. ‘You are an idiot. Your life is meaningless.’
I put on boxers and pad into the living room without getting fully dry.
‘Miles Davis, “So What,”’ I say to the sensors and the base plucks out on the speakers.
I sit. I close my eyes. I listen.
My accountant wants to discuss my taxes.
The National Research Laboratory calls. They want three days of my time. They will pay. I will ignore them. I have worked for them before and I don’t want to anymore. They’re in Lagos and they want to know about sensitives. I hate going to Lagos and the NRL scientists stare at me as if they want to open my brain while I’m still alive.
A message from Aminat, her speech like musical chairs. ‘Hello, Kaaro. I know, I know, we were only going through the motions. But I find myself thinking of you and I wonder what … (laughter) Oh, God, this is so … Okay, call back. Or not. I’m not as needy as I sound.’
She has me smiling.
A television producer who has been hounding me for two years offers me money and fame if I will appear on Nigeria is Talented.
I first think the person has left me a message on my phone but that’s not it. I open my eyes and a shoal of mackerel, oku eko, fly past my face. Miles still plays the horn, but it sounds distant. I am in a place of shifting colours and shadows. I look down at my hands and they are gone. Instead, there are feathers.
This shit hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I am in the xenosphere-asleep and in the xenosphere. It’s easy to see how. Warm bath, sleep deprivation.
‘Who are you?’ I ask, against all of my training.
‘I like your plumage,’ she says. ‘Can you fly?’
‘Anybody can fly here. Who are you?’
The fish are beginning to bother me. The air has the consistency of water. I hear an underhum of voices and thoughts of others at low signal. I cannot see this woman although I hear her clearly. No self-image?
‘I am an individual,’ she says. ‘I am a one.’
‘Yes, but what’s your name? Ki l’oruko e?’
‘Must I have one?’
She is silent for a time. I try to scratch my face, but I tickle myself with feathers instead. I stretch my wings and it feels better.
‘My name is Molara,’ she says.
I snap up one of the mackerels in my beak and break its back, then drop it to the floor between my forepaws. It twitches and lies still.
‘Show yourself,’ I say.
‘I don’t know how,’ said Molara.
Definitely a wild strain. I speak, echoing the words of my instructor.
‘Think of something you love, something you hate, something you fear, something disgusting or beautiful. Something you find impressive.’
Fire trucks of all sizes and descriptions stream past, none of their lights flashing. Some of them are toys. Behind each one a red masquerade runs, tiny Lilliputians for the toys, giants for the full-sized.
A butterfly flowers in front of my face. It unfolds lengthwise with a fourteen-foot wingspan. It is black and blue and its wings move in a majestic slow beat.
Then I wake, jarred out of the xenosphere at the same time by the phone. I am confused for a moment. The phone stops, then starts again.
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘You’re meant to be here,’ says Bola. ‘You sound hung-over. Are you hung-over?’
I am monstrously late.
My grooming is sloppy, but better than the metalheads’ so I’m fine. The customers surround the bank like ants feeding on a child’s dropped lollypop. The day after the Opening is always extra busy because people want to see their doctors and get laboratory tests to confirm their healing. The Rosewater medical community is not very robust and comes alive only at this time of year. One would think they would be out of practice.
The firewall is up without me. They are reading pages of Tolstoy. I sit in the break room and rub ketoconazole cream on my exposed skin to keep me out of the xenosphere. It’s the busiest banking day of the year and I do not want to fatigue myself further. I drink horrendous instant coffee by the cupful to keep myself awake, a benched striker.
INTERLUDE: MISSION ONE
It is unbearably hot, but still I wait. I feel rivulets of sweat dripping down my back, in between my butt cheeks. I can just about breathe, but the close, oxygen poor air threatens to make me black out. There are moth balls here waxing aromatic in my nose and mind, whispering fact and fiction about my wife. I can barely keep still. The clothes in the closet caress my back. Down around my feet there are shoes crowding, jostling for space. A dangling belt tinkles with my movements, made loud by the silence. My left hand rests against the warm wood of the door, my right by my side, weighed down by the knife.
Any moment now.
I hear a door slam from elsewhere in the house. I hear the beep as the door autolocks, and giggling that makes me see red. Literally, red flashes across my eyes in the darkness, like a surge of blood, just for a second. I can feel my heart driving the blood through my body, demanding that I move. I wait.
There are bumps and mistakes as two people wind their way through my house, through our house. The door to the room swings open. I imagine them standing there kissing. I hear the sucking sound of their lips. My fist tightens on the handle of the blade.
‘Stop,’ says my wife, but she is laughing.
‘Okay. No means no,’ says the man, mock seriousness.
Her perfume reaches me now. I hear the adulterous rustle of her clothes falling to the carpet.
‘Really?’ says my wife.
Now the blood sings in my ears. My head feels larger and my mouth is completely dry. I feel my scrotum constrict.
Lydia, Lydia, Lydia.
I do not know if I am thinking this or if her lover is repeating her name over, but her first gasp of pleasure is my cue.
I break out of the closet. The first few seconds are free because they do not hear me in their passion. I am at the bed. She is naked, supine, legs apart. He is between those legs, his hand buried in her sex, his neck beginning to turn.
I cut him first, side of the neck, surgical. The blood spurts, but I ignore it and shove him by the right arm. Lydia screams. Her eyes are rather comical circles, the whites larger than I have ever seen. For spite I drive the knife into her left eye, withdraw it, then stab her throat. I look at the man who is holding his neck and wetting the carpet with his blood. His shirt is soaked. His movements lack direction and he will die soon. I turn back to Lydia who is gurgling now.
I take my time to —
I fall to all fours and spew yellow-green slime. ‘Oh, fuck. He did it,’ I say.
‘Are you sure?’ asks Femi. ‘No hair, no DNA, no physical evidence.’
I cough. ‘Holy fucking shit, Femi, if I say he did it, he did it. He did it, okay? I fucking did it.’
‘Kaaro, calm down.’ She places a hand on my back, but I shrug it off.
‘I did it. I bought a Gene-grub and let it feed on me, then I let it loose in the room after I killed them both. An elegant drone hack removed traces of me from surveillance cameras. I paid the staff of the hotel for their blindness. I drowned them in a river of foreign currency. They will go to their deathbeds denying that they ever set eyes on me.’
I dry heave.
‘Kaaro, you mean him, right?’
Oh fuck, the revulsion. Oh, fuck. Ori mi. Help! Lydia! Lydia!
Why the fuck does it feel like … Why am I guilty?
‘Help me,’ I say. ‘Help me.’
I crawl into a corner. I cannot stop shaking; I cannot stop seeing my arm rise and fall, the wide eyes, the gurgling …
‘Over-identification,’ says the doctor. I forget his name, I do not like him.
Three months since the assignment. I am sequestered, back in from the cold, as they say. They stick me in a mental joint, for field agents who go over the edge, and I most definitely went over the edge.
He continues. ‘You identified too strongly with your subject. Ego boundaries blurred and you lost the integrity of your self. You thought you were him.’
‘I know that here,’ I say, pointing to my head, ‘but not in my heart.’
He laughs. ‘That’s an improvement over when you first arrived. If it’s in your head, your heart will follow.’
I am not so sure. I am not so sure who I am. I mean, I know I am Kaaro, and I work for S45 and I was trained by Professor Ileri and Rosewater is my home and … but … but I remember how Lydia sighs after fucking just before she demands that I get her a glass of water. I remember sliding the ring on her finger the day we get married. The biodome is a mixture of cerulean and vanilla in the background of our wedding photos. I remember her cooking. I remember opening a sauce pan to see the stew bubbling, gurgling, like the froth from her neck when I …
I feel the tear roll down my cheek. ‘Doc, I miss her,’ I say. ‘If I never met her, why do I miss her so much? Why do I feel guilty?’
‘Maybe you feel guilty because there is someone you, Kaaro, have an unconscious desire to kill. The murder of Lydia fulfilled that desire. Down under the surface of our mind lie the demons and gremlins of our base instincts, struggling for expression.’ He checks the screen in front of him and asks, ‘Have you been taking the meds?’
No. ‘Yes.’ No. They make me impotent.
‘This is the third antidepressant we’ve tried. I’ve never seen such a strong reaction. Ileri thinks it’s because your ability is more acute than any other.’
‘My wife is dead. I should be sad, right?’ I ask.
‘Kaaro, you have never been married. You never even met Lydia. You spent time in her homicidal husband’s mind. The experience was so intense that you can’t disconnect. The pills aren’t working. I’d like to try something else.’
He slides over consent forms for shock treatment.
I walk out of the building.
I really want a cigarette, even though I have not smoked for a long time. I just feel like I should be smoking.
Nine months. I have lost enough time to have a baby.
A drone descends to read my identity, then flies off.
I get a phone call. It’s Femi, so I ignore it. Great service to your country blah blah put the man in jail for life blah blah sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, blah blah.
I cannot remember everything that happened, gaps in my memory. A part of me thinks perhaps there is a reason for the gaps and that I really do not want to know.
There’s a sorrow in me, though. I do not know why, but I feel it.
Whatever they pay me is not enough.
I look for a taxi.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson is available now from Apex Book Company and most fine vendors.