Prologue: Enugu AD 2156

 

In the afternoon, when most of the staff are asleep, I race myself to the top of the stack. I managed to get there in just over three minutes last time. Ebuka said he’d done it in one and of course he was exaggerating, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to bring my time down to a round two. I race my past self, occasionally slapping the coms when I pass them, just to make sure she knows I’ve got there before her.

When you’ve done this sort of thing a lot, you learn which pains to ignore and which pains you really shouldn’t. My thigh muscles are straining. My heart is pumping away. My lungs expand and contract with air as if they could be doing this all day long. It is a good feeling when I run like this. In Biology we are studying mammalian anatomy and I can remember Professor Chiang’s notes, his pointer striking the different parts of the body as he tells us about their function and behaviour under stress. With each strike against the gram, I focus on one part of my body: my head, with the neck muscles holding my skull in place, making sure it doesn’t crash into my vertebrae; my brain surrounded by fluid, cushioned against the blow from each brutal step; cartilage in my knees keeping the bone ends apart as I bend and stretch my legs. It is amazing to think of everything working together, in that neat way no one notices until they do. I don’t know why some people don’t like running, like ma-nna. He always gives me one of his looks when he sees me returning to our apartment just as he is waking from his siesta.

“I have fathered a lunatic,” he always says, but then he’ll pour me some juice and we sit and talk about whatever it is that he’s planning to do in the evening. Usually he has to tutor some students, but sometimes there are meetings with the other researchers and other times, very rare times, with members of the Board. I always say that I’d rather be a running lunatic than a scientist one and he always pretends to be shocked.

His face is always so funny, it makes me laugh, which you shouldn’t do when you’re running, I know.

I am two levels away from the stack-heights when I notice the weather cast on the com screen. It is starting to rain, he says. I slow down for a few moments to read the notice more closely – not long enough for past self to quite catch up, though – and then accelerate. The view from the top of the stack is always amazing, but it’s nicer when the sky is clear, especially when you’re already in a good mood. I reach the final level and I am so relieved that the sky is still bright blue that I almost forget to jog on the spot to cool down. I look out of the window. My watch says I made it in exactly two and half.

The rain must be approaching from the other side of the city because there isn’t a grey cloud to be seen. The Sun is shining brightly and the other city stacks glitter with reflected light, as do the curving tracks of the shuttle service from amongst the trees. The older concrete houses gleam with their brightly painted walls and aluminium roofs. There’s still be some water from the rain last night, because even the leafy tops of the forest glisten.

A breeze passes by. It makes me want to escape through the hatch like we did the last time the three of us came up here. You don’t know how tempting it is – we were stuck inside class all day crunching at past papers because the WAYEK is coming close and then we had a class detention because no one was taking it seriously enough. It’s true we weren’t very sensible, but there’s only so many examinations you can take before you go insane. It wasn’t as though we were talking that loudly.

To the south east, I see the afternoon bullet shuttle rush into the station below. The last time I went on one was when I’d gone to visit Aunty Chiamaka, but it’d been a bit of a disappointment. You go so fast, you don’t really feel it. You only know you’re moving when you open the blinds and see the forest rushing past. Ma-nne says that in the old days, you had to travel by road most of the time, which amazes me. Nigeria is such a big country, it seems impossible to think of travelling across it without the shuttle service, but she says that never stopped anyone. I can only imagine the journeys must have been very tiring.

Up and up and up I go. My legs are burning but I love that feeling. I like knowing I’m pushing myself. That I am struggling. That I might fail but I won’t because I’ll keep going.

Upwards, always upwards.

When I’m older, I think I’ll go bungee jumping from one of the masts. I’ve always wondered what that would feel like, slicing through the air, speeding towards the ground only to be jerked upwards again. It must be such a rush, like Ghosting in the datastream.

My stomach rumbles. Thank god there’s noone else around to hear it as its actually pretty loud. Once that happened to me in an examination room and it was so embarrassing the way it echoed around the hall. Only the examiners could hear it though as it was a French listening exam and everyone else was wearing headphones but I could feel it. I really need to eat something. I head off for one of the restaurants in the leisure station. They are used to us kids coming and going, especially the older ones. So long as we behave when there are guests around, they don’t run us off. I think they get bored serving up here as we don’t get many tourists. Some of them give us food for free, especially if you’re a doctor’s kid. Ma-nna is jus a researcher, so I have to rely on the tokens he has left over.

The first two are deserted, with the workers lounging on the expensive chairs, smoking and laughing. They’re off-stream as well so I know there’s no chance of me getting a good deal there. I also know they’d think I was being rude if I disturbed them, so I move on. The third one has some older students eating at the tables and I hurry on, hoping none of them see me. They look like they’re having a celebration of some kind. They’ll probably be very drunk and trust me, no one likes to be around drunk upper-schoolers.

My wireless eventually picks up a flow which promises some special discounts and amazing new dishes to try out. It even has a critic going on about how delicious the food is interrupting their advert the whole time. They’re so busy talking over each other I don’t even hear the name of the restaurant and almost miss the directions until I find myself in a familiar bit of the food court.

It’s my lucky day.

When the waiters see me coming, one of them waves and beckons me inside. I know him – he used to be one of ma-nne’s students – but I’ve forgotten his name. All I remember is that he once got very ill and failed his PhD and vanished for almost a year. Robert, the maitre d’, is there as well, just creeping out from behind a tall desk. I say good afternoon as I enter.

“Good afternoon, Miss Liu,” he bows deeply and I laugh, curtseying in return. The other waiters laugh as well – on slow days they have no choice but to use us students as practise. It’s a good arrangement. Usually we end up helping out in the kitchens. “I take it you’ve been going for your afternoon run? Did you beat your previous time?”

“Not by much,” I reply. “I didn’t know you’ve got a new menu.”

“We’ve changed chefs again,” he sighs, puffing out his cheeks.

“And you’re famous! You have an actual critic on your stream!” Two waiters appear by my side. It seems I’ll be getting the full treatment.

“A friend of mine returning a favour,” he shrugs. “But it sounds good doesn’t it?”

“I guess, but he keeps interrupting the advert,” I take a seat.

Robert laughs. “The bridge keeps messing up. No one can be bothered to keep shifting it so we’re keeping it that way. We think it adds character. Well, we say it adds character. Now then, miss. If I may recommend the tempura okra slices…”

I can order pretty much whatever I want for lunch. Robert won’t mind if my tokens don’t cover all of it so long as I help clear up afterwards, which I always do. When I’ve finished eating and checked my forum, I head off to the kitchen, and slip on a spare workers’ pinafore. The others mostly ignore me and gossip about adult things which I try to ignore because it’s always really stupid but there are a few other kids around so I hang out with them until ma-nne says I have to hurry on home because ma-nna is going soon. It’s weird because I don’t remember ma-nna saying he was going anywhere tonight but maybe I just forgot. Sometimes I think I must be the worst daughter ever.

“Ma-nne’s giving a talk tomorrow,” I tell Robert as I leave. He loves to hear about the latest research. “You should come. I can give you an invitation, so you can get the evening off.”

He laughs. “We’ll see, nne,” he says in Igbo.

“It’ll be good to see you outside of the restaurant again,” I reply. Ma-nne and I once bumped into him and his partner in the shopping complex. His wife – I think they’re married – is very pretty and they’re expecting their first child in the autumn. I really hope it’s a girl. I’d like to have a little sister.

Ngwa, go on,” he says.

I walk down to our apartment. There are more people around now, mooching around like zombies as they’ve just woken up from their siestas. I have to stop and say good afternoon to all of them because you know there’s someone who’ll complain to ma-nne that you didn’t say hello. It doesn’t take long exactly, but it slows me down. I hope ma-nna hasn’t already left to give his lecture by the time I get home.

He is just closing the door when I finally arrive and I race to catch him, winding him the way I always do when I collide into his arms. “I was wondering where my lunatic had gone to,” he says gently into my hair. “Have your knees finally given out?”

“There were so many people on my way down so I had to keep stopping,” I roll my eyes. “I beat my time by almost half a minute, though.”

“My congratulations,” he says.

“Is it just a lecture today?” I ask. He swipes the key card and opens the door for me. “If I get dressed really quickly now, can I come? Ma-nne is too busy getting ready for her talk tomorrow…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, my crazy sparrow,” he shakes his head, half-laughing. It sounds much nicer in Canton than it does in English. “I didn’t think you’d want to come or I would have said. It’s a guest lecture out west, you see.” I don’t see, but I nod anyway. He pinches my nose. “I’m sure your mother could do with some help. You know how she gets before a seminar.”

I do, which is why I don’t particularly want to help her. I think Ma-nna can see it in my face because he laughs again.

“I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow,” he says. “I’m free all day so I’ll let you know how it went. Say a prayer for me.”

I roll my eyes and he laughs, wagging a finger at me. Even though I don’t really believe in it, I probably will but only just because he asked. Ma-nna is religious but he knows I don’t take it seriously. He doesn’t mind, though.

I watch him go all the way down to the end of the hall and give a final wave before I enter our apartment. Maybe I’m a bit old to get silly about it, but I always miss my parents a lot when they go out without me, even if it’s just down to the shopping complex. I suppose it’s because I’m the youngest. All my older siblings have moved out, so it’s just us three left.

“Ma-nne?” I call as soon as I enter the apartment.

Nne?” She replies. From her voice I can tell she’s in the library. “Nne, nnoa.” By the time I get to the sliding door, she’s already there to greet me. “You took a long time. Your papa was getting worried about you.”

“I had lunch at Robert’s,” I tell her.

“Oh good. I won’t have to make supper then.” She heads back for the library.

“Can I have noodles if I feel hungry?” I ask, following her. She nods but I can tell she isn’t really listening. She’s always in her own world. “How is your presentation coming?”

“It is finished, but I need to make sure my references are in order. The professor has been unavailable, since.” She makes a face. “Your cousin Ife will be coming this evening to keep you company.” She gives me a shrewd sort of look.

“Uh-oh,” I say and she laughs one of her strange short laughs.

“I was just thinking that Ife can do your hair whilst she’s here, if she doesn’t think it’s too beneath her,” ma-nne adds, drifting off again. When she comes back down to earth, we both laugh. Ife works as ma-nna’s assistant and sometimes she can be a bit haughty with it. I like her though, because she always helps me with my homework. She can explain things better than the teachers do.

I am about to leave when I remember my manners. “You don’t need any help, do you?” I ask.

“Of course not,” ma-nne gestures for me to go.

“You’ll be excellent,” I reassure her, feeling a little guilty at my relief. Ma-nne is the sort of person who makes herself nervous at everything, especially when you wouldn’t think she’d need to be. Richard, my older brother, is like that as well. Thankfully, I take after ma-nna. We both agree that being nervous just wastes your strength.

Usually I’d go on the silk for a while, but today I am so tired from my jog and the meal at Robert’s, that I fall onto my bed and go to sleep.

*

The sky outside is a dark purplish blue when I wake. If I start practising my cello now, I won’t disturb the neighbours so much, as most of them come back home from work much later, so I spend an hour on scales and easy pieces, then another one on my symphony before I do any homework. Well, when I say I do my homework, I mostly mean browsing on the silk. There’s some speculation in one of my forums about Marit Durham’s next book and someone has commented on the animated RPG doramokuri Chika and I made. Physics homework can wait.

Ife is already there when I go down to the kitchen to get a drink, standing by the door like she was waiting for me. She corrects her glasses and tuts at me like she always does, even when I haven’t done anything wrong.

“You should wear contacts, or get your eyes fixed,” I shake my head at her. Ife gives me a sarcastic look.

“My eyes are too bad,” she explains for what must be the hundredth time. I know for a fact she’s wrong but I’m sure she knows it too. It’s just an excuse. “And you always hear about what happens if the surgery goes wrong,” she continues. “I’d rather wear glasses.”

Ife’s related to me on ma-nne’s side and sometimes I think everyone in ma-nne’s family has the same nervous gene that always has something to worry about. For ma-nne it’s her talks and for Ife it’s her eyes. “How are you, Ife?” I ask. She rolls her eyes like I’m wasting her time. I was just being polite. She’s so so – if I hadn’t said anything, she’d start going on about how rude people of my generation are like she’s a hundred years old or something.

“I am well enough. Look, if you’d like me to do your hair, I can do it now before my drama starts. There’s only some nature documentary on at the moment. I don’t mind missing it. Some of it.”

“Oh! Is it an Attenborough?” I ask, following her into the living room. He is one of ma-nne’s heroes, even though he is long dead. When it’s very late, they schedule some of the vintage programmes and I have always liked his documentaries best. He’s one of the Guides through Science in elementary school. I had no idea he’d been an actual person until ma-nne told me. He and Feynmann are my favourites because they’re the nicest (well, Feynmann is funnier) when you get something wrong. The others can get really rude.

“No. It’s a new one. Something about Yellowstone park. The one in America?”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. An ex of mine studies lava flows there, and she said she’d be on it. I haven’t caught her yet.” She plays it and then sits on a chair, fussing about with the pillows. Then she looks up at me like I’m the one who’s keeping her waiting. I hate that expression. It makes her look like a cat, a really evil one.

“OK, OK!” I run back to my room to get the combs and my homework.

“Walk, please!” Ma-nne shouts from the library. That’s when she always catches me.

Ma-nna calls it one of life’s ironies that I am so terrible at physics because almost everyone in my family is a physicist, or really into science. Richard does stuff in theoretical cosmology; Ebele is into neuroscience; Adi makes nuclear weapons; my parents are biophysicists. Grandma and Grandad Nwaogbe work in AI and my Chinese grandparents were Nanoengineers. I don’t think I’m that bad – I’m not failing or anything – it’s just that my grades aren’t as good as they could be and I do seem to need a lot of help to get there. As she plaits my hair, Ife explains some of the Physics to me. She isn’t very patient but usually it makes sense after the first explanation so she doesn’t have to tug at my scalp which is what she does when she gets annoyed. She still hasn’t finished my hair by the time her drama starts, so she pauses it until we finish.

“Ma-nne didn’t give me a curfew or anything?” I ask.

“You’re too old for a curfew, and you’re too old to be calling her that. What is it with you kids and your silly languages?” Ife rolls her eyes, crossing her feet beneath her. I can tell she isn’t really annoyed – she just likes to find something to complain about. “Just don’t ask any questions and you can stay up.”

The drama isn’t as fun as I thought it would be. I laugh at bits that are meant to be serious and don’t find the jokes that funny. I can tell I’m annoying Ife but it’s too early to go to bed and I have to stay up to hear what the other forum members are saying, just in case they’ve read my post. Maybe it’s because the channels are wide open, but I keep getting that weird pressure that feels like it’s coming from inside your head which is what always happens when the tuner is sorting a busy stream. I’m hoping that means lots of people have replied. It gets a bit annoying though. Something keeps trying to get through but so far it’s silent apart from my qu-journal reminding me of my homework schedule which I am obviously not keeping.

I hate it when this happens. Ma-nna always says that whenever something doesn’t work, we should think how amazing it is that we can even expect it to work at all but that’s just him. He’s always too cheerful. I just find it really irritating how things can suddenly stop working for no reason, right when you need them the most.

Then there is Silence.

Ife gets out her wireless and starts swiping at the holoscreen something so I know she’s getting Nothing too. “Are you hearing it?” She asks me and I nod. “So it’s not just a hacked tuner. Oh!” She says, lighting up. “Yeah they’re all getting it too.” Someone’s replied but they suddenly flash off the screen like the whole network has gone down.

Just like that, the programme is suddenly stopped and a solemn newsreader appears against a plain blue background.

“There has been a reported attack in the University of Lagos this evening.” He starts. I look up into his dark eyes and at first – as stupid as it sounds – I almost believe he is talking to me. “At 2040 this evening, an explosion took place in the Obasanjo conference hall…” Ife and I both glance at the clock at the same time. It is now 2130.

“Aunty!” Ife cries out, leaping to her feet and running to the library. I can’t make out the rest of what the newsreader is saying and turn the volume up. The Silence is still on.

“…employees of the leading water company Aquachen and various other political and scientific representatives. Police believe the explosion to be a deliberate act, with several terrorist organisations as the main suspects…”

“Did it say who’s–?” Ma-nne enters the room with Ife following her close behind. “Rewind it!”

“It’s an emergency broadcast. You can’t just rewind it,” Ife wails. “We’ll have to wait for the actual news. That’s on at 2200.”

Ma-nne taps her wireless then swears violently and I jump to hear her use such words. “Sssh!” I snap, to my own surprise, my heart thudding painfully in my chest. “He’s still speaking!”

“Please stand by for further updates. Good night,” he finishes and a lady’s voice announces that the scheduled programming will resume.

Who was it that said every action has an equal and opposite reaction? Well, they’re right. The Silence goes and then comes the Deluge. The tuner mutes it, distorts it so I only hear my Friends and Family stream but it still hits hard all the same. We all sway slightly. The room even starts to shake a bit on the edges of my vision.

I see ma-nne and Ife exchange looks. “Papa was lecturing there, wasn’t he?” I ask. I don’t know why I asked such a stupid question. I already know the answer.

Ma-nne whispers something into her hands. She draws them back through her hair, pulling her hair so tight it makes her face look like it’s been stretched.

“Aunty…” Ife murmurs and takes Ma-nne into her arms. I pause the drama. Ma-nna is fine, I am somehow convinced of that. He’s always fine. I try not to look at ma-nne and Ife. Their silence and stillness is making me doubt. They’re always worrying for no reason, I remind myself. That’s just what they do.

Ma-nne holds a fist to her mouth and she bites on her own knuckles. She doesn’t seem to feel Ife’s arms around her. I try to catch her eyes but her expression is blank. I bet there are a hundred horrible scenarios a second playing through her clever mind right now.

I need to distract her. It’s what she needs when she lets her worries grow too loud in her head or she won’t hear anything else, not even a Deluge.

“Would you like something to drink, nne?” I ask her. Ma-nna would have asked the same thing.

“What?” She looks at me.

“I’m going to make you something to drink,” I say.

“Oh,” she lowers her fist and her hands loosen. “Tea. No sugar.”

“No milk?” I ask.

“I never have milk,” she frowns at me like I’ve grown an extra head.

The comm rings when I am in the kitchen, getting some tea for ma-nne and Milo for Ife. Ma-nne answers it almost immediately.

“Hello, who–?” She asks, and I think she was expecting someone else because her voice changes. “Ah, g-good evening. Yes we’re fine. You’ve already heard…?” She leaves the room taking the phone with her so Ife and I can’t hear the conversation. We both look at each other, Ife wide-eyed and confused and my expression probably matching hers.

When Ma-nne comes back, I’m about to ask her who it was but the phone starts ringing again. Ma-nne swears but answers it anyway.

“Yes.” Ma-nne says. I try to keep calm as I finish the drinks, placing the cups on a tray which I then carry out to the living room. Ife is listening with a sharp look on her face, but ma-nne’s back is turned towards me so I can’t read her expression. “Oh… he was–? He is–? Do you know what’s..? Fine. And he’s…? Yes, of course I understand what this means, but you can at least tell me where he is now!” There is more talking on the other end of the line. “Very well. Thank you for calling.”

“Aunty?” Ife asks.

It’s hard to describe the sound that suddenly comes out of her mouth. It’s like she’s screaming into a pillow even though she isn’t.

“Aunty! Aunty you’re scaring Chizoba!”

She clutches her head in her hands and I can see her fingers dig into her skin.

“Aunty. What did they say?”

Her fingers loosen but she’s still holding her face. “They say they have him. He’s being taken to the hospital.”

Ife is shaking. I don’t know how to tell her how sure I am that ma-nna is alright but then I realise that’s because I am no longer so sure. “Do they know who did it?” Ife finally asks. “The explosions, I mean.”

“They don’t know.”

Ife looks like she’s about to faint.

“Ife, please. I don’t know. They don’t even know.” Ma-nne sighs, and her eyes close. There is no expression on her face now, and that’s the look I hate the most. The empty look.

“Nne,” she says to me and I can see she is starting to cry. “I think… I think you ought to go to bed.”

I knew she was going to say that but I can’t be bothered to argue. My tongue feels like it’s weighted down. I feel so sorry for her that I say goodnight and hurry up to my room. I go onto the silk. There are a few short accounts on the EBC and the Al Jazeera feed, which is actually really annoying because I forgot to turn off the welcome script. The Company newsfeed is still stuck on yesterday’s profits.

They say that the bombings occurred simultaneously in three buildings. One went off in the middle of a corporate seminar, the other during a lecture and another in the foyer. From the pictures taken at the site – and the news forums are being flooded with them – you can see that the conference hall is now just a horrible crow’s nest of fire and blackened steel all piled up against one another, jutting into the air. It reminds me of the dead animals you sometimes see, with their open jaws baring teeth to the sky as they lie on their backs, bellies ripped open by vultures. There are people being brought out with bloodied faces, gaps of dark red where their eyes should be, some with burn masks stuck to their raw faces. I switch off the stream and go to bed as quickly as possible. I still get nightmares about creepy things I read in books – I shouldn’t have looked at those pictures.

That’s when I realise what’s happened. The place where ma-nne should be in my head is empty. He has gone, and I didn’t even feel it.

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