36. Cameras

The door to the brig was locked, and it wasn’t a tumbler lock that Tan could aptly bypass. There was a keycard reader. Authorized personnel only.

“You know what this means?” Josephine asked.

“We go home?” Tan asked hopefully.

“We steal a card.”

To his credit, he didn’t look too disappointed. Together, he and Josephine wandered around the citadel like a pair of tourists. Without knowing who would have access, they aimed for as high a rank as they could find. After proceeding up several floors into the more spacious decks beneath the spires, they found a major walking down a hall while discussing with a lower ranking officer. Tan passed, bumped into him, apologized and kept going. Picking pockets came naturally to him. His power smoothed his hand’s movements.

If the major noticed his card was missing, he would not remember this encounter.

Back at the door. Josephine waved the card, and the door opened. The first area inside was a security control room. A long desk with rows of monitors bisected the area. Behind it were three men. One guard sat at the desk, and behind him were two men at a table: another guard and an exemplar.

The guard at the desk looked at Josephine attentively. “How can I help you, sir.”

Behind him, the exemplar’s eyes widened.

“Alarm!” he yelled. He lunged toward the security desk, arm outstretched.

Josephine yanked anything he might know about her, but he was already in motion. Even if he didn’t know why he was scrabbling for the panic button, he was still doing so.

Tan,” Josephine yelled.

Tan was already moving. From his uniform, he drew a revolver—an old piece which worked with bullets and gunpowder. Tan insisted on bringing it, even if such antiquated tech immediately marked him as an impostor. Josephine moved to stop him. Besides the noise, no one was supposed to get hurt.

But Tan didn’t aim the gun. He tossed it. It struck the exemplar square on the forehead.

The exemplar yelled, staggered, and clutched his head. The crisis was averted, but Tan wasn’t done. Charging, he leapt over the desk with all the grace of a drunk man cannonballing into a swimming pool. Somehow, it worked. His foot connected with the exemplar’s chin. His fist struck the guard at the desk. Together, they all fell backward toward the table, toppling into the last guard. In one move, Tan floored them all.

He stood. Around him, the others groaned and rolled. He looked so proud of himself that Josephine decided to omit how unnecessary it was. Hitting the exemplar once was enough, but Tan’s power worked better the less he thought about it. His amateur flailing left plenty of room for his unconscious movement. Josephine sometimes pondered whether he’d actually become a worse fighter if he trained professionally. Possibly, but at least he’d look like less of an idiot.

“Good work,” Josephine hopped the desk. “Are you all okay.”

“What the hell?” One guard got to his feet and looked around. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over.”

“Huh?” said the other guard.

The exemplar was still in too much pain to pay attention. His plaque had tumbled off the table. Josephine snatched it up. That got his attention. Confused as he was, no one touches an exemplar’s plaque. He lunged. She darted out of the way and wiped his memory again.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You lent it to me.”

“What?” He looked, lunged again. Another dodge.

“You told me I could hold this.” Another mind wipe. After enough times, he’ll be left with the impression that it might be true, at least long enough that his knee jerk reaction would settle down.

That was until she realized she wasn’t sensing his aura, or anyone’s. She examined the plaque. The green light was on, meaning it should be working, but nothing. She turned and addressed a guard. “Look at me.”

Rubbing his chin, the guard did. There was no stream of thought in her head besides her own.

“She was here,” Josephine told Tan. “The plaque is broken.” A shame really. Having a plaque would be crucial right now, even if it meant dragging along the exemplar. She learned long ago that the awareness granted to her by Empathy was enough for her to pull memories. Line of vision not required.

“Who was here?” the exemplar asked. “Are you talking about the thief girl?”

Josephine faced him. “Yes. The thief girl. Where is she?”

“Who are you again?”

Josephine thrust his broken plaque into his hands and blanked his memory. Time to start over. “Are you okay?” She helped him up.

“I… I think so.” He rubbed his chin. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over. It was a stooge act.”

“Did we?” The exemplar looked at the other guards. They looked equally perplexed.

“I don’t think so…” one said.

“Here,” said Josephine. “Everybody sit down.”

They corrected chairs and fetched fallen items. All evidence of the tumble was gone. Josephine cleared their minds again.

“Exemplar?” she said, as though expecting something from him.

“What?”

“You were telling me about the thief girl.”

“I was?” He rubbed his temple where the gun had stuck him. His jaw worked left to right as though it felt loose.

“Yes. Please go on.”

“Uh… where did I leave off?”

“You were telling where she is.”

He pointed to the row of monitors on the security desk. “We’re keeping her in interview room three until the queen’s escort team gets here.”

Josephine looked at the screens. Among a grid of tiny camera feeds, one showed Naema in a plain white room. She sat across from nobody. If the queen had sent an escort team, then the Lakirans must have known exactly what she was capable of. In just a few hours, they would have taken her away, and then she might as well have been in a different world for all the good Josephine could have done for her.

“Tan, you want to get her?” she asked.

Thankfully, he didn’t argue. Holstering his weapon, he yanked a security card off a guard, who protested, but only for a second before suffering a lapse in memory. Tan disappeared down the hall. Josephine watched through the camera.

Naema looked up. She must have heard someone stop before the door. It opened. When she saw who it was, she startled to her feet. Tan gestured from the door. Come on, his motion said. Naema didn’t move, and he gestured again more impatiently. She reached over the table toward him. Her palms wobbled against an invisible force which kept her from falling any further forward. I can’t, her response seemed to be, you’re at the wrong door.

Tan gave the most elaborate gesture of exasperation. Shutting the door, he moved to the next. When he opened it, Naema rushed to hug him. He tolerated that for a moment before decoupling and pulling her along.

While waiting, Josephine worked on the minds of the people here. She couldn’t remove every trace of Naema. A lot of what happened between Naema and her captors had nothing to do with Josephine, no matter how much Josephine tried to convince herself. Hopefully they were befuddled enough to lay off any alarms until Josephine got the others out of here.

Naema and Tan appeared. Naema broke from Tan and hugged Josephine exuberantly. She was crying.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Josephine said.

“My family,” Naema said. “They have my mama and brother. We have to get them.”

Behind her, Tan drooped his head.

“Do you know where they are?” Josephine asked.

“In the big cells with everybody else.”

The detainment center. Josephine didn’t recall seeing Naema’s mother, but then she hadn’t been looking. Obviously the Lakirans must have them if they raided Naema’s home. Josephine had been too preoccupied with Naema to think about them, or about the hundreds of detainees the Lakiran’s might be shipping off to indefinite imprisonment. Naema was the only one with powers that could help Josephine.

Once again, she thought about Sakhr.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll save them.”

She led them from the brig back toward the detention center, passing once again beneath a security camera which both she and Tan had failed to notice.


The sun took a while to set this evening since the imperial shuttle had been chasing it over two time zones. They were over the Gulf of Mexico by the time it finally ducked behind the horizon. Now the world outside the windows was pitch black. Since the shuttle had a built-in repulse field nullifying turbulence in the cabin, Winnie wouldn’t even know they were moving if not for her mind showing her the little shuttle soaring along like a dot in a void.

Helena whispered her speech to herself while Victoria worked on her tablet. Winnie passed the time with her visualizations. The shuttle was nearly to Cuba, judging from her satellite-eye view. Far ahead, dots of light marked the start of the coast. Cuba a small province compared to the others in the empire, with a minuscule population, but Winnie still hadn’t located the Starlight Auditorium. 

A light tap came on the divider leading to the cockpit. It rolled down to reveal Madeline. “Your Majesty, a priority alert just came in.”

She handed a phone to Victoria.

After the queen scrolled through the messages, she looked to Melanie. “Reverse course. I need to return to the tower.”

“What? No.” Helena sat up. “We can’t go back. We’re almost there.”

“We must. This is an emergency. Melanie, turn us around.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t back out now. You promised you’d come.”

Victoria ignored her. “Inform Intermil to connect the control room at the tower with the Orinoco as soon as possible.”

“The Orinoco?” asked Helena.

Again, Victoria talked over her. “And keep me posted on any more messages coming in from Admiral…” She glanced at the phone. “…Medina. No. Call him. I want to talk to him.”

“Understood,” said Melanie.

Victoria pressed a button to raise the divider, but half way. “Oh. And Bishop. Get him on the line. No. Never mind. I’ll call him. Is this phone secure?” She held up the phone bearing the message. Melanie nodded.

“Good.” Victoria closed the divider.

“What’s going on?” asked Helena. “Is there a rebellion?”

“No.”

“What is it, then?”

Victoria tapped through the phone. “It’s classified.”

Helena erupted. “Classified? What the hell, mom? What could be so important that you have to put this off? We’ve had this planned for months. You can’t just bail out now.”

Victoria held up a silencing finger as she spoke into the phone. “Bishop? This is Victoria. Where are you?… It’s Josephine… Yes… The Orinoco?… Yes, she has… Is it nighttime there? What time is it in Nigeria?… Then yes, do it now. You’ll have clearance before you land…Right… I’m headed back now… No. Just keep your phone near you… Very good.” She hung up.

“The Orinoco?” Helena said. “The citadel? What the hell is so important in Nigeria?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“This is bullshit, mom.”

“Watch your language.” Victoria words were an automatic response. Her attention was on her phone.

“I’m supposed to host the charity.”

“As soon as we drop me off at the tower, you can head straight back.”

“That will take hours. We’re already late.”

“Then cancel it.”

“The charity? Of course we can’t cancel it. I’ve been planning this for months. It was your stupid, fucking idea. We have to go.”

“Then we call the auditorium and tell them you’ll be late. I do this all the time. They’ll understand.”

“No they won’t. We’ll be hours late.”

Victoria’s attention was on a message she was typing.

“Why don’t we just go to the charity first,” Helena said. “We’re only twenty minutes away. You’d still have to fly for hours, anyway. It’s not going to make a difference for you.”

“No.”

“Are you trying to ruin this for me? Because you’ve won. The whole charity is ruined. People will be going home by the time I arrive, and nobody is going to donate any money if neither of us are there.”

Victoria breathed sharply through her nostrils. Her patience was running low, though her focus remained adamantly fixed on the phone. “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” she said “An emergency has come up. I had no control over this. If you want to make a fuss and let it ruin the charity for you, then go ahead. I can’t stop you.”

“I’m not ruining anything. You are. You never wanted to do this in the first place. Admit it. You don’t care at all about this charity. Do you? Do you even care about how what this event meant to me, about how much time I put into preparing it?”

The shuttle phone mounted beside Victoria rang. Before answering, Victoria looked at her daughter. “Frankly, Helena, your right. I don’t care.”

She then answered the phone.

32. Person of Interest

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“So you have no idea where these came from?” the officer said. “No idea how you came upon four bags of privileged Lakiran food supplies, designated for Humanitarian personnel only?”

Naema didn’t respond.

“I have a theory,” the officer continued. “How ‘bout you stole them?”

Her silence was angering him, but if she so much as opened her mouth, she might vomit. And what would there be to say? That she didn’t steal them? That they were gifts from a wanted fugitive?

“This is what really pisses me off about you people,” the man said. “We come here. We try to bring some order to this medieval anarchy warzone you all live in. We give you free food, protection, and medicine, all while dealing with the euro-rebel fucks you all hide. But it’s never enough for you pidgin trash, is it. You steal. Not from the military, but from the Humanitarian League. What kind of gratitude is that?”

He paused as though expecting an answer.

“We’re going to find out what you know, so unless you want your entire family ending up in permanent internment, I suggest you cooperate. Now, how did you get that food?”

“I… it’s not mine.”

“No. No, no.” He waggled a finger at her. “Don’t pull that bullshit with me. We have witnesses saying you were handing this shit out like Christmas. According to them, you got that food from a job.”

Sonna. That was the story Naema gave to her neighbor. Maybe Sonna volunteered this information, or maybe the exemplars took it from her. Either way, Naema couldn’t even find it in herself to be angry. She just wanted to be home, with her family. She would eat nutrient-enriched cassava paste every day for the rest of her life, and she would enjoy it.

“Look,” said the officer. “We already have you. What you can do is tell us everything you know, and maybe… maybe your family won’t be joining you in camp. Do you want your little brother working at a machine assembly line for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his short life? You want your mother sorting reclamation garbage till she drops from exhaustion? No? Then talk.”

They would pull apart any story she made up. If she told the truth, and gave up Tan and Josephine, they might let her family go, even if she would never be free again. Or if she held out long enough, Josephine might save her, somehow. That’s if Josephine figured out where they were keeping Naema before they shipped her off to wherever. That’s if Josephine even realized they are keeping her. Maybe Josephine was waiting for Naema at home. And this is all assuming Josephine wasn’t dead. She could be one of those bodies that were in the street, cleaved in two by a swipe of a railgun sheer. There may be no help coming.

“It was me,” she murmured.

“What?”

“It was me. I took the food.”

“From where?”

“The CivMan building in North Harcourt.”

“How did you get in?”

“I snuck in.”

Bullshit. How did you get in?”

“I said I snuck in.”

“That building is a goddamn fort. A full security suite and a standby team and a supply lockup opened under military supervision. No one would let a black like you near the building. You’re telling me you snuck past all that?”

“I climbed in a window.”

“…A window. No. You know what? Tell me. First step. You’re standing in front of the building. I’ve been there before. I know the layout, so walk me through it.”

“I snuck around to the side and climbed up the brick.”

“Which side?”

“The left. Facing the building.”

He looked distant as he visualized this. “Okay? Then you climb up to a window. Is it near the front or the back?”

“The front.”

“And what room does that put you in?”

This was already beyond her knowledge. She’d waited outside while Josephine had gone in. “An office.”

“So the second floor?”

“Yeah.”

Wrong.” He yelled it, almost triumphantly. “You’d still be in the atrium. Just admit it. Someone helped you. Who is it?”

“No one.”

“Stop playing this bullshit on me. You could not get into that building alone. If you don’t give me a name now, you and your street trash family are going to be working reclamator lines for the rest of your lives.”

A knock came at the door. It opened. An exemplar stepped in. She was female, not quite white. Maybe Brazilian, but Naema didn’t know her whites very well. Before the exemplar closed the door, Naema saw in the hall the other exemplar who interviewed her earlier.

“Christ. Finally,” the officer said. “Did you just get in?”

The woman nodded. “Exemplar Regina. Like me to take it from here?”

The officer motioned as though to say be my guest. He pulled his seat to the side, making room for Regina.

The exemplar placed down her plaque and sat. Looking at Naema, she said, “Look me in the eye.”

Naema did so.

The silence lasted for many seconds. Regina showed no indication on her face, then she glanced at her plaque in a way Naema was growing familiar with.

“Pardon me, Captain.” She turned to the officer. “Can I have you look me in the eye?”

“Me? What for?”

“Just for a moment.”

“I…”

“Captain.” She only asked to be polite.

The officer conceded. They locked eyes.

“Hmm,” She looked down at her plaque. After consideration, she got up.

“Where are you going?” the officer asked.

“I’m afraid I won’t be any help to you. My plaque has malfunctioned.”

What?”

“I’ll send a request for another exemplar to relieve me.”

You were the relief. What the hell is this? I just need you to read this girl. How is this—”

A speaker system cackled. A voice sounded in the room. “Would you two come in here?”

Both the exemplar and the officer glanced toward the mirror wall. Without a word, they left. Then silence. Naema hadn’t realized anyone had been watching from behind the mirror. How many people were in there? One other? Two. Was there a crowd? Try as she might, the only sound she could hear was the gentle noise of the ventilation shafts overhead and the occasional footsteps outside. It was an awkward wait, knowing that people were scrutinizing her from just a few feet away, but it didn’t come as a relief when several footsteps collected outside the door. It opened, and three people came in. The captain, and both exemplars. They all sat across from her.

Exemplar Regina spoke first. “Are you doing anything to subvert our exemplar privileges?”

“What? I… don’t know what you mean.”

“Do you know what exemplars are capable of?”

“No.”

“We have techniques to detect thoughts of individuals and to sense their presence from afar. For both myself and Exemplar Marcus, these abilities malfunctioned before we were gained any information about you. You’re telling us you have no idea what could be causing that?”

“No.”

“She’s lying,” the officer said.

Regina held up her hand to silence him. “You told Captain Lofthouse that you stole those food supplies from the CivMan building in North Harcourt. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?”

“Two days ago, and yesterday.”

“It’s a lie,” Lofthouse said.

Again, she cut him off. “Are you aware that there is an exemplar posted at that building? Exemplar Castillo?”

“No.”

“Well, there is. Part of why Captain Lofthouse is so skeptical about your stealing supplies from there is because we exemplars can sense people around us, and we can sense when people are up to no good. If you actually had broken into that building, Castillo would have sent people to arrest you.”

“That’s why she didn’t do it,” Lofthouse insisted. “She had help.”

“She could have, actually,” said Exemplar Marcus. “Because two days ago, Exemplar Castillo suffered a malfunction with the empathy feature of his plaque. So he wouldn’t have been able to sense her. He’s back in Porto Maná right now getting it replaced.”

Captain Lofthouse paused. Naema could tell he was seeing the same connection the exemplars already had. Josephine had been right. Her power actually drew attention to her.

“But… she wasn’t there,” he said. He was thoughtful now, no longer the ornery tyrant condemning Naema. “She doesn’t even know what the inside looks like.”

“But she might have been nearby,” Marcus said. “My empathy failed around four this evening. Isn’t that about when you brought her aboard?”

Lofthouse nodded slowly.

Regina spoke. “Mine failed in the hall shortly after I came aboard, on Deck 2, the hallway from the starboard sector hangar leading to the detainment center. How far away would you say that is from here?”

“I don’t know. A few hundred feet.”

“Four hundred maybe? That’s about the range of our empathy.”

The captain caught up. “So she’d only have to get near the building to help whoever was stealing that food for her.”

Marcus shrugged. “Possibly. It doesn’t matter anymore.” He rose. The others did the same. Together, they headed for the door like they were breaking for lunch. None acknowledged Naema. “The Exemplar Committee will be taking over her case. Until then, have her moved to maximum confinement. She’s now officially a Person of Interest.”

29. Standard Procedure

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

The room was white; so were the chair, the table, even the door. They’d left Naema waiting long enough that she’d had time to contemplate that. Why white? Earlier, they’d kept her in a holding cell with other prisoners, and their dusty skin and faded clothes had seemed out of place compared to the white and chrome interior of the citadel—or what she assumed was the citadel. The shuttle hadn’t had windows, and the holding cells they’d crammed her into along with hundreds of detainees might as well have been underground, but it had still been white.

It was as if the Lakirans came from a different world—one far in the future—to help barbaric tribes suffering in the wake of a catastrophe. Did they color their army white to convince the natives that they were the good guys? Or were the Lakiran cities just as bright? The few photos Naema had seen of them were glittery enough, but surely those had been handpicked photos.

A repulser wall divided this room down the middle. It intersected a central table such that two people could sit at it without either being able to reach the other. The side wall was a large mirror—an interrogation room classic. Behind it, detectives would scrutinize her.

Naema had taken to pacing by the time someone came. An exemplar entered from the door on the other side of the barrier. His white coat seemed like camouflage here. He sat, favored her with a smile, then arranged his possessions on the table: a folder of papers, a small chrome device that could be a phone or transponder, and his plaque. If Naema didn’t know, she’d have guessed it was an older model tablet computer. Along its top were old-fashioned LED indicator bulbs as though it were made of garage parts. One light glowed green.

He tapped a button on the phone-like device, then gestured for her to sit. “Do you speak English adequately for the purpose of this interview?”

Naema nodded.

“You must speak for the record.”

“Okay. Yea, I speak English.”

“Very good. I’m going to ask you some questions. Answer as honestly and accurately as possible. As we talk, look me in the eyes, and follow any directions I give you. Understand?”

“Can I go home after?”

“Do you understand?” he asked again.

“Yes.”

“Then look me in the eyes.”

She did so.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Naema Madaki.”

“Are you a registered Lakiran citizen or expatriate?”

“No.”

“Have you ever registered with the Lakiran Foreign Aid or a Humanitarian Labor Project?”

“No.”

Frowning, he glanced at his plaque’s screen. Naema thought about the exemplars from earlier that day, bopping their broken plaques.

“I did go to the hospital in Port Harcourt. Does that count?”

Nodding, he tapped through his plaque’s menus. “Three days ago?”

“Yes.”

“Is this information all correct?” He pressed the plaque against the repulse barrier. It bobbed as though he were trying to push two repulsive magnets together.

“Yea. It is.”

Again, this puzzled him. He turned his plaque over and glanced at the glowing green LED. More puzzlement. He navigated its menus, tapping and reading and swiping. No more satisfied, he glanced up. “Look me in the eye again.”

She did.

After a moment of sustained eye contact, he gave up. “Pardon me.” He gathered his things and left.

Naema was convinced now. She’d broken his plaque. Once or twice with Josephine could be explained away, but not this. Would it help her get out of here? Or would it only bring her more attention?

The waiting now was all the more intolerable with those questions hanging in the air. It felt like twice as long passed.

When someone else came in, they were dressed in a dark blue military uniform, not exemplar white. He was an officer; she could tell that much from the pips on his chest, but she hadn’t seen soldiers like him on the ground.

“Ah, good evening.” He took a seat. He laid out the same items the exemplar had, though his tablet was a transparent clipboard instead of a plaque, thinner and more sleek. “I’ll be conducting your interview. Do you speak english?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” and he proceeded to ask her the same questions the exemplar had, though his questions lacked formality, nor did he demand eye contact. Once the basic information was covered, he got onto the main topic.

“So as you know, you were at the scene of a rebel attack earlier today. We’ve brought you here as a safety procedure. This shouldn’t take long. Do you have any questions before we begin?”

She considered asking about the exemplar, but thought better. “No.”

“Okay then. Briefly explain what were you doing at the construction site today.”

“I was shopping at the market with my friends.”

“Did you know anything about the attack?”

“No. Not until it started. I do not know what it was about.”

“Did you participate in the fighting in any way?”

“No. I ran away. I just didn’t want to get hurt.” She wasn’t sure whether this man knew that the soldiers caught her trying to hide, or whether they even cared.

“Do you have any friends or family in the area?”

“Yes. My mama, Zauna Madaki. And my brother, Oni.”

“They live at this address? Okogbar Road?”

“Yea. We live on the street though. Not one of the houses.”

“That’s fine. Have you and your family been living in the region for a long time?”

“All my life. Mostly. Before the Collapse we lived in Abakaliki, but we had to move here to get closer to food.”

He nodded. Most Nigerians had similar stories.

The questions he followed up with were more conversational than she expected. He asked about her family, what they did, how she broke her hand, what she did on a day to day basis, and so on. His questions seemed off the cuff, even if they sometimes pierced into specific details. The only questions that worried her were the direct ones at the end.

“Are you involved with any other known rebel, terrorist, or outlaw groups,” he asked.

“No.” She tried not to wonder whether Josephine and Tan counted.

“Have you, or are you planning to undermine the Lakiran empire in any way?”

“No.”

“Do you harbor ill will toward Lakira?”

Kind of, yes. They might pretend to help Nigeria; they might even believe that, but she didn’t. In the last two weeks alone, the Lakirans had dragged people she knew away in the night, reasons unknown. It was harder to believe now after watching those soldiers fire into the crowd regardless of who was hostile.

“No. No ill will”

This satisfied him. “All right. I’m going to send you down to processing. As soon as they’re done with you, a shuttle will take you to the refugee camp in Old Aba. You’re free to return home from there, provided you can make it in time for curfew. You are not cleared yet though. On Monday, you need to return to Old Aba before noon for questioning?”

“Again?”

“‘Fraid so. Only an exemplar can clear you, and there are none available today. Shouldn’t take you long. The guard will give you a form which you’ll need to bring with you. Any questions?”

“No.”

“Then proceed through the door behind you, and have a good day.”


The wait for processing wasn’t as bad as waiting for questioning. Naema was anxious to leave as soon as possible, but at least she would leave. On top of that, the wait was in a more pleasant room with cushioned seats and no bars. When they finally called her in, a woman took her picture and fingerprints. She asked Naema several rote questions such as her name and address, things she’d already told her interrogator. Apparently, “under a tarp next to the Quik Mart on Okogbar Road” was not a valid address. So Naema was officially deemed homeless.

Eventually they led her to a shuttle bay. Down the launch tubes, she got an aperture view of evening sky and part of Port Harcourt far below. So she was in the citadel after all.

They herded her onto a shuttle packed with other civilians. Like before, the shuttle had no windows, and she’d have to stand with no room to even stick out her elbows. Soldiers guarded the hatch while it slowly closed. To the Lakiran’s, they were cattle, but Naema didn’t care.

In twenty minutes, she’d be back on the ground. She didn’t care if it was past curfew. She was getting home tonight. Mama was probably frantic with worry, maybe more so for Josephine. Naema hadn’t spared a thought toward her, but now she wondered if Josephine and Tan had gotten away.

Probably. They had powers to do so, while Naema just irritated exemplars. Hopefully Josephine would come by her home, but maybe not. Maybe Naema would have to go to her. Then they’d figure out something to do about this interview scheduled for Monday, something Naema obviously couldn’t attend. She’d just break the exemplar’s power again. It seemed this whole incident had forced Naema’s hand into going with Josephine. Naema would think more about that tomorrow. Right now, she just wanted to go home.

And then the shuttle doors yawned open.

They were still in the bay.

The guards were standing right where they were before, only there were others now too. They had weapons drawn.

One of them spoke. “Naema Madaki?”

With that one call, it was over. She didn’t answer the call, but it didn’t matter.

“Naema Madaki. Step out of the shuttle.”

One more minute. That’s all she’d needed. One more minute and the shuttle would have left. She’d be gone. At the refugee camp, she could have ran home. The Lakirans would never see her again. Or maybe they would have had a security force waiting for her down there. Or maybe they could have turned the shuttle around. Maybe she had never been close to escaping at all.

“Naema Madaki. We know you’re in this shuttle. If you do not step forward, we will unload this shuttle to find you. Do not make this any harder than it has to be.”

Her body felt numb. She placed one foot before the other as she shouldered through the crowd. As calm as she moved, her heart hammered in her ears.

On the entry ramp, soldiers cuffed her marched her out of the bay. Behind her, the shuttle door closed again. Everyone else got to go home.

They led her past the detainment ward. The cells were emptier now; most detainees were processed. The next ward was different. The cells were smaller, and these ones had facilities. The prisoners here didn’t pace or yell for answers. They huddled in corners or sat on cots if they were lucky enough to have them. These people weren’t detainees. They were prisoners.

“Naema?”

She looked toward the voice. Mama and Oni were sitting at the back of a cell. They were dirty and ruffled. Their arrests hadn’t been gentle.

“Mama?”

Mama fought to the front of the cage and pressed against the bars. “Naema?”

“Mama, what are you doing here?”

“I don’t know. They are not talking to us. What happened, girl? Have they hurt you?” She reached through the bars for Naema. The guards escorting her veered around it.

“Where you go take her?” Mama yelled.

The last glimpse Naema had of them was of her mother yelling and Oni’s silent expression of fear. Naema didn’t know why the Lakirans had targeted them, but now they would suffer. They’d disappear like all the other malcontents dragged away in the night, and it would all be her fault.

This entire time she’d felt a lump in her throat threatening to break free, but this thought was too much. As the soldiers escorted her by her arms, she cried. She couldn’t even wipe her eyes with her arms restrained behind her back, but she was beyond caring. She’d lost.

They put her back in an interrogation room. Within a minute, someone entered the other partition—a military officer in blue, higher in rank and age than the man who’d questioned her before, and not at all as amicable. At the table, he dug through a pack and produced several food boxes and wrappers. Two stood out: a wrapper for sausage, and a box which used to contain red candies—the gifts she’d given her neighbor in return for silence.

The officer leaned close to the repulse divider and looked her in the eye.

“You want to tell us where the fuck you got these?”

28. Security Features

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“Wait,” said Naema. “So you stole an exemplar’s powers?”

“That’s right,” said Josephine. “Remember when I told you about how the queen turns powers into strange drawings? Those are inside those big tablets of theirs. They call them plaques, and all you have to do is hold one.”

“Then why don’t you still have it?”

“Because the Lakiran queen is paranoid.”

Naema, Josephine, and Tan were walking back from their exemplar outing. Tan lingered behind like a teenager embarrassed to be seen with his parents. They were passing through Port Harcourt. The markets swelled with afternoon business. Music played from speakers perched in windows. People danced in the streets. It was almost like the Nigeria Naema remembered as a girl; almost. 

Josephine talked as they walked along. “Victoria puts an unbelievable amount of failsafes in her exemplar’s plaques. If those things go more than ten feet away from the exemplar they’re assigned to, they give a warning beep. If they’re not back within range in one minute, tiny explosives inside the plaque destroy those drawings. So if Tan and I want to use those plaques, I have to stay within ten feet of the exemplar.”

“Why don’t you open it and remove the drawings.”

“They’ve thought of that. Trust me. They’ve thought of everything. If it opens, pop. If it loses GPS for too long, pop. If the exemplar goes somewhere he’s not supposed to, pop. The tablets even have a detachable battery that the exemplars are supposed to yank out if they think they’re about to be taken hostage. It kills the powers immediately. And I think the empire can remotely destroy them too if they suspect anything fishy.”

“Why so much?”

“Those tablets were the biggest advantage the Lakirans have over the Chinese and the EDA. Exemplars could pick out spies, sense hidden troops, interrogate prisoners of war. No one else can do that, and the Lakiran’s will hold onto that advantage at any cost. Do you remember how the empire launched this huge assault into Britain?”

“No.”

“Oh. This was about four years ago. No one understood why the empire came to Europe so early. It really overstretched them. I heard it’s because the European Alliance had managed to get their hands on one of those plaques. The entire early invasion was started just to get it back. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the empire definitely came to Europe before they had a good handle on North America.”

“Maybe the queen is just greedy.”

“Maybe. Anyway, Tan and I were able to get an exemplar’s plaque from him, but not for very long. It really helped us work on each other’s powers, but we can’t do that for you if you’ll just break anything we bring near you.”

“Okay.”

Josephine glanced at her. “You don’t seem very bothered by that.”

Naema shrugged. “I guess I would be if I had mind reading or something. What do I do? Nothing. I break other people around me. Or so you say. I’m still not sure it isn’t all just a big joke you’re pulling.”

“You saw the exemplar.”

“Yeah… I guess so.” Naema saw the exemplar thump his tablet, then Josephine pulled her away. Disregard Tan and Josephine’s word, and there wasn’t any other evidence of her power.

They walked through the market until coming upon dividers blocking the road. Beyond, a Lakiran construction project was underway. An aerial crane floated over a deep pit. It had three prominent bulges along its bottom in a triangular shape which no doubt contained high capacity repulsers. They stayed aloft using the same invisible tripod technique the citadels used.

Cables dangled from the crane. Construction workers guided prebuilt pieces into place upon a structure in the pit. Soldiers stood guard around the site, and spaced around the crane were aerial watchtowers suspended in the same fashion as the crane. In each, a soldier behind a railgun was ready to rain hell upon troublemakers.

“They’re building a grid node,” Josephine said. “Told you. They’re moving in.”

Naema didn’t disagree. Lakirans already had nodes installed throughout Nigeria, but those were the temporary kind, above ground. They’d float the nodes into position, then bolt them down. It allowed the Lakirans to drop in their orbital drop response teams, but not much else. This, though, was higher capacity, a permanent installation placed underground. They couldn’t pack this one up and leave if the Nigerian occupation didn’t pan out. Naema had seen pictures of cities with shuttles cluttering the skyline. This was the first step. Pretty soon, Lakirans responding to trouble would be coming from local stations, not ships coasting the upper atmosphere. That meant faster response times.

“But look on the bright side,” Josephine pointed at one of the watchtowers. An exemplar was gazing over the crowd. “Looks like Tan wins two to zero, and we get to test again.”

“Won’t the Lakirans wonder why two exemplars had trouble today?”

“They might, but it’s too late. Look.” The exemplar was already frowning at his plaque. “It’s definitely broken. Do you want to watch this time? I don’t think we need to be careful. The soldier’s aren’t turning away spectators here.” They watched while the exemplar fiddled his plaque, turning it over as though looking for the on switch.

Tan came up beside them. “We go.”

“Patience,” Josephine said. “This is a better test. Nobody is going to notice us here. Naema, are you convinced yet, or do you still think I’m making your gift up?”

“We go. Now.” Tan sounded more insistent.

“It’s not that late. Just a minute.”

“I have bad feeling.”

The change in Josephine’s demeanor was stark. Glancing around, she took Naema’s arm. “Okay, let’s go.” They worked backward through the crowd. Josephine and Tan kept glancing back as though expecting someone to call them out. Naema glanced, but nothing seemed wrong. Tan’s bad feelings seemed to carry particular weight with Josephine.

Somebody yelled. It was distant and in French. Then came a scream.

Then a gunshot.

Suddenly, everything happened at once. The crowd surged. Everyone yelled and screamed. There was a bout of gunfire. Naema glimpsed someone in a second story window firing a rifle toward the construction project. The Lakiran guards responded with a spray of flechettes from their silent rifles.

Naema lost sight of them as the crowd jostled her. Everyone was trying to run now. Someone crashed into her. Another fell between her and Josephine, causing their linked hands to separate. Josephine’s head snap around to look just as Naema fell. She landed on her broken hand. The pain stole her attention momentarily. When she looked up, Josephine was struggling against the crowd to get to her. Naema rose to one knee.

Suddenly, an explosion.

She was on the ground again. Heat washed over her back. Over the ringing in her ears, gunfire continued. There was blood on her. Panicked, she checked herself over. No injury. It was someone else’s blood. She climbed once again to her knees.

Naema!”

She looked up. Josephine was across the street, laying flat on her belly. The crowd had cleared, and now Naema saw why. There were dead between her and Josephine.

Josephine motioned for her to get down. Naema scrambled for cover behind an overturned cart. All around, the fighting continued. Men with rifles were firing from around corners and behind door frames. More shot at the Lakirans from windows. They were rebels, but whether they were remnants of the European Alliance or some African group, she didn’t know. They were dressed in street clothes which hid them in the crowd.

Three more explosions sounded back to back, and the husk of an aerial watchtower dropped from the sky. From a window, a rocket launched at one of the remaining ones. It’s path was instantaneous, but from the smoke streak, it came within five feet of the tower before the tower’s repulse field arced it away. It crashed into a building. Stone and brick showered the street.

The guard in the tower spun his rail gun toward the window. No projectile shot out, but the building tore apart as though someone had scraped their finger through wet newspaper. Part of the wall fell away. Bloody carnage was inside the exposed room, Body parts tumbled out. Naema knew vaguely what had happened. People called those railguns shears. They generated repulse fields as thin as pencil lead but strong enough to apply thousands of pounds of force.

Another tower turned its railgun toward rebels taking cover behind a brick wall. The bricks chipped, but did not crumble as the plaster wall had. The men behind the wall cleaved apart, like bags of soup spilling open. The field passed through the wall. Naema realized it would do the same for the cart she was hiding behind. She couldn’t stay here.

Josephine was still taking cover across the street. Naema wanted to sprint across to them, but her mind kept envisioning flechettes biting into her guts as soon as she was in view. Her legs wouldn’t move.

Everything changed again. An orbital deployment team arrived. Pods crashed onto the streets, one right before Naema, separating her from Josephine. The sound was like metal thunder. Their hatches blew open, and armored soldiers came out firing. If the rebels had any chance of winning this fight, it was gone. Several dropped immediately. Their cover did not protect them from the assailants suddenly appearing from unexpected directions. They ran. The Lakirans kept firing, shooting rebels and civilians alike. Not even Naema could tell who was who.

The orbital soldier right before her need only glance to his right to see her. She was unarmed, but he might not care. The rebels had been hiding in the crowds, and the Lakirans weren’t taking chances.

He marched down the street in pursuit of someone. No Lakirans were in sight, but neither were Tan and Josephine. Bullets and yelling still sounded, but not near her. Bystanders crawled away from the fighting toward alleys and alcoves. Some got up and sprinted. No one shot them down.

Josephine was gone, but this was Naema’s chance. She crawled toward an alley. As soon as she was out of view, she got up and sprinted. Three steps. She stumbled, tore her knees, and landed poorly on her hands. Pain exploded from her broken thumb, but she got up and kept going.

She raced down the alley and around a turn. Something knocked her down. It was as though she’d run into a dense wall of air which blew her back. She got up and tried again. Again, something pushed her onto her rear. Ahead of her, floating about ten feet in the air, was a small drone—a wall bot. It was generating a repulse field between itself and Naema, sealing the alley. It must have flown in along with the deployment pods to lock the situation down. There would be others too, shutting down the entire area. Naema knew how this worked. Everyone was a suspect. All got dragged away.

She ran back to check the fighting. Gunfire had stopped. Other wall bots were floating into position where the fray had been. Many were already locked in place. Civilians batted uselessly against invisible walls. The fight was over. The Lakirans would start arresting people, her included if they found her.

She looked for an alley the orbs might have missed. One nearby had overflowing dumpsters. Bystanders were hiding for their lives behind them. She paid them no heed and ran to the end, took a turn, and skidded to a stop. A wall bot was already in place at the mouth.

Somewhere distant, there was a burst of rifle fire, followed by an explosion. Nothing followed. Some rebel hadn’t realized the Lakirans had already won. A ship blotted out the sky between the buildings for a moment. It was landing nearby. More soldiers would soon crowd the streets. They’d carry her away unless she escaped, which grew increasingly unlikely.

Would her supposed power protect her? Maybe, but maybe not. She didn’t want to take the chance.

She scanned around. The streets were locked down, but fire escapes might not be. If she got into a building and hid, then maybe the exemplars wouldn’t find her. That’s only if her power would protect her against an exemplar she’d never laid eyes upon.

The bottom of the fire escapes were nine feet above, nothing she could jump, but there were leftover crates from the market. She piled two and carefully climbed on top. The people cowering by the dumpsters paid her no attention. They watched the alley mouth for signs of combat. Teetering on top of the crates, Naema leaped for the fire escape and caught it with her good hand and the fingers of her casted hand. A buried part of her was aware of the crippling pain it caused.

She pulled herself up and hooked her foot over the railing. She’d was nearly on the fire escape when white-clad soldiers appeared at the mouth of the alley.

“Hey,” one yelled. “Freeze.”

She looked to see two peace officers aiming weapons at her. Naema didn’t know what their weapons fired, but she had no doubt they would fire them. She held up one free hand in a gesture of surrender.

“Get down from there,” they yelled.

She unhooked her foot. Once her legs stopped swinging, she dropped onto her hands and knees. Before she could rise, the soldiers shoved her onto her stomach and secured her hands behind her.

They dragged her toward the street. The fighting was over. The area was swarmed with soldiers, some dressed in white for peace, others wore deployment gray. All had weapons. The fetid smell of death and smoke filled the air.

More and more wall bots fell from the sky. When they reached building level, they’d hover into place and generate partitioning fields to further lock down the streets at a greater radius. Others were dedicated to caging herds of frightened civilians.

Naema couldn’t spot Josephine among the crowd. Even if she was, what could she do? No amount of memory wiping would let her pass those repulse barriers.

They set Naema down by others, and a soldier with a control tablet directed wall bots to fence her in. The next ship to arrive was a large hulking craft. Soldiers cleared a place for it to land. It was a transport ship, here for the prisoners. That was going to be her ride to the citadel.

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.”

17. Candies

2055, November 7th
Collapse + 6 years

By the time Josephine returned Naema home, the sun had nearly set.

“Thanks for trusting me today.” Josephine handed over a bag of food she’d procured from a CivMan building on the way back.

“Yea, it’s fine. I had fun.”

Josephine smiled.

“But where’s it go from here?” asked Naema. “You want me to join you, right? You travel around the world. I’ve got my family here.”

“I understand. The choice is yours.”

“But you think I should?”

“I do. I’m sorry. I know I’m biased.”

“You don’t think you can make it without me?”

“It’d be harder without you, but we’d survive. I’m worried about what the Lakirans would do to you. Maybe they won’t find you anytime soon, but eventually. Tan and I moved here because this city is one of the last places left where the exemplars are stretched thin, but it won’t be for long. Sooner or later they’ll notice you.”

“Maybe my power will protect me.”

“Maybe it will. Or maybe it’ll do nothing against exemplars. Or maybe it’ll cause them to find you sooner. I don’t know. All I know is that there are more exemplars every day. At first they were just military, but now they work with the police. I’ve even seen them at border checks. And now they’re bearing down on Nigeria. That citadel is proof of that. Do you want to bet whether you’ll make it through?”

Naema shrugged.

Josephine continued. “You might be a Godsend, Naema. If your power does what I hope, we wouldn’t have to hide. Not even their high exemplars could catch us. Better yet, there’s nothing stopping us from marching right up to the queen and making her forget we exist at all. We’d be safe.”

“What about my family?”

“The safest thing to do would be to leave them here without knowing anything about your powers. The Lakirans wouldn’t care about them. But maybe they could come with us. Tan and I talked it over and we agreed that as long as the three of us are together, we could keep a few extra people safe too. It would be your call.”

“So we would all be on the run together.”

“It’s not great, I know, but food wouldn’t be a problem for you anymore. Tan and I live pretty well.”

“Stealing?”

“And doing odd jobs. What does your mother do?”

“Uh… she’s a whore.

“Oh. What’d she do before the bombing?”

“She was one then too, and my brother is in a street gang.”

“Oh wow.”

“Yea.”

There was silence. Naema wondered if Josephine would ask how such a family survived six years of nuclear winter. She’d have to explain how if Josephine had found her five years ago, they’d be talking about saving a family of five, not three. Her father might still be out there somewhere, but her baby sister would still be under the same unmarked patch of earth by a fence near Remoudara Forest. Mama couldn’t bring herself to give her baby to the funeral services, who’d just bury the child in a mass grave. Naema was glad Josephine didn’t ask.

“Listen,” Josephine said, “We’ll figure something out. We wouldn’t leave your family in a bad situation.”

“That’s if I come with you.”

“Right. If you agree.”

They reached Naema’s home and stopped before the flap. “Think about it,” Josephine said. “Tan and I will be here… until we’re found. If we have to leave, we’ll make sure to see you before we go. In the meantime, let’s play it by ear. I’d love to spend more time with you.”

“Okay.”

“Great. I’ll be by tomorrow at ten. I’ve got some place special to take you.”

They said their goodbyes, and Josephine left. Naema had spent all day with that woman, and she came back home safe and sound. She had more food and a better understanding what Josephine wanted from her. It was comforting, yet Naema couldn’t shake that Something for Nothing sense she had. Maybe six years of hard survival had stopped her from accepting a good thing when it finally came. Life could get better, but it could also get a hell of a lot worse if Josephine wasn’t exactly what she seemed. Countless teenagers like herself had disappeared over the years for trusting the wrong person.

“Naema?”

She looked up. A neighbor had emerged from a nearby shack.

“Hello, Sonna,” Naema said. She became aware that she still held a bag of food.

“Your Mama done tell me about de men who attack you. Bad bad thing that dey do that to a kind girl like you.”

“Thank you, Sonna. I’m okay though.” She held up her splinted hand as evidence, then turned to duck into her home.

“Wetin you have there, girl?”

“It’s nothing, Sonna.”

Sonna scurried over and peered into the bag. Her speed was not subtle. “Where you get this food?”

Naema should not have dawdled outside her home. “It’s just… I got a courier job for CivMan. They let me take things from their pantry.”

“Oh! You dey lucky. How you get a job like that?”

“Right place at the right time I guess.”

“You no say a good word for my boy, Henri? He dey hard worker—honest boy.”

“I’m sorry, Sonna. It was a one time job. I’m not going back tomorrow.”

“A one time job? You no have job yesterday?”

Naema swore internally. Sonna saw something, maybe wrappers in the trash, or maybe Oni stuffing his face with those cakes.

“Here.” Naema took out a package of sliced sausage. “Take this.”

“Oh, you sweet girl, you.” Sonna snagged the package and clutched it to her bosom. “Thank you. Thank you. You have a kind heart.”

“It’s okay, Sonna. Maybe if I ever get the job again. I’ll get something extra for you.”

“Thank you. God dey smile on you.” Sonna hugged Naema. When she pulled back, she was beaming, but her eyes kept drifting back to the bag. “Maybe you have something sweet?” She caught the look in Naema’s eye. “I dey sorry,” she pleaded, “you dey kind already, but it no for me. Henry dey go a long time wit nothing but cassava paste.”

Her request sounded urgent enough, but it wasn’t really a request at all. Naema tried to smile as she fetched a small bag of red candies. She’d gotten a pack of them yesterday too, but Oni didn’t like those as well.

“Okay, here you go.”

Sonna hugged her all over again. “Thank you. I dey pray for you, Naema, and your family.”

“Okay,” Naema said, “but we keep this to ourselves, yea?”

“Oh, yes.” Sonna nodded soberly. “I na say anything. You show me kindness.”

“Good,” said Naema. “See you later, Sonna.”

“God bless you, girl.” Sonna kissed Naema’s cheek and hurried back to her hovel with her newfound luxuries.

This time, Naema didn’t hesitate to get into her home. It had been stupid to linger while holding a bag of illegally obtained food. Now Naema would have to regularly bribe her for her silence. Perhaps Josephine could make her forget.

Either way, if Naema was going to keep seeing Josephine, she needed to be more careful.

11. Luck

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.”

“But why?”

“Ah, you’re asking why I’m so interested in you, aren’t you?”

“Yea.”

“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?”

“Yea.”

“Have you ever met one?”

“No.”

“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.”

“How?”

“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?”

“I guess.”

“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.

Tan nodded.

“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?”

“What?”

“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.

“No.”

“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 lost.”

“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.”

“Not cheating.”

“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 here.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

They were that group. We traveled together for ages, and I was a bastard just like them…”

7. Forgetful

2055, November 6th
Collapse + 6 years

The sun was still up when Naema left the medical encampment. A bulky cast was wrapped around her wrist. It felt strange having the doctor wrestle with the bones of her numb thumb. If she’d closed her eyes, it felt as though someone were trying and failing miserably to shake her hand. Though the snap of her bone setting place had reverberated up her arm. The doctors were pleasant, but she was glad to be done.

She still might have time to get home before curfew. It probably wasn’t worth it. Getting caught was a gamble. Depending on which prowler ship caught you, they might guide her to a refugee camp for the night, or they might cart her off to wherever all the other malcontents went. Mama and Oni would never know why she never came home.

She decided to chance it. If it got to dark there was a camp up by Old Aba where she could stay. Naema alternated jogging and brisk walking.

About half a kilometer later, a woman called out to her. “Hey. Wait.”

Naema turned. The thief from the medical encampment was running up to her. Gasping and wheezing, she stopped paces from Naema and leaned on her knees.

“What are you doing?” Naema demanded.

“I was trying to follow you.” The woman paused to gulp air. “But I’m more out of shape than I thought.”

Naema became aware of how few witnesses were present. This woman didn’t look violent. She was in her mid forties, and clearly not from around here. Besides being white, she lacked the gaunt, weathered appearance of someone who’d known years of hunger. But she was still a thief—a thief who had tracked Naema down. Naema stepped away from the woman.

“No no.” the woman held out a staying hand. “Please. I just want to talk.”

“Go away. I don’t have anything.”

“And I don’t need anything.” The woman regained her breath.

“Why are you following me?”

“I was curious.” The words put Naema more on guard. The woman noticed this. “Here,” she said. “Let’s try again. My name is Josephine. What’s yours?”

Naema glanced around again. She half expected to find someone sneaking up on her while she faced this woman, but no one was near. Either way, she sure as hell wasn’t telling this woman her name.

“Will you at least let me walk with you?” Josephine said.

“No. Go away.”

“Fine. Here. How about this?” The woman reached into her leather bag, which she had again recovered. She took out a tub, the kind used at the food distributors, but the markings were different. It didn’t contain cassava, but she couldn’t tell what was inside, because unlike all other food tubs she’d seen, this one was spotless. No encrusted food paste was around the lid. From the way the woman hefted it, it was full, and she pulled another from her pack.

“If I give you these if you let me walk with you.”

“You stole those.”

“Yes, I did. But from the Lakiran.”

“Those are for the sick.”

“They are, but what the Lakirans don’t want you to know is that there really aren’t limited supplies. They can literally print more. The empire just pretends that there’s a limit so they only give you enough to keep you dependent.”

That much was true, at least from the rumors Naema had heard.

“I could get in trouble.”

“I’ll keep you out of trouble. Maybe you didn’t notice, but I just got arrested twice and yet I’m still here. You could say I’m wearing a trouble-proof coat, because trouble slides right off me.”

“How’d you get away?”

Josephine chewed her lip. “Before I answer, you have to promise to give me a chance to prove it, because you’re not going to believe me at first. Okay?”

Naema eyed her up and down. That food was enticing, but it also was contraband. It made people disappear, like this woman was supposed to. But she hadn’t. Soldiers had thrown her to the floor and carted her off twice, and all that seemed to come of that was a dusting on the woman’s dress. This still seemed like a trick, but if worst came to worst, Naema could outrun this woman.

“I have to keep moving,” Naema said.

“Right. Curfew. May I walk with you?”

“How’d you do it?”

“Do you promise to give me a chance to prove myself?”

“Fine. How’d you do it?”

“I made the guards forget why they arrested me. Then I asked them to take their cuffs off.”

“Huh?”

“I have a trick where I can make people forget things. I made the guards forget so much about me that they wondered why they were escorting me at all. I even made them forget that I asked them to uncuff me.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do. Now you said you’d let me prove it to you.”

“Okay. Do it.”

“I will, but there’s a small problem about that. Back there, when the guards arrested me, that’s farther than they’ve ever gotten. Normally I can make soldiers forget before they even start walking toward me, but I couldn’t back there. I could only do it after they carried me off. And it’s you. I can’t do my thing when you’re around.”

“So you can’t prove it.”

“No, I can. It’s just won’t be easy. I’ve been experimenting while I was following you. I think I’m okay as long as you’re not looking at me. So here’s what I’ll do. You see her over there?” Josephine pointed to a woman under an overhanging tarp. She had a home set up nestled between a plaster building an old, rusted taxi without tires. She lay there as though watching the world pass her by, but Naema knew better. It was watch duty. Other people lived in that alcove with her. They were gone while she watched the home. Everyone knows: you don’t leave your home unattended, no matter how little you think you have. You’re apt to come home to find your blankets missing.

“I see her.” Naema said.

“I’m going to take her cooking pot and bring it back, and she’s not going to stop me.”

“…Okay.”

“But I need you to go around the corner first.”

Naema was reluctant.

“You promised you’d give me a chance.”

“Fine, fine.” Naema walked in the direction she was already heading. She didn’t turn at the first corner, since it would take her down an alley, and she still expected a nasty trick. The next intersection was a major street. She walked around the corner and waited.

From around the corner, she heard a woman yell, “Hey! Come ere. Put dat down. Gi mi…” And then the voice trailed off.

Josephine turned the corner carrying a dented iron pot. She presented it with a smile.

“Okay,” Naema said. “Can I look?”

“Yep.”

The woman was still where she was before. She was standing, though she seemed uncaring about her missing pot.

“You paid her off.” Naema said.

Josephine groaned. “No, I didn’t. Here. Come with me while I return it.”

“I must go home. Curfew is almost here.”

“Don’t worry about that. Look.” Josephine took out a leather booklet. It’s smooth black design did not at all fit her attire. She opened it to reveal an ID card behind a plastic viewing frame. Naema had never seen an ID like that, and her english wasn’t good enough to read it, but it was certainly Lakiran. More interesting, the photo displayed was of Josephine.

“I’m allowed out after curfew,” Josephine said.

“How did you get this?”

“I walked into a Lakiran military compound and printed it out.”

“You make people forget then, too?”

“Yep. Just hopped behind the counter. It was like the DMV for me.”

“What is the DMV?”

“Nevermind, but as long as you’re with me, you won’t be arrested. I promise. Will you come with me to return this now?” She held up the pot.

Naema relented. Together they returned to the woman.

“Excuse me,” Josephine said. She held up the pot. “Is this yours?”

The woman glanced. Her eyes snapped to her empty heating plate. She was on her feet instantly. Eyes wide, she crept toward Josephine while glancing up and down the street.

“Yea. It dey mine. How you done got it?”

“It was laying on the street around the corner. I thought I remembered seeing it in your place here last time I passed through.”

“Oh.” The woman didn’t seem convinced. Not that she was angry, but rather confused that it could be her pot at all. Josephine handed it to her. The woman bowed gratefully, then scurried back. She eyed Naema and Josephine as they left.

“Are you convinced?” Josephine asked.

“No. You paid her.”

“Come on. Did it look like I paid her?”

“She and you worked it out together before.”

“Okay. How about this. We do it again, but this time you pick out the person. We’ll do this experiment as many times as you want.”

It seemed unwise, but Naema had to admit, if this was a trick, that woman back there was a damn good actor. And by now it was too late to get back before curfew. She’d have to stop at Old Aba anyway. Naema time to burn.

“I still get the food?” Naema asked.

“Here,” Josephine handed over her satchel. “I can always get more. Why don’t you have it all.”

“I am keeping this. Even if you are full of it.”

“Fine by me.”


Naema did make it back home that night. Curfew had passed by two hours, but after Josephine stole from under a dozen other noses, which included taking the sidearm from a Lakiran guard, Naema admitted that Josephine might not be a complete fake.

It was during these tests that Josephine realized, or claimed to have realized, that she didn’t need Naema to go around the corner. Turning around was sufficient. That supposedly was why the walk home was as uneventful as it was. After dark, the streets emptied. Then came the Prowlers—floating platforms which drifted above the houses silently. Naema only knew they were there when the stars blotted out, except for the two times when people aboard the platforms spotted them. Blinding light would bathe Josephine and Naema. But Josephine would hold her leather booklet up to the light, which apparently was good enough. The light would cut. The prowler would move on.

“They have scanners,” Josephine explained. She showed Naema a code on the surface of her ID.

When Naema arrived home, she gently lifted the flap into her family’s tent. Everyone was asleep, but as Naema emptied the satchel of food, Mama woke.

“It’s me, Mama,” Naema said.

“Naema?” Mama groped for her lantern. When the light flicked on, Mama squinted and covered the lantern surface with her hand. “Are you crazy? Why are you coming home now? After dark? They’ll cart you away.”

“It’s okay, Mama. I had somebody walk me.”

“Who?”

Naema held the shanty flap open. Josephine ducked through.

“Hello, madame.”

“Who is this woman?” Mama asked. Oni stirred.

“Josephine, Mama. She got us food.”

Mama perked up. “What?” She crawled from bed and looked through the bag. “Where did this all come from?”

“Mostly from the CivManagement building,” Josephine said.

“Girl!” Mama examined food items with increasing astonishment. Beside the food paste tubs, there was cereal, bread, chocolate, juice packs, cheese, canned meats, and freshly printed Fruit. “They don’t give this food out. How did you get this?”

“I have access to their buildings,” Josephine said.

Mama eyed her. She put the food down and leaned away as though it were all poison. She spoke to Naema. “What does she want?”

“I don’t want anything, madame,” Josephine said. “The food is a gift.”

“Is that so?” Mama replied. “That is very kind.” Her tone suggested it wasn’t.

Oni, however, had no problem accepting this gift. He tore open a packet of small cakes and gorged.

“Naema, girl, where did you find this woman? There is no such thing as something for nothing.”

“Mama, it’s okay. I met her at—”

“It’s all right,” said Josephine. “There’s no need to explain.”

“You will explain yourself,” Mama said. “Or you will take this food back.”

Josephine ignored her and turned to Naema. “I’d really like to meet you again, just to talk. Would it be okay if I came by at noon tomorrow? I can bring more food.”

“Okay,” said Naema. She would milk this for all it was worth.

“Great. I’ll see you soon.” Waving, Josephine ducked through the tarp.

Naema turned back to Mama, expecting a glare, but her mother had returned to sorting food items. “It’s okay, Mama. The food did not cost her anything. She has got special clearance.”

Her mother looked at her blankly. “Who are you talking about, girl?”

Naema nearly replied before she realized what had happened. A dozen random strangers might have played dumb, but Mama wouldn’t.

“Nobody, Mama.”

6. Contraband People

2055, November 6th
Collapse + 6 years

Naema lay on a glass surface covered with a grid of dots spaced every centimeter. A square of light shined through the grid that neatly framed her injured hand. Above her, a giant mechanical bar slowly slid by. It was a scanner of some kind. She couldn’t read the english writing on the side of the table, but the medical assistant had said it was a “Stiller field kinetic density imager”. Apparently it was better than an X-ray. Since the glass surface was large enough for her to lay upon, she figured the device could scan her entire body, but the passing bar only slowed its movement above the rectangle outlining her hand.

A 3D image of her hand popped up on a nearby monitor. The assistant tapped an onscreen button, and the hand went transparent, except for her bones, which were color-coded shades of blue for some reason. He flicked his fingers against the screen, and the image zeroed in on her thumb. A bone was clearly disconnected.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s a clean break on your first metacarpal.”

He picked up what looked like a glass clipboard, only it had text panels glowing on it, as though it were a disembodied computer screen. With a few onscreen button presses, the scan transferred to the clipboard.

“Come with me.” He escorted her out. They had been in a small enclosure created from medical curtains. It was one of six in a row where doctors or nurses would assess a patients condition, and each were in use. Even as Naema left, another assistant led a patient in to take her place.

The medical complex was a collection of large open tents set up on the dirt road bordering the bay. Two enormous tents acted as waiting rooms. They were packed with villagers with various ailments.

The man led Naema from the diagnostics tents to a tent of larger cubicles. “Wait here. A doctor will be with you shortly.”

She nodded and sat on an examination table. The assistant left.

From this booth, Naema had a clear view of the Lakiran citadel hovering over the bay. She’d seen it plenty while waiting earlier, and plenty more walking here, but the marvel of a floating city hadn’t yet worn off. Last week, it had drifted into Port Harcourt as ponderously as the moon inching along the sky. It anchored in place over the Niger Delta, in plain view of every person living on the bay. Shuttles started coming and going from its hull like bees to their hive. Nothing had driven home the reality of the Lakiran occupation like the citadel.

And like everything else Lakiran, it didn’t fit in. It’s polished chrome glittered unlike anything else in the city. It’s massive, curved hull had hundreds of small holes from which the shuttles flew in and out. The top was a cluster of tall towers, each curved for aerodynamics. Those spires are what made most mistake the citadel as a city. They looked like the downtown heart of a financial district, but the citadel was strictly military—the Lakiran’s modern take on the aircraft carriers of the pre-Collapse days.

Naema understood the theory of how it worked. In its hull would be three powerful repulse nodes which were projecting their fields deep underground, effectively pushing at the earth. In turn, the equal and opposite reaction kept the ship locked in place. It was like an invisible tripod. The result was a midair suspension more secure than if the citadel were locked in place with steel scaffolding. Not even the wind made it sway.

She watched shuttles come and go. After spending hours under the main tent with all the other sick an injured, she’d hoped her waiting was over, but apparently not. There were few medical staff here for the number of people who needed help. Her guess was maybe three hundred to one. All she had to do was tally the number of black people against non-blacks. The assistants had the most diversity. A few were Asian. Another had dark skin whose ethnicity she didn’t recognize. Mostly, though, they were white, especially the doctors, especially the men with guns. She found it odd, considering the Lakiran empire started in South America.

It reminded her of the aid groups from when she was a child, before the Collapse. The sky had turned dark with ash, the world froze over, but some things never change. That’s what her father had always said. White people are always coming to fix their problems. Do they help? Sure, but as Mama liked to point out, Nigerians weren’t the ones who launched the bombs.

As Naema watched the people in the medical encampment work, she noticed someone distinctly out of place. A white woman was under a supply tent rifling through a crate. Her clothing was not like the Lakiran uniforms, but rather a canvas dress and sandals, like she were local, and she had a leather satchel which she was squirrelling items into like a child stashing candy.

She was stealing. It was easy enough to tell from the way she kept glancing at the guards outside the tent. Naema didn’t understand how they didn’t see her. She was in plain view.

A young doctor walked into the exam cubicle. He seemed more like a rugged, mountaineering, out-of-college type if not for his doctor’s coat. “And how are we doing today?” He fetched the clipboard. “Ms. Naema Madaki? Hmm. Fractured Metacarpal. Mild laceration to the head. Multiple contusions…”

“Who is that woman?” Naema pointed to the woman sifting through crates.

The doctor looked. The lady stashed a box of food stuff into her satchel.

“Excuse me,” the doctor yelled. “What are you doing?”

The woman glanced up, then returned to her rifling.

The doctor walked toward her. “I asked what you’re doing.”

This time, the woman startled. She stared as though he were a dog who’d just asked her for the time.

The soldiers guarding the tent looked. They took over. “Ma’am. Step away from the crates and get down on your knees.”

They startled her just as much as the doctor did.

Now,” the soldier barked. They snapped into combat posture aimed right at her. With unsure movements, she complied. Everyone in the encampment watched as two soldiers searched her satchel. They pulled out all manner of supplies—obviously from the relief tent.

The next moment, the guards had her pinned to the ground. They cuffed her, frisked her, then escorted her away.

The hum of countless conversations resumed. The encampment returned to business.

“Thank you for pointing her out,” the doctor said to Naema. “Thieves like to pick through our already limited supplies. They have no thought for the people we’re here to help.”

“Yea,” Naema said.

“Now, let’s take a look at that thumb.” He examined his clipboard again. “It’s not too bad. I’ll give you a shot to numb your hand. Then we just have to pop that bone back into place. You shouldn’t feel a thing. I’ll be right back.”

He left, and Naema was left once again waiting.

That woman appeared again, wandering back into the supply tent. Her wrists were uncuffed, she had her bag back, and no soldiers were around her. In fact, most of the soldiers weren’t even back at their post yet. Did they let her go?

Instead of pilfering crates, the woman peered around as though looking for someone. She wandered aimlessly until disappearing from Naema’s view. Naema leaned to watch. She was still there, just standing around. After a moment, the lady took a step—again out of view.

The doctor returned with a handful of supplies. He was opening the plastic wrapper to a hypodermic needle when Naema spoke. “Why they let her go?”

“Let who go?”

“The thief. She is there.” Naema leaned farther to point. The woman noticed Naema pointing at her.

“Who?”

“The white woman with the curly hair.”

The woman walked toward Naema. That’s how the doctor spotted her. “What about her?” he asked.

“She was stealing.”

What? You saw this?”

“Yes. Over there, but the guards let her go. Why?”

The woman was within talking distance now.

The doctor faced her. “Excuse me. What are you doing here?”

“Me?” the woman asked. “Nothing.”

“This girl says you were taking supplies.”

“Did she?” The woman stared at Naema curiously.

“What is in your bag?”

“Nothing.”

Supplies,” Naema said, exasperated.

“Did you see her take some?” the doctor asked.

Yes.

The doctor yelled to a soldier. “Security. This woman here.”

A few approached. “What’s the matter?”

“This woman might be a thief.”

The soldiers turned to face the woman, intimidating her with their posture. “Hand over your bag, ma’am.”

The woman did. As they rifled through it, she watched Naema, uncaring as the men found contraband in her pack, again. And again, they shoved her to the ground, cuffed her and dragged her off. Just as they pulled her from view, the woman craned to look at Naema one last time, and she grinned.

“I appreciate your pointing her out,” the doctor said to Naema. “Thieves like to pick through our already limited supplies. They have no thought for the people we’re here to help.”

“Yea. You said that.”

“Hmm?”

“You said that last time. They take that woman two minutes ago. Then they let her go.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Two minutes ago. That woman was over there,” she pointed. “The guards grabbed her, but then she walk right back.”

“I see. She must have slipped away. Don’t worry. They’ve got her this time. Now…” The doctor took up the hypodermic needle. “Let’s get you sorted out.”

3. Contraband Food

2055, November 5th
Collapse + 6 years

“Contraband food supports contraband people”

The words covered most of the poster using a no-nonsense, stencil font like the kind used in military dossiers. In smaller words below, it said, “Contraband food comes from victims. Don’t fund slavers and raiders. Report any unauthorized food dealers to the authorities.” Beneath that, the rest of the poster showed a trichrome depiction of cartoon men with guns forcing others to enter a machine. From the other end, food emerged.

Beside that poster was another warning of metal content and contaminants in unsanctioned food products. After that, the posters repeated along the brick wall in differing local languages.

That’s where Naema found her brother. He was two blocks into a seven block line of people waiting their turn for the relief center. From here, the center wasn’t even in view.

Naema approached him. He was too busy scraping the earth with a stick to notice her until she was right before him.

“That is it?” she asked. “The line is not moving any faster?”

Oni shrugged. He kept scratching the earth. “It moved.”

Naema eyed a shriveled man sitting before Oni in the line. “You let anyone cut you?”

Oni shook his head.

Naema didn’t recall seeing the man. When she gave up her shift to Oni two hours ago, an old woman had been ahead of her whom she had to practically shove forward whenever the line moved in order to keep someone from taking advantage of the gap, but this man might have been before them. That woman had been in bad shape. The collectors probably got her. They came by every few hours and carted off anyone who wasn’t alive enough to respond to their questions. At least it kept the bodies off the street.

“My turn now,” said Naema. “You go home.”

“I’m okay.”

“No you’re not. Go home to Mama. She needs you.”

You go home to Mama. I want to wait more.”

“Why? Come on. Get up. You want to wait? Go get water. We’re almost out.”

Oni sighed and stood. “Fine, fine.” He handed Naema the family’s three food stamps—one each for her, Oni, and Mama. Oni ran off. Naema took his place and leaned against the wall. The man behind her in line watched Oni go, then turned to eyeball Naema. She stared him down, daring him to say anything about her taking someone’s place. He didn’t.

Taking turns in line wasn’t supposed to be allowed, but everybody did it. Families cycled through their members. Friends held places for friends. No one fought about it since the soldiers would just kick them out of line, but it built animosity. The war was over, but feelings were harder now than ever before.

And all of this, just for half a pound of synthetic cassava. The relief tent had seven assemblers dedicated to cassava paste. Each one took ten minutes to make a serving, which meant forty servings an hour in total, but then many people carried as many as half a dozen stamps for their families, the most any one person was allowed to redeem at once.

The wait was worst near the front. Naema could see the machines defecating paste into tubs at painstakingly slow rates. Some machines were broken, and some white men would be elbow deep inside those trying to fix them, if they bothered. And then there were the pounds of paste the peace officers carried off, supposedly going to those too sick or old to wait, but across the river, by the docks, the Jambai gang sold tubs for five naira apiece. They say they have their own assemblers, but those tubs looked a lot like the ones those officers carried off.

The line moved. Everyone shuffled forward. Naema rounded a corner, and the relief tent came into view. It was only a week old, but already its tarp was stained with dirt and mud, just like the peace officers’ fatigues. Their gray and white fabrics didn’t look so pure anymore.

On the first night the relief crew arrived, gangs lobbed handfuls of shit until shock troops dropped in from the sky like comets. Naema had heard the screaming from home, but no gunfire. Lakiran rifles whispered.

Over the next hour, the line crawled.

“Hey,” someone called from behind her. “Oslo.”

From the way the old man before Naema turned, he was Oslo.

A Nigerian with short curls of gray hair approached Oslo. He sidled up, hands in his pockets and a warm smile on his face. Oslo glanced around as though looking for the man this stranger was actually talking to. The newcomer slapped his arm over Oslo’s shoulder.

“Oslo. Thank you, my friend.”

“What?”

“You have saved my place in line.”

Oslo glanced around. He averted his gaze from Naema. When he glanced at the peace officers patrolling the line, he had a change of heart.

“Um. Yes. Tonton. You are quite welcome. It is good to see you again. It has been too long.”

Tonton bellowed laughter. His smile stretched wide, showing yellow teeth. “Too long? We were standing in line together an hour ago.”

Naema knew what was happening. This Tonton had seen someone he knew, and he was bluffing his way in. Oslo either had to play along, or tell this man to get lost and risk starting a fight, which might get him pulled from the line.

Naema wanted to say something. If she were in line just for herself, she would, but Oni and Mama were counting on her. Even when Tonton pulled his hand from his pocket, revealing a full six food stamps, she said nothing. It only added ten minutes to her wait.

Someone prodded Naema from behind. She turned. An angry man was glaring at her. “Was he there?” He pointed to Tonton. “I never saw that man. Did you?”

Naema shrugged.

“He wasn’t there. Get him out.”

Naema glanced from the angry man to Tonton, who was ignoring her.

“Get him out,” the man said again.

You get him out.”

The man scowled, but said nothing more. A short while later Tonton raised his hand and signaled to a group of passing strangers. “Over here, mes amies.”

Three people meandered over. Each caught on to Tonton’s little deception. Each held multiple food stamps.

Tonton smiled broadly at his companions. “I thought you wouldn’t find me.”

Oslo made no remark as they filed into line in front of Naema.

This was too much. She tugged on Tonton’s shirt. He turned.

“No. Uh huh. You were not in line. None of you were.”

Tonton smiled. “You are mistaken. My friend Oslo here was holding our place. You have a leaky memory.”

“No,” said Naema. “Me and my brother have been waiting all day. We no see any of you.”

“What’s it matter?” Tonton’s smile had no humor. “You want to get us in trouble?” He glanced toward the peace officers, then leaned in. “Here. I’m a good man. See? Maybe you remember better?”

He held his hand between them so only she could see. A single food token was between his fingers. An extra half pound of cassava would go a long way, but something about this man made her resist. Maybe it was how casually he decided to cheat everyone else, or maybe it was that smile of his, as though he were smarter than everyone else for pulling it off.

She’d probably regret this later.

“No,” she shook her head. “You go wait in line like everyone else.”

His smile returned as he withdrew the token. “Okay, putain. More for me. You want to call the peace men, you do that. Maybe I tell the peace men you cut, no?”

He turned back to his friends, but Naema yanked him around by his shirt. “No. You go wait. All these people wait. You think your problems are worse?”

This time, Tonton ignored her. He and his friends laughed. Some glanced at her.

“Hey,” she said, raising her voice. “You don’t stay here. Go.”

A patrolling peace officer approached. “Is there a problem?”

Naema started to speak, but Tonton’s voice barreled over her.

“Yeah. There’s a problem. This woman is trying to cut in line. I told her to go to the end. Now she won’t leave me alone.”

“No. That is not what happened,” Naema said. “They cut in line. They are all pretending to know each other, but I know they were never here.”

Tonton shook his head. “No, sir. I’ve been here all day with my friends.” They all agreed.

The peace officer hardly cared. He looked from Tonton to Naema, then glanced to the man behind her. “What did you see?”

Eyes wide, the man shrugged. He wasn’t willing to stick his neck out.

The peace officer turned back to Naema and Tonton. “Okay then. Both of you out of line.”

“What?” said Tonton. “No. No, sir. I’ve been here all day.”

“No no, it’s okay,” said Naema. “We won’t argue anymore.”

“Out.” With gloved hands, the officer pulled them from line. “One of you cut. I don’t care who. You can both go back to the end of the line or wait until tomorrow. I don’t care.”

He resumed patrolling the line.

“Good work, salope.” Tonton shoved her. “I’ve got four kids. You, bitch, can’t keep your mouth shut.”

“Shut up,” said Naema. It had taken her and her brother four hours to get through the line. Mama might be home now preparing a kettle. Even if Naema got back in line, it would be after dark before she even got back to where she was.

She turned and walked away.

“Hey, salope,” called Tonton. “You ain’t got nothing to say for yourself?”

She ignored him. At least he got kicked out too, but what was the point? His friends got to stay. They would let him back in as soon as the peace officer moved on.

She turned off the main road and headed back home. The family had food saved up, and Naema could skip her portion.

Things were supposed to get better when the Lakirans took over. Everyone was supposed to get as much assembled food as they wanted; that’s what the soldiers said when they marched in. But it’s worse now. Food was scarce before the Lakirans zeroed in on Nigeria, but at least it was there. Someone might sell food from a hacked assembler in their basement, or Mama might get lucky, and a dealer would pick her up who could pay her in food cans.

But now? Nothing. The first thing the Lakirans did was shut down all trade out of the Port Harcourt. They arrested anyone they found with food other than their own. They made themselves the only food source, but they weren’t enough.

Naema turned down an alley toward her home. Like most alleys, it was home to many. There were shanties made of aluminum, and laundry lines stretched overhead. Litter covered most of the road.

Someone was running up behind her.

Naema turned. A PVC pipe cracked against her head. White stars burst across her vision. She collided against a nearby shanty. Aluminum plates rattled like thunder. She tried to push herself up by her hands, and the pipe struck her back. She collapsed against the shanty again.

“You get me out of line?” Tonton yelled. “You want trouble with me? You got it, bitch.”

Again and again, Tonton beat her. There was anger behind each blow. Everywhere her arms would protect, he would just aim elsewhere: her ribs, her skull, her legs. He spared nothing.

Throughout his yelling and beating, people passed the mouth of the alley, and Naema knew people were in the shanties. No one helped.

She curled into a fetal position and waited until he finished. Finally, he dropped the pipe and knelt beside to her. His hands roamed her clothes. When she realized what he was looking for, she lashed out and kicked, but her strength was gone.

He yanked the food tokens from her pockets, two fell and clattered. He turned to pick them up.

She couldn’t let him have them. Those tokens were for her family. If she could just save one…

She lunged, despite pain in her sides and blood streaming from her scalp. Her fingers hooked Tonton’s sandal. He stumbled away. Naema fumbled for a fallen token. Just one, and then she’d run.

As her fingers closed around the small plastic coin, Tonton’s foot collided with her face. She reeled. Blood streamed from her nose.

“Give me the coin, salope,” he yelled.

He attacked her again. Kick after kick, but she kept her hand clenched.

Then he stomped her fist against the ground. Something snapped. Wailing, she pulled her hand to her chest, but Tonton yanked it back. Squeezing her wrist, he pried the last token from her fingers.

“Don’t fuck with me again, okay?” He kicked her one final time, then left her laying in the alley.

Out on the street, everyone continued on their day.


Limping, Naema arrived home. Her ribs ached. She had numerous cuts and scrapes, and a gash on her forehead still bled. The worst was her thumb. The nail was loose. In time it would turn black and pop off, but what concerned her more was that her thumb wouldn’t bend, and it was swelling like a balloon.

Home was a blue tarp propped between a condominium wall and a dumpster. Before the bombing, they’d lived in a shack by the bay—one of many. It was a single room made of balsa wood planks. Naema and Oni had slept on one mattress on the floor, and their parents shared the only bed with their infant brother. It hadn’t been much, but it had been home. Between Mama and Papa’s work, they got by. Sometimes, as Naema lay beneath the tarp they lived under now, she’d think about that bayside shack—about Papa and their little brother who never got a name—and she’d grow nauseous with homesickness.

With her good hand, she pulled back the tarp flap and entered. Oni slept on a mess of sheets. Mama was perched over the portable glass kettle. It came with its own heating pad, which it snapped into. The glass was chipped, and it rattled in its hold, but it functioned.

Mama had not yet changed from work. Her tight lycra miniskirt and low cut tank top showed as much coffee skin as possible while still remaining flattering for her age, although the miniskirt made hunkering over the kettle an awkward affair.

She saw Naema’s wounds instantly.

“Naema.” She hurried over and clutched Naema’s shoulders. “What happen to you, girl?”

In the corner, Oni stirred. He stared at her, eyes wide.

Naema had known this was coming. As soon as she told Mama she was mugged, Mama would shower her with sympathy. It didn’t matter that she’d lost the tokens, just as long as she was all right. It wouldn’t be her fault, and that’s what she would hate, because it was. She’d lost their tokens. She got hurt. She did something stupid. And they were all going to suffer because of it.

Naema began to cry.

Mama guided her to a mattress. She fetched a first aid kit from under a pile of laundry. Oni had gotten it from a relief handout months ago. Mama had already traded away most of the supplies and drugs inside, but a few sanitary wipes remained. Mama dabbed Naema’s cuts while humming lullabies, more to herself than to Naema. Oni watched silently.

Once Mama finished, she held Naema and crooned until she calmed down.

“Now you tell me what happened.”

So Naema did, starting with when Tonton cut into the line, down to his prying of the token from her hands. She thought of leaving out details, such as how she’d gotten herself kicked out of line, but she’d only be masking her fault, and she deserved to have them know the truth.

Finished, Naema looked up at her mother to see her brow creased with sympathy, and it set off her crying all over again.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

“No no.” Mama pulled her into a hug. “Don’t be sorry.”

The comfort made it worse. There had been so much of it recently, so many times Naema or Oni had been reduced to tears. It hadn’t always been like this, not back before Papa left.

Mama focused on Naema’s thumb. Gingerly, she touched it. Naema winced. All Naema could do was wiggle it like a dying worm.

“Sleep, now,” Mama said. “Both of you.”

Oni laid back down. Naema crawled to the bed, carefully holding her arm to her stomach.

“Tomorrow you go to the doctor men,” Mama said. The Lakiran’s had medical tents in Nigeria as well as food relief. Unfortunately, the nearest one was down by the bay, nearly four hours walk. And it was always flooded with the screaming and dying. She might be there long past dark, and since she wasn’t critically injured, they wouldn’t let her stay in the tents. She’d have to stay in the dock’s refugee camp overnight to avoid getting caught for curfew violation.

She wanted to argue against going, but Mama was right. This wouldn’t get better on its own.