By Edwin Okolo
The street is quiet. Mosquitoes sing an octave higher than the hum of electricity, often absent. My bed feels like a pallet of lead but I don’t thrash; I lie still as death. I am sweating from wearing three shirts and a sweater over two jeans and a pair of shorts. I click the heels of my boots against each other to keep myself awake.
I hear her in the other room, a drunken bee dancing around our things singing something I can’t piece together in a droning voice. She has been drinking, slowly, but with a determination I almost admire, since seven. It’s nearly three am. That’s nearly eight hours if you discredit the fact that she was hung over even then. I don’t grudge her drinking; if I had as much courage as she did, I’d do the same.
A loud crash comes from the passageway and then the muffled thud of her body hitting concrete, like the sound you make when you punch a pillow. I don’t move immediately; I wait ten, then twenty minutes. Just to make sure. Then I crawl off the mattress, feeling my way in the darkness towards the door that joins the halves of our two-room apartment. I freeze when in the near dark I spot a lump. She is splayed out in the doorway, half of her body in ‘my’ room. If I had stretched out my hand any further, I would have touched her, my mother.
I skirt around her body, it takes some contorting but I manage it without touching her. Even dead with drink, I can feel it; the pull of our telepathic connection. Being this close to her it is almost physical, like someone tugging on your arm, but I hold my breath and press my fingernails hard into my palm to distract myself. The front door takes some savvy to pry open but once I slip out into the dark, I feel free. Alive in a way that I had never felt before. I start to run and I haven’t stopped running since.
Applause rings from the circle around the fire. She stares at the flames, her cheeks flushed. They all look at her with pride, with such hope and she hates that she can read each one of them like an augury. They want to make her a leader, but she doesn’t want any of it.
“You’re so lucky, Maki. You never went to reform school. It’s horrible,” they chorus.
Almost all the girls on the street were there because they had been kicked out of the reform schools for being unable to learn the ‘dainty’ crafts. They have never seen anyone who has voluntarily escaped from a parent, a family unit. Even a dysfunctional one. It amazes Maki how excited they get each time she tells the story, how eager they are.
She looks around the circle at the other girls, the youngest is thirteen and only a few weeks old in her new life as a street feral. Liesl is the name she has been given because, like the girl in The Sound of Music, she loves to whistle. The day they found her, she was sprawled on a rubbish heap, cigarette scabs on her inner thighs and a festering burn on her back. They brought her to Maki to clean her wounds. While she had daubed the blistered flesh clean, she’d found pieces of singed polyester cloth in the sores. She hasn’t been able to get the image out of her head since.
Someone else begins to enrapture the audience with a story of her own, but Liesl keeps staring at her long after everyone has turned away. When the fire settles into bright orange embers and the circle breaks for the night, Liesl follows her, puppy-like, and sits beside her as she transforms a disused table into a cove. At first, Maki ignores Liesl; it is the only way to discourage fawning. She hears Liesl’s heart speed up each time a strange sound pierces the silence of the night, feels the fear that keeps her awake. She is only half sure of her decision when she raises her ratty blanket and says:
“Just for tonight.”
A shriek sends a tremor through everyone. She is up on her feet and running before she is even fully awake, her hand a tight fist around Liesl’s wrist. Liesl stumbles and slows them down but she holds on and keeps running. More shrieks erupt behind her and Liesl seizes up. The police officers are shouting commands, interspersed by the meaty crack of their batons breaking bone through skin.
A number of street ferals run past her towards the complicated maze of decrepit buildings that is the slum they all escaped once, but she keeps the course, braving the exposure of the open field. She knows if they can make it to the swamps around the lagoon, they will be safe; the police would never bother chasing her there. Everyone knows dangerous, dark things happen in the swamps, that batons and guns are useless there. Liesl screams behind her and falls. Maki releases her hand just in time to see her convulse as five hundred volts of electricity pumps into her body through the taser barb in her thigh.
“Maki!” Liesl screams.
It surges up from her belly, the magic that lives inside her, spreading to her arms and pooling in her voice box, begging to be used. It is like liquid fire in her body – supercharged. She stretches her hand in the direction of the wire connected to the barb, at the policeman cradling the taser gun on its other end. Just a thought, a single command would the power inside hurtling through space to devour him.
To stop is to be caught.
To live on the street is to live alone.
She remembers the words, repeated by every street feral from the day they slip the leash and become ‘free’. Her hand falls to her side and she averts her eyes from Liesl, who is already foaming at the lips. She’s been juiced for too long, possible brain damage. Maki ignores the magic howling in anguish in her head and turns away, making for the marsh.
The swamps aren’t as deadly as everyone makes them out to be, not for someone like Maki. Every sentient thing is lit up like a small beacon of life, so she knows where to step and where to duck. She slowly wades through the brackish water, chasing away water snakes with a stick. The bigger ones know to stay away from her; they can sense the thing living inside her. That was why their house never had rodents, why as a girl dogs gave her wide berth. She feels like she’s been walking for days though she knows it’s only been hours. Still she pushes on without rest. Her thoughts return constantly to Liesl.
I let them take her. I’m worse than my mother.
She wonders how long it will take them to identify the young girl and return her to her parents. She wonders if Liesl’s parents were one of the ones who went to the State for help with handling their ‘difficult’ children. Whether she knew that her mother had been one of the 942 women in her generation born with magic. The magic that the State harnessed into the drone army that revolutionized their world. She regrets never asking Liesl if she knew what she was, regrets not telling her she wasn’t alone.
She starts to cry, knee deep in swamp water, wet, shaking and alone. This moment of weakness is all the magic inside her needs. She doesn’t notice the warmth spreading up and through her until her cheeks start to warm. By then it is too late to will it back down.
She feels her spine stiffen; her legs grow immobile underneath her. Like light, it suffuses her cells, until she feels herself rise out of the water, and hover in the air. Slowly it reaches her brain and subsumes it and she feels her awareness widen, growing wider, till all of her skin is a giant eye. She sees through the trees of the swamp, past thousands of miles, through the shanties of the slum and the concrete of the city, past the bulletproof glass of the New Lagos’s hovering buildings, to a spacious corner office where a coal-skinned woman in a black dress, sleek greying hair fringing her nape is poring over blueprints. Like an involuntarily sigh, the words escape her:
The woman’s head snaps up like a hound’s, as though she can hear Maki from hundreds of miles away. She abandons the blueprints, moves towards the window and presses her face against the glass. Her mother feels so close in that moment that Maki is tempted to reach out and touch her.
The woman’s eyes widen.
The wave of longing that hits Maki leaves her gasping. It’s all she needs to reclaim control of her body. She forces the magic to retract itself into a tiny ball of consciousness. Free of its control, gravity returns swiftly, plunging her into the brackish water. She rises, her afro drenched and speckled with slime.
She starts to wade quickly through the water, making for cover but it is of no use. She cannot shake the feeling of being watched. She can no longer ignore the magic inside her, now rebelliously asserting its presence with a queasiness that makes her want to bend over and vomit. Despite the nausea, she needs to find a hiding place before sundown. Her mother will tell the police where she is, and they will come for her.
The streets are empty of ferals. The silence is haunting; nights in the slums are usually filled with chatter and the crackling of furniture repurposed as firewood. Her steps are coltish, wobbly from the strain of wading through the muddy swamp for hours. She doesn’t dare return to any of her haunts; the police would have already found them. Ferals might be great at hiding but they turn easily once they are caught. There is only one thing to do: find a hiding place in New Lagos.
She slinks in the shadows, tense as a power line. The magic in her pulses, barely restrained. The temptation is always there: to give a little and allow the magic suffuse her. She could then levitate herself several feet through an open window and find dry clothes and a warm bed for the night. But she resists. Instead it is 30 minutes of lurking and backpedalling and then a tight squeeze through a hole dug under the separating fence and she is in New Lagos.
The slums are relics of a time when grounding buildings was the only way to ensure structural integrity but now, with people of her kind, levitation is the new craze. Plexiglas squares hover in clusters above the ground, their ultramodern, LCD-lit angles casting knife-edged shadows. She scuttles underneath the first one, checking to see if anything moves in the darkness.
Cast in silhouette in one of the windows of the nearest high rise is a family, their short-haired sons whipping around the legs of subdued parents. Across the lush landscape this scene is repeated, over and over in each lit window. There are barely any girls, anywhere. They are all gone. The darkness remains inky, foreboding. The next tenement building is floating towards her; bigger than the stationary one she is under, more likely to give cover. But the space she has to cross to get to it will leave her exposed. There isn’t much of a choice, she has barely a minute before it passes. She springs into the space between them and shrieks as the world explodes in light.
“Stop! We have you cornered!”
The magic inside her starts to flex, pushing inquisitive tentacles. Let me help you. The light is too bright, and it traps her in place like amber. There is no other option. For the second time in one day, she relinquishes control, this time voluntarily, and lets the magic spread. It rushes like heat, expanding, betraying its presence through the sheen of sweat that suddenly coats her exposed skin.
Voluntarily acknowledging the magic is very different from being forcefully possessed. Because it isn’t siphoning energy into wresting control, all of its power is at her disposal; it is giddying. She splays her hands and the floodlights trained on her explode in a shower of sparks, plunging everything into darkness, but it still hurts too much to open her eyes. She feels the lightness again, the laws of physics bending to her whims.
Then pain, sharp as a lance, pierces her right shoulder blade. A tidal wave of electricity pours into her from that point. She convulses, shaking like a leaf. She tries to hold on to consciousness but it is too hard, too painful. The magic is a coward; she feels it flee, retreating from her fried nerve endings, squeezing into itself till it is a tiny pinprick of usurping life in her gut. She hates it in that moment. That revulsion is the last emotion to bloom as the taser peaks and the world collapses around her.
The world is like a sepia photograph when she awakes, bathed in tepid brown light. Her jaw aches, her throat is dry. She looks down instinctively and sees her arms and feet are shackled to a metal chair welded to the floor. The design of the chair is archaic. There is a butterfly syringe head taped to her forearm; the IV package it is attached to is empty. She cannot tell how long she has been in this room, but because the magic doesn’t sleep when she does, she knows that it’s been four days since they took her.
She is sure someone is watching her through the mirrored wall. She tries to reach the magic inside her but now that she needs it, it won’t come. It is barely a sliver and she is half afraid that she might be imagining it is still there. She waits, hoping that someone will come and talk to her, an external force to move the stationary object. She waits and waits, but no one comes. She thrashes against her restraints in frustration, chafing her wrists and ankles. Droplets of blood dripping off her mark time and still no one comes. Exhausted, she settles in for the long haul.
The door creaks open, alerting her. It has been hours at least. How many, she can’t say. She raises her head and sucks in a deep breath.
Dressed in a lilac jacket dress that perfectly complements her coal-black skin, with black pumps and pantyhose, her mother looks like something out of a noir film. There is no security detail with her. With the kind of power radiating off her, she doesn’t need security. Beneath her sleek grey hair, her mother’s pupils are ashen. Maki recognises the symptoms of end stage cataracts. It is disconcerting to watch these near-sightless eyes track her every move, even in the weird light. Her mother notices her staring and chuckles.
“My eyes? They’ll go white eventually. By then I’ll have already lost my sight. The price we pay for using the Sentience. But I’m one of the luckier ones. I doubt I’ll need it.”
Maki stays silent. Her magic is reacting to the presence of another user, ballooning to assert its presence. ‘Preening’ is the word that comes to mind. Her mother paces the room, her heels clicking on the ribbed Plexiglas floor. The sound is grating. Watching her gives Maki a chill, this woman is nothing like the person she ran away from. Her back is too straight, her gaze is too focused, her clothes too put together. Her mother’s movements are measured but graceful, as though she is moving underwater. But there is a lapse in her gait, a split second glitch that precedes everything she does. It’s almost gyroscopic, as though the world is slightly tilting to accommodate her. It takes a minute of watching for Maki to realise it is not her mother but the room that’s glitching, shifting to centre her – like everything else in her life.
“What happened to you?” Maki asks.
The knowing chuckle resurfaces. “After you left, I had no reason to pretend. No reason to fight what was inside me.”
Maki sighs. “You know why I ran away: You told me to.”
“Yes, I did.” Her mother says, idly scrutinizing her nails. “But I was a drunk, depressed woman; you didn’t have to listen to me.”
“I was eight years old.”
Maki realises why her mother keeps pacing the room. The moment she stops moving, she starts to levitate, only slightly. It is almost beautiful to see the magic fully symbiotic with its host.
“Do you know what that did to me, when you told me to go?”
“Oh, that,” her mother scoffs. “I was only trying to be a better mother to you than mine was to me. You know she never told me about the Sentience? Pretended not to notice when I levitated stuff, when I started to read minds, even as her own Sentience turned her into a bowed old hag. The day I killed her, she was still denying.”
“Magic.” Maki murmurs.
Maki raises her voice. “It’s a magic, the thing inside us.”
Her mother gives her a strange look then shakes her head. “No honey bee, it’s not that simple. The thing living inside us is not magic; it’s an advanced parasite we call the Sentience. One not hundreds. It found a way to separate its component cells and transplant itself into the First Generation: the women who started the industrial revolution.”
She gestures with her finger and the room expands, groaning from the stress of reconstituting itself. Maki’s chair shrinks, immobilizing her even more. Maki struggles not to howl.
“What you call magic is its framework. All its cells are still connected by telepathic links. We the hosts strengthen that link with our bodies, and in return we get to use that telepathic highway to manipulate the things and people trapped within its matrix. With each generation, our bodies get stronger, better at supporting its power.”
Maki can feel her Sentience vibrate inside her. Every inch of her roils and her core burns so brightly she is afraid she’ll belch fire if she opens her mouth. She fights the Sentience silently with the techniques she learned from years as a runaway: breathe slow, focus on a single point, breathe some more. She understands now why sometimes her Sentience tries to possess her for no reason; this proximity to another cell is driving it crazy.
“You could have gone anywhere! Why did you stay even though you knew what this thing is?”
“Awwww,” her mother crows, “you know nothing about what is inside you. Do you know why this place is named New Lagos? The Sentience won’t leave the lagoon. My guess is there is something in its filthy depths that makes us able to host its cells. Your grandmother dared to leave, but then again she was always a fool.”
Maki hesitates. “My grandmother?”
Her mother’s façade slips, but for a second. “My mother… She only lived to be thirty four. I killed her myself when I was fifteen. She welcomed it. There is nothing worse than having a Sentience but refusing to manipulate it. Using the Sentience has a price, but so does fighting it. She was idealistic, like you. What I did to her was a mercy. A mercy I now regret never extending to you.”
White hot rage erupts inside Maki and she tries to lunge for her mother. The restraints catch at the last minute, halting her mid-lunge. The shackles have broken her skin again and a single rivulet of blood travels down the arm of her chair.
Her mother’s filmy eyes slant into a murderous glare. She flicks her wrist and the room tilts sharply, throwing Maki against her restraints. She twists her hands and the chair mimics her movement like a marionette, its metal limbs contorting around Maki’s body into a grotesque wireframe cocoon. Her mother gestures again and the cocoon sails across the room until the tines protruding from the frame trap her against the far wall.
“I should have never had a child,” she says. “I never wanted one. I wanted to end the generational cycle. But I was naïve and the Sentience had turned me into a raving sex freak, denying me its power until you were born. That is how it works. But history won’t repeat itself – not if I have anything to do with it.”
Alien energy surges through Maki. Finally, she acknowledges it and lets go of the reins. The result is orgasmic. Her body flushes with delight and every inch of her feels alive. She can see hundreds of shimmering bands of energy, a lattice that engulfs her and her mother.
Maki’s Sentience reaches for the nearest band and drains energy from it. She spasms violently, her body pries the metal cage she’s trapped in out of the wall and hurtles it into the air. It shatters into bits of twisted metal.
Her mother’s eyes widen and the room is suddenly flooded with white light. A part of the wall has slid open and men in misshapen green uniforms and tasers swarm the room. A single thought is enough to divert a band of energy that hardens like taffy and pins them to the wall. She commands the band to tighten and it constricts; the men scream in terror.
“If you let me go, I promise not to kill them.”
Her mother cackles, and flicks her wrists. The band Maki has manipulated around the policemen thins into a rope with the consistency of a fishing line. Her mother closes her hand into a fist and the rope tightens, threading their necks like an iridescent necklace. None even has time to gasp before the rope slices clean through their necks. Heads roll grotesquely across the floor between them and the band returns its original form.
Her mother cleans blood from her cheeks with mild disgust. “Don’t underestimate me.”
Maki reaches telepathically for the biggest energy band and pulls it to herself. She can hear the distant murmurs of the lives of other hosts through sift through it. It is disconcerting.
When her mother’s wrist starts to move, she is ready. She drapes herself in the energy, willing it to coat her. Her Sentience is all too eager to oblige. She fans the energy out, repelling it from her Sentience with all her strength. It floods the room like a giant wave. Her temples start to ache and her vision blurs momentarily. The force of the sonic wave sends her mother spiralling. The room starts to tilt and the older woman flails, skidding in the drying blood.
Maki sees it as an opening. She lets the Sentience lift her into an energy band and shoot her forward, towards the sliding door which starts to yawn at her approach. Just a few feet left, she thinks and she pushes herself harder. The Plexiglas room veers sharply to the right and she slams into the side wall. She tries to manipulate the room but the energy doesn’t seem to respond to her anymore.
Her mother is now on her feet, bloodied and fuming. She makes a series of deft swats with her hands and the energy dances, swaddling Maki and constricting her until she sees spots dance before her eyes. She heaves violently for air but she is too tightly wound. The Sentience is a drum beating in her skull, nagging for control. She cannot concentrate long enough to silence it, she’s dying.
She feels her Sentience spread its consciousness and a sharp jolt of energy whips through her, splicing the cocoon. It dissipates instantly and she keels forward, gasping for air. She manages to lift her head up. The horror of what she sees makes her blanch. Her mother is nailed to the wall by the interrogation chair, its aluminium legs mangled into tines. Her head lolls lifelessly to the side, her hazel eyes obscured by cataracts. Maki starts to cry.
Then her mother’s body begins to thrash expanding her wounds. Her neck straightens mechanically and her mouth opens wider than any human should be capable of. What pours out is a foot-long worm with moist, fetid skin streaked with blood. Tiny pockmarked holes across its length hold inverted eyestalks. Maki tries to scream but her larynx seizes up. The thing starts to crawl to her. She tries to stand but her joints have also locked. She feels her Sentience exerting control and dread fills her. The thing crawls into her lap, leaving a trail of slime. She struggles harder, but it’s futile, nothing moves.
It slugs over her shirt, between her breasts and then coils around her neck, lengthening till it is three feet long. Her jaws unhinge at the behest of her own Sentience and the new Sentience slips its amorphous head down her throat. The sensation is one of the worst things she’s ever felt; nausea without of the relief of vomiting. With a tiny flick against her palate, the new Sentience finishes its journey into her. Feeling returns, first to her face, then her limbs. She manages to stand, struggles to make sense of what happened. She can feel the nauseating sensation of her Sentience making space for this new thing, expanding in ways she never thought possible. She knows now that her Sentience is not on her side and that her body, just a shell, is ready to betray her.
With two inside her, the bands of energy seems stronger, corporeal even. There is no time to dally, not now. Surviving the moment is her only concern. She runs into the hallway and her senses expand. She can feel the girls abducted in the raid, like flickers of light. She senses Liesl, three floors down, restrained. And others. Hundreds more, sparkling like lights at the corners of her eyes. Their pain is tangible.
She knows they are coming for her but she cannot leave all those girls in the hands of these people. She sinks her fingers into an energy band, connecting to it. She forces it to thicken, not just the one but all the bands that encompass the building. They join at the edges and grow into sheets that traverse each floor. There are thirty-four floors, two hundred and seventy-six girls, two thousand people in total. The amount of information that the bands can collect astounds her.
She sends a command and the sheets increase in density. Beads of sweat pop up on her forehead from the effort of what she is doing. The building starts to plummet. The force finds the mechanism that keeps the doors shut and fries them. Doors start to open, popping out of place with a mechanical shlick. Restraints twist and spring open. The building finally slams into the earth with a sickening thud, bringing everyone to their knees. Shrieks of joy as the girls realise they are free confirm that her mother was telling the truth: the neural pathway works.
Through the plexiglass door she can see the vague shapes of policemen as they appear at the end of the hallway holding tasers, she can hear their muffled screaming. Shots ring and the door fractures. A few kicks bring it down. She waits as long as she can to give the other girls time, then she flees, turning the first corner. She hears a taser barb sing past her ear, a few inches shy. She calls to the Sentience but it doesn’t respond. She is on her own.
Running seems futile so she obeys, turns to the sound.
“Help me!” She whispers to the Sentience under her breath.
At the other end of the corridor is a phalanx of kevlar suits and muscled bodies, arms outstretched, weapons pointed. She senses her Sentience awaken but only slightly.
Then she feels it, the first pang. A rawness in her throat, a hunger lower down.
It wafts in the air, pheromones. Her body responds to it, shuddering. She can smell them from across the hallway. The policemen. Sweat on each of the male officers, distinct like perfume notes, separating them, picking out the most virile, the most likely to impregnate her.
How easily you could get any one of them to sleep with you. Just a thought, one energy band.
Her thighs grow slick at the thought of it.
She digs her fingers into her fist, presses her legs together.
“What the hell is wrong with me?!” She screams, startling the policemen.
The epiphany is as subtle as a brick to the face. The parasite needs to be transferred from one generation to the next. Through parturition. From to mother to daughter. Her Sentience wants this. It has slowly orchestrated everything to bring her to this point. Even now, it is subtly manipulating her, trying to override her logic with hormones. It is growing stronger; she is losing control of her body. She remembers her mother’s words, realises they were earnest, not vicious.
I didn’t want a child… I tried to break the generational cycle. The Sentience forced me…
“How did I miss this? How?” She whispers in disbelief.
Looking through the window beside her, she can see the girls, nearly a hundred and twenty feet below her, pouring out onto the street like a swarm of brightly coloured insects. They are oblivious to what she now knows: Each one of them is destined to be forced into a standoff with their mothers, doomed to matricide for the survival of creature within them. Saving them might not have changed anything. Grief engulfs her.
There is a corridor to the right but she knows she won’t make it that far without getting caught. She cannot concern herself now with the future; all that matters is now, escaping those men, breaking the cycle. The window, three paces away, is her only chance. She strafes hard, then throws herself at the pane, a hail of taser barbs pouring in her wake.
The glass breaks on impact and she sails, momentarily weightless.