In this powerful finale to the award-winning Wormwood trilogy, life in the newly independent city state of Rosewater isn’t everything its citizens were expecting . . .
Prelude to Redemption
I am the wrong person to tell this story, but nobody else is willing. The few who have all the facts, or at least more facts than I, have no interest in reliving it. I have no interest in reliving it, but I do want to tell the story, so I will. Some say information, like energy, can never truly be destroyed. I don’t know about that, I’m not omniscient. I do know that the edges of my reality are blurring, so I’d better tell this quick.
I am the wrong person to tell this story because I am too close to it and not at all objective. I may even change some facts to make myself more relatable. If you can accept those caveats, then listen: my name is Oyin Da, and I’m here to tell you the beginning and the end.
I’ve been chased about for most of my adolescence and all of my adult life. The government says I’m dangerous, and I am, if you think ideas are dangerous. A bullet is an idea.
So is a shotgun. At times I wear a djellaba so people can’t know what time I am from.
There is a problem with my time travel. Not that it isn’t working; it is. What’s problematic is the how. The guy who originated the machine, Conrad, he was . . . intelligent, but, from what I saw of his writing, deeply psychotic – I mean, what the hell does “hucfarlobes” mean? All Conrad’s papers are full of such nonsense words, neologisms and metonyms. No extrapolations by me, my father or the professor could change it into the Lijad. Not to mention the kind of miniaturisation required for my cyborg parts.
We should start. There is no time to waste. And yet I’m wasting time right now. It’s not knowing where to start. So much has happened; so much is happening and so much is yet to happen. Rosewater is on the world stage, with the African Union debating what to do with it. It won’t be hard – they absorbed all of the Caribbean islands recently. Rosewater will be easy. Except nothing about Rosewater is easy or predictable. Yes, it has free icing sugar, but you pay for the cake. You do.
I am Oyin Da, the improbable, the Bicycle Girl. I am an artist; history is my clay. Follow me closely. There will be turns, sudden shifts of perspective, hurricanes without warning.
I am Oyin Da, the improbable, and these are the last days of Rosewater.
Killing in Rosewater
In 2068, because healing happens all the time now, instead of once a year, it is nigh- on impossible to kill anybody within Rosewater city limits, and my crew of four has been shooting this man for fifteen minutes, reloading, firing right into his brain, trying to destroy it so completely that when it regenerates, the person he was will no longer be, and the aliens can’t use the body as a container.
“Wait,” I say. “Try a chem charge.”
The skull is open, the face obliterated, but even so, it is growing back. Tolu places a charge in the middle cranial fossa and runs for cover. “Fire in the hole.”
The blast is muted, but a chemical fire flows everywhere, and I know his brain cannot possibly survive that. We already have his ID chip.
“Come on, before the constables arrive,” I say.
They escape their way, and I fade into the xenosphere.
Koriko means Grass
She likes the mornings. She likes to hear the earthworms gently turning in the soil and the birds trying out their songs, and to feel the moistness of morning dew. The sun is just over the horizon and the new brightness causes a surge in all the life forms that surround Alyssa, including the humans and her people, the Homians. She has slept outside again, and from the crystals on her body, tendrils have grown into the soil and branched, covering her with a burst of delicate, branching stems. She yawns and breaks it all off by stretching, then stands.
From here she can see the Yemaja Valley, and the city growing out centrally and the sprawl on the periphery. The boundaries with Nigeria enforced by robot sentries and the tech-jacketed humans of the night shift.
Where the biodome used to be, there is an airport. Adjacent to that, the Honeycomb, where Homians are managed.
This is what she has always wanted – not the human part; her Homian self – a world unblighted by toxins and unbridled industry. There are no foreign drones in the air. The Nigerians have learned to stop sending them, too expensive to keep replacing after the numerous ganglia kept shooting them down.
She is the city and the city is her. Wormwood’s nerves run up the walls of every structure, reticulated under the topsoil, in the river. Everything is hers, everything is her.
Thus, she both feels and hears the bang of an explosion. Too far away from her body, but her consciousness moves into thoughtspace – into what the humans call xenosphere.
What do they call me? Koriko, which means grass. They must call me something in order to worship me. I don’t know why. I never answer their prayers and I attend only to Homian business, but I hear them all the time. Some of them think of me as the city and call me Rosewater. There is some truth to that, although Wormwood is the reason the city exists in the first place. As I think this, Wormwood stirs, warming thoughts, affirmation of affection, but not for me. It is dreaming of my predecessor, Anthony, of its old, dead avatar. It preferred him, I think. For me there is silence.
It’s a playground. Or was. A bomb crater, new, contains dead and damaged human children. Unexploded ordnance from the insurrection bombings, no doubt. The metal of the swings and slides is twisted, hot, smouldering. Sixteen children are wounded, and Alyssa heals them within minutes, before the distressed parents come around.
Alyssa hears prayers, but she does not falter, her resolve untouched. She gives the instructions, and deep beneath the city, Wormwood stirs. The ground shifts and rumbles for the second time, and tendrils break free of the soil. They coil around the five dead children and take them inward, embracing Wormwood’s bosom, amid fierce, futile supplications from parents.
Do they not know? Why do they ask? Why do they keep asking? Billions still wait on the Homian moon for an Earth host, and Alyssa- Koriko is their psychopomp.
“Look to your own gods,” she says to those praying.
She leaves her place of slumber to tend to the five.
Oyin Da watches Koriko walk away. She has to remind herself that every problem has a solution, to ward off hopelessness. She senses the same attitude from Tolu Eleja, who lurks beside her. Since she and Kaaro rescued him back in ’66, Tolu has taken to the resistance with gusto, untiring, effective against government agents, focused on the main objective, a good soldier. Unfortunately, Koriko presents a different situation from what anybody anticipated, and Tolu’s skills are not so impressive for the task at hand.
Tolu says, “She is too powerful and unapologetic.”
“I know,” says Oyin Da.
“How will we—”
“I don’t know,” says Oyin Da. “But I want us to test the limits of her ability. Let’s go.”
The witness tells Aminat that the dead man was always going to die young.
“His name was Jackson Mafe and he was a fool. I don’t care how patient you are, Jackson could piss you off. He was a bit . . . you know?” The witness points an index finger at his own temple, then circles the tip while raising his eyebrows. Aminat nods. Jackson was learning- impaired in some way. Go on.
“Six a.m. on Lumumba Road, I’m setting up. I see Mafe march past, I say hello, he doesn’t. I shrug. A few minutes later, he walks by in the other direction, only he’s not walking. He’s marching, but not regular marching. What do you call it when you raise a boot really high? When you don’t bend the knee?”
“Yeah, that’s right. He was goose-stepping.”
Whatever the case, Mafe is stiff and cold now, frozen in the position he fell, wet from the sweet Rosewater morning dew, wearing the clothes people saw him in the day before, face somewhat peaceful, unlined and expressionless. He can’t have been dead long. The ghouls haven’t claimed him yet, and while stuck there he’s become a reanimate. You don’t see many of those any more. The Homians are fast to colonise any available body, sometimes mere moments after death. By the time Aminat has finished reviewing witness statements Mafe is a mass of uncoordinated twitching and his eyes are open. It seems to Aminat that his gaze is on her, accusing.
She takes a contingent of detectives aside and orders them to arrest the suspects.
“Why?” says one.
Because that is your job, says Aminat, which provokes laughter in all. This dies when they see her stony face.
Four arrested, one in the middle of a meal of abula, a handful of which he insists on bringing along because “prison food is rot”. Despite being handcuffed, he bites off a piece and smiles.
Their ID scan shows multiple errors, as Aminat expects. They have government- issue civilian tags, but also military upgrades due to the war, and ghosted IDs, which the entire criminal class has. Aminat herself has a ghost ID, which she used when she was a fugitive during the insurrection.
Before Aminat arrives at her office, the mayor calls.
“Let ’em go,” he says.
Let who go? Aminat plays stupid.
“You know who I’m talking about. I have a lot to do today, and so do you. Stop wasting your time on war heroes.”
War heroes? They bullied a vulnerable man to death. They made him—
“Did they shoot a person in cold blood? Stab? Bayonet? Beat?”
“Then release them, Aminat. Jesus.”
This was not in the service of a . . . business enterprise.
“Good bye, Aminat.”
Aminat gives the necessary order, but authorises arthrodrone surveillance off the books, and has the data streamed to her subdermal. She follows all four intermittently all day. The pathologists say Mafe has walked away, not repossessed, just standard reanimate. Koriko must be too busy.
Later, she steals out of her house using the ghost ID Bad Fish made for her. She feels apart from her lover, but in some way thinks there is time to fix the relationship, while also feeling the emotional equivalent of rolling down the side of a mountain just ahead of an avalanche.
Not Really Asleep
Kaaro wakes as soon as Aminat leaves the house, torn from a dream about scraping his cheek against rough-textured adobe plaster, forced conscious by the severing of their psychic link. He does not get up, does not even stir. He knows what comes next. She will be gone for a couple of hours and return sore and bruised, but will not speak of it, and Kaaro will not look inside her mind for the answer.
His phone glows, and at first he thinks it’s a message from Aminat, but it’s a software update notification for his subdermal phone, which he accepts and switches to night mode.
He turns over and goes back to sleep.
An important part of Bad Fish’s world disappears, and he stops his research into non- contiguous network connections to investigate.
He takes off the connection helm and blinks, adjusting his eyes to the light of his workroom. Three Yahoo- yahoos are asleep on the floor in various poses, one with his mouth open. Hanging on the wall is a connection suit Bad Fish is working on – almost finished. He slides to one of his five workstations, missing a leg by inches, then calls up the details in hologram.
Bad Fish has a map of all the ID chips, with people of interest highlighted.
Kaaro is one of the top five; Bad Fish checks him assiduously every day.
Kaaro’s ID just disappeared.
This could mean many things. Software error, entering a hardened facility, or even death.
Bad Fish refreshes his system, brings hard focus on Rosewater, but Kaaro does not reappear. He looks for Aminat, and finds her in ghost form. He calls up surveillance and other footage around her ghost, no mean feat since she is cyber-invisible in that form, and there are other crude ghosts around her. The Yahoo-yahoo closest to him farts, and Bad Fish kicks him.
He rubs his chin. Aminat looks to be in the middle of some kind of operation, and to contact her now might compromise things. He could call Kaaro, but the asshole might be part of the operation, even though he is “retired”. Bad Fish runs a minute check on his hardware instead, battling unease the whole time.
I know something is wrong, but I’m not sure what. I sit staring at the wall with pinned information on all the players. My last trip to 2067 felt odd, mostly because I have been to that exact moment before, and I remember it differently from what I saw this time. Is that a problem of memory, or is the machine drifting into other, alternate dimensions?
My eyes ache, and I rub them, then take in the board again.
Kaaro. Aminat. Jack Jacques. Hannah Jacques. Alyssa, or Koriko. Taiwo. Femi Alaagomeji. Bad Fish. Wormwood. Rosewater.
A vortex swirls around all of them, the future of humankind in the balance. Perhaps I am the only person who can make sense of what needs to be done and when. I hope.
I rip off all the papers and throw them up in the air, then I gather them, stack them together at random and pin them up in a new order, hoping this will jog something loose, triggering new inspiration.
I bang on the wall twice. My room is like the inside of a water tank, which it probably was at some point. All screens dark; the emanations distract my thinking. A port opens and a hand holds a cup of steaming coffee, my fifth in the last hour alone. I burn my tongue, but barely notice. Something acid churns in my belly – apparently man cannot live on coffee alone. Neither can woman.
I play I. K. Dairo, starting with “Salome”, sing along, nod my head.
Finding You in the Hole You Crawled Into
Dahun, unlike most people, is content.
His house is in Niger, on the Sahara side of the Great Green Wall, where the air is fragrant and the heat is pleasant. The nights are mystical and the ambient voices are in variants of Arabic. On a clear night, he can hear throbbing music from the one dance club, The Disco Inferno. He sits on his veranda, toasts the full moon and reads about the stock market. He doesn’t know anything about it, but he aims to become an expert, seeing as he has the cash from the last job. He wonders if he has retired from the contracting business, because he cannot feel any will to put himself behind a machine gun or in harm’s way for whatever sum.
He drinks his gin in one swig, pours himself another.
He is unsteady by the time he finishes the bottle, and makes his way to his bedroom. He gets an impulse and decides to take a walk instead, clear his head. It’s still early; maybe he’ll walk all the way to the village, talk to actual human beings who are not on the other end of electronic media. He puts on a hood – it’s weird how cold the desert can be at night. As soon as he’s two feet away from his home, the security protocols activate.
He walks down the drive and turns left on the dusty, shrub-lined road. He feels an oddness two seconds before something twists over his mouth, around his throat, and pins his arms to his sides. It’s like a python or boa constrictor, organic, muscular, unyielding. Dahun tries to bite, to no avail. He falls to the ground, cursing himself for getting soft, and notices the man who seems to control the snake.
“Caleb Fadahunsi,” says the man. “Keep calm. I’m taking you into custody.”
The man’s outline is odd, even in shadow. He’s wearing some kind of hooded jumper and tight dark trousers, but the thing that holds Dahun down seems to extend from the man’s right arm, like it’s a part of him. He knows Dahun’s first name, which means they’ve done their homework, whoever he works for. Dahun is sensitive about being called Caleb. A car approaches, too convenient to be a coincidence. It’s a blacked-out jeep, vaguely military, closing fast. It starts to slow twenty yards away, which is when Dahun’s pursuit drone drops a mini missile on it. The man starts, as Dahun does when he realises the car is intact, armoured most likely.
“Do not engage,” says the man.
This is unwise, because the drone will start firing in a few seconds. It’s keyed to Dahun’s ID and will hit everything but him. It has just cleared the roof and races towards them. The man is calm.
“The bullets are armour-piercing,” says Dahun. “Just walk away and we’ll call it a night.” But his words do not make it out unmuffled because of the snake.
The drone is chased by two shadows, and in the full moon Dahun can see that they are flapping. Owls. Cyborg observation owls. They close on the drone, which tries, too late, to compensate and change target. Between them, the owls bring the drone down without making a sound.
The tentacle – and it is a tentacle, not a snake – loosens. The car bounds forward and stops by Dahun’s side.
“Get in,” says the man.
Dahun stands. “You only caught me because I decided to go for a walk.”
The man places his hand over Dahun’s head as he steps into the car. “And who do you think put that thought in your head?”
The car is driverless, electric, probably government-issue. The man applies handcuffs and straps Dahun in. Fair-skinned and some kind of grotesque, definitely from Rosewater, which is confusing because the Nigerian government controls the COBs, the Cyborg Observation Beasts, and there’s the military car. Dahun parted on good terms with Mayor Jack Jacques at the tail end of the war. Jacques paid generously, and on time. Why would . . .
“Who are you?” asks Dahun.
The man’s face remains within the darkness of the hood. The tentacle curls and slaps the seat like Satan’s tongue.
“Who do you work for?”
“Are you from Rosewater? Are you reconstructed?”
The car hits a bump, and the man rolls against the seat belt. “Stupid.”
The man inclines his head forward, but the gap in the hoodie makes it seem like a yawning abyss. “You are stupid. But don’t worry, it’s not just you.”
“I don’t think—”
“My mother was a lawyer and she used to tell me that every single person arrested in a free, or nominally free, country has the right to remain silent. But do they exercise that right? No. Every fucking time, they have to open their mouths, hey? Like the police are your confessors. I mean, they’d like to be, but they aren’t. Everyone wants to tell their story, but in the telling is incrimination. Caleb, shut the fuck up. You have no idea who I am or why I’ve taken you. Anything you say could help me.”
He sounds South African, that weird not- Dutch thing they do with their English.
“Am I under arrest then?”
But the man from South Africa takes his own advice and does not speak.
While You Slept
Kaaro’s phone wakes him, unknown number. Aminat’s side of the bed is cold.
“You need to come to the prison, Mr Kaaro.” It is the voice of a stranger.
“I’m not allowed in government buildings any more. And it’s just Kaaro.”
“Your restrictions have been lifted for this occasion, and precautions will be taken.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have to do what you say. I don’t work for the government,” says Kaaro. “I’m retired.”
“Femi Alaagomeji has asked for you, sir.”
Kaaro glances at the absence of Aminat, then says, “I’ll be there in an hour.”
That Bastard Locke
“I’d like to go to Hannah Jacques for a response to that,” says the host.
Hannah does not hesitate. “To explain this, I’ll give an example that’s universal, whether you’re in Rosewater or Ojuelegba, Lagos. Take a person, a woman of forty years, Shakespeare’s forty winters. She has a car accident or falls from a height. Either way, she gets a brain injury, a severe one, but she does not die. After a period of intense medical and surgical intervention, she lives, but she is no longer herself. Her personality has changed. Take this same woman, no accident this time, but forty years later, she has Alzheimer’s disease. She is no longer the person she was at forty or even fourteen. Now, same person, no accident, no dementia, but she has a stroke and has problems understanding and expressing words. Not like she used to be. I could go on. Schizophrenia? Posttraumatic stress? Dissociative amnesia?”
“You have to answer the question, Ms Jacques,” says the host.
“Personhood cannot be limited to a person’s memories. We are to believe that in death the reanimates lose their selves, and when resurrected by Wormwood, they are just bodies, biological vessels waiting to be filled by alien presences. It’s like a nightmare built by the ghost of John Locke. You’ve got these stupid but technologically advanced aliens who stored the memories of their people and then murdered them. Locke would of course say the memories are the people, so each one, stored on a server trillions of light years away, is still alive in that sense. He would also say the reanimates are not alive as they appear to have no memory of their previous lives. The use of reanimate bodies as hosts for Homian dead would be as easy and ethically challenging as putting on clothes from a charity shop. In actual fact, using reanimates is salting the wounds of the bereaved.”
The host raises his hand. “I’m afraid I’ll have to interrupt you and direct you to the question: do you consider Homian reanimates people?”
“I consider the bodies into which these memories are inserted to be people. Humanity is not just about memories. Selfhood is embodied, and a reanimated Hannah Jacques is still Hannah Jacques, just like a Hannah Jacques with dementia is still Hannah Jacques.”
“Who, then, is a Homian?” asks the host.
“The Homians are all dead from an act of auto-genocide disguised as a desperate gambit for survival. Here’s a question for you: when they download their selves into the human vessels, does a copy remain on the server? Then which is the Homian, the copy on the server or the one inside the human body?”
“That’s all we have time for. Ladies and gentlemen, Hannah Jacques.”
When the applause dies down, and the mics are no longer hot, the host whispers to Hannah, “Your husband isn’t going to like this.”
“Your eyebrows are inexpertly plucked,” she says, and walks away.
Femi squints when they come for her. She is usually in darkness for twenty-three hours, solitary, on bread and water, a bucket in the corner being the whole extent of her facilities, with the added humiliation of knowing she is watched from the infrared camera in the ceiling. She stopped counting the days, but she knows she has been in detention without trial for eighteen months or thereabouts. Her periods stopped after the first six months: malnutrition. Every month she gets a physical from an indifferent medic. Every day, in her one hour of sunlight, she checks the state of her sores, her nails, the colour of her skin, just to see how far the vitamin and micronutrient deficiency has progressed. The bread is often mouldy, and she hopes the penicillium species produces low levels of antibiotics and perhaps some useful minerals.
At one point, Femi was sure she had lost her mind, but she has since revised that opinion.
She has not been interrogated, she has not been tortured, she has not been molested. Technically, this kind of detention is seen as torture by the United Nations, but who listens to them any more? The UN descended into infighting once the US left and the UK wasn’t strong enough to hold China or Russia in check.
Are you afraid?
No. Sure, they have control over my body, but my mind is stronger than all of theirs put together. I won’t break, if that’s what you mean.
What about death?
If I die today, I die no more, as the song goes.
I need you to live.
My dear, I do enjoy our talks, but I cannot guarantee my own life right now. Maybe they’ll see me talking to thin air and take me to a mental hospital.
I still have a lot to tell you . . .
If she has to, Femi can take solitary confinement. Not that it would be easy, but she can do it. She has the advantage of knowing exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are, and this bothers other people, because she cannot be flattered and is rarely uncertain or embarrassed. The truth is that she has had an unexpected visitor in the cell, a regular one, and this has made the months more bearable. But her captors do not know that and she imagines them confounded by her calm.
It’s not time for her one hour of exercise and fresh air, so she’s confused when they come for her. The light is also brighter than she’s used to, because this is mid-morning. Usually her hour is in the evening. Perhaps Jack Jacques has grown the stones to order a summary execution? Femi isn’t ready to die, but there are many things she has not been ready for, and done when they presented themselves.
They put her in front of a meaningless bureaucrat with pretensions of grandeur, who tells her she is to be freed the next day, but not why. It is an exaggeration to call it freedom, as she is to be in permanent exile from Rosewater.
“I want to speak to Kaaro,” she says. “Not on the phone; in the same room. Today.”
The query is for her name.
They want to know her age. Options: factual/flippant. Flippant.
“A lady never tells.”
Query for her occupation.
“I’m executive assistant to Mayor Jack Jacques.”
Query for her favourite food.
“Chocolate ice cream, no sprinkles.”
Query for where she was born.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that.”
“I was born in Lagos, like the mayor.”
Query about why she is anxious.
“I’ve been away from the mayor too long. He needs me to run his office and his life. I am keen to get back.”
Query: square root of 8936.
Query about the meaning of “Mo beru agba”.
“Yoruba phrase, literally means ‘I fear my elders’, but really speaks to a fear of supernatural entities like wizards, wise men and witches. It’s also a back- door wish for respect or fear when one grows old, or an entreaty towards good behaviour while one is young so as to have a quiet senescence. I think.”
“I no longer wish to answer questions. I wish to leave.”
“I’m leaving. Goodbye.”
I know what Eric is doing. I know the exact strategic value of the mercenary Dahun as a bargaining chip. I had known how much time I would have with Femi, but it still wasn’t enough.
“I know too much,” I say to the hollow space. My voice seems to leave my mouth and stop a few centimetres in front of my face. “Ooooooohhh! Awwwwwww!”
“The Woman Who Knew Too Much!”
I get serious and update my board.
Bad Fish finds Kaaro again. Software update was the problem. He confirms visually, using the nearest cameras.
What the fuck is he wearing?
Rather than take precautions to isolate him in space, the prison asks Kaaro to wear a body suit with a visor that lends the world a faint green tinge. He looks like an astronaut, but thinks that apart from isolating him from the microbes that constitute the xenosphere, the suit is meant to disguise him. It’s hot and uncomfortable, especially in the armpits, elbows and crotch, where the material bunches. He is also sure the air tank attached to it is old or depleted, because breathing is an effort and what makes its way into his lungs is not fresh. He probably should have used the loo before putting it on, because now he wants to piss. He wonders where they got the suit from.
Two armed guards lead him through the bowels of the facility, hands at his elbows to keep him steady as the suit makes him clumsy. At least it means he cannot smell the grime.
He does not see any other prisoners, although at intervals a guard or two comes out of his peripheral vision to startle him. There may actually no longer be any prisoners, some used as vessels for the aliens upon death, some freed after serving as soldiers in the War of Insurrection. Kaaro was forced to fight in that war, lost friends, learned new abilities, and experimented with homicide.
They finally deposit him in a room, ten feet by ten, single naked unlit bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling, spider’s webs in the corners, wall gecko chilling at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizontal. Yoruba people won’t kill a wall gecko because it is believed to protect the integrity of a structure, and if it dies indoors the building may collapse. Two wooden chairs, dusty, arranged side by side, yearning for a table. Kaaro drags one into a face- to- face position and sits. It creaks under his weight.
He doesn’t have to wait long for Femi to appear.
She’s gaunt, blue jumpsuit hanging off her frame like curtains, short hair, sunken eyes, thong slippers on her feet, not the person he knew eighteen months ago. The guard stays by the door while Femi slouches and sits in the empty chair. No jewellery, no make- up; the beautiful woman she is lies hidden under months of deprivation. She is undefeated, though. The iron in her eyes, the hard gaze, the determination undiminished. Was she tortured?
“What did they . . . do?” asks Kaaro.
“Not important. Kaaro . . . it’s good to see you, albeit through a space suit. How’s Aminat? You were my favourite agent, you know that?”
“You don’t have to flatter me, Femi.”
“I’m not. I wanted more for you, but you were focused on your penis.”
“Do you need a lawyer? I can—”
“I do not. Listen, I need you to take that helmet off.”
“What? If I do, the xenoforms on my skin will—”
“Form a network in nanoseconds and you’ll be in the brains of me and that moron by the door. Yes.”
“And that’s what you want?”
“I don’t remember you being this slow or daft. Pay attention because I don’t know how long I’ll be free to speak to you. Read my mind, and do it fast. Read everything, or everything you have time for. Go.”
Kaaro begins to work off the helmet, counting the seconds before the guard will realise what is happening and either raise the alarm or attempt to stop him. In Kaaro’s head –
The earliest hangings were from trees, especially if Jesus came down from the cross and accused you of insubordination when your team loses the last seven finals. The hanged may defecate, and their legs might be smeared by faeces. Dynamic Rosewater athletes dying on rail tracks while trying to outrun trains as training. Geddit? Training? Read the attached paper every day for five years, and watch as your hair turns white and your brain goes to mush. People will come to view your hair. The line will back up out of your garden, down the street, where it will finally cause a traffic jam. An upright neighbour, an acolyte and sycophant-in-chief to the prime minister, will snap and machine-gun them all till they are dead. The neighbour will herself be executed by bouncy castle after due process for defacing number plates on cars parked outside zoos.
– Which does not matter. By the time Kaaro can adjust to his new mindset, he is lying on the floor, handcuffed and held down by shouting people, his cheek losing heat to the floor, dust in his nose, staring at Femi, who is likewise cuffed and staring back at him.
“Don’t worry,” says Femi.
Kaaro can feel his eyes become heavy with tears.
“It’s all right,” says Femi.
All this time, this is what has been on her mind? This is what she carries?
“I love you,” he says. It’s not a romantic gesture or feeling. It’s what happens when you fully understand another human being, when you have complete empathy, like with him and Nike Onyemaihe, the only other person he shared brainspace this completely with. It’s knowing her history, her flaws, why her flaws exist, her pain, her suffering, her shrunken and hidden heart. It’s the love you feel for a sibling or an aunt, the kind that endures and survives adversity bruised but intact.
“I am going to be fine, Kaaro,” she says. Yells, really, to be heard above the panicking guards.
“I know,” he says.
They drag her out of the room. “I’ll be in touch.”
Prayers to Koriko offered, borderbots stood down, opposing contingents from Nigeria and Rosewater meet at the north of the city-state boundary. Eric stands above on a gentle rise, providing oversight and overwatch. It’s evening, with a blood-red sky in the dwindling light. The tentacle idly loops around his neck and unloops. They are almost fully integrated, he and it, although at times Eric detaches from it, to feel human again, albeit for a few minutes. It scares people off, makes them think he’s alien, doesn’t matter that the tentacle was crafted by a human.
A van arrives on the Rosewater side, rolls to a stop, headlights die. The security personnel open the back and a thin Femi Alaagomeji is led out. The tentacle jerks, probably from Eric’s surge of anger, and he calms himself. This woman, this resolute, beautiful woman who saved his life, has been incarcerated and he has not been able to get her free until now. Look at what they’ve done to her. He signals his people to take Dahun to the swap. Some in the agency worried about Eric’s plan; after all, Dahun was a mercenary and the mayor has no loyalty to him. Eric thought differently, and was right. It boiled down to the kind of person the mayor values, and how he treats his people, whether they are contractors or not.
Eric has some disquiet this close to Rosewater because he knows Kaaro is in there: Kaaro the gryphon, Kaaro who warned him off the city, and who casually took control of his brain without straining himself. Too powerful to fight, even though the two of them are the last surviving sensitives and should be working together.
Eric stays this distance away from the exchange out of respect. He does not wish to accidentally read Femi’s mind. Six hours later, outside her suite at the Hilton, wearing a bulbous, oversized hoodie to cover his tentacle, he hears the call to enter. Femi is in a purple bathrobe, hair cut even shorter and left natural. She is still bone- thin, but some tension has gone out of her. It should have, with what the government is paying for the place. A colleague of Eric’s who has been to prison says it leaves a stink that never quite goes away. That may be true for everybody but Femi. He is also aware that she has a layer of antifungals all over her skin. Nobody trusts sensitives.
“I’m ready to debrief you and catch you up, ma’am,” says Eric.
“Not necessary,” she says. “Nothing happened except they kept me in a box with no human contact. I don’t need support, and I’ve already caught myself up while I was in the bath. Do you have my orders?”
Eric taps his wrist on hers. By orders she means S45 authorisations and bona fides that were deactivated when she got captured.
“Thank you for coming to get me, Eric,” she says. “I won’t forget it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He almost wonders if he should hug her. Almost. “What are your instructions for me, ma’am?”
“Our goal, Eric, is to save the world from Rosewater. As of now, we must consider the city a beachhead for extraterrestrial invaders. We’re the opposing force.”
“Do we have the resources?”
“The President has assured me all the resources I need will be coming my way, and the African Union and Association of Caribbean States are hearing closed- session depositions so that a coalition might be formed. But for now, it’s just Nigeria.”
“We also have bedfellows.”
One of the bedroom doors opens and a woman walks out. In contrast to Femi, she is tall, but fleshy, and she has Afro puffs. She raises her hand to shoulder height and gives Eric a weak wave.
“Eric, meet the fugitive Oyin Da.”