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Author: Tade Thompson
Publisher: Orbit, 2018
Apex Publications, 2016
Series: Wormwood Trilogy: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Human Development
First Contact
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(78 reads / 42 ratings)


Between meeting a boy who bursts into flames, alien floaters that want to devour him, and a butterfly woman who he has sex with when he enters the xenosphere, Kaaro's life is far from the simple one he wants. But he left simple behind a long time ago when he was caught stealing and nearly killed by an angry mob. Now he works for a government agency called Section 45, and they want him to find a women known as Bicycle Girl. And that's just the beginning.

An alien entity lives beneath the ground, forming a biodome around which the city of Rosewater thrives. The cities of Rosewater are enamored by the dome, hoping for a chance to meet the beings within or possibly be invited to come in themselves. But Kaaro isn't so enamored. He was in the biodome at one point and decided to leave it behind. When something begins killing off other sensitives like himself, Kaaro defies Section 45 to search for an answer, facing his past and comes to a realization about a horrifying future.


Chapter One

Rosewater: Opening Day 2066


I'm at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in. It's how I usually start my day. This time it's because of a wedding and a final exam, though not my wedding and not my exam. In my seat by the window I can see, but not hear, the city. This high above Rosewater everything seems orderly. Blocks, roads, streets, traffic curving sluggishly around the dome. I can even see the cathedral from here. The window is to my left, and I'm at one end of an oval table with four other contractors. We are on the fifteenth floor, the top. A skylight is open above us, three foot square, a security grid being the only thing between us and the morning sky. Blue, with flecks of white cloud. No blazing sun yet, but that will come later. The climate in the room is controlled despite the open skylight, a waste of energy for which Integrity Bank is fined weekly. They are willing to take the expense.

Next to me on the right, Bola yawns. She is pregnant and gets very tired these days. She also eats a lot, but I suppose that's to be expected. I've known her two years and she has been pregnant in each of them. I do not fully understand pregnancy. I am an only child and I never grew up around pets or livestock. My education was peripatetic; biology was never a strong interest, except for microbiology, which I had to master later.

I try to relax and concentrate on the bank customers. The wedding anxiety comes again.

Rising from the centre of the table is a holographic teleprompter. It consists of random swirls of light right now, but within a few minutes it will come alive with text. There is a room adjacent to ours in which the night shift is winding down.

"I hear they read Dumas last night," says Bola.

She's just making conversation. It is irrelevant what the other shift reads. I smile and say nothing.

The wedding I sense is due in three months. The bride has put on a few pounds and does not know if she should alter the dress or get liposuction. Bola is prettier when she is pregnant. "Sixty seconds," says a voice on the tannoy.

I take a sip of water from the tumbler on the table. The other contractors are new. They don't dress formally like Bola and me. They wear tank tops and T- shirts and metal in their hair. They have phone implants.

I hate implants of all kinds. I have one. Standard locator with no add- ons. Boring, really, but my employer demands it.

The exam anxiety dies down before I can isolate and explore the source. Fine by me.

The bits of metal these young ones have in their hair come from plane crashes. Lagos, Abuja, Jos, Kano and all points in between, there have been downed aircraft on every domestic route in Nigeria since the early 2000s. They wear bits of fuselage as protective charms.

Bola catches me staring at her and winks. Now she opens her snack, a few wraps of cold moin- moin, the orange bean curds nested in leaves, the old style. I look away.

"Go," says the tannoy.

The text of Plato's Republic scrolls slowly and steadily in ghostly holographic figures on the cylindrical display. I start to read, as do the others, some silently, others out loud. We enter the xenosphere and set up the bank's firewall. I feel the familiar brief dizziness; the text eddies and becomes transparent.

Every day about five hundred customers carry out financial transactions at these premises, and every night staffers make deals around the world, making this a twenty-four-hour job. Wild sensitives probe and push, criminals trying to pick personal data out of the air. I'm talking about dates-of-birth, PINs, mothers' maiden names, past transactions, all of them lying docile in each customer's forebrain, in the working memory, waiting to be plucked out by the hungry, untrained and freebooting sensitives.

Contractors like myself, Bola Martinez and the metalheads are trained to repel these. And we do. We read classics to flood the xenosphere with irrelevant words and thoughts, a firewall of knowledge that even makes its way to the subconscious of the customer. A professor did a study of it once. He found a correlation between the material used for firewalling and the activities of the customer for the rest of the year. A person who had never read Shakespeare would suddenly find snatches of King Lear coming to mind for no apparent reason.

We can trace the intrusions if we want, but Integrity isn't interested. It's difficult and expensive to prosecute crimes perpetuated in the xenosphere. If no life is lost, the courts aren't interested.

The queues for cash machines, so many people, so many cares and wants and passions. I am tired of filtering the lives of others through my mind.

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city...

On entering the xenosphere, there is a projected self-image. The untrained wild sensitives project their true selves, but professionals like me are trained to create a controlled, chosen self-image. Mine is a gryphon.

My first attack of the day comes from a middle-aged man from a town house in Yola. He looks reedy and very dark-skinned. I warn him and he backs off. A teenager takes his place quickly enough that I think they are in the same physical location as part of a hack farm. Criminal cabals sometimes round up sensitives and yoke them together in a "Mumbai combo" - a call-centre model with serial black hats.

I've seen it all before. There aren't as many such attacks now as there were when I started in this business, and a part of me wonders if they are discouraged by how effective we are. Either way, I am already bored.

* * *

During the lunch break, one of the metalheads comes in and sits by me. He starts to talk shop, telling me of a near-miss intrusion. He looks to be in his twenties, still excited about being a sensitive, finding everything new and fresh and interesting, the opposite of cynical, the opposite of me.

He must be in love. His self-image shows propinquity. He is good enough to mask the other person, but not good enough to mask the fact of his closeness. I see the shadow, the ghost beside him. Out of respect I don't mention this.

The metal he carries is twisted into crucifixes and attached to a single braid on otherwise short hair, which leaves his head on the left temple and coils around his neck, disappearing into the collar of his shirt.

"I'm Clement," he says. "I notice you don't use my name."

This is true. I was introduced to him by an executive two weeks back, but I forgot his name instantly and have been using pronouns ever since.

"My name--"

"You're Kaaro. I know. Everybody knows you. Excuse me for this, but I have to ask. Is it true that you've been inside the dome?"

"That's a rumour," I say.

"Yes, but is the rumour true?" asks Clement.

Outside the window, the sun is far too slow in its journey across the sky. Why am I here? What am I doing?

"I'd rather not discuss it."

"Are you going tonight?" he asks.

I know what night it is. I have no interest in going.

"Perhaps," I say. "I might be busy."

"Doing what?"

This boy is rather nosy. I had hoped for a brief, polite exchange, but now I find myself having to concentrate on him, on my answers. He is smiling, being friendly, sociable. I should reciprocate.

"I'm going with my family," says Clement. "Why don't you come with us? I'm sending my number to your phone. All of Rosewater will be there."

That is the part that bothers me, but I say nothing to Clement. I accept his number, and text mine to his phone implant out of politeness, but I do not commit.

* * *

Before the end of the working day, I get four other invitations to the Opening. I decline most of them, but Bola is not a person I can refuse.

"My husband has rented a flat for the evening, with a view," she says, handing me a slip of paper with the address. Her look of disdain tells me that if I had the proper implant we would not need to kill trees. "Don't eat. I'll cook."

* * *

By eighteen hundred hours the last customer has left and we're all typing at terminals, logging the intrusion attempts, cross-referencing to see if there are any hits, and too tired to joke. We never get feedback on the incident reports. There's no pattern analysis or trend graph. The data is sucked into a bureaucratic black hole. It's just getting dark, and we're all in our own heads now, but passively connected to the xenosphere. There's light background music - "Blue Alien" by Jos. It's not unpleasant, but my tastes run to much older fare. I'm vaguely aware that a chess game is going on, but I don't care between whom. I don't play so I don't understand the progress.

"Hello, Gryphon," someone says.

I focus, but it's gone. She's gone. Definitely female. I get a wispy impression of a flower in bloom, something blue, but that's it. I'm too tired or lazy to follow it up, so I punch in my documentation and fill out the electronic time sheet.

I ride the elevator to street level. I have never seen much of the bank. The contractors have access to the express elevator. It's unmarked and operated by a security guard, who sees us even though we do not see him or his camera. This may as well be magic. The elevator seems like a rather elegant wooden box. There are no buttons and it is unwise to have confidential conversations in there. This time as I leave, the operator says, "Happy Opening." I nod, unsure of which direction to respond in.

The lobby is empty, dark. Columns stand inert like Victorian dead posed for pictures. The place is usually staffed when I go home, but I expect the staff have been allowed to leave early for the Opening.

It's full night now. The blue glow from the dome is omnipresent, though not bright enough to read by. The skyline around me blocks direct view, but the light frames every high-rise to my left like a rising sun, and is reflected off the ones to my right. This is the reason there are no street lights in Rosewater. I make for Alaba Station, the clockwise platform, to travel around the edge of the dome. The streets are empty save the constable who walks past swinging her baton. I am wearing a suit so she does not care to harass me. A mosquito whines past my ear but does not appear to be interested in tasting my blood. By the time I reach the concourse, there is a patch of light sweat in each of my armpits. It's a warm night. I text my flat to reduce internal temperature one degree lower than external.

Alaba Station is crowded with commercial-district workers and the queues snake out to the street, but they are almost all going anticlockwise to Kehinde Station, which is closest to the Opening. I hesitate briefly before I buy my ticket. I plan to go home and change, but I wonder if it will be difficult to meet up with Bola and her husband. I have a brief involuntary connection to the xenosphere and a hot, moist surge of anger from a cuckolded husband lances through me. I disconnect and breathe deeply.

I go home. Even though I have a window seat and the dome is visible, I do not look at it. When I notice the reflected light on the faces of other passengers, I close my eyes, though this does not keep out the savoury smell of akara or the sound of their trivial conversation. There's a saying that everybody in Rosewater dreams of the dome at least once every night, however briefly. I know this is not true because I have never dreamed of the place.

That I have somewhere to sit on this train is evidence of the draw of the Opening. The carriages are usually full to bursting, and hot, not from heaters, but from body heat and exhalations and despair.

I come off at Atewo after a delay of twenty-five minutes due to a power failure from the North Ganglion. I look around for Yaro, but he's nowhere to be found. Yaro's a friendly stray dog who sometimes follows me home and to whom I feed scraps. I walk from the station to my block, which takes ten minutes. When I get signal again, my phone has four messages. Three of them are jobs. The fourth is from my most demanding employer.

Call now. And get a newer phone implant. This is prehistoric.

I do not call her. She can wait.

I live in a two- bed partially automated flat. Working two jobs, I could get a better place with fully humanised AI if I wanted. I have the funds, but not the inclination. I strip, leaving my clothes where they lie, and pick out something casual. I stare at my gun holster, undecided. I do not like guns. I cross the room to the wall safe, which appears in response to signals from my ID implant. I open it and consider taking my gun. There are two magazines of ammo beside it, along with a bronze mask and a clear cylinder. The fluid in the cylinder is at rest. I pick it up and shake it, but the liquid is too viscous and it stays in place. I put it back and decide against a weapon.

* * *

I shower briefly and head out to the Opening.

How to talk about the Opening? It is the formation of a pore in the biodome. Rosewater is a doughnut- shaped city that surrounds the dome. In the early days we actually called it the Doughnut. I was there. I saw it grow from a frontier town of tents and clots of sick people huddling together for warmth into a kind of shanty town of hopefuls and from there into an actual municipality. In its eleven years of existence the dome has not taken in a single outsider. I was the last person to traverse it and there will not be another. Rosewater, on the other hand, is the same age and grows constantly.

Every year, though, the biodome opens for twenty or thirty minutes in the south, in the Kehinde area. Everyone in the vicinity of the opening is cured of all physical and some mental ailments. It is also well known and documented that the outcome is not always good, even if diseases are abolished. There are reconstructions that go wrong, as if the blueprints are warped. Nobody knows why this happens, but there are also people who deliberately injure themselves for the sole purpose of getting "reconstructive surgery".

Trains are out of the question at this time, on this night. I take a taxi, which drives in the opposite direction first, then describes a wide southbound arc, taking a circuitous route through the back roads and against the flow of traffic. This works until it doesn't. Too many cars and motorbikes and bicycles, too many people walking, too many street performers and preachers and out-of-towners. I pay the driver and walk the rest of the way to Bola's temporary address. This is easy as my path is perpendicular to the crush of pilgrims.

Oshodi Street is far enough from the biodome that the crowd is not so dense as to impede my progress. Number 51 is a tall, narrow four- storey building. The first door is propped open with an empty wooden beer crate. I walk into a hallway that leads to two flats and an elevator. On the top floor, I knock, and Bola lets me in.

One thing hits me immediately: the aroma and heat blast of hot food, which triggers immediate salivation and the drums of hunger in my stomach. Bola hands me field glasses and leads me into the living room. There is a similar pair dangling on a strap around her neck. She wears a shirt with the lower buttons open so that her bare gravid belly pokes out. Two children, male and female, about eight or nine, run around, frenetic, giggling, happy.

"Wait," says Bola. She makes me stand in the middle of the room and returns with a paper plate filled with akara, dodo and dundu, the delicious street- food triad of fried beans, fried plantain and fried yam. She leads me by the free hand to the veranda, where there are four deckchairs facing the dome. Her husband, Dele, is in one, the next is empty, the third is occupied by a woman I don't know, and the fourth is for me.

Dele Martinez is rotund, jolly but quiet. I've met him many times before and we get along well. Bola introduces the woman as Aminat, a sister, although the way she emphasises the word, this could mean an old friend who is as close as family rather than a biological sibling. She's pleasant enough, smiles with her eyes, has her hair drawn back into a bun and is casually dressed in jeans. She is perhaps my age or younger. Bola knows I am single and has made it her mission to find me a mate. I don't like this because... well, when people matchmake, they introduce people to you whom they think are sufficiently like you. Each person they offer is a commentary on how they see you. If I've never liked anyone Bola has introduced me to, does that mean she doesn't know me well enough, or that she does know me but I hate myself?

I sit down and avoid talking by eating. I avoid eye contact by using the binoculars.

The crowd is contained in Sanni Square - usually a wideopen space framed by shops that exist only to exploit visitors to the city, cafés that usually cater to tired old men, and travel agents - behind which Oshodi Street lurks. A firework goes off, premature, a mistake. Most leave the celebrations till afterwards. Oshodi Street is a good spot. It's bright from the dome and we are all covered in that creamy blue electric light. The shield is not dazzling, and up close you can see a fluid that ebbs and flows just beneath the surface.

The binoculars are high- end, with infrared sensitivity and a kind of optional implant hack that brings up individual detail about whoever I focus on, tag information travelling by laser dot and information downloading from satellite. It is a bit like being in the xenosphere; I turn it off because it reminds me of work.

Music wafts up, carried in the night but unpleasant and cacophonous because it comes from competing religious factions, bombastic individuals and the dome tourists. It is mostly percussion-accompanied chanting.

There are, by my estimate, thousands of people. They are of all colours and creeds: black Nigerians, Arabs, Japanese, Pakistani, Persians, white Europeans and a mishmash of others. All hope to be healed or changed in some specific way. They sing and pray to facilitate the Opening. The dome is, as always, indifferent to their reverence or sacrilege.

Some hold a rapt, religious awe on their faces and cannot bring themselves to talk, while others shout in a continuous, sustained manner. An imam has suspended himself from a roof in a harness that looks homemade, and is preaching through abullhorn. His words are lost in the din, which swallows meaning and nuance and shits out a homogenous roar. Fights break out but are quashed in seconds because nobody knows if you have to be "good" to deserve the blessings from the biodome.

A barricade blocks access to the dome and armed constables form up in front of it. The first civilians are one hundred metres away, held back by an invisible stanchion. The officers look like they will shoot to kill. This is something they have done in the past, the latest incident being three years back, when the crowd showed unprecedented rowdiness. Seventeen dead, although the victims rose during that year's Opening. They were... destroyed two weeks later as they clearly were not themselves any more. This happens. The alien can restore the body, but not the soul, something Anthony told me back in '55, eleven years ago.

I cough from the peppery heat of the akara. The fit drives my vision briefly to the sky and I see a waning gibbous, battling bravely to be noticed against the light pollution.

I see the press, filming, correspondents talking into microphones. Here and there are lay scientists with big scanners pointed finger- like towards the dome. Sceptics, true believers, in-between, all represented, all busy. Apart from the classified stuff about sensitives and the xenosphere, most information about the dome is in the public domain, but it is amazing that the fringe press and conspiracy theorists have different ideas. A large segment of the news-reading population, for example, believes that the alien is entirely terrestrial, a result of human biological experimentation. There is "proof" of this on Nimbus, of course. There are scientists who don't believe, but they take observations and collate data for ever, refusing to come to conclusions. There are those who believe the dome is a magical phenomenon. I won't get started on the quasi-religious set.

I feel a gentle tap on my left shoulder and emerge from the vision. Aminat is looking at me. Bola and her husband have shifted out of earshot.

"What do you see?" she asks. She smiles as if she is in on some joke but unsure if it's at my expense.

"People desperate for healing," I say. "What do you see?"

"Poverty," says Aminat. "Spiritual poverty."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. Maybe humankind was meant to be sick from time to time. Maybe there is something to be learned from illness."

"Are you politically inclined against the alien?"

"No, hardly. I don't have politics. I just like to examine all angles of an issue. Do you care?"

I shake my head. I don't want to be here, and if not for Bola's invitation I would be home contemplating my cholesterol levels. I am intrigued by Aminat, but not enough to want to access her thoughts. She is trying to make conversation, but I don't like talking about the dome. Why then do I live in Rosewater? I should move to Lagos, Abuja, Accra, anywhere but here.

"I don't want to be here either," says Aminat.

I wonder for a moment if she has read my thoughts, if Bolamatched us because she is also a sensitive. That would be irritating.

"Let's just go through the motions to keep Bola happy. We can exchange numbers at the end of the evening and never call each other again. I will tell her tomorrow, when she asks, that you were interesting and attentive, but there was no chemistry. And you will say... ?"

"That I enjoyed my evening, and I like you, but we didn't quite click."

"You will also say that I had wonderful shoes and magnificent breasts."

"Er... okay."

"Good. We have a deal. Shake on it?"

Except we cannot shake hands because there is oil on mine from the akara, but we touch the backs of our hands together, co-conspirators. I find myself smiling at her.

A horn blows and we see a dim spot on the dome, the first sign. The dark spot grows into a patch. I have not seen this as often as I should. I saw it the first few times but stopped bothering after five years.

The patch is roughly circular, with a diameter of six or seven feet. Black as night, as charcoal, as pitch. It looks like those dark bits on the surface of the sun. This is the boring part. It will take half an hour for the first healing to manifest. Right now, all is invisible. Microbes flying into the air. The scientists are frenzied now. They take samples and will try to grow cultures on blood agar. Futile. The xenoforms do not grow on artificial media.

In the balcony everyone except me takes a deep breath, trying to get as many microbes inside their lungs as possible. Aminat breaks her gaze from the dome, twists in her seat and kisses me on the lips. It lasts seconds and nobody else sees it, intent as they are upon the patch. After a while, I am not sure it happened at all. I don't know what to make of it. I can read minds but I still don't understand women. Or men. Humans. I don't understand humans.

Down below, it begins, the first cries of rapture. It is impossible to confirm or know what ailments are taken care of at first. If there is no obvious deformity or stigmata, like jaundice, pallor or a broken bone, there is no visible change except the emotional state of the healed. Already, down at the front, younger pilgrims are doing cartwheels and crying with gratitude.

A man brought in on a stretcher gets up. He is wobbly at first, but then walks confidently. Even from this distance I can see the wideness and wildness of his eyes and the rapid flapping of his lips. Newcomers experience disbelief.

This continues in spurts and sometimes ripples that flow through the gathered people. The trivial and the titanic are equally healed.

The patch is shrinking now. At first the scientists and I are the only ones to notice. Their activities become more agitated. One of them shouts at the others, though I cannot tell why.

I hear a tinkle of laughter from beside me. Aminat is laughing with delight, her hands held half an inch from her face and both cheeks moist. She is sniffing. That's when it occurs to me that she might be here for healing as well.

At that moment, I get a text. I look at my palm to read the message off the flexible subcutaneous polymer. My boss again.

Call right now, Kaaro. I am not kidding.

Copyright © 2016 by Tade Thompson



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