25. Spotters

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

Naema was waiting outside her shack when Josephine showed up. Today, however, Tan was with her. If Naema had thought Josephine stood out on the streets, that’s because she hadn’t seen Tan outside the house. Besides being the first Asian she’d seen in years, he wore shorts and sandals, and a wrinkled button down shirt over a wife beater. He was one umbrellaed coconut drink short of being a misplaced Hawaiian tourist.

“We’re going on a field trip today,” Josephine said.

“To where?”

“To right here.” She showed Naema a map on her phone. It was zoomed in on an intersection south west of Port Harcourt. It seemed to be a random location, but as they walked, Josephine explained.

“Tan and I have a game we play,” she said. “Actually, we have several, but this game plays like this: we open a map of the region, then he and I each take a turn rolling dice. We’ve made rules so we can use those dice rolls to point out a specific place on the map. I got a location, and so did Tan. You score if you go to where the dice pointed you and you find what you’re looking for either there or on the way.”

“So we’re going… here,” Naema pointed on the map, “because you picked it at random?”

“Exactly!”

“And there’s magically going to be something there?”

“It’s not magic. I mean, I guess it might be. Tan’s power is sending us out there so he gets a point, and therefore wins the game.”

“What are we supposed to find?”

“Exemplars.”

“Why?”

“I want to see what affect your power has on them.”

“Isn’t this dangerous?”

Josephine flapped her hand. “We’ll be fine.”

“If you say so.”

“Don’t worry. As long as you’re with me, no one will remember us.”

“Oh yeah,” Naema said. “Katherine, right?”

“Right.” Katherine had been the one who said Josephine should be able to extend her perception of self to include other people. She’d been right. With a practiced mental shift, Josephine could convince herself that the three of them acted as one. They were going to find an exemplar. Not her and the others.

The walk took forty minutes. Their destination was in a coastal area across the bay from one of the Niger delta’s old industrial districts, where pre-Collapse oil factories still loomed. They walked along a dirt road near a beach carpeted with glass and plastic. The buildings here were rowhouses, each mashed together with varying colors and dilapidation—like rows of old LEGOs amid laundry lines and bamboo scaffolds.

This wasn’t a place Naema would go alone. The people who tolerated living in these unmaintained buildings were only here to avoid the Lakirans. That meant crime and contraband. Not even the Lakirans bothered patrolling these places, not yet anyhow.

“Are you sure we’ll find an exemplar here?” Naema asked.

“Nope,” replied Josephine.

“Nope?”

“I mean nope. The dice have us going here. It doesn’t mean there’ll be anything there.”

“But what about Tan’s power?”

“We rolled dice on a small map. If there aren’t any exemplars around to find, then tough luck. The dice still have to show something. It’s like if Tan plays solitaire with missing cards. No amount of luck will fix that. And even if there was an exemplar to find, Tan might not have rolled the dice well enough. His power works in his subconscious micromovements, so if Tan picks a die up and drops it without shaking it, his power might not have enough chance to set things in motion.”

“I rolled good,” Tan said.

“Yes. He rolled well. I watched him. And look! I bet you this is it here.”

They came around a nest of buildings. A commotion was up ahead. A Lakiran prowler platform was suspended over the dirt road, a floor above the tallest building. On the road, peace officers were loading handcuffed Nigerians into large steel pods on the road. They were the same pods that would come down like meteors if a fight broke out near the food tents. Naema had never seen it happen, but she’d heard their distant thunderous claps, and she’d heard from others. The pods would crash down from the sky, their hatches would burst open, and a soldier would jump out with his gun already firing.

It seemed the pods could also ship people off. Once the officers secured their perpetrators into the pods and sealed the door, it would lift and arc toward the floating citadel over the bay.

Naema ducked behind a wall. Tan was already there. Josephine stared at the commotion.

“Looks like a bust,” Josephine said. “I don’t see an exemplar, do you?”

“This isn’t the place you pointed out,” Naema replied.

“But it’s where we’re meant to be. Tan gets a point if we see an exemplar along the way, and there should be one here. Lakirans don’t make busts without at least one exemplar present. Look around, see if you can spot him.”

“Me? No. You do it.”

“But we’re here to find out what happens when you see them.”

“They’ll drag me away.”

“No they won’t. I’m here. Besides, look.” Josephine pointed at the windows of several houses. People were leaned out to stare. “Everyone is watching.”

Hesitantly, Naema looked around the corner. Most of the action had already taken place. The soldiers were just escorting out those they arrested. A ring of small drones bordered the scene. Each was spaced equidistantly from each other and fixed as solidly in the air as the prowler up above. They were wall bots— devices that linked together to create invisible repulse barriers. No one could come or go from the scene, so there was no point in running.

The soldiers knew this, so with their job done, they waited about looking bored. In the prowler, a guard manned a large rail weapon attached to the craft. Even he wasn’t paying attention.

Soldiers came out of the building carrying crates and armloads of cans. It was a food bust. Just days ago, this would have spelled trouble for Naema’s family. Even if they didn’t get food from here, it meant more people would be lining up outside the food tents.

More soldiers emerged dragging detainees. Then behind them came a clean-cut man dressed in a white double-breasted coat. He carried a bulky tablet in his hands like a prophet carrying commandments.

Naema knew that was him immediately, but that didn’t stop Josephine from repeatedly poking her shoulder.

“That’s him. That’s him.”

“I know. Stop.”

“Are you looking at him?”

“Yea. Stop.”

The exemplar watched as more pods landed on site. These ones slowed before hitting the ground, making a gentle thump. Soldiers secured detainees inside and sent them off.

A higher ranking soldier approached the exemplar and chatted. He gestured toward the building. The exemplar glanced, and for the first time, looked down at his steel tablet. He frowned, tilted his head, then turned on the screen to navigate its menu.

I think it’s working.” Josephine said.

The exemplar batted the tablet as though it were a malfunctioning flashlight. Josephine shook Naema as though Naema were not psyched enough for her liking.

“Okay, stop. Can we go?”

“Not yet. Look away. I want to know if it comes back.”

Naema waited around the corner where Tan was smoking. Only Josephine watched. “He’s still fiddling with it,” she said excitedly. “I think it’s broken. Yes. It’s definitely broken. Look! No, don’t look. Just you, Tan.”

Tan didn’t come over. Josephine didn’t notice. “He’s trying to read minds now. It looks like he can’t do it, but I’m not sure. I’m going to go talk to him.”

“What?” said Naema.

“No,” said Tan.

“Just for a moment. I’ll erase their minds afterward. I just want to confirm if she broke it or just disabled it.”

“No,” Tan said again. “Mobcams. They see us. Exemplar Bishop come.”

“Mobcams?” asked Naema.

“Mobile security cameras,” Josephine replied. “They’re hard as hell to see.”

“Oh, you mean spy bots?” Those were hard to spot, but occasionally Naema would catch one out of the corner of her eye when she was in line at the food tents. They looked like metal baseballs covered in camouflaged grays and brown. Like everything else the Lakirans used, they moved around using repulsers, which meant when they weren’t moving, they were as still as the rusty buildings they hid among. Their movement was their best chance of seeing them, and they moved rarely. After a shootout at the food tents, a few had been camped around the building roofs nearby, constantly providing live feed to soldiers in offices miles away. They hung there motionless for days.

It made sense that the Lakirans would bring some on a bust. “What’s so bad about them?” she asked.

“Because I can’t erase a computer’s mind,” Josephine said. “If someone is watching through the Mobcam and they see me, they might report me. Might. That’s if I do anything suspicious. Or if they recognize me, which they won’t.”

Tan spoke. “You are the only white woman here. I am the only asian. Test is done. We leave now.”

Josephine glanced around the corner again. “There might not even be any Modcams.”

“We check. We find one, we go.”

“Fine, but quickly. Let’s set the exemplar at twelve o’clock.”

Tan pulled out dice. He and Josephine hunched down as though playing a game of jacks. Tan handed the dice to Josephine, who started to roll, but Tan stopped her and looked at Naema expectantly.

Naema understood. She turned her back on them and closed her eyes. “Will you at least tell me what you’re doing?”

“It’s another game,” Josephine explained. The dice rolled. “You can turn around.”

Naema did so. They’d tossed three dice.

“I call it Spotters. Look at this. The twelve-sided die shows five, so I look at my five o’clock.” She counted clockwise from the exemplar. “And this die indicates angle, and this one distance. So… the point I need to look at is about twenty meters underground. Okay then.”

Josephine stared purposely at the dirt for a few seconds.

“I don’t see anything.” She said it with absolute seriousness. “Score is zero-zero. Your turn.”

Tan took the dice. Naema turned around for him to roll. He read his results expertly and stuck his head around the corner. He nodded. “Modcam. Pink building.”

“Where?” Josephine looked. “I don’t see it.”

“There. Pink. By antenna.”

“You’re making it up. I don’t see… oh.”

“We go now.”

“Fine.” She cast one last glance back at the exemplar. “I’m pretty sure it’s broken though.”

As they walked back, Naema came up beside Josephine. “So you make games out of real life problems a lot?”

“When we can. Katherine was the one who taught me to ask questions about our powers. So we asked ourselves how we could use Tan’s power to help us survive. There are a whole lot of ways actually.”

“Like what? Does Tan roll dice when you travel?”

“He does, but I don’t know if it helps. Whenever Tan and I have to move, he rolls dice over a map of Europe or wherever. The object of the game is that we find someplace where we’re safe, but it’s… unreliable. We follow it anyway, but sometimes we run into trouble within days of moving somewhere. Once, his dice roll would have put us in the heart of Lakiran-occupied territory.”

“Why doesn’t it work?”

“I don’t know. Could be a lot of reasons. Maybe his power doesn’t look that far in the future. Maybe there just aren’t that many safe places to go anymore. We can play the game, but if there’s no way to win, then there’s no way to win. The dice still have to show something, just like how we might not have actually found an exemplar. If there were no exemplar we could find today, then the dice would have been actually random.

Josephine leveled her gaze on Tan. “The other reason our game might not work for traveling is because the winning conditions might not be what we agreed upon. We say we’re going to somewhere safe, but it’s fascinating how many times we end up in places with casinos.”

Tan kept walking and smoking as though he couldn’t hear her.

“Point is,” she said. “If there’s anything I learned from Katherine, it’s never stop asking questions. If you think you should be able to do something with your power, you probably can. You’ve just got to try.”

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