The second volume in a vibrant and compellingly told trilogy by one of science fiction’s most engaging new voices – perfect for fans of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.
Camp Rosewater, 2055
I am not an assassin.
I’d like that to be clear, yet I am cleaning my gun as I start this telling, having already stripped and cleaned my rifle, with the intention of killing a man. Orders.
For most Africans, the explosive discovery of a meteorborne alien in London and its growth underground meant little. Our lives didn’t change much. We peddled a more interesting variety of conspiracy theory, but that was it. A cup of rice was still expensive.
Even when we lost North America, China and Russia jostled to fill in the power and economic vacuum. A cup of rice became even more expensive.
But now it’s here, in Nigeria, and that means, for me at least, extrajudicial murder.
* * *
I wait outside the command tent, broadcasting white noise like I’ve been trained. My boots are dirty from the mud I’ve had to wade through. Even now, standing to attention, I’m about an inch deep, and I squish when I move. There is a muffled argument from within, a man and a woman, the woman’s voice more assured and familiar to me. There is a rustle and a man either charges or is thrown out. He stumbles, regains his balance. He pulls at his shirt tails to straighten them. He is like me, lean, light on his feet, with hair just growing out of the recruits’ buzz cut. But, like me, he’s broadcasting white noise, and he discovers my mind almost at the same time I do his, which is impressive because he is still emotional from the argument. We make eye contact.
He nods in greeting. “Did Danladi train you?” he asks.
“Motherfucking Danladi,” I say.
“He’s the only one worth a damn,” he says.
Behind him, the dome glows, then crackles, starting with the ganglion. It’s windy, but recent rains mean there is no real dust. Camp Rosewater exists in two modes: dust storm or mud bath. We both get a whiff of the open sewer. I feel him probing at my mind, inquisitive, just on the border of politeness. I can tell that he is stronger than me, and I slam down all my defences.
His expression does not change, but he offers a hand. “Kaaro,” he says.
“Eric,” I say.
“At ease, Eric. Where are you from?”
“Lagos and Jo’burg.” No matter how short I keep my hair, people know that half of me isn’t black. Some try to take advantage because they see this as a marker of privilege.
“Well, Eric-from-Lagos-and-Jo’burg, be careful. She is in fine form.”
He heads out into the twilight and is soon lost in the crowd outside the barrier. I’m still wondering about him when she calls me in.
I don’t know what to call her, so I just say, “Ma’am.” She does not introduce herself, but she is the leader of Section Forty-five. S45 is not a government department you’ve heard of. They report directly to the president, they handle the unusual with a cadre of agents who are unsung, and people like me are either employed as their predators or hunted down as prey. They started out saving fake witches from fundamentalist churches, but are now responsible for all alien phenomena. She’s new in position, but acts like she was born into it. Her pupils and irises are black like coal, and it’s hard to maintain the gaze, so I avert my eyes. Inside the tent is cool and dry. I am now in my socks because she insists on footwear staying outside. Her bodyguard is stocky and stays two paces behind, hands clasped together in front of his jacket, holding his tie.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asks.
“I was told to report.”
She smiles, but her lips don’t part and her eyes remain the same. “I need you to neutralise a problem.”
She wears her wealth like a sidearm, like Europeans used to wear swords, obvious, obtrusive, a reminder of station to the observer, deliberately gaudy, especially distinctive in Camp Rosewater, especially effective against less fortunate subordinates. Like me.
I do not know what she means. “Problem, ma’am?”
“Do you know Jack Jacques?”
“Do you know anyone in Rosewater?”
“No, ma’am. I came straight from Basic. Before that, I was in Lagos.”
No thoughts coming from her. I have been warned of this. The higher-ups have a form of protection.
She says, “Jack Jacques is a troublemaker. Most people think he is a joke, but I can see where he is going. He has to be stopped. The president wants him stopped.”
I think she means for me to arrest him, and I nod with enthusiasm. I am keen to prove my worth to S45. I will follow orders to the letter because it’s my first assignment. Her bodyguard steps forward and shows me my orders, complete with presidential seal, a document that requires both my handprint and proximity to my implant for unlocking.
The first thing I see is a smooth, unlined face, a black man, looking straight at the camera, a hint of a smile about the eyes, but not quite, the way a child suppresses laughter for a passport picture. Jack Jacques appears to be in his late twenties and is handsome, just shy of effeminate because of his hard jaw. His lips are thick, but to me belong on a woman’s face.
“I’ll leave you to familiarise yourself with the details,” says my leader. “Don’t let me down.”
She and her bodyguard exit one end of the tent, while I go back the way I came.
* * *
Where is your issued weapon?
In my billet.
Surrender it to the quartermaster. You can’t use official hardware for this detail. Can you get a gun?
I don’t think I’ll need to discharge a weapon.
. . . Eric, what do you think this assignment entails?
I can arrest him without—
Unless you mean cardiac arrest, I think you need to read your orders more carefully.
* * *
Not a lot is known about Jack Jacques. The name is thought to be an alias. He appeared in Camp Rosewater almost a month after the alien dome emerged. The first record is an arrest by army boys. No charge. Seems he was a loudmouth. Poor documentation. A line of text saying he refused to identify himself for twenty-four hours. Reading in between, I think he may have been tortured. After his release, pamphlets begin to appear all around the dome, cheap, black-and-white productions on poor quality paper.
How long must we endure an existence that the rest of Nigeria, and the world, has left behind since the pre-antibiotic era? We call on the Federal Government to provide housing, public transportation, roads, modern sewage systems and, above all else, potable water.
This is accompanied by a poor reproduction of a photo of Jacques in an ill-fitting suit.
Here he is as signatory to a petition banning the consumption of alien flora or fauna. Here is a statement from an informant about a gathering of troublemakers and leftists. She says Jacques was there, but nothing specific about his contribution.
No address, no known associates.
* * *
I have never killed before, but my employers think I have, which is why I’ve been tapped for this assignment. When S45 wants you, they find ways of questioning your close friends. I know who snitched. Except, it can’t be snitching when there’s nothing to snitch about. When I was fifteen my family experienced a home invasion which ended with one of the robbers dead, skull crushed. The police report says I caved his head in with a paperweight, but my sister killed him accidentally, her intention being to stun. My sister has a history, so we agreed as a family that I should wear the jacket.
I am shaving my head with a blade attached to a comb. My crew cut will identify me as military, so I’m getting rid of it. My mirror dangles on a string tied to a crossbar in the tent. It sways gently, and I move with it to keep up with my reflection, weaving like a boxer. When I finish, I change my clothes and step out to the camp.
It’s busy like you wouldn’t believe. About four in the afternoon and the vultures are swooping down on the market areas, eating the hollowed-out carcasses left by butchers. Camp Rosewater is basically shanties hugging the alien dome all the way around, except where the electric pylons, the ganglia, project as towers of alien neural tissue. It is a mess of tents, wooden shacks, corrugated iron improvisations and lean-tos. There is a barter- based economy mixed with the regular Nigerian naira. The camp grows daily as people arrive from . . . everywhere. New people simply stake out land at the periphery and build. There are one or two new concrete structures – churches, mosques, temples, weapons depot for the military detachment sent to keep order. There are micro-farms because close to the dome you can quite literally grow anything anywhere. I have, in my tent, an iceplant, bought because the flower girl insisted that it would protect me from ghosts. In two days it has sprouted three magenta flowers. Throw seeds in the mud, they burst into healthy crops in no time, and weeding is a full-time job here.
There are brothels, open lines for the female prostitutes, euphemisms like “sports centre” for male ones.
I walk in a stream of slow- moving piss, in an alley darkened by the proximity of adjacent buildings. A thousand conversations achieve anonymity in their own cacophony. My shoes are ruined, but this is what I want. The clothes are worn, but okay, which means I will not be excluded from anywhere, neither will I be robbed.
My first plan is to go into a beer parlour, but I find something better, a night club.
* * *
I don’t dance.
My right hand still glows from the luminous door stamp, and this glow passing through the glass makes my drink look like lava. I have no idea what the music is, but it seems to depend on heavy bass. The floor is full. When you come in there is a row of kids who clean your shoes, then you are pushed by the press of the crowd on to the dance floor, a concrete slab polished by the innumerable shoes shuffling. Cheap implant scan at the gate, to pick out cops, though it fails to parse my ghosted identity. In the west corner sits a squat turret bot, keeping the peace.
Nobody in this place is thinking of Jack Jacques. Finding that out gives me a headache from the effort of reading them. I do this for two nights before I get a hit.
It’s a memory of Jacques, of meeting him. The person is outside the club, leaning against the wall. I get up to leave and in so doing, bump into someone. I feel the intent to hit me even before I apologise. I move to avoid, barely, to mask my training. The lurching ape swings past me and hits someone else. I tread on his instep and he falls flat. In the confusion I slip out.
She is smoking, barefoot, wearing a dress of indeterminate colour, no make-up and hair hanging limp after being straightened. She can hear me, my footsteps, but she doesn’t look at me. I have cigarettes, singles that I bought inside for this very eventuality. I don’t smoke, but I know how, so I light up. In the glow from her cigarette end I see that she keeps her gaze on the ground, even though we lean on the same wall, feeling the vibration of music, and the radiant heat from dozens of bodies.
“I am off duty,” she says. I no dey duty.
I nod, drag on my cigarette.
“And I am armed.”
I look at the skin- tight dress and wonder where she has hidden the weapon. I read the threat she feels from me as a reflection of actual violence over her life and the lives of women she knows and has heard of. I adjust my body language to be as non-threatening as possible. She is not thinking of Jacques right now.
“I should probably go and jack off,” I say.
It works, she remembers.
I get my first sense of what Jacques looks and sounds like in real life. He is wearing a white suit in the memory I steal. His head is almost at the ceiling of her love shack, which tells me he’s tall. He has a black tie, and a hat – a dog-eared hat, abeti aja, like the Yoruba wear. He is unselfconscious and gives the impression of being clean despite the filth around him.
“You get ciga to give me?” asks the woman. She has finished hers and has a hand out. I give her one. Through the armhole of her dress I can see the tail end of a tattoo. It will be the name and village of her mother. People get raped and murdered here, and even with implants it is not always easy to track down the next of kin, so Camp Rosewater women get tattoos.
The memory of Jacques plays again. She finds him attractive, and is grateful that he smells good. The memory loops back and for a millisecond it is me she sees in the white suit and the hat, before it transforms back into Jacques.
Jacques says, Take off your clothes.
She says, How you want am? Front or back?
Jacques says, I want you to bounce on the bed and moan as if I am fucking you really hard. Then, I will pay you double. You’ll also tell anybody that we fucked, especially the young men with me. Can you do that?
She can, and she does.
* * *
The next day there is a burning truck, not far from my tent.
I sleep fitfully. When you take in someone else’s memory it struggles to find its place among your own. Your mind knows it to be alien and, I think, tries to purge it. Failing that, it replays the memory while trying to categorise it. This is why I don’t like reading memories, and I am grateful for the suppression training at S45. I see more detail in the scene, his short fingernails, his skinned knuckles, the crooked incisor, the bulge of his cock suggesting he was aroused, but disciplined. In one replay of the memory, he stops talking and looks at me.
“I see you, Eric,” he says. “I will be ready when you come for me.”
Then his eyes explode and he vomits. I wake.
Smoke all over my tent, from the burning truck. A few young men tried to dump toxic waste at night, at the periphery, but got caught just after the green sludge sank into the soil. They escaped, the truck did not. I hope this assignment doesn’t give me cancer.
I go looking for residue. This is not magic or mystical bullshit. The aliens have captured information in the atmosphere for their own purposes. They did this by spreading a lattice of interconnected artificial cells, xenoforms, all around the planet, forming a worldmind called the xenosphere. Along with a few other people I can access this data, which is why S45 recruited me. It’s a useful talent, especially when looking for people. The alien field is linked to the minds of people and data can flow both ways because xenoforms don’t only connect with each other. They connect with human skin receptors and access the brain this way, gently extracting more information. I start early. I want to find where that prostitute works. I’ll sit on it, stake it out until Jacques turns up. I keep walking until I get a sense of déjà vu. People in my line of business compartmentalise on a whole different level. How else can we tell our real déjà vu from that which is due to borrowed memories?
I hear someone behind me and I don’t mean with my ears. He thinks so loud, I’m sure he doesn’t know who I am. As I turn in the alleyway to look at him, I hear his comrade step in, blocking the only other path.
“What do you want?” I say. “I’m not holding.”
“New blood, you can’t just walk in here and not pay rent,” says the man behind me.
Right. The local Big Man wants to tax me. That would be Kehinde in this part. Taiwo, his twin brother, runs the opposite side of the dome. The intelligence is that they are ruthless and hate each other. A story is told of a peace summit between their organisations which ended with the twins fighting each other, with fists, without saying anything, getting exhausted but persisting, for hours. The urban legend version says they fought from sunrise to sunup. The S45 informant said it was four hours, with breaks. By the time it finished, they had matching mangled faces and torn knuckles.
“Tell me,” I say, “do either of you know Jack Jacques?”
* * *
“You do not fit here,” says Kehinde.
It’s strange. I was expecting some kind of cartoon godfather, but Kehinde looks ordinary. He wears a box shirt and worn jeans with the kind of no- brand boots the better denizens of Camp Rosewater wear. Belly a bit soft, but I put him at north of fifty-five, so he gets a pass.
I know I don’t fit. The camp attracts people who are sick, desperate or criminal. The sick because when the dome opened, it healed people and created an instant Mecca–Lourdes hybrid. The desperate are the ones who have nowhere else to go. Dirt poor, disgraced, religious extremist, that kind of shit. Criminals need no invitation, they’re everywhere. I’m not sick, desperate or criminal. They can tell.
“I’m looking for Jack Jacques. I saw his pamphlet on equality. I want to help.”
They all start laughing, but my naivety triggers a communal memory. Jacques and Kehinde, with others in the background, in this very room.
We have an opportunity here. This is a new society, a new beginning. I want to make something of it, to stop the chaos, to be a beacon for the rest of the country, hell, the world.
He is in a cream suit. In my mind, the memory flickers and the suit turns white, like in the prostitute’s memory.
Kehinde laughs. And what place for me in this Garden of Eden? Where the role for disobedient men?
Jacques leans in. To grow a garden you start with a seed, that’s me. Then you need fertiliser, that’s you. Manure doesn’t smell so good, but it’s necessary.
I can feel Kehinde bristle, but agree. Boys, this guy just called me a piece of shit in the nicest possible way.
The laughter echoes from the past, mixing with that of the present.
I know I’m not supposed to question orders, but I start to wonder what’s wrong with letting this guy, this Jacques, run with his ideas. There will always be a criminal element, so why not harness them to some noble purpose? Why are we – why am I – killing him?
* * *
I am told to wait until Jacques’s assistant contacts me. I work digging ditches in the mean time. Motherfucking Danladi told me menial work is best when undercover. “It keeps you fit and you can think while swinging.” He is half-right. My muscles get harder in less than a week, but the songs we use to keep time are hypnotic, lulling me into a state of non-thought while I passively absorb the lewd stories the men tell each other. I won’t repeat any. In the evenings we drink rotgut and burukutu, all made in the finest of bathroom stills.
I’m leaning on a pickaxe, waiting for water to drain in the gully we’re digging, when a woman comes up. She is blank, as in, I hear no thoughts from her. This happens sometimes. Some humans are resistant to the alien spores, while others, like my bosses, have counter-measures. Children keep playing in the water, and the nominal foreman has to chase them away every time.
She stops at the lip of the gully, and looks down at me. “You are Eric?”
“What do you hope to get out of Mr Jacques?”
“I want to work with him.”
“He has no money for you.”
She stares at me like one examining catfish for freshness, then she shakes her head.
“No. I don’t like you. Go back to where you came from.” She turns to leave but I grab her ankle.
“Wait,” I say.
“Remove your hand.”
“I really want to help his vision of—”
She wrenches free and walks away.
* * *
She has good instincts, that one. I should have shown more avarice. Nobody trusts idealism in Nigeria, not even the fundamentalist churches. That’s why Jacques is going to get killed, after all. Maybe.
I watch Kehinde’s place with my eyes and with my mind, hoping Jacques will turn up. All I do is dig ditches, wash and eat on site, then come here and wait. Day fifty-one, I’m wiry like I’ve been digging all my life when Jacques bursts into the alien mindfield with such intensity that I think he has arrived in person. He hasn’t.
It’s evening. The corrugated iron sheet I’m on warms my ass with the dying heat of the sun. I see Jacques’s assistant get into a jeep with Kehinde. They’re going to meet him, and I have no vehicle with which to pursue. Instinctively, I jump from roof to roof to keep the jeep in my eyeline. This is not parkour; this is me stumbling and improvising, forward motion by almost-falling, a near-paralysis experience, illuminated by the green glow of the dome. I ignore the curses of the shack-dwellers whose roofs I violate, and on at least one occasion, my left foot breaks through. When the jeep stops, I realise it is not a meeting. It’s a fight. One fighter has an alien known as a “lantern” around his head like a halo, the other, a “homunculus”. Interesting choices. Alien-enhanced fighters. Only in Rosewater.
The homunculus is a hivemind mammal with a coating of neurotoxic grease. It appears to be an unusually small, hairless human with glittering eyes. Separate it from its herd and it will latch on to the nearest mammal. The neurotoxin does not affect those it imprints on, so the fighter will be safe. Not so much the opponent. Lanterns on the other hand look like Chinese sky lanterns and exhale psychedelic clouds. It should be an interesting, long bout, or a short, brutal one. I am looking for Jacques, but I needn’t have bothered. He steps into the ring before the fight starts and gives a short talk. I leap down from the roof and start to move towards the ring, the weapon in my waistband heavy and feeling hot. I push people out of my way and soothe their minds – I do not want to be distracted. I have a line of sight and about thirty yards. I—
Sound dies, the wind stills, people are immobile, but not just that, they are not thinking. There’s a gryphon hovering above me. A gryphon – eagle head, eagle wings, lion body – mythical creature of legend. Why am I seeing a gryphon? It descends, scratches itself with its beak, and then turns its head to one side, staring at me with the one eye. The gaze feels familiar.
“Ah, right. Eric-from-Lagos-and-Jo’burg. Yes. Eric, well, if you’re seeing this, then you’ve found Jack Jacques, which, I’m afraid, means your life is in danger and you have minutes to act.”
“What are you—”
“Doing in your mind? I’m not in your mind. At least, not now. I was there earlier, and this is . . . a kind of message I left to be activated under these circumstances.”
“But I stopped your intrusion attempt.” It’s him, the recruit with the buzz cut from when I reported for duty. Kaaro.
“Oh, yes. That’s funny. No, you didn’t. I just let you think you did. We don’t have the time for this, Eric. You are not the assassin.”
“No. Wrong temperament. Good skills all round, and can probably kill in self- defence, but will not pull the trigger unprovoked.”
“Your file, yes. Shut up and listen. Your real task was to locate Jacques. You did. Yay. Well done. Oku ise. The next phase is killing him.”
“I thought you said I wasn’t the assassin.”
“The next phase for S45, not for you.”
“Then what do I—”
“Do? Well, you’re going to die with Jacques. They plan to use your implant as a homing device. There’s a wet team on standby. I bet they are en route right now. I know this because it was my job to signal them and, sure as Solomon, I signalled them.”
“No, whatever you think, no. Even if you could stop or evade the team, plan B is a drone on standby. Wet team fails, drone launches missile with a hundred-, hundred-fifty-yard radius. Boom. Don’t ask me about plan C. There are contingencies, Eric. That’s all you need to know.”
“Why are you telling me this if it’s hopeless?”
“I didn’t say it was hopeless. All the alternate scenarios depend on your implant functioning. Deactivate the implant, you might have a chance to escape.”
“I don’t know how to—”
“Oh, you daft motherfucker. You’re in the den of a criminal. You think there might be a need for implant hack skills? Good luck, brother. Look me up if you make it out. Actually, no, don’t. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
* * *
The world starts up again. Jacques is working himself up, talking about how the Federal Government doesn’t plan to acknowledge Rosewater in the budget. I change course, and find his assistant. Her eyes widen when she notices me, then they narrow.
“I told you—”
“You need to get me as far away from your boss as possible, and I need an urgent implant hack. Right now.”
“Lives are at stake. Yours included.” I jam my gun into her side.
She is unimpressed, but she says, “Fine, come with me.”
* * *
We’re close to the largest of the ganglia. The tech guy says it has an EM field that interferes with tracking. I don’t argue – I see it in his forebrain. This close, I feel some anxiety. The nerve ending of a giant alien is frightening, not least because random streaks of electricity have been known to kill people in its vicinity. The guy finds my false ID and the real one, which you can find if you know what to look for. He spoofs both on to a repurposed cyborg observation beast, a COB hawk, and sets it free.
“Congratulations,” he says. “You’re nobody now.”
I shake my head. “The hardware’s still there. Twenty-four hours of freedom, tops.”
I watch the hawk fly away, free, me and not-me.
“I knew you were wrong,” said the assistant.
“Look, he’s safe. That’s what matters, right?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Sit here and await arrest.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. The camp is full of fugitives wanting to start again, and Jack could use a man with S45 training.”
“I just tried to kill him.”
“No, you didn’t. Even if you had pulled the gun, and, by the way, Kehinde’s boys would have turned you into a colander, I doubt you’d have pulled the trigger. You seem to have a conscience.”
I’m about to answer when I hear a sharp, short whistle. I know what it is before I hear the clap and plug my ears. Drone strike, compression bomb. I see the trail, and it leads to the fight area.
The assistant and I are on our feet, and we run back the way we came.
* * *
Mangled corpses, body parts everywhere, blood mixing with the mud to form pink froth, structures flattened for fifty yards in every direction, debris mixed with organic matter. The ring is obliterated, the fighters gone. No crater, no fires. Compression bombs don’t leave any. They are essentially portal keys that open a bridge to a vacuum that sucks matter in, then closes rapidly, reversing the flow, spraying matter outwards. The victims’ bones are their own shrapnel.
This is my fault. They tracked me by telemetry, no doubt, and did some calculations. Or maybe Kaaro lied to me about the wet team. Who’s to say? It will take weeks to sort these bodies out.
“Is that him?” I hear behind me.
I can tell it is Jacques before I turn around. I even know he’s about to hit me, but I do not duck. He can throw a punch, and I can take a beating. He punches himself out in about ten minutes without breaking anything. I take it because I want to be punished. These people are dead because of me.
He stands over me, my blood on his suit, breathing heavy, glaring with the fury of God, his assistant tugging his arm.
* * *
I open the flap to my tent and it’s full of variegated leaves, the ice plant grown to fill the entire space. I borrow a machete and swing until I can get to my things. I signal for extraction.
The full death toll is forty-eight, with about a hundred wounded. I spend time in detention, have a secret trial, released with time served, but I am restricted to desk duty now. I keep up with the news. Jacques is still alive, too hot in the public imagination to kill, though, in Nigeria, that will not necessarily protect you.
I’m in a field office in Lagos, in the ass- end, hunting pastors who kill witches. I’ve heard Kaaro is still embedded in Rosewater.
I don’t envy him.