Episode 2: Necrosis
If you ever licked the bottom of the Niger River, or the bed of ‘Odò-Ọya’ to Keyinde, one would meet the taste of mud, and a slight saltiness—the kind of details Keyinde sifted into his safes. Though not near his family’s ancestral home of AJ, the Niger River was his path of dreams. His envisioned Nigeria of his own. But in such a false environment like this, one could catch the awkward mimicked tick of electric clocks.
Over Cyrus’s head was an arc of screen. In his head was that electric tick of a Victorian English watch.
>>> ENGAGE <Audio>
Ticking overcame his left ear, through the Leech.
>>> DISENGAGE <Audio>
—Perhaps the ticks are similar—
Down in Lagos, the generator sun beating in the cloudless skies of false April, the hum of activity turned to a quieter dial. Quiet, compared to the whine of The Line. Locals sauntered and trundled past—careful rigs and fluid sensory stimulations to appear animate. Illusions.
>>> PRINT (14:00)
—Na two o’clock too oft—
Cyrus laughed, a wracked, metallic rasp in the safe.
They jacked out—silent—viewing a safe wasn’t always a near-death experience.
Cyrus felt the Leech, sweat on the cables plugged into the chair for the safe—the fifth that day— then touched a finger to his cheek bone: a metal nexus of plates and titanium ribs. Cyrus glimpsed De Machine, then swung the beads across the doorway, clacking, pattering, wooden rattles resounding. A tendril caught on Cyrus’ shoulder; he brushed it aside.
He held the hand there, moving upward to his neck, pulling his head backward, tugging hair, slowly, reenacting the rip. The rip: a slo-mo death-in-transition. Safe death. Cyrus pressed his hands to the seis.
—Keyinde, do you believe in ghouls? Ghosts?—
—No. You believe in de tech crap?—
Cyrus sighed. Silence—a moment. He shook his head—not that Keyinde would see; Keyinde was still closing the safe, minutes later, not in a sudden jerk. Cyrus glanced to a series of rugs, hanging from the far wall. One illustrated a shadowed entity, emerging, seeping, from a doorway, adorned in brilliant jewels, eyes of crying, weeping white.
—Well, I have a contract to maintain, and a month to do so. Ethané’s safes are second best in The Line. And I need reliability in my last two weeks—
>>> RUN (core suite diagnostics [audio, oral, visual, temporal gauge, spatial gauge, heart dials])
> System stabilised. Heart-dial blinks 84 BPM / blood psi healthy / spatio-temporal
> Core suite diagnostics check complete
—Okay … maybe three—
—Yes, but I a family to keep. Nigeria Quarter be no safe for dem. Nigeria be small-small, the culture come be no look upon. I sey, we dey be de people already ot Egungun—
Keyinde led Cyrus out of the cube, mumbling, pulling his hand, throwing him to the balcony’s railing, the pulse of The Line’s morning sun scorching on the Leech’s metal flesh. The sky-screen geodesics retracted, rolling, gears groaning, pistons churning, moaning, revealing a line of blue.
Lights all over, brilliant yellow-green-red, merging and fading, the colours sharking through yester-night’s ground, dazzling in the afternoon. Twenty-seven flights of steps below, markets sprawling the entire pedestrian level, a flat, haphazard patchwork from a world beyond The Line. The clang-pows of the dùndúns, and single-headed gángans, rung out, their clack-whinge waxing over the crowd’s voice—a single entity, flooding through the great fabric throws. At the pedestrian level eschewed a frantic hue and cry, locals dancing fast, banging crazedly their batas and shouting in time, arms liquid-flowing; stamping boots like leaden thunder.
Eyes scanning—LIDAR sharp—the sea of swaying and spinning, Cyrus groked at the dancers, the drummers, and onlookers, the clappers, foot-stampers, the small children with toy drums, tinny and ringing.
—Look to dose am drums, wid de chords down deir edges? You pull dem, and de sound dey change—
Cyrus turned to Keyinde: a head just behind his own, breathing down his shoulder, smiling, mouthing—even—the songs of below. He turned his gaze to the far balcony.
—“De heart do talk o wid song.” You dey hear dis before-before? We dey talk wid am. Dose ot us on dose balconies ot de cubes. Dùndúns, sabi? Now, look dere—
Keyinde pointed to the opposite balconies on the far side of The Line—his jumper, still singed with the burnt bean smell. A family in patched, blanket-like dresses, or ponchoes, and matching caps, smiled and hullabalooed, waving and squirling, stamping, but saying nothing. Then, still, very still, their eyes stared, waiting.
—And look am dere—
Keyinde’s arm swung over Cyrus’ right shoulder, further right now, where the first family stared. Another two families, on a distant balcony, with many little children, waist-height, further up The Line, on the threshold of Nigeria Quarter, were dancing and shaking and clanging their dùndúns back. Cyrus whispered.
—What are they saying?—
And Keyinde hmmed, a resonant rumbling, uttered from his chest.
—… dey say “we no die today”—
Cyrus shrank from Keyinde, closer to the balcony’s rail.
—You dey shame ot de music, Cyrus? I gi’am a small time to dink. Payu dey sell akara again today: dey go better in Nigeria o. And I wan’ your fear face, though Cyrus—
Keyinde danced off, singing with the steps.
He spun, glancing to Cyrus. Cyrus gazed dully, over the balcony, the river of people below, emptying into the Red Sea.
—If you’re a dying people, then what do you have, to believe in? You? Yoruba folk?—
Keyinde hmmed, scratching his beardless chin.
—Not all Yoruba Nigerians, but … com’ dink sey, de goddess Ọya na Queen ot Egungun—de dead for you—dey fit be a mama ot nine pikin, de Afefe je Lagbara as im servant, and de water buffalo be im patron. E dey be a mama, a ghoul, and a water drop. But watin a goddess wey hold a fire-whip o. Dink am on dat—
Keyinde smiled, then his face slumped. Cyrus blinked.
—You look blank. I know—I come talk am flat: goddess Ọya wey, Queen ot de dead, dey have nine pikin … erm, nine children—
Then Keyinde twisted, flying down the stairs, hollering “Payu” through cupped hands.
The seis called out. Cyrus looked at his own hand—the first he’d done so since waking from the rip. Metal gears grinded inside his thumb: a ticking web with a fleshy skin. False as well.
Cyrus’ cube stank of nonspace. As if blurriness was a smell.
His rent was overdue, so the window gaped: barred open, a crooked iron crowbar buckling under the years, staring wide-eyed down the six floors to pedestrian level. Every detail of his cube, so well captured in the safe. Even the rent slips beside the beer on the worktop, the textures infallible.
Cyrus watched the false breakfast swirl in the careful daylight, within the safe. The kitchen island topped in drab marble shimmered atop its white wooden pedestal, with three bar stools around.
On the island sprouted a bouquet of seis, in viridescent green-yellows and one in striking, brilliant orange. Dazzling, in the torchlight. The glass vase housing the seis rumbled. Footsteps approached, out in the aether of nonspace. Cyrus blinked.
The door burst from its slide. Lime bullet cartridges quaked on the ground, rolling, sizzling, hot. A bullet whistled. Whinged. Another bullet, scratching the worktop. The crowbar fell from the window.
—On the ground—
—How did you get into my safe? My client singular isn’t due for another ten—
—On the ground—
The gunshot whistling resounded: real. The window crashed, shut, then the vase shattered, water tumbling out.
—I never bought water physics for my safes! And I’ve not jacked out yet!—
—On the ground—
Then the rip.
Cyrus lurched forward, through a flood of binary …
… to the whip-gow of the odd drums. Game-still Cyrus stood, hunter-looked, frowning, paralysed. He gazed over the railing, gripped in his false hand, his faraday thumb. Downward. Or upward, at the sky-screens—the geodesics—showing him what downwards was supposed to seem like. No. Downward, for certain. The river of market traffic flowed onward.
Smells wafted upward. Sounds echoed downward. Between the rising and falling was Cyrus. He smiled.
Clearing his throat, Cyrus touched a hand to his eye socket—Leech-side. A pipe slurped. His hand flicked backward. Approached again, gingerly, cautiously. Metal tip touched titanium tongues, plates, and pipes. Obsessed over each iron pore. The Leech gurgled. The real sei flower, organic, carefully kept in its bio-sanctuary of the old shorts, pressed against the pocket’s edge.
—I want new clothes, but I need Keyinde out of this Quarter. He’s the skill, and De Machine. We can come back for any personal items—
Cyrus bolted, embracing the dùndún-racket and rhythmic, drumming clamour. He touched the first steps when the Emeralds flooded the markets.
A gunshot ricocheted.
Cyrus dropped to the balcony floor. Hands fled to head, muffling sudden shouts and shots.
A hue-and-cry raised. A hollering, wailing, back and forth. Down the line it whined, ringing, crying out. The dùndúns and batos silenced; replaced by the percussion of trampling, stamping, running feet, pulsing, threshing.
—Emeralds in Nigeria? Keyinde! His family. But the contract—
Cyrus leapt for the cube. For De Machine. Explosions rang out, screaming intensified, the market stalls fluttering from the false skies. Ducking, he crouched back, behind the concrete barrier again, topped with its metal railing, washes of blaze burning his face when he’d stood. The ringing in Cyrus’ audio tracts whizzed into something understandable. Clicks. The Leech’s work. Others would be driven deaf.
He stood again, watching down. An Emerald line pushed upstream; their march, unbroken. He looked back to De Machine. Then to the brilliant flickering of fire among lantern lights.
Cyrus stood, an electron roar eschewing from his gorge, banging the rail liked a rabid gorilla. Another cube combusted, caught in an Emerald conflagration, bursting, caving in, collapsing with a flutter-drumming and dusty plaster.
Keyinde went left down the stairs. Cyrus turned left now, skipped the first step—leapt to the third. Landed, his eyes scanning again with LIDAR quickness for Keyinde.
Keyinde’s cube burst behind him, vomiting Cyrus over the railing, twenty-seven floors down.
He blinked, his back ablaze. The Leech, alarmed. Lights flicked. Green. Red. Green. Red. His systems spasmed, audio engaging, disengaging. Visuals winked in and out, the colours of smells cold in his eardrums. Heart thumped. Temples throbbed.
Emerald shouting resounded nearby; the harsh Arabic consonants cawed above the death.
Under him were fruits and pulp, mushed, rancid. Nearby were people slipping, mixing with the blood. Cyrus’ face was pressed on the floor, titanium scratching concrete, sharp.
With his false hand, Cyrus heaved, launching himself over, back now to the floor. The seis pulsed in his pockets. The organic and perfect, the plastic and broken. A megaphone screech rung, the iron voice grating. In English this time:
—Communication unintelligible to NEOM is intolerable. We won’t have conspiracy—
Cyrus groaned, gazing upward at the sky, past the unrolled geodesics. Alarms blared, the braying announcing Emerald reinforcements, the sun beating relentless at it’s zenith in the sky.
—Keyinde? I need De Machine. The contract! I should’ve protected De … No. I’ll find you—
Cyrus crawled from his pool, Nigeria blurring his eyes, Yoruba and Igbo shouts merging with the Pidgins, both French and English. His nostrils flared, singed market-stall and embers licking his face with flecks of fire. His arms ached, the muscles thick with the body’s humours.
A man grappled Cyrus’ arm, hauling him to his feet, the smell of akara and some other bean foods strong about the person. His legs gave out. The man hauled again. The akara was unforgettable.
He glanced all around, searching for Emeralds, blended hues among the market fabrics and tarps and posts and fires from the cookers and stoves and burners and barbecues. Cyrus pushed on the ground, organic right hand meeting a clammy, friendly one, in an ochre jumper.
—Keyinde? I need you, Keyinde. Forget the contract (Cyrus cringed) … where’s your fam … family?—
—You know Keyinde? Thank you, friend. Abeg o, do wid me find Keyinde? And im sister … —
Cyrus spun his head, watching an older Keyinde, wrinkles and pocks in the same places, hair bedraggled and greying, beard finely kempt. Narrow, golden-framed glasses marked the face.
—Oh. You know Keyinde? Sorry; I’ve confused you for someone else—
—Biko! O, friend, abeg. Keyinde’s better sister’s come catch imself in a trap. And e come gone! I make fear sey The Line come take trowey my Keyinde from dis world—
—Your Keyinde? Payu?—
The man laughed.
—Ha, British? Payu dey mean ‘father’. We have small time! Abeg o, help me—
Payu stole Cyrus’ left hand, the metal thumb’s cogs spinning frantically, ticking every fourth revolution. They trekked through the jungle of market. The bodies grew. Cyrus tripped on one. The arm hung, limp, from a wooden post splint. A crutch. The head lolled, eyes glassy, gazing over past, as though he wasn’t anything more than metal. They sighed as he walked by, their bodily humours—the phlegm and biles and blood—all flooding from their pores.
—Dis sey de Afefe je Lagbara dey come—
Payu spoke hurriedly, tugging at Cyrus. They ran on, Emerald shouts growing over the babel of fire and fired bullets.
—De power winds, friend. De Afefe je Lagbara dey be big-big winds. E foretells ot Ọya’s dey come. Big vex. E dey come destroy de Emeralds and come from all doors wey do dey stand. When no word come from de drums, den be Ọya at biggest vex—
—No god can fight machines like these—
—You come be surprised, friend—
Cyrus’ Leech whirred, growing hotter, the radiators heaving heat, conjuring, scanning, Ọya, the great mother of the nine overhead, flailing past, with eyes of pale white, and gold adornments too brilliant to portray with any colour but them all at once: the white of a rainbow, fused by the prism of the Leech. Her bangles and beads jangled with her furious sweeping, smiting the very corners of the line, along its very breadth.
The pair broke from the open pedestrian level, the Emerald tramp bursting from the markets, bearing down the line, down towards Skull Country, and Ethané’s morgue.
—I can’t go back! De Machine. The safes. Keyinde’s tech. Only one other person’s as good as Ethané—
Payu clamped a hand to Cyrus’ mouth, shushing through bare teeth, gnashing, spittle in his tone, anger in his colour. He threw his spare hand up to his face, a finger drawn over his lips.
Cyrus watched down the line, Emeralds up on the cube levels, marching past Keyinde’s, De Machine crying out, like an electric ghoul being torn in half, ectoplasm for blood, spluttering, splattering cyberspace with a permanent, fluorescent mark.
—Hear, friend! I don taya, but abeg you gotta help. Keyinde’s sister—
Payu pointed to a cube, mangled, the door off its hinges where Ọya bled into the Line, to protect her children.
—Keyinde, you better be in here—
Cyrus leapt forward. The cube blew a billow of dust and plaster, concrete mist swirling.
Wracking coughs scored Cyrus’ throat. He gripped a hand to the broken doorway, hauling the shattered metal sheet aside.
—Keyinde, you selfish bastard, what about the contract?—
To Cyrus’ right the ceiling caved in, sealing the far side of the cube. Cables snapped, a cascade of clattering and crumbling and rumbling shaking the room, throwing the ballast awry. A hole formed where the ceiling had landed, down into the service level. The drone of vehicles moaned, up through the sinkhole.
A cry echoed at Cyrus’ left.
—Your De Machine better have extended warranty—
The cry resounded again, feebly.
Cyrus jerked to the left, whipping around the corner, pulling broken wall aside, the concrete failing to dust. Embers brushed his face, licked his flesh, tender. He coughed, squinted his eyes, the glimpsed a shadow in the corner, hidden in the cruel black of shadow.
—Stay … stay there—
Cyrus sought the curled-up shadow, with eyes of shimmering white, cradling legs in their arms.
—I’m coming over. You’re … you’re Keyinde’s sister, right?—
The shadow nodded, coughed, pulling their legs closer. Only now did Cyrus note the child, shrinking down to nine years old. It whipped from its spot to Cyrus. He stepped backward, but the girl hugged his leg. He picked her up, born the shadow on his back.
—Keyinde is waiting just outside, okay? Away from all this … ‘wahala’—
The child giggled. Cyrus crept over a fallen beam, its edge a mirage, a blurred metal, like a poor-quality photo, in low resolution. Like an ill-kept safe. No. It was the fire’s mirage. The cube sweltered.
—Let’s jack outta here, yeah?—
The girl held her hands over his shoulders, either side of his head. He held her hand, in his left. Then she grasped his right, with warm, small, clammy hands. His own, false hand.
—Don’t touch that!—
Cyrus snapped, sheathing his arm behind him. The sei pulsed, crumpled in his pocket.
—Take this hand—
The girl clung instead to the other hand. At Cyrus’ side, the shadow’s white eyes were wide in the chaos. She spluttered, throat more wracked than Cyrus’. He pressed his cloak against her mouth and nose, tight against her face. Then he wrapped her body and his own in the cloak, short against Cyrus’ legs, the chars and singes glowing in the low light of the dying cube’s belly.
Cyrus and the shadow emerged through the shattered door. They both coughed, his back sweatied, hot down his spine, where the body’s natural cables twisted.
Before Cyrus was Payu, blood trickling down his arm. A woman was at his side: a crone, doubled over, knuckled, wrinkled, blind, with the same glassy eyes as those of the beings Ọya’s wrath had already taken that day.
Emerald shouting grew nearby, another march, driving survivors up The Line, towards Skull Country. Cyrus watched the other way, towards end of The Line. The Red Sea. The Pacific Confederation established quarters down the far end, Maoriland and Second Samoa at the pinnacle. Back towards Skull Country, and Payu stood, holding the crone, the shadow girl clutching at Payu’s leg.
—Better Ọṣun, little pikin mine. O, precious, Orisha child. Your spirit be fit rest wid us, today. Ọya dey care for us now—
Payu whispered into Ọṣun’s ear, brushed her hair, clasped her head, fast. The crimson cloak glowed warmly against her dark flesh in the hot sun, the fires of nearby. Two other children appeared, food in their hands, each taller by half than Ọṣun. All their eyes were ghostly white in the flickering firelight. Explosions receded with the Emeralds, a few stragglers branching outward along the balconies, few feeding through the markets.
The group trekked onward, back to their cubes. Payu wanted his Eazycook 500-Series, and little Ọṣun said ‘doll’ on loop. After passing across the pedestrian level, unfound by the Emeralds, the family stumbled on another body, groaning, a bloodied shirt, caught in torn fabric, marring their ochre sleeves. Ọṣun shouted.
Cyrus sprinted forward, the family shinnicked, eyes gaping, mouths open. Keyinde turned over, nursing his shoulder, his leg. Stained in another man’s blood, the other body, small and crippled, pruning, dead to the side.
—Cyrus … E dey do me like sey I love am! My family! You come learn dem yourself? Better Ọṣun o!—
Keyinde beamed, eyes wide, crying, arm outstretched, thanking over and over. One of his eyes were shut, a purpling bruise marking his brow. He smiled to Ọṣun, the girl wide eyed, smiling, but peeping behind Payu’s leg, paralysed, afar.
An explosion rang out. Blood and body rained from the sky. Red rain. Ọṣun didn’t scream at the explosion. The two older children disintegrated instantly. Payu’s stubborn face haunted the air, briefly.
—Family … Semi wid de long hair… Payu … Ọṣun ot de rivers and de water… better Ajá wey be fit wid trees to dance—
Keyinde and Cyrus blinked, swallowing hard, looking to where little Ọṣun had cawed, her older sister and brother had stood, glancing back and forth for Emeralds, where Payu had walked, holding his arm, dribbling blood. They looked at eachother. Keyinde gulped for breath.
Sibling sprayed onto Keyinde. His family, festooned guts, writhing, spasming limbs, threshing bodies, itching the ground, oozing brain and bodily humours, eyes bursting, organs seeping fluids, flesh mixing with the black, black blood. Heart fruits became pulp in the floor, stamped in by Emerald rocket blast. The backs arched, the heads erupted, then the bodies exploded, breaking the dams of bone and flesh. Vines of intestine and splinters of marrow-tree caught on the railings above, and banners of skin hung limp, burnt, charred, with the streaks of the Emeralds.
Keyinde wept, shouting, thrashing, stamping. He hit the ground with a curled fist, knuckles white. He grabbed Cyrus by the shoulders, roaring mute words from a hollow gorge. Cyrus looked on, blank. His mouth was unmoved. His sight wasn’t onto Keyinde, but beyond him, gazing to the end of The Line, where Ọya swept off, like an electric ghoul, bearing little Ọṣun on her back. Weeping. Always weeping.
Then Keyinde fainted, spit dribbling from his mouth, pure white tears leaking from glassy eyes.
The Emeralds marched on. To Cyrus’ right were the access lifts to the service level, under the shelling upon the Nigeria ‘cult’. Face blank, the Leech breathing rhythmically, Cyrus hauled Keyinde, sallow with grief, slung—numb—over Cyrus’ shoulder. The metal lift trembled as it fell, the infrequent explosions depressed by the outstretched hand of Mother Ọya.