2055, November 7th
Collapse + 6 years
Just as she’d said, Josephine showed up at noon. Naema was sitting outside her home when Josephine approached, wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. It didn’t fit in at all with the locale, but Naema supposed Josephine could get away with whatever she wanted.
Naema squinted up at her. “Hi.”
“Hello,” she replied. “Thanks for seeing me again.”
Naema shrugged. Josephine sat next to her and passed along her satchel. “More food.”
It contained food paste tubs and cans of vegetables, all bearing a Lakiran seal. They were less likely to be flagged as contraband, but that wouldn’t stop the Lakirans from accusing Naema of stealing if they found these.
“What is this for?”
“You. I picked them up from a convoy on the way.”
“Ah, you’re asking why I’m so interested in you, aren’t you?”
“Because you’re interesting. I’ve never met anyone who can prevent me from tinkering with their memory, not like you do anyway. I’d just like to get to know you.”
“And give me food?”
“The food is easy for me to come by.”
“You heard what my mama said yesterday? There is no such thing as something for nothing. What do you want?”
Josephine nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell you. You’re more than interesting. You’re special. You have a gift that makes you immune to me, just like I have a gift to make people forget me. In my whole life, I’ve only met a few people like us.”
“What other special people do you know?”
“I used to travel with a group years ago. A lot of strange powers with them. These days I’m with just one other. His name is Tan, and his power is neat. He’s lucky. When I found him, he was in a Chinese, mafia-controlled prison, and he was about to be transferred to the Lakirans as part of a trade deal.”
“He doesn’t sound lucky.”
“Tan likes to push his luck too far. Anyway, I broke him out, and now we’re on the run together.”
“How are they hunting you if they don’t remember you?”
“I can only work my power on people I see. And there are people of people back in the capital that I’ve never seen who very much want to capture me. You know about the exemplars, right?”
“Have you ever met one?”
“Never? Not even when the Lakirans took over here? Normally they line people up so they can scan everyone.”
“Too many people here, I think.”
“Hmm. Do you know that they can read minds?”
“I’ve heard people say that.”
“It’s true. And their powers come from people like us. It’s in those heavy tablets they’re always carrying around.”
“I hear it is technology.”
Josephine shook her head. “I tricked an exemplar into telling me about it. They call the powers flairs, and their queen can to turn other people’s flairs into strange drawings that grant the power to others. They would absolutely love to add Tan and me to their collection, but between our two powers, we’ve been okay. Except now their high exemplars are hunting us, and they’re immune to me.”
“I think they have a shield power. And with the Lakiran’s ever growing presence in the world, it’s getting harder and harder to hide, but if you can shut down my power, maybe you can shut down theirs too. That’s what I’m hoping anyway. If you can break those high exemplar’s shields, then I could actually get them to forget about us altogether. That’s why I’m interested in you.”
“Huh,” Naema said. “So you are superheroes on the run.”
“It sounds silly when you say it that way, but you do believe I can make people forget me, right?”
“Would you like to meet Tan? I know he’d like to meet you.”
“Why didn’t he come?”
“Our place is about an hour from here and… well, he’s lazy. I might be able to drag him down here another day if you’d like, but I’d really like it if you came.”
“You want me to go with you? I barely know you.”
Josephine shrugged. “I’ll get you more food.”
“Okay. Fine, fine.”
Josephine led Naema toward the Port Harcourt docks, near where they met yesterday. They reached a crowded market street tunneled by three-story apartment buildings. It was an impressive sight, but not compared to when Naema was young. Years ago, clothes vendors would have bolts upon bolts of colorful fabrics. Food sellers would have baskets full of spices, produce, and roasted goodies. Not these days. Food was nonexistent in this market—illegal and unavailable. And fabric was no more. Four years of winter had killed most cotton and flax plants. No wool, leather, or paper either. The only crafted items around were trinkets of glass, wood, and stone. Everything else—from metal, plastic, to synthetic fibers—were assembler-produced, but there was plenty of it.
Second-hand electronics were easier to come by than food nowadays. Everything was either imported from Lakiran or Alliance territory, or recovered from dumps. But all together, it was still a marvelous site with vibrant colors and captivating curiosities abound. The currency was food tokens. Not much, but compared to the economic corpses of some surrounding countries, Nigeria had survived well.
Josephine guided Naema by the hand so as not to lose her in the crowd. She led her down an alley and into a side building stairwell. Lounging on the steps were locals whom then navigated around. Most apartment doors were open. Naema saw crowded families within. Either Josephine had lived here a while or had worked them over with her power, because they hardly glanced at the passing white woman.
The door at the top was closed. Josephine knocked five times. Naema half-expected a secret password exchange, but instead, an old local woman opened the door wide and ushered them in. She kissed Josephine on both cheeks.
“Bienvenue, Josie,” the woman said.
“Merci, Maddi. C’est mon amie, Naema.”
“Oui, bonjour.” The hunched Nigerian greeted Naema just as warmly.
Naema followed Josephine into the main room. Pink shades covered the windows, casting a red hue on the room. In the corner, a glass plate television played at low volume. Children lounged on the tile floor before it, some crosslegged, others on their bellies with their heads propped in their arms. A folding table was behind them crowded with women, most likely the children’s mothers. They smoked brown cigarettes and chattered in french.
One was not like the others. Among the flock of Nigerian women was a bald Chinese man. He slouched in a chair watching the television with his arms crossed as though daring it to impress him. A cigarette dangled between his lips. This must be Tan.
He noticed Josephine and Naema and nodded slightly to acknowledge them. Everyone else greeted them like old Maddi had, giving Josephine hugs and pecks upon the cheek. Naema got similar treatment after Josephine introduced her.
Maddi appeared at her side. “Someting to drink, dear?”
“I’m okay,” Naema said.
“We have juice.”
It seemed to be the drink of choice. Many kids had plastic cups of opaque yellow, as did a few mothers.
“Okay. Thank you.”
Maddi smiled and bowed, grateful for the opportunity to serve.
After she disappeared into the kitchen, Josephine got serious. Her nod to Tan was subtle but clear: let’s get some privacy. Moments later found them in a bedroom. Josephine shut the door to close out the babbling chatter and the television. Josephine pulled up chairs. Tan slumped into one by a bedside table, where he placed the ashtray he brought from the other room. He stared at them with the same apathy he’d stared at the television.
“Naema, this is Tan. He and I have been on the run together for years.”
“Hi,” Naema said.
“His english isn’t good,” Josephine said, “but it’s not as bad as he’d like you to believe.”
“Who were all those people?” Naema asked.
“That was Maddi and her family. Everywhere we go, we make friends with locals who know the area. They’re friendly, and they won’t ask questions about the food I give them.”
A light knock came on the door. Maddi entered carrying a colorful plastic cup. She gave it to Naema. “Dere you go, sweetie. I leave you. I leave.” Smiling, she retreated, shutting the door behind her.
Naema tried the drink. Orange juice. She hadn’t had any since before the Collapse. It was more acidic than she remembered. She made a face.
“Sorry,” Josephine said. “Seventy percent assembled sugars and flavors, thirty percent concentrate. It’s the best we can get without going to the Americas.”
“I didn’t think there were any oranges left.”
“The Chinese have some in their greenhouses. Not many though. I can never find pure orange juice.”
“It’s all right. I like it.”
Josephine shifted moods. “So now that we’re here, Tan, would you like to show our guest your power?”
Tan’s reaction seemed unrelated to what she said. From his jacket pocket, he took out a pack of cigarettes and a deck of cards. The cigarette came first. With one lit between his lips, he took out the cards. As he shuffled, he stared out the window, or up at the ceiling— anywhere apart from the cards. He dealt five to Naema and to himself.
He motioned for her to take her cards. She did. He left his face down on the table.
“Five card stud,” he said. “How many?”
“How many cards?”
“I don’t know the game.”
He gave her a look of pure incredulity.
“You’ve never played poker before?” Josephine asked.
“Why don’t I help you play?” Josephine scooted over. “You’ve got a four, two sixes, a nine, and a jack. How about we keep your pair?” She tossed out three of Naema’s cards and drew three more. “Ah, three of a kind. Nice.” She laid the cards down for Tan to see.
With a casual flair, Tan turned his cards up for Naema to witness her defeat. When he finally glanced at his own hand, he did a double take.
A two, four, nine, queen, and king.
Josephine burst out laughing. Tan scooped up the cards and shuffled again. This time he closed his eyes.
“What?” asked Naema.
“He never loses?”
“Not when he’s dealing.”
Tan dealt out more cards, but these were all for himself. First he cut the deck and turned the top card up. Four of clubs. Then he shuffled again, cut, and drew another card. Seven of diamonds. This frustrated him. Dealing again, he laid cards out as though playing solitaire. Another frown. He tried whisking the remaining cards from one hand to the other by bending the deck and letting the tension shoot them in a stream. It would have been impressive magician’s trick, except several cards didn’t make the trip and fluttered to the ground. He glared at them as though they were troublesome students. Picking one up, he compared it to the dealt cards. His nasal huff told Naema that he didn’t like the result.
“See, Tan? I told you. Even when you’re not playing her.”
“So his power is cheating?” Naema asked.
“Not cheating,” Tan muttered.
“Yeah, it kind of is,” Josephine replied.
“I roll dice like everyone else. Not cheating.”
“But you know you have an unfair advantage.”
“Those pit bosses didn’t see it that way.”
He grunted and kept playing with his cards.
Josephine turned to Naema. “Like I said, Tan’s power is Luck… sort of. He’ll win any card or dice game he ever plays, as long as he has a hand in the random element. If someone else deals, he has no more chance than anyone else. My theory is that his power affects his involuntary movement, like trembling when you aim a gun. A subconscious part of him knows the future and picks the best one it can.”
“Neat,” Naema said plainly. “And this was his best future? Running from the Lakirans?”
Tan didn’t look up from shuffling, but his eyebrows rose, indicating that he too would like the answer.
“His power doesn’t look that far ahead, I think. The farthest we’ve confirmed is a few hours. It starts getting less reliable after that, and getting his power to do what we need is tricky. In casinos in China, he was arrested for fraud because his power got him into trouble.”
“Not fraud. False imprison.”
“False imprisonment, sure. He won so much that the mafia who ran the show noticed him. His power seems to like winning games more than it likes giving Tan an ideal future. If it really cared, it would probably have lost a few so the mafia wouldn’t have noticed him. But nope. Win after win. Tan actually thought it was his skills.”
Tan’s next breath was deeper than the rest. Naema sensed a well-worn argument.
“They took him,” Josephine continued. “They couldn’t figure out how he was winning, so they pinned some charges on him so they could keep him like a pet. He sat in their prisons until the Pacific coalition treaty passed. Some exemplars found out about him and wanted to take him for themselves. That’s when I showed up.”
“What would the Lakirans have done if they got him?”
“Same as they would do with me. Same as they would do with you if they found out about you. They would use our powers to further their empire. Right now they have mind reading and empathy sensing, and they use those against the people constantly.”
“Not yet. But they’re coming. Tan and I are here because this is one of the last places left where they haven’t brought their exemplars through to pick out everyone guilty of thought crimes. Imagine if they had the power to make people forget about the things they’ve done?”
“Yea, I guess.” Naema didn’t have any love for the Lakirans, but what they could or couldn’t do didn’t actually bother her that much. She’d hear rumors about how they were setting farm fields on fire down south, or how they would gun down protesters in India, but it was another world to her. “But what would happen to us?”
Josephine and Tan glanced at each other.
“We don’t know,” Josephine said. “but I’m sure it’s bad. Exemplars have hunted me for years now. One in particular, a high exemplar named Bishop. The queen personally assigned him to track me down. And since he’s a high exemplar, I can’t make him forget about me. The first time we met, he offered to bring me in. He said that the queen would treat me like a special guest, and that I’d live like royalty.
“I turned him down, and ever since then. His methods have since become more by any means necessary. Maddie and the others don’t know this, but we’ve put them in more danger than they know. Bishop has dragged away anyone who he finds out helped us. Several times, we’ve had to make quick escapes in the night. And Bishop is getting better. He uses drones more. I can’t erase a drone’s memory. And he’s finding us more easily as the Lakiran’s surveillance blankets the world.”
“How do you know he wouldn’t actually be nice if you just turned yourself in? You haven’t committed any crimes.”
“Because,” Josephine said. “I know who the high exemplars are. They’ve changed their names, and some of them don’t look the same, but I recognize them. They were the worst sons-of-bitches I’ve ever met.”
“How do you know?”
“Remember when I mentioned I used to travel with another group of gifted people?”
“They were that group. We traveled together for ages, and I was a bastard just like them…”