Episode I: Electric Ghouls
Keyinde yanked hard against the wires of the console, tearing Cyrus from the safe [Secure Antihack False Environment]: his body writhed in the nonspace between ones and zeroes. Cyrus’ retinas blazed, blinded with colour; one eye, with the hues of the safe’s false environment: Ajegunle (AJ), capital Lagos, Nigeria, cool and cloudless; the other eye, with the neon fluorescence of true life: The Line, hot and stifling.
>>> RUN (core suite [audio, oral, temporal gauge, spatial gauge, heart dials])
An electric roar eschewed from the metallic Leech on his face: his new key into safes. Whirring, a light flashed on the high-tech monocle. Cyrus gasped, blood curdling, a dull ache festering in his stomach. Metallic hisses. Wheezes. The coolant agents kicked in, slurping, his monocle simmering, gnawing. Leech.
Cyrus’ eyes worked across the cube’s boundaries, neon cataracts clouding the true apartment in The Line. He smelt AJ, the sizzling simulacra of spices and fruit. He smelt the AMs throwing stale air around the musty flat, somewhere in The Line, Saudi Arabia.
Keyinde gaped from across the cube, a fluxing, glitching shape, somewhere in The Line, eyes wide, unblinking. His mouth worked, a blur of sound. Face appeared: cheeks flushed, pale. An ochre jumper.
The cube smelt of burning beans.
Keyinde grappled Cyrus’ shoulders, whipping him back and forth: half in the console, half out. He pressed two plates on Cyrus’ Leech. A metallic exhale. The head slip ejected in three parts.
—Comot for dere. De safe dey close—
Someone slapped Cyrus, beyond the amnion of nonspace.
—You be dead, before long. Comot for de safe—
Keyinde twisted a gear on the metal Leech.
Cyrus awoke, spluttering, eyes raw, hands trembling, nostrils flared, bursting from the depths of nonspace. He gasped, panting, clawing for air. Eyes flicked around, audio tracts spasmed, chest heaved. His heart stopped, then ran, then slowed.
He glimpsed Keyinde, murmuring, crossed arms, pacing the cube’s length. Cyrus sniffed the dust; coughed.
He swallowed; throat, dry.
—…safes really can kill a man—
Another swallow. Keyinde scoffed, studying his feet, pacing the room. Slower. Towards Cyrus, jacking out of De Machine.
—Anyman you wan, yes, dey be dead wid seconds more in nonspace. I no envy who be your victim o—
—Call him Cardinal—
Cyrus brushed a hand against the metal Leech.
The Line buzzed, hurry-scurry, hot inside its 40-metre width, straight from the Red Sea to open desert. NFLs (NEOM Freight Liners) and skips whizzed underground through the mag-vacs of The Spine. At the start of The Line, a converted morgue hummed, at the nape of Skull Country. Most deluge sharked itself up in Skull Country.
Along one wall of Cyrus’ ward, within the morgue’s labyrinth, was a graveyard of fridges assorted. From a comatose dream, he felt condensation on his body, like on the Carlsberg—the smell hung in the air.
Hints of lapping water and the sounds of a woman retreated, and the aroma of a sei flower. The morgue emerged. Then Cyrus slept.
Woke again, a blue light in his eye. No beer. A white dress-rag across his body. Fell asleep.
Lucid again, temples throbbing, ringing overtook his left ear.
>>> ENGAGE <Audio>
>>> DISENGAGE <Audio>
>>> ENGAGE <Audio>
Cyrus blinked, wiping rheum from his eyes. He trembled on his slab, lifting from the deflated pillow. The water-stained ceiling watched down, dripping green dew onto his face.
He sat, silent, slowly, bringing a hand, a finger, a tip, to his face, flesh, bone, tissue, muscle. Black iron: where flesh died was machine wrought. Plates overlapped, a depression for an eye, glowing, blue, cold against his skin. Hands shook. He stroked metal. Caressed. Touched. Rubbed the ridges, felt the pins, screws, running a quivering, careful finger along the monocle’s edge. Pipes. Tubes. Rubber and silicon. Plastic. Then, with the same hand, traced an ellipse around his right eye. Organic. Fleshy. Warm. Taut in places, ripe in others.
He touched the metal again. A monocle. Cold, like the metal frame around his sleeping slab, like the graveyard of beer fridges in the wall on the left.
—Where is he? I write the contract here; he’ll die for killing me—
—Killing you? —
A woman guffawed. Once.
—Welcome to paradise then, Corpse—
Cyrus’ vision danced, Ethané’s lithe form materialising, dressed in something thin, crimson, zipped from sternum to chin, high-necked, a silver NEOM brooch on her right.
He grasped the slab’s iron frame, then drew the hand away, cradled it in the other.
—Paradise, you say? —
Ethané approached, drawing the room’s edge, from the door in the far corner, down past the fridges, and around an operating table, with a miniature of The Line, as it had been built in 2024: an anachronism for fearful days.
He looked away.
Ethané perched at the slab’s end, a hand reaching toward Cyrus. He jerked his leg, sitting upright. The other leg, too, tended in his arms.
He mumbled. She sneered.
They sat. Ethané looked upward to the corners of the room, blackened with mould. Cyrus glimpsed her body, glanced away, reaching for the safe he’d seen that’d masked the anaesthetics.
—You seem older?—
He murmured, peering from his kneecaps, then cringing back.
—I’ve seen a few Mondays more than you think—
She tucked a hair behind her ear, curling around a hearing device.
—You could call it that—
She frowned, pulling back to the slab’s edge, holding her head on a knuckled hand.
—Still got drinking problems?—
Ethané looked at Cyrus. Blinking, she darted her eyes down to his feet. Then she watched as he glanced to the fridges on his left.
—I don’t have any problems with drinking…—
Cyrus studied the fridge, then Ethané, speaking, then back to the wall of fridges.
—…Unless that’s the problem itself—
Cyrus pushed against the slab, wincing. He reached a hand to her arm. Fingertips touched shoulder. Warm. Ethané cringed, hopping off the edge of the slab.
She disappeared from the room. Cyrus’s eyes closed. He fell backward.
—O, what devil did you dice with to have me drawn from hell? And to get this metal … Leech—
—A rich one. Now, use that wisely—
A hand appeared, finger pointed to Cyrus’ face.
—Get to know it. Be it. Devils don’t deal in refunds, and none seem to have room for unwanted parts…—
Ethané formed from the morgue’s far side. She pointed to her own eye, ghostly white, aesthetic surgery—a soft finger against her sagged cheek; she winked, turning on her heel.
—…and I guess you’ll want this too—
She slipped away. Returned. A gun hung in her grasp, fingers pinched around the handle, like someone else’s rag.
—Send this cardinal my love? Yes. You talk in your sleep—
Cyrus groaned, rolling onto his left side.
—S’pose you still hate me, Cyrus?—
He stared at a fridge, half open, a spilt beer dribbling onto the floor.
—I need one more thing—
He stood, throwing feet to the cold, metal floor. Stepped. Stepped again. Ethané watched from the doorway.
—I’m supposed to tell you not to walk yet—
—I need you—
Cyrus stepped again, placing a hand to Ethané’s arm. She shuddered.
—Is a little more than nothing still too much to ask for?—
He watched her morph; an Ethané without wrinkles appeared, not covered in the smut of Skull Country. Her careful body, her narrow frame, his old jacket over the chair in the corner, washed, shining, somewhere beyond The Line.
—What d’you want?—
She sighed, standing in the doorframe,
—Can someone die being ripped from a safe? Y’know … die in transition? —
She was silent. Scoffed, a little. Glanced at him. Laughed. Looked away, shaking her head. Cyrus fell back upon the slab.
—I know somebody—
—So, you can die in transition? I really did nearly die in there?—
Cyrus trembled, placing a hand to his heart dials, the other pawing the Leech.
—He can help with … Depends how you treat him—
Ethané left the room.
—What do you mean ‘treat him?’ —
A projection appeared at Cyrus’s right, next to his face’s organic half. A Yoruba man, moved here once Nigeria acquired its eponymous quarter in The Line. An oldy, engineer, specialising in ‘safe death.’
—I’m on borrowed time, y’know. Doctors gave me three months, two months ago …—
No answer. Cyrus sighed, slipping on a red cloak and plymsolls from under the slab, Nigeria in his eyes. He knew enough Pidgin to get by.
Throughout the skip—trains the speeds of planes—a whine rung out. The walls of the carriage trembled, panels shaking. The screens jittered every fifth second. The service level was closed every Friday, so the skip was packed. And silent.
Human smell reeked.
Cyrus touched the Leech, poking the tube running from his mandible to his nape. Traced—under his suave cloak—the ports in his jaw’s. Felt—from forehead to neck—a trench of wires, hissing each time he blinked.
To his left, a pair sat, short and sinewy, red cardigans, eyes darting through the carriage, suspended in a tunnel of magnets and vacuum. Another pariah, just in front, unctuous and short, swatting sweat, head swivelled back and forth, chins wobbling.
NEOM guardsmen stood, domineering, in emerald get-ups, each end of the carriage. To their sides pointed guns; lime green cartridges shined in neon haze.
—A little overkill for a ‘passenger skip’—
Cyrus pushed the cloak back, scratching his organic scalp. Blink. The Leech hissed.
The pair’s eyes beside him fixed upon the door. The unctuous man slid to the skip’s tail. He caught grunts, shoving people nonetheless. They blinked. Not an eye flicked to Cyrus.
Nigerian Quarter beamed in the false twilight of 21:43, the roof-screen closed for the cool desert night of The Line. Stars winked, dancing, fluxing. Then they glitched back to their origins, marking the start of the video’s loop.
Beside the skip-lifts, on pedestrian level, markets buzzed. Spices swirled, peppers mixing with sweat and body odour. Bushmeat whizzed and popped, the fat oozing through the stalls of green and cream. A few bejewelled mangos wafted in the cacophony, putrid, cloyingly sweet, wilting pineapple pulp mushed into the floor.
Beyond the markets were the shanties—the Nigerians divided the cubes between families.
Keyinde stood own. The bead curtain swung forth, a great hand swatting it against the far side of the door frame, holding it there.
A face appeared, mottled, freckled. Keyinde leant against his doorway, arm rigid, barring the way, holding the curtain back. A bout of bean smell eschewed, and something burning. Keyinde furrowed his brow, mouth tight.
—You’ve got a funny way ot talking—
Cyrus smiled, escaping the traffic. His hands rested in the cloak’s pockets; fast around the Leech.
—Now you listen well-well. I know you talk Pidgin. So, I give am fear-face. Den, you give me fear-face. Sabi?—
Keyinde’s eyes grew wide, mouth a line, brows raised.
—Was that a question?—
Keyinde scoffed, releasing the bead curtain, clacking with its fall. Cyrus still smiled.
—O, oyinbo. Get inside—
The bean smell swelled, the cube blushing with a maroon mist.
—Ah, I kid with you. Sorry. A dying man gotta laugh before the last lark of all—
Keyinde sniffed, eyes down on the hob, handling a pot of spitting white balls and oil.
—What’re you cooking?—
—You dey hear akara? From Lagos, m, very good. Come chop—
He swung the pot, the akara sloshing in its low oil. Cyrus shook his head, face flushing, retreating into cube’s other rooms.
—No chop, man? Your loss. Payu make dem good … O. Free me. Don’t go in dere, Cyrus. Comot for dere, abeg o …—
Maintaining his retreat, Cyrus wandered into a narrow room. On the right hung cork boards, and the left bore windows. Down the room’s far end was a great chair, ermine white leather, tinged with coffee, bean, and puree stains.
Around the seat’s left arm rest wound three black rings, glistening, each with cables hanging from their insides, connecting to a rubber vambrace.
Over the seat arced a screen of glass, dusty, off-green. The panel illumined. Cyrus ignored Keyinde’s rambling. Feet pattered through the archway.
—Watin happen na—
The footsteps stopped.
— … O, you found de machine—
Cyrus held his back to Keyinde.
—Us machines, we think alike. Drawn to one another. Like electric ghouls—
He pulled back the cloak, exposing the Leech, though his eyes were fixed on the chair, with its black rings and limp cables. Wires fell from the ceiling, jacked into the chair’s back.
—Gods no go shame us: dat be some mean machine to siddon—
—I knew a person who made these—
—Better yan o. What be deir name?—
—Anselm. From Neu München, further down The Line. Dead—
—But you be dead too, tells Edané. Tells you. So: are you dey dead or not?—
Cyrus’ head shook, eyes glazing over. He buried a hand in his cargo shorts, and purchased a sei. A flower. Bright orange. Soft petals, with a great stem-thing sprouting from the centre. The soft petals folded, curled up, embracing itself. Looking down, he cradled the sei with warm palms, knowing ‘Maoriland’ was at the end of The Line, by the Red Sea.
Keyinde brushed Cyrus’s right, heading to the chair. He squatted, knees cracking. Buttons clacked. Gears cranked.
A plastic sei rested, crumpled. Heavy, the pocket sagging. The whirr of 3D printers echoed from those crumbs of plastic. The lap of waves swept in his hands, a reservoir of vermillion life, the locals lining up on the shore. Dancing.
—Basket mouth dey go quiet coz ot a flower? Perhaps everywhere good outside Nigerian Quarter after all—
Cyrus left the room. He thrust the sei into his pocket, and buttoned the flap over the pocket, and tugged his damask cloak. Then he emerged from around the corner, making for De Machine.
Keyinde looked on, wide-eyed. His mouth worked, closed, then he shook his head, making for De Machine.
—Com’ here, before you tear race, and I’ll show you what you wan—
—Why d’you think I’m here, Keyinde?—
Keyinde froze, back rigid.
—De same reason Taiwo say, “You dey chew dem niccos e don do o.” Everyone’s got a drive—
Cyrus shook his head.
—This is different. I’m dying. And I got one last thing I need to do—
Keyinde crept to Cyrus, smiling, two creases in his wizened face, warm. The AMs [Air Movers] threw stale air his way, reeking.
—Doctor got me three months for Christmas. It’s February—
—Okay, man. But dis ‘one last ding’ … has it to do wid dat parasite on your face? Or de pretty flower in your pocket?—
Cyrus sat in the chair, watching Keyinde through the arcing glass. The inside of the cloak pulsed a frigid blue. He glanced to De Machine, then back to Keyinde.
—A safe-death engineer, huh? Enlighten me: can safes really kill a man?—
Keyinde hmmed, scratching his careful beard, turning back to De Machine. He tutted, ripping nicco-gum from a pack, and chewing aloud.
—I’ll show am. But it’s not just gon’ tickle. You sure dis what you wan?—