Today, I remembered soursops for 46 seconds.
Well, I say ‘remembered,’ but it was more like I bought myself a few seconds of pain-filled pleasure, plugging into some dead guy’s memory file. Timed it just right, too. At the precise moment the Kitchen Butterfly show started, beamed all the way down from Aris Two, so that unless you had yourself a nice little Booster XD or Y series, a personal screen, and an imprinted clicker, all you got was faded footage from the universal projector, beamed directly onto the Nano cloud, hanging in place of the ozone over our wide, blank sky. Mandatory entertainment to keep us calm in our three remaining months of darkness before it was dawn again on our side of the world. The pictures loomed larger than life, lighting up the night sky. Heard on Aris One they could actually touch the images; 3D. Had themselves these little personalised shows in houses on Aris Two, where you could cook along and broadcast yourself at the same time to your own clique. So I heard. Never been up myself. Earth born. Will probably die here also.
Of course you could always try sending off for a Holo-mail but those only had extra step-by-step cooking directions embedded within the video. No Smell-O-Vision, no taster strips, nothing but grainy, blue footage. Even the finished product had no colour. And what use was any of it anyway? We no longer had crops on Earth, not after the Ascenders stripped every inch of the soil for their floating utopias. Manna-bearing pods dropped a few days a week, rationed for work and good behaviour and bartered in dark markets for units and favours. Because the UN insisted, but that was it.
This afternoon they replayed the episode where the Kitchen Butterfly AI makes a condiment, jam, from the soursops. The AI, which replaced the original hostess more than a hundred years ago, glided around an immaculate kitchen, peeling apart the spiky green fruit, digging into the white pulp to squeeze out seeds, while juice leaked down its elbows. It giggled the same way all these cooking show hosts seemed to; high-pitched, breathy. If that was how females sounded hundreds of years ago, I’m glad I wasn’t born in that era.
“You ready?” Obiora asked.
I kept my eyes on the screen, not wanting to miss a moment. “Ready.” The mole on my cheek itched, a purely psychosomatic reaction, and I scratched it.
Out of the corner of my eyes I watched his hands fly over the screen, sensory pads lighting up, flashing like the electric blue-white lightning, that portent of our violent rainstorms. My brother Anugo liked to bolt from the underground shelters, scampering topside to count the new craters once the storms were over. Before the G1s filled it in with synthetic Terra. Earth was more Terra than earth now. And still we survived. Like cockroaches. Still had those. Hardy, tough, and good for nothing, like we were. Actually, I lie. See a dead cockroach and you know there’s something awful coming. Better to find cover and fast.
“Here it goes,” said Obiora.
The pain was sharp, a pick shoved straight through the back of my skull and out my forehead, as the interface connected. Then it drew back and settled around my jaw and teeth, low and heavy. Saliva collected in my mouth, threatening to spill over my bottom lip.
“Too much, one second.” Obiora’s hands flew over the console again and the ache abated, ebbing away in an after taste of bitterness.
I’d been expecting some additional mouth pain, something to do with the main sense being accessed, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But the pain is why files could only be experienced in sets. One could choose no more than two senses per package at any given time; sight and taste, or hearing and touch, or sight and smell, the latter being of no use to those born after 2298 when our babies started popping out with anosmia. We’d built a whole other planet — one and a half, if you counted the Aris One experiment — and stuck people on it for chrissakes, but we still can’t figure out how to access more than two senses in a memory file at a time. Or even give kids their smell back.
But I suppose we weren’t a priority, us ground crew. And I could always describe the metallic scent of the rain to my brother who would never smell it himself.
My sight blurred slightly and I braced myself for Double Vision®. Paid quite a bit for it, as well — 80,000 Kudi Units. It was less discomfiting to immerse oneself completely into the experience, but I had to keep one eye in my own life, so I could watch the screen through the window of Obiora’s shop and also my surroundings. It was lights out and pretty quiet, but it wouldn’t do to be caught off guard. I set the gun in my arm bracer to ‘Stun.’
It was coming up now. I’d uploaded the same file more than a few times. About as many times as they’d tortured us with images of these cooking shows. I knew that when the hostess finished her disembowelling of the fruit, she would lick her fingers, giggle, and say ‘Oh my!’ before picking a sliver of flesh and popping it into her perfectly shaped mouth. There would be a little sound, something between a slurp and an inhale, like the suction from a wet vacuum and the sliver would disappear behind impossibly white straight teeth. That was the moment I waited for.
Obiora knew it too. Just as she started to lick her fingers, I saw one glowing index digit poised to open me up to my purchase. She giggled, picked up a flame of pulpy flesh …
The link was smooth and soundless but I knew Obiora had pushed it on time because my mouth filled with the tangy, sweet sourness of the sop. The man I lived through let it sit on his tongue for a moment, cool, fat, leaking juices even though there was not the slightest amount of pressure applied upon it. He began to chew and the swollen fibres gave up their tangy, viscous nectar. The man chewed too long, gradually turning the flesh stringy. I’d paid for taste and sight, but the sensation of chewing the tough, hair-like strands, the feel of them from earlier sessions, stayed with me. He swallowed and ripped himself another piece. It went the way of the first.
His stomach was an island, separated from his head by a neck as wide as the base of a triangle. It formed a near-complete circle, big and bulging as if to distance itself from its host, juddering in pleasure as the man gouged out more of the soursop with his fingers. He wore a shirt, long-sleeved, pink and blue stripes held together at the wrist with cuff-links; a square, black face with rounded gold edges and curly gold initials, JMB. Lived with them long enough to know what they stood for; Jon Mugabe Babangida.
I’d been in this moment before. Knew what was coming next. Even though I couldn’t hear him this time, I’d heard his voice before. Raspy, startled, choking as much on the soursop as his indignation.
“Who let you in here? Who the hell are you?”
And then, “Get out of here! How dare you? Guards!”
Finally, “No! No!”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
The last image before the black creeped back in was of blood flowing out onto the man’s belly and staining the bit of white in his hands a deep pink. Enduring this bit earlier hurt, as murder is supposed to. The memory of the pain warred with the flavour of the fruit in my mouth. I stilled myself. Just at the edge of his vision a lanky man, sinewy, wearing the brown uniform and cap of a guard appeared. A mole marked his left cheek, ruining the effect of his hound-like handsomeness. Hungry eyes peering into the rising darkness of the man’s vision. Hungry everything.
My mouth tingled with the faint, coolness of saltwater. The fat man had cried as he died.
In old America procedural shows, you often hear one sentence uttered almost as often as the Miranda citations: ‘It happened so fast.’ 46 seconds. That’s all the whole thing took. My many times great-grandfather had been the shooter. He’d taken the whole ‘One day the poor will eat the rich’ thing literally. He and his cohorts damned us all. A revolution. A failed revolution. 46 seconds and his descendants were doomed to work ground crew until the Earth crumbled or finally stopped spinning altogether. Or until they died out — whichever came first. He must have known he wouldn’t get away with it. Rich people often uploaded reams of memory to offshore storage as they lived them, but Grandfather had tried anyway. And his timing sucked. Only one way things could have ended after that.
Nobody cared about our genes. We weren’t doctors or scientists or Nano techies. Or even chefs who could whip up meals from plants which now only grew on Aris Two, or the strange varieties which botanists and Rangers allegedly brought back from expeditions as they mapped out the galaxy. Chefs were useful — they performed culinary miracles which stretched the meals farther than expected in ever diverse ways. We weren’t the famed Okparah AI who spread goodwill with surprise rations or rehoused ground crew who’d earned enough units for good behaviour to Aris One. (Granted, I’d only seen that happen once in my lifetime but the chance to ascend was all it took to ensure people acted appropriately.)
There was no place for us among the new human race. Our ancestor skulked in like a rat and killed a pioneer, and like rats, they left us behind to die. We, the descendants of criminals and terrorists, the crackpots and despots and revolutionaries, trapped on an Earth that had slowed its speed.
Obiora tossed me a rag to wipe my face without looking at me. It was filthy, encrusted with bodily fluids both bio and mech. Smelled of grease. I smeared it over my face gratefully, hoping that the black of the oil would hide my tears.
He raised the needle and I waved him off. Didn’t need painkillers. “Why do you do this to yourself, man?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
In front of me, the Kitchen Butterfly AI stirred a big bowl of mush. Someone upstairs must have got bored because they sped through to the finished product and there it was, not stringy as anyone would have thought. Soft, white clouds of sweetly sour heaven. The hostess dipped one manicured finger into it, placed it in her mouth and giggled, that carefree sound of the rich and synthetic. She signed off with her signatory wiggle and wave, spreading her arms and blowing kisses with two hands. The brightly patterned cloth of her boubou; its greens, blues, and yellows with dashes of red, made her seem like a tropical insect. Old Earth creatures, as seen on screen. Flowing waters and blue-grey mountains instead of hydration capsules and craters.
“Same time next week, Sergeant?” asked Obiora. One of the tubes threaded through his replacement titanium arms dropped a black spot of oil on the floor where it sizzled as it cooled.
I pulled on my outer shell, sleek and white so that it showed up against the general blackness of everywhere. The insignia imprinted on the breastplate gleamed red, ‘JMB Corps’ and underneath, ‘Njoku Division.’ I clicked my locks into place.
“Have someone see to that,” I said to Obiora, pointing at the droplets of oil. He grunted behind me as I marched out to start my shift, the taste of salt and soursop upon my lips.