by Matthew Johnson
“Lagos” was first published in the August 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Safrat liked being a vacuum cleaner. Of all the jobs she might be given, it was her favorite: she liked to see in the rich peoples’ homes, even if her point of view was only three inches off the ground. It was light work, too, not like digging earth or handling barrels of toxic waste. That shouldn’t have made a difference but it did, at the end of the day when the motor-muscles she didn’t have ached beyond words.
The amber warning lit up: only half an hour left in her shift. She switched to light suction and began moving more swiftly around the floor, scanning for any spots she might have missed or where dust might have settled since she started. The foreman, Adegoke, had said that a house could never be clean enough for the rich people. If they were not satisfied then there would be no more demand for workers from Lagos, and the telepresence booths the government had built with World Bank money would sit idle. It was up to workers like her, he had said, to do a good enough job that even the rich white people would be satisfied.
She had just finished her inspection when the red warning lit, and she started to disengage from the vacuum and return to full wakefulness. You could not work the machines, even the very simple ones like vacuum cleaners, when you were entirely awake: you shuddered and jolted and made stupid mistakes, as if you were thinking about every step while you walked. Many of the workers drank palm wine or smoked India hemp before their shifts to get into the proper state of mind, but Safrat found it came naturally to her if she chose one simple task to start with and did it slowly and rhythmically. Like the others, though, she was always muzzy after a shift, and she was glad her brother Paul was able to meet her and guide her home.
It was only five months they had been in Lagos. The city was for the ambitious, and neither of them was that: they had been happy to tend battery trees in the country, up north of Ilorin, until the state energy company had chosen their village as the site of the new transmission station. After that there was no choice for either of them but to go to the city like all the rest, try to find a relation who would help with a job and a place to live. They had found a cousin, an oga named Tinubu, who had quickly gotten Safra the telepresence job — they preferred to hire women for some reason — but could only find casual work for Paul, hustling and running for him. This meant that while Safra gave Tinubu only a quarter of her salary Paul had to give half of whatever he made, since he could not be relied on to bring in anything at all.
Now Paul led Safra back to their home, past the market crowded with stalls with sheet-metal roofs, where medicines, bicycle parts and DVDs were sold; the sound of the hawkers and the car horns came to her like distant music, barely penetrating the haze that surrounded her. It would take them more than an hour to get back to Isale Eko on foot, but that was all right. They paid only for night rights in their room, and if they got there before nine o’clock they would have to wait around outside the building. Instead they stopped for a meal of fufu and groundnuts and then arrived just as the people who slept there during the day were leaving, found the mattresses still warm on the floor.
In the morning Safra rose, picked up the two plastic buckets that sat at the foot of her mattress and went to the borehole to buy water. As she did she passed one of the sleeping alleys, where plastic sheets were laid on the ground as beds: she and Paul had slept in one of those when they first arrived, and it was only Tinubu and the job he had found for her that had brought them indoors. Water from the borehole was trickling down the alley, creeping over the plastic sheets, but one of the people there still slept anyway.
She paid twenty naira to fill both buckets, waiting for a long time behind a woman with a foot-washing business who was filling ten, loading each one onto a push-cart; then she carefully trudged back to the apartment building, willing herself to ignore the calls of the touts and hawkers that offered her cell phones, watches, anything. The wind was blowing from the east, bringing sawdust from the great mills on the mainland, and by the time she got back she was coughing white phlegm.
“How did you sleep?” Paul asked as she joined him on the stoop. He was holding two wooden bowls full of fufu, handed one to her.
“I never remember,” Safra said. “Why do you ask?”
“You were talking,” he said. “In English.”
Safra frowned. Both of them spoke English well enough to get by in Lagos, but their first language was Yoruba. She didn’t suppose she had ever thought in English, never mind dreaming in it. “What did I say?”
Paul shrugged. He was concentrating on pouring the water she had bought into the dozen or so clear plastic bottles he had collected, which he would then strap on his back under a vest of cargo netting: a few hours in the sun would kill off whatever evils lurked within. “I didn’t follow it,” he said, not taking his eyes off the bottle’s mouth. “Something about a vacation, I think.”
She put down her bowl and laughed. “A vacation in English,” she said. “That sounds good.”
He laughed too, though he did not look up. “I’ll bring you water at two, unless Tinubu has a job for me.”
Safrat nodded. “Thank you,” she said, then stood and patted him on the shoulder, careful not to disrupt his concentration. It was hot already, and by the time she got to the telepresence station she wished she had brought one of Paul’s water bottles. On a day like today, though, each bottle might bring three times what it had cost.
The other women were starting to arrive, either on foot like her or by the rattling danfo. They were all early: without a watch — one that worked, and kept working, which was not something to be found in Lagos — it was the only way to be sure of being on time. That was something the rich white people who had built the booths insisted on.
“Smoke?” one of the other workers asked, an Ibo girl named Janet. She held out a rolled cigarette, double-stuffed with tobacco and India hemp.
Safrat held up her hand in polite refusal, but a moment later changed her mind and accepted it. The taste was bitter and harsh as she drew in the smoke, and she felt light-headed; she did not much like the effect that smoking had on her, but today she felt a need to join in the morning rituals of the other women.
“My husband says I was keeping him up all night,” said one of them, a Lagos-born woman everyone called Victoria; she was careful to note, in every conversation, that she and her husband lived on Victoria Island. She took a swig from a plastic milk jug full of palm wine, passed it to the woman next to her.
“Were you talking?” Safrat asked.
Victoria’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Among the workers there were lines rarely crossed. There were those who came by foot and those who came by danfo, and Safrat came by foot; there were those who drank palm wine and those who smoked India hemp, and on most days Safrat did neither. “Why do you ask?” Victoria said.
Safrat coughed, the smoke from Janet’s cigarette still burning her throat. “My brother said I was talking in my sleep last night,” she said. “In English.”
“I only speak in English,” Victoria said pointedly.
“But were you talking? In your sleep?”
Before Victoria could speak Janet said “I think I was. When I woke this morning all the people in my room were looking at me.”
Victoria raised an eyebrow and looked Safrat in the eye, ignoring Janet. “Yes,” she said. “He said I was talking.”
“What is this, what is going on?” Adegoke asked. The foreman, a tall, thin man in his twenties, had stepped out of the station as he did every morning, brandishing his wrist with the gold watch at the women. “You are all nearly late. What is this, palm wine and hemp? Is this going to help you do careful work?”
Normally this was the cue for the women to put these things away and file into their telepresence booths, but today Victoria turned to face Adegoke directly. “Your machines are making us sick,” she said. “Why should we go in?”
Adegoke put his hands on his hips. “What are you saying?” he asked. “There is nothing wrong with the machines. They are brand new.”
“Ask Safrat,” Victoria said, pointing to her and stepping aside. “She knows what’s going on.”
“Safrat?” Adegoke asked. “Are you causing trouble here?”
The air was gone from her lungs; if she lost this job Safrat would have to give Tinubu everything she had saved so far as compensation, and his take from the next job would be higher.
“Well?” Adegoke said. “Can’t you speak?”
“I was, I was just noticing many of us seem to be talking in our sleep,” she said, keeping her eyes on Adegoke’s leather shoes.
“That is normal enough,” Adegoke said. “When you don’t work hard enough in the day your mind keeps going at night.”
“We are all talking in English,” Safrat said.
“And you think this is the booths? No, it is impossible. The wall of fire prevents anything like that.”
The women all looked at him curiously.
“The wall of fire,” Adegoke said. He waved his hands around his head. “When the World Bank men built this station, they built it with a wall of fire around it. It keeps things from coming back to you, to the booths. All right?” There was silence. “All right. Now get to your stations and get to work.”
Safrat went to her booth in silence, sat down and hooked herself up to the machine. As soon as the drugs had relaxed her muscles she got to work, controlling a forklift loading cartons onto and off of a ship; the usual rhythm eluded her, though, and she was glad to have had some of Janet’s cigarette. The work went slowly, and by the end of the day she was too exhausted to think about anything but sleep.
Paul was not waiting for her at the end of her shift: Tinubu must have found him a job, she thought, or at least an errand. She carefully made her way home, forcing herself to concentrate on her surroundings, and finally settled down on the steps of her apartment building to wait for her brother.
She awoke to find him standing over her, two bowls of fufu in hand; gratefully she took one, began to eat it in silence.
“How did you do today?” she asked after a few minutes.
Paul smiled. “Tinubu gave me a job, in the Mile Twelve market.”
“A job? For how long?”
“Just for today.” He must have noticed the look that crossed her face, because he quickly added “But he said he’d get me more, soon.”
“How much did you make?” Safrat asked.
“Two thousand naira.”
“How much did you keep?”
Paul looked away. “Two hundred.”
She shook her head. “You’d have made more selling water.”
“But he said — he promised if I did a good job selling he would find me a regular job –”
“Watches today, but it doesn’t matter. . . Safrat?”
“What?” She blinked, feeling as though some force was pulling her off balance. “What did you say?”
“I asked if you were all right,” Paul said. He leaned close; glancing away, Safrat saw that almost all of her fufu had been eaten. Had she been asleep, or just away from home? “You were talking again, in English. When I told you about the watches Tinubu gave me to sell you started to say something about gold Rolexes.”
Safrat frowned, shook her head. “Do you have any paper? For writing, I mean?”
“Next time you hear me talking like that, write down everything I say. Exactly the words I say, all right?”
Nodding again, Paul said “All right. What do you think this is?”
“I don’t know,” Safrat said.
The next morning Safrat went back to work, clutching the piece of paper on which Paul had written her nighttime speech. Victoria was already there when she arrived, passing the day’s jug of palm wine around with her friends, and after a moment Safrat screwed up the courage to approach her.
“What is it?” Victoria asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
“What your husband said you were saying, in the night,” Safrat asked, thrusting the paper at her. “Was it anything like this?”
Victoria’s eyes narrowed as she took the paper, squinting at Paul’s rough letters. “I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose.”
“What is this?” Adegoke asked, snatching the paper from Victoria’s hand.
Victoria threw Safrat a look of fury: to the foreman she was just another worker, and she did not like to be reminded of that. “It’s Safrat’s,” she said. “She brought it.”
“Safrat, I told you –”
“It’s nothing,” Safrat said. She reached out for the paper in Adegoke’s hands, but stopped short of touching it. “Please. It’s nothing.”
“I will keep this,” Adegoke said. “But you all should get to work.”
The other women glared at Safrat as they passed into the station, their wine and India hemp unfinished. There would be nothing to do but sit in their booths until the shift began, but nobody, not even Victoria, was willing to argue with the foreman.
That day Safrat was given her least favorite job, clearing, cleaning and stacking dishes at an automatic restaurant somewhere; it was nervous work, too delicate to ever establish a rhythm, and the unchanging perspective made her feel as though she was trapped in a box. The day crawled by, plate by plate and glass by glass, until finally the amber warning lit. She used the last half-hour of her shift to check the machine she was controlling for wear or glitches, then disconnected as soon as the red warning came up. Today she was wide awake. She looked around at the others emerging dazed from their booths, heard murmured English on their lips. She frowned, saw Paul waiting for her outside.
“No work today?” she asked when she joined him.
He shook his head. “Tinubu says tomorrow.”
“You’ll need to,” Safrat said. “We have to hire a babalawo.”
“This thing I have, the other women have it too. Some of them, anyway.”
“Did you talk to the foreman?”
She glanced back at the station. “He wouldn’t listen. Not to me.”
Paul sighed. “And the other girls? Will they help pay?” Safrat shook her head. “So why should we do it? Let one of the rich ones do it.” By rich he meant someone like Victoria: rich enough to have her own room, to live in a neighborhood with running water, to take the danfo to work.
“I think something is wrong here, very wrong,” Safrat said. “I’m afraid to wait.”
After a moment Paul nodded, said “I’ll ask Tinubu to find us a babalawo.”
“No. Tinubu can’t think I’m causing trouble at my job. Didn’t our uncle Olisa have a cousin in the city who was a babalawo?”
“Yes, I think,” Paul said. “I’ll see if I can find him tonight. Is that all right?”
Safrat nodded. “I hope so.”
Adegoke watched the women go, looked down at the torn piece of newspaper on his desk. He had been puzzling over it all day, trying to understand what the girl Safrat had written there. Her writing was very poor, but he could make out the numbers: very large numbers, it seemed, and what he thought was the word dollars. A treasure, he thought, she had been speaking in her sleep of a treasure: he had heard stories like this, when he had been a boy in his grandfather’s village east of Uyo. Men who had died over money might live on as eggun, unable to rest until the treasure was found. He thought that was what the message was saying, that the spirit was inviting him to find the fortune, but at the end it turned into nonsense, just a string of numbers. He picked up a pen and copied what he could read of the writing onto a clean piece of paper, hoping it might make more sense.
His hand slowed as he wrote the last sequence of numbers. As he copied them he recognized the first three as the area code for Lagos. Adegoke counted out the remaining numbers, nodded.
He took a deep breath, picked up the phone and began dialing.
“Sit down,” the babalawo said.
Safrat looked around the room: it was scattered with scraps of paper and stubs of candles, wooden bowls and drums and shells of kola nuts. To her surprise the babalawo did not live much better than she did; in his own room, it was true, but still in Isale Eko. She brushed a spot on the floor bare of nut shells and sat down cross-legged.
“My brother says you fear sorcery,” the babalawo said. By brother he meant Paul: in the country there were no aunts or uncles, just mothers and fathers.
“Yes,” Safrat said. “For the last few nights, I’ve been –”
The babalawo held up a finger. “Shh,” he said, then nodded twice, slowly. He unslung the bag from his shoulder and drew out a broad, shallow wooden tray and a small plastic bag full of grey powder. He put the bowl on the floor, opened the bag and emptied the powder into the tray, smoothing it with the back of his hand until it was perfectly flat and featureless. Then he reached into the bag again and drew out eight palm nuts, each with tiny holes drilled into one side. He closed his hands together, shook the palm nuts inside and then tossed them into the tray; some fell with the blank side up, some with the drilled, and he drew lines from one to another in the powder, following some pattern or procedure she could not follow.
“Elegua and Ogunn are present,” the babalawo said. “A road has been opened, or a door. Something that should not have been opened. Does this mean anything to you?”
Safrat frowned. “I don’t know.”
The babalawo shook his head quickly. “Iron is involved. A car, a bridge –”
“A machine?” Safrat asked.
Frowning, the babalawo ran his finger along the path he had drawn between the nuts. “Perhaps,” he said. “Yes, I think so, yes. Oggun is concerned with a machine.”
“Is that what’s wrong with me?” Safrat said. “Is the machine broken?”
“Broken? No.” The babalawo scratched his head, squinting at the palm nuts before him. “There is sorcery in the machine. An eggun, or the work of another babalawo.”
“Can you help?”
“Perhaps.” The babalawo scooped up the palm nuts, put them back in his shoulder bag and then emptied the gray powder back into its bag. Finally he put the wooden tray back into his shoulder bag and stood up. “I will need to see the machine.”
Safrat sighed as she got to her feet. “How much will that cost?”
The babalawo shrugged. “We will see,” he said.
Adegoke looked down at the piece of paper, then up at the building in front of him. He had the right address, but he was puzzled: this was a government building, not the sort of place he’d expect to find a fortune. He had been just as surprised, of course, when the number Safrat had written down had been a real phone number. He went into the air-conditioned lobby, suddenly aware of the sweat under his striped shirt, made his way quickly to the building directory. Number thirty-four, he’d been told: he buzzed for it and waited.
“Who is it?” a voice said. It sounded like the same one as on the phone.
“We spoke this evening,” Adegoke said. He cleared his throat. “I brought what you asked.”
“Already?” There was a moment’s silence. “You have it with you?”
“All right. Come up to the fifth floor.”
Adegoke looked over his shoulder, then made his way to the elevator. His palms were sweaty despite the cool air, and he felt like everyone could see his wallet bulging in his back pocket. He should have worn his money belt instead. He had bought it when he first come to Lagos, having heard so many stories about how dangerous the city was, but had not worn it long: it was too inconvenient, and he liked having his money easy at hand.
Finally the elevator doors re-opened and he stepped out onto the fifth floor. He was in a waiting room, with a sofa and chairs, a receptionist’s desk. “Hello?” he called. He heard no response, so he sat down on the sofa.
A few minutes passed before he heard footsteps coming down from the hallway behind the receptionist’s desk. He got to his feet, swallowed, and patted the bulge in his back pocket. A well-dressed man with glasses, Igbo or maybe Yoruba, appeared behind the desk. “Hello,” he said in BBC-accented English, extending a hand to Adegoke. “We spoke on the phone?”
Adegoke nodded, took the man’s hand. “Yes,” he said.
“Good. You have the money? A thousand dollars US?”
“Very good. With that I can get the account unfrozen — it should take about a week. When that’s done I’ll call you and –”
“What do you mean, a week?” Adegoke said. “Do you think I’m going to give you a thousand dollars and just walk away?”
“These things take time,” the man said. “But I promise you, your investment will be amply –”
Adegoke reached out and seized the man’s wrist, glaring at him. “Are you trying to scam me?” he asked. “Do you know who I am? I am Adegoke Omojoro. My uncle is Michael Oyelolo.” The man’s face went pale at the mention of his uncle’s name, and Adegoke nodded. “That’s right. So I want to see my share today, or I take my money and I walk.”
The man pulled his hand away, reached up to pull at the knot of his tie. “Stay here just a minute, please,” he said.
Crossing his arms, Adegoke watched the man go. He was glad he had thought to mention his uncle: Michael was the reason he had come to Lagos, the man who had gotten him his job, and his name opened doors. Adegoke smiled to himself, waiting for the man to return.
He didn’t. Instead a taller man came down the hall, perfectly dressed in a dark suit. Adegoke’s eyes widened, his arms dropping to his side.
“Hello, nephew,” his uncle said.
Safrat had thought she would need to find a way to sneak Paul and the babalawo into the station, but the foreman was not there: only the night shift women were in their booths, and they saw nothing.
“What are you going to do?” Paul asked the babalawo.
“She needs to confront the spirit that is tormenting her,” the babalawo said. “If it is coming through the machine, then that is how she must face it.”
Leading the others down the station, Safrat found an empty booth. “I can do it from here,” she said, “but once I’m in the booth I don’t have any control over what job they give me.”
The babalawo unshouldered his bag, started to root around in it. After a minute he drew out a small plastic pouch filled with a coarse brown-and-white powder. “This is a medicine we use to face the eggun,” he said. “If you swallow this and drink palm wine you will be half-sober and half-drunk, half-dreaming and half-awake. That is the only way to see the spirits directly.”
Safrat took the bag, settled into the booth. “I won’t need the wine, I think,” she said. She hooked herself up and opened the pouch, felt the acrid tang of the powder burning her nostrils. “How much do I have to take?”
“Wet your fingertip, then touch the powder and run it over your gums,” the babalawo said. She did as he had instructed, feeling a tingle run through her and then a buzz as the medicine started its work; just then the drugs started to flow into her from the hookup and she went limp.
At first it appeared the medicine had not changed anything: the vision feed of a sewer-snake faded into her view, twitching as she flexed the feedback motors. After a few moments, though, she noticed a strange double vision, both the sensory feed she was getting from the snake and something like a chain or a rope running down to it. With a prayer to Elegua, opener of paths, she willed herself up the chain.
The sewer-snake’s vision faded from view as she rose, and after a moment she found herself in a space like a cattle pen. She saw herself there, or rather a thing that was labeled SAFRAT: it did not look like a person but a bundle of organs, a beating heart and lungs breathing in and out, hanging in the air. The chain led back down to the snake from it, and all around her were other bundles like it, labeled with the names of all the night shift women. Each had chains leading down from them to their jobs, vacuums or forklifts or dishwashers, but Safrat saw they had other chains leading into and out of them as well. Those leading out went in all directions, but the ones leading in all came from above. She tried to focus on one of the chains that ran down to the women, but instead moved herself into its path
G01D R0LEX W@TCHES ONLY $30 We represent a w@tch distributor that has overstocked on g01d R0lexes. They have authorized us to offer
Safrat pulled herself away. Paul had mentioned her talking about watches; this chain had to be how the eggun was possessing her — possessing them all. She felt her heart racing, saw it echoed in the pulsing heart within the floating bundle labeled SAFRAT. The drugs normally kept her heart even, no matter how hard she had been working, but the babalawo’s medicine had interfered with that. She made herself rest until she saw it slowing and then focused on the chain once more, following it upward.
She rose until she struck a wall of fire, and then she burned.
Adegoke’s uncle led him back to his office, sat him down in a plush leather chair, then went to his desk and picked up a dark green bottle. He opened it, poured two glasses and held one out to Adegoke. “Scotch?”
Nodding gratefully, Adegoke took the glass and drank. It had a very different taste from palm wine, burning his throat like fire, and he coughed.
“Gently,” Michael said. “Good scotch is to be savored.”
“Thank you, uncle,” Adegoke said. He took a much smaller sip, found it went down more easily this time. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Nor did I think I would see you.” His uncle held his glass under his nose and breathed deeply, then smiled and nodded. “I should hate to tell your mother you were so foolish.”
“But uncle –” Adegoke’s uncle threw him a look, and he let his head drop in shame. A vacuum cleaner sat on the floor nearby, idle.
“How did you get the number, anyway?” his uncle asked.
“One of the women at my station,” Adegoke said. “She said she had been talking in her sleep. She wrote down what she had said, brought it to me — it talked about a fortune to be claimed, I thought –”
His uncle held up a hand. “Talking in her sleep?” he said. “That is unforeseen. It may be we need more time before we can roll out fully.”
“I’m sorry, uncle. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Talking to myself,” his uncle said. “Your girls — they have value as workers, of course, but what is much more valuable is the space in their heads. We can use each one of them to send a million messages every day.”
“Messages?” Adegoke asked.
His uncle nodded. “Some are for ourselves, like the one that brought you here, but that is only a sideline. The world is a market, nephew, a million times bigger than the Mile Twelve, and people will pay us to be their hawkers — sell watches, drugs, anything or nothing. We feed the messages to your workers and the lines that let them run their machines carry the messages as well. When the rest of the World Bank money comes in, we can build stations all over Africa.”
“But, uncle –” Adegoke felt a pain in his stomach, as though invisible fingers were squeezing him hard. “Uncle, this is black magic.”
“What’s happening to her?” Paul asked. For the first few minutes Safrat’s body had been limp, as though she had been in the deepest sleep, but now she was twitching, writhing.
“She is burning,” the babalawo said. He opened his shoulder bag again, started digging around in it.
“I should call the foreman,” Paul said. “Disconnect the machine.”
“Get water. Try to cool her.” The babalawo pulled out his wooden tray and a wooden rattle with a brass head. He shook it in the air, then tapped it against the tray. “Elegua, open our sister’s path. Clear the way for her.”
Paul opened one of his water bottles, poured a stream onto his sister’s forehead. She jerked her head away as it made contact, but her twitching eased slightly. “Isn’t there any other way we can help her?”
“Elegua must open the path, and Safrat must pass through,” the babalawo said. “But the orishas never make it easy.”
The pain was intense, every inch of her body licked by the flames. Her muscles froze at the fire’s touch, trying to recoil from it, but there was nowhere to escape.
She had a moment’s respite, a cool touch on her face, and in that moment she reached out and seized the chain that led up through the wall of fire. Again words and sentences she barely understood ran through her, but she focused on climbing the chain up and through the wall.
Now she was in a space like one of the street markets: shapes her eyes could not resolve flew at dizzying speeds through narrow alleys, while lights flashed over the hundreds of doors on every wall. Noise like the shouts of a hundred hawkers and the blare of a thousand car horns surrounded her, almost driving her back into the wall of fire.
Desperate to escape, she ran to the nearest door; its handle, though, was of a design her hand simply could not grasp. She ran to another door, found it the same: another door, then another, before finally finding one she could open. A chain ran through the opened doorway, and she followed it gratefully, glad to be away from the lights and the noise.
When she reached the end of the chain she got a sensory feed: just vision and motor feedback, a view of a carpeted floor and the bottom of a sofa.
The vacuum cleaner by Adegoke’s feet suddenly whirred to life, moved a shuddering foot towards him. His hand jerked, spilling a few drops of whisky onto his trousers.
“Honestly, nephew,” his uncle said, “do they really still tell you such stuff in the villages?”
“Uncle, I –” Adegoke looked down nervously at the vacuum cleaner advancing on his foot. “Is that how you won your position here in the city, by magic?”
His uncle shook his head, turned to the computer sitting on his desk and pressed a key that made the screen light up. “Do not talk of such absurd stuff,” his uncle said. “I won my position because I had family willing to help me, like everyone else in Lagos.” He ran his finger in a spiral pattern over the screen, then tapped it twice; the vacuum went dark and stopped whirring, a few inches from Adegoke’s foot. “I went to Manchester Polytechnic, nephew, and I can tell you: there’s no such thing as magic.”
The sensory feed cut out before Safrat could see where she was, and she found herself back in the noise and light of the market. Though she was a bit better prepared this time it still was overwhelming, and she went quickly through the next door she was able to open: here she had only a timer input and a dimmer to control, but again she was disconnected and driven back to the market. Through the next door she connected with a speed toggle and feedback motors that controlled sharp metal teeth, again being disconnected after a few moments. Finally she found a safe haven, somewhere with no motors or visual but with numeric and audio input. She took a moment to calm herself — the drugs were not keeping her heartbeat even, she had to remember — only half-listening to the audio feed until she recognized her foreman’s voice.
The lights dimmed and then flickered as Adegoke’s uncle peered at his computer screen, frowning; then the shredder on top of his wastebasket turned itself on, grinding away at nothing.
“Uncle, do you see?” Adegoke said, his voice rising. “This is the cost of doing magic you don’t understand.”
“I told your mother to come with me, to the city,” his uncle said, not turning from the screen. He ran his finger in a long curve over it, tapped it in three spots, and the shredder stopped. “I told her not to raise her children in a backwater, but she wanted to stay by your grandfather.” He took a deep breath, shook his head. “So I promised her, any of her sons that wanted to come to the city, I would get them jobs. She did not tell me she would raise them as savages.”
Adegoke was silent for a moment, shocked by his uncle’s outburst. He looked around at the now-quiet room, gathered his courage to speak. “You would not talk that way to my mother,” he said. “She taught me to respect the eggun and the orishas, and she would not want to see her brother mixed up in black magic.”
“For the last time, this is not magic,” his uncle said. He spun the computer around so that Adegoke could see the screen. “This connects to the main server. I control all the machines in my office through that, and the messages to and from the women go through there as well. Do you see? Not magic, just technology. Technology we control.”
Safrat listened carefully to what the two men were saying. She did not recognize the second voice, the one arguing with the foreman, but it was clear from what he had said that he was the sorcerer. The babalawo had said she must confront him, and she expected this was as close as she was going to get.
“Let the women go,” the speakerphone said.
Both Adegoke and his uncle turned towards it. His uncle reached out for the TALK button, paused when he saw the light was already on. “Who is this?” he said angrily.
“Let the women go,” the speakerphone said again. “Remove your spell from them, in the name of Eleggua and Oggun.”
“Do you see, uncle?” Adegoke asked. “Do you see?”
“Will you shut up?” his uncle said. “This is no spirit. Someone has hacked into our server, and is playing games with us.” He reached for the phone, stopped and turned instead to his computer, swirling his finger over the screen and tapping it a half-dozen times.
“The women are suffering,” the speakerphone said. “Let them go.”
Adegoke’s uncle let out a snort. “I’ve sent a message to our computer security team,” he said. “This spirit will not be with us much longer.”
Unsure what to do now, Safrat withdrew from the phone. She had confronted the sorcerer, but did not think she had changed his mind; she wished she could ask the babalawo for help.
A piercing wail cut through the noise of the market: police sirens. Down both ends of the alley she was in she saw flashing red lights, had no doubt who they were pursuing. There was no time to find another door that would open, and no reason to think she could escape that way anyway; all she could do was go back down the chain she had climbed, through the wall of fire, and hope she could hide amongst the other women.
To her surprise the wall did not burn on her way down, and once she was back in the cattle pen she moved close to the bundle of readouts that bore her name. She watched her heart beating, tried to make it slow enough for her to rest.
Now that she had a moment she could think about what to do. She tried to think of stories she had heard where people outwitted babalawos, but there were none: in the stories, evil babalawos were always undone by their own magic.
Looking around, Safrat saw all the other women in the cattle pen around her: bundles of hearts and lungs and brains, the sorcerer’s messages being fed in and streaming out of them. She took a breath, readying herself for another trip through the wall of fire.
“She’s burning again,” Paul said.
Safrat’s body was twitching again in front of them, her chest rising and falling spastically. A low groan emerged from her throat.
“More water,” the babalawo said, shaking the bronze rattle over her head. “Elegua, bless our sister. . .”
Paul shook his head. “It’s too much for her. We have to shut this off.” He looked around at the booth, hoping to find a control he understood, but there was nothing. Instead he ran out into the hall of the telepresence station, looking for a way to contact the foreman.
The lights brightened, flickered and finally failed: only the glow of the computer screen was visible in the darkened office.
“Uncle. . .” Adegoke began.
“Secure the server,” his uncle was shouting at the phone. “I don’t care! Get it done!”
“What is happening, uncle?”
“That hacker crashed our server,” his uncle said.
Adegoke heard the cellphone at his belt buzzing, picked it up. The call display showed it was the emergency phone at the TP station, programmed to autodial his number. “Excuse me, uncle,” he said. “Yes?”
Two men in short-sleeve shirts ran in the door, both holding flashlights. “I am sorry, Mister Oyelolo,” one of them said. “We’re getting too much traffic.”
“Is this the foreman?” the voice on Adegoke’s cellphone said.
“What about the firewall?”
“Who is this?” Adegoke asked.
“They’re getting right through somehow. It’s as though the messages were coming from our own system.”
One of the men read from the screen. Dear Sir: I have been requested by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company to contact you for assistance in resolving a matter. . .”
“My sister Safrat is in booth — hold on — booth eleven,” the voice on the phone said. “Something is wrong. You must shut it off, now.”
Adegoke frowned, then looked over at his uncle conferring with the other two men. “Fix it,” his uncle was saying. “Block them out.”
“I am sorry, Mister Oyelolo, but we’re not rated for that,” the other man said. “This must be a problem with the architecture. Only the men from the Bank can fix it.”
“But if they fix it — if they see –”
Adegoke lowered his phone, covering the receiver with his palm. “Uncle –” he said.
His uncle turned to look at him, his eyes hard. “Damn it, boy, can’t you see that I am busy?”
“I am sorry, uncle,” Adegoke said. He held his phone to his mouth again, spoke softly. “Do not worry,” he said. “I think your sister will be all right in a minute.”
Safrat rose early, feeling better-rested than she had since coming to Lagos. The telepresence station had been closed ten days now, supposedly for repairs; the word was, though, that the old owners had given it up and let the World Bank run it directly. Meanwhile the foreman had paid everyone for the days when the telepresence station was being repaired, so long as they reported each day to collect their pay, and as the time passed they had all stopped talking in their sleep. Word had only come yesterday that the station was to re-open.
“I don’t like you going back there,” Paul said. “How do you know it’s any safer?”
Safrat looked around at the crowded room, the waking and still-sleeping forms around them, and shrugged. The job Tinubu had promised Paul had never materialized, and most days he still sold water; if the foreman had not kept paying her they would have been back to sleeping on a plastic sheet in the alley.
“What choice do I have?” she asked, and picked up her buckets to take to the borehole.