“And now, if one of these beautiful ladies would step forward,” said the performer. He ran along the perimeter of his small stage, which was nothing more than a portion of the street dictated by a crowd packed in a circle about him.
“He wants someone from the audience now,” Josephine said.
Naema knew what the man had said. She didn’t speak much french, but enough. Oni would be the same, and their mother certainly understood him. She’d grown up speaking more french than english. Josephine was really only translating for Tan.
From the crowd, the performer pulled a woman, who blushed and giggled. The man bantered with her for a minute, getting her name and what she did. Then he asked if she ever had dirty thoughts. She blushed. Of course she had. There’s no need to share them, he said, but has she ever been afraid that someone might pluck those dirty thoughts from her mind.
“And here we go,” Josephine said. “He’s got one too.”
After a little more flourish, this performer took out a whiteboard and her write a word down that no one, not even the audience, could see. Then he dramatically peered into her eyes as he tried to divine the answer.
That was one way to do it. The first street performer they’d seen had been more personal. Instead of trying to prove to the entire audience he could read minds, he’d just gone around looking people in the eye and listing facts about their childhood.
Of course, it had failed. The second performer they’d found had failed as well. He’d actually handed a strange totem over to an audience participant and invited them to try reading his mind. After they floundered it, he’d just about accused them of trying to make him look bad. His crowd had dispersed quickly after that.
This man too was already flailing. He made a few bad guesses, though those might have just been for humor or to build suspense, but then the bad guesses kept coming. The girl kept saying no. The performer made a few quips about how the girl’s dirty thoughts are crowding her mind, but hardly anyone laughed. He went back to peering into her eyes, but this time with serious concentration. Two more wrong guesses, and he admitted he just kept getting lost in her mind. He smiled and laughed it off, showing better humor about it than the other performers.
Finally he had the woman reveal the word on the white board. It was babouin, or baboon. Afterward, he excused himself, saying he would return as soon as his mental powers had recovered.
The crowd dispersed as he packed away his props.
“Take me to him,” Josephine said. Mama pushed Josephine’s wheelchair toward the man. She’d become Josephine’s caretaker after treating Josephine’s flechette wounds acquired during their escape last week. Josephine had been bedridden ever since, and after a week without any sign of Lakirans on their trail, she’d become antsy to get outside. Everyone had been. So after Tan stole a wheelchair, they came out as a group to explore Lyon’s famed Saône market.
Josephine reached the man. Naema, Oni, and Tan followed beside her.
“Pardon moi,” Josephine said.
The man turned.
Josephine was holding up the exact same kind of card. At first glance, it might have seemed like a credit card, as Naema had thought it was when Josephine took it from the first performer.
The man glanced at it, then looked about. He shrugged, as though to say what of it?
“So?” he said. “Good for you. You’re not going to ruin a man’s act, are you?” His french had switched to a fast local dialect that Naema had trouble understanding.
“No,” Josephine replied. “I just want to know where you got yours. We’ve met a few other people with these, but all the sites they recommend have been taken down.”
“Whatever. Just copy it.” The man took out a stack of playing cards, though instead of a number and suit, each one had a single glyph drawn on it with a marker.
So this man had had the same idea as the other performers: wow the audience with a display of mind-reading, then reveal that the powers could be anyone’s… for a price. The first was offering at twenty francs. The other went as high as one hundred. Interestingly, the cards this man possessed had only single glyphs on them, and none had the glyph that allowed copying, as described on the back of the sleek black card Josephine held.
“I would,” Josephine said, “but mine is broken.”
The man was flicking through his playing cards now. “Yes. Mine too. Can’t help you.”
“Where did you download the first one?”
“A site. I don’t remember.”
“How did you get to that site?”
“A forum. I said I don’t remember. It’s probably down now.”
“Here,” Josephine held up her tablet. “There’s a cafe just up the street. Could you show us where you got it? You’ll have to get a new one anyway. All your glyphs are broken now.”
“How do you know that?”
The man was still thumbing through his deck, but just holding them all in his hand answered his question. If a single glyph in that pack worked, he’d see through Josephine’s eyes just fine, but he couldn’t.
“Did you break these?” he said.
“No, but they’re broken. Just use our tablet. Come on.”
“I’ll get it on my own. Leave me be.”
“Okay then,” Josephine replied. “Show us where you got that glyph, or we’ll tell your audience that those cards you’re trying to sell are free online.”
She turned to Naema. In english, “Could you close your eyes for a second?”
Naema did so, as well as plastering her hands over her ears and humming. It actually made a difference. Eyes closed wasn’t enough anymore if she could hear that Josephine was right next to her.
A moment later, someone tapped her. Eyes open, the man was still there, but his plastic black card was in Oni’s hand. Josephine was scanning through a phone. Naema knew it was the performer’s, but the performer had returned to thumbing through his playing cards, hardly aware that the others were even there.
Josephine motioned for the group to move on. Up the street, Josephine sneered and handed the phone to Oni. “This doesn’t tell me anything. Go give it back.”
“Why?” asked Oni.
“Because she said so,” Mama replied.
“It’s not like he remembers you took it. Isn’t that your thing?”
“Oni…” Mama’s tone brooked no argument.
Oni ran back to the man. After tossing the phone into the startled man’s lap, he hurried back.
“Naema. Go home,” he said.
“No. Shut up.”
“You keep breaking them. We can’t try until you leave.”
“Boy,” said Mama. “Leave your sister alone.”
“But this is stupid. Why are we bringing her with us to find these?”
“I just want to know where they’re getting them,” Josephine said. “If these people would just tell me, we could have one for ourselves, but if we had one for ourselves, I could read their minds to find out, but then I wouldn’t need to. It’s silly. I know more about where these powers came from than anyone else, but we can’t get them because we slept through their release.”
“But Oni’s right,” Naema said. “What’s the point? Unless you get rid of me.”
“It could still be useful. If we got the file to assemble it, then we could print one out when we need it. Or just copy it somewhere safe. You could leave the room for a minute while we read whatever minds we need.”
“I just want to try it,” Oni said.
“That too,” Josephine admitted. “I’m curious what they’re like.”
“Then… what?” Naema said. “Do you want me to go home?”
“No,” replied Mama. “It is dangerous to split up.”
“The Lakirans are gone, Mama.”
“They know you are special, girl. They won’t give up.”
“It’s been a whole week,” Naema argued. “They weren’t even here in the first place. They were in Paris.”
“Look around, girl. Do you see see any other black people? I feel their eyes all day.”
“Whatever. I’ll just go home. It’s not like I’m missing much.”
Apart from a few street performers and clustered market stalls, the Saône market had been a dud. The Lakirans had been gone for a week. Food hoarding had started within an hour of their departure.
“But still,” said Josephine. “You don’t need to split up just for this. Besides, you can’t go home without me. Our generous hosts might remember that they don’t know you.”
“Then I’ll wait here.”
“No, Naema. We’re not going to leave you behind.”
“It’s no problem.”
“…Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine.”
Josephine dropped her parental facade. “Okay then! We won’t be long. Tan, can you find us another one?”
Tan nodded. After some dice rolls out of Naema’s view, he sauntered off in a direction.
Mama pushed Josephine along. Oni followed.
“Oni. Stay with your sister.”
“But I want to come. I want to see them too.”
“Fine. I’ll stay. You go. Push.” She gestured for Oni to take over as Josephine’s wheelchair assistant. He did so happily.
“I promise we won’t be long,” Josephine called over her shoulder.
“It’s fine,” Naema said.
The others left. It was nice of Mama to stay; Naema didn’t want to be completely alone, although it seemed like she should probably get used to it. This was going to be a common occurrence.
“Come, girl,” Mama said. “I want to sit.”
They sat on a bench nearby and watched people pass. Naema realized that this was the first time she’d been alone with her mother since before Josephine had entered her life. This past last week, Josephine and Tan had always been there. While cramped together hiding out in their current home, Mama had tended to Josephine’s legs. The two had been constantly together. By the end they chatted like Saturday evening bridge players. But now Josephine wasn’t here. Naema felt like she should say something.
Yet she and her mother simply sat together.
“You cold?” Mama said.
“No,” Naema replied.
“You must get more clothes, girl, or you freeze. It is colder here than back home.”
“I’m fine. You should get clothes.”
“You and me both. I’ll ask Josephine. We go find an assembler and print them. We can do that. Amazing what they can make. We never had that in Nigeria.”
“Not in public,” Naema replied. “Josephine says they had those kind in the CivMan buildings.”
“Of course they did.” Mama watched the passing crowds. “How are you, girl?”
“What do you mean? I’m fine.”
“We haven’t been alone together since we came here. You are different. What is in your head?”
“Don’t lie to your mama, girl.”
“Nothing, I swear.”
Mama eyed her.
“There is something wrong with you if there are no worries in your head.”
Naema didn’t respond for a while. “Where are we going?”
“You mean after France?”
“I mean after all of it. We’ll be in France until the Lakirans return. Then where?”
“I don’t know. We’ll go where we go.”
“Until the Lakirans go there too.”
“The Lakirans have their own problems. The queen is dead.”
“Ya, I know. Josephine acts like we don’t have anything to worry about anymore, but we’re living in a house with strangers. We snuck out today like we’re scared dogs. She thinks we’re still being hunted.”
“Ya, but they have always hunted us. When was the last time you and Oni did not avoid the Lakirans?”
“We weren’t running. We lived at home.”
“The Lakirans left Nigeria too. Now people there starve. Tell me, girl. Are you hungry?”
“Voila. I am not hungry. Oni is not hungry. We run, but we are better for it.”
“I guess so.”
“Stop worrying, girl. Hard times may come, yes, but you can handle them.” Mama hooked an arm over Naema and pulled her in. “You are strong.”
“If you say so, Mama.”
They watched the crowd together. Naema no longer felt the need to fill the silence.
Naema looked. A young girl had approached their bench. She was very short, and couldn’t possibly be over eighteen. “May I sit here?” Despite being asian, her french was impeccable.
Naema shrugged. The girl smiled sweetly and plopped down beside them. Her ears both sported wireless earbuds.
There were several other empty benches. The girl seemed oblivious to them all. Naema and Mama kept watching the passing crowd, but it was different now. This was no longer their moment. Naema glanced about to see if the others were returning yet.
Meanwhile, the girl pulled out a tablet. It was top of the line, not assembler-made. All the while she hummed.
Both Naema and her mother watched her. She seemed just as out of place as them; it was wrong.
The girl pulled one earbud out. “Are you two enjoying Lyons?” Again in perfect french.
“It’s just you two stick out like flies in milk. You’re visiting right? Or did you come to stay?”
Naema glanced around. Flags were going up inside her head. She wanted to get up and walk off. Mama took her arm back from around Naema. She sensed it too. This girl singled them out as outsiders, and now she’s cozying up to them. Nigeria had its share of criminals and thieves.
“We are visiting,” Mama said.
“Oh, from where?”
“From down south. Excuse us. We must go.” Mama stood. Naema followed.
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” the girl said. “Please. Don’t let me drive you away. I’ll be quiet.”
“We have to go anyway,” Naema replied.
“Wait. May I show you something. Look at this.” The girl thrust her tablet toward Mama.
It showed a fullscreen image… of them, and it was live. Naema snapped around to see where the camera was. Along the top floor of the corresponding building, all windows were shuttered. No cameras, no partner in crime.
Mama was already pulling Naema away to leave when Naema spotted it, suspended before a nest of water heaters. It was a MobCam—a small sphere of tech that acted as the eyes and ears for the Lakiran military during an occupation.
Turning, Naema pushed her mother to run.
“Na ah ah,” the girl said. “Don’t move. If you move fifteen paces away, they will shoot your mother. Or was it ten? I forget what I told them. Just stay still and you’re fine.”
Mama glared at her. Naema looked around. There were multistory buildings everywhere: along the street, across the river, circling the plaza. Anyone could be watching.
“This is going to be really simple. You…” The girl pointed at Naema, “… will be coming with me. If you cooperate, your mother will get to stay and tell your friends what happened. If you don’t, your friends will have to make their own guesses when they find her body.”
Despite everything Naema had seen about the Lakirans being gone, here they were, in the middle of abandoned territory. It had been idiotic to split up. It had been idiotic just to leave the house. Had they been watching all time? Or had they just found her now? It had to be now. Tan had left the house so many times this week to filch supplies. Surely they would have taken him.
“Ten seconds.” The girl said. “Your mother sits on this bench while you and I leave.”
They wanted Naema alive. If she stayed close to her mother, whoever was watching might not take the shot. She could tackle the girl, threaten to hurt her if they hurt Mama. The girl looked like a twig; it would be easy. Or Naema could stall. Josephine would be back soon.
“How do I know you won’t just shoot her after we’re gone?” Naema asked.
“Because I don’t care. Now come along.”
Naema kept her eyes on the girl. Whenever Josephine returned, as long as Naema didn’t look at her, she could work her magic on this girl. Finding whatever snipers there may be would require Tan.
“Let her walk away first, and then I’ll come.”
“Naema.” Mama murmured. “Just go. Run.”
“No, Mama. I’m not going.”
“I can hear you,” the girl said.
Mama grabbed Naema. “Listen, girl. Go. Now. Scream. Run. They won’t shoot you.”
“No. Now. Go.”
The girl sighed. “Ah fine.” She pulled something from her purse and aimed it. Naema got a quick glint of metal. She turned to run, and electricity exploded through her body.
That was the last thing she remembered.