Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

The Chosen Six

Dear Maryam,

I had a dream last night. I guess it was our ancestors talking to me. Getting a clear view of them was tough—the only thing I saw was an amorphous image. I heard their voices, though, telling me to come for breakfast. I envisaged roasted beef marinated in a sauce with green vegetables as toppings, just the way Mama prepares it. Soon there was an aroma levitating like a UFO, calling out to me, enchanting me to its stronghold. I woke up wishing you were here.

A note was seated on the table in my room. It read: Good morning. I believe you slept well. Please make your way to the dining room where breakfast will be served. Anne. I slumped back on the bed, which was big, not like the squidge we managed in our camp. I ran my hands over the cotton duvet. My stomach rumbling, I hurriedly took my bath, and made my way out to the dining room.

A mélange of meals sprawled on the rectangular table. Maryam, even my organs back-flipped for joy. I took venison alongside ofada rice, and stew crowded with locust beans, ponmo, and shrimps. I was about to eat when I saw the drab face of the boy who was coughing yesterday. He wasn’t eating, or at least making any attempt to eat.

“Why are you not eating?” I asked.

“I am a veggie,” he said, his monkey pet picking food from his plate

“There is salad for your kind.”

He reluctantly served himself. I didn’t know what to make of his expression. This place had so much pleasure, enough to drive your gloominess down into an abyss. Perhaps he cared too much for animals to see them eaten. After we were done feasting, the boys and girls who yesterday helped us with our bags gave each of us an envelope, then left abruptly. Curious, we tore them open, and then read the contents. Its day two of your arrival. We are a community who believes in togetherness. Communicate with one another. Know each other’s roots. Be friends.

We were six in number—a balanced figure to divide ourselves into and chat. The veggie boy was left out of the group, the rest scared he might infect them with his cough. I stood up and went over to him. His cough wasn’t going to keep me from knowing him.

“My name is Tolu. I come from a village called Okuta. It’s far north of this place, neighbored by tall trees and fresh crops.”

I waited for him to speak, tell me about himself. He just folded his hands, wearing a scowl. His monkey held a peeled banana, climbed on his lap, tugged at his shirt, and then looked at me askew.

“Fine, I will speak,” he said to his monkey.

Qudus was his name, a native of the Maasai tribe. A lover of animals. He expressed his displeasure over the state of affairs here. Papylon had plenty of supplies to feed climate refugees, yet, they remained secluded, selecting only a few of us from different villages and camps. I shared in his discontentment. This place could hold all the people from all our village, taking us away from the constant flooding ravaging our homes. We stared at the rest of the group, who were chatting and laughing. Tomorrow, I decided to meet Anne, asking her to explain our mission here.

You should also know that I am sending you these voice messages from the contact-center. They have devices that can reach thousands of miles. I hope the communication lines at the camp are still intact.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

Do you remember how we snuggle, me relaxing my face on your chest while we talk about how we will leave this camp when the time is right? I know you remember vividly, and you are probably smiling about it. Me, too. We had envisioned the future together: you and I on a cruise to Hawaii, sunbathing on the beach, drinking coconut juice, swimming in the bouncing silver waters that invite us to bask in comfort. I suggested we would climb into a hot air-balloon, sight-seeing the lush trimmed gardens where horned animals chase each other, and birds gamboling in the untainted air as they navigate along with the serene breeze. Mama had snickered at us. She had been standing there listening to us paint our own world. She said it was “specious.” The world was too fucked up to have such a dream come true. We knew this, but we held on to a thread of hope, however frail it was.

Now I think of the day when I saw the view from the aircraft, and I wish we had both been chosen when the Saviors came to our village. Maryam, the view from there was akin to what we painted. I saw a greater kudu feeding on green grasses, a gregarious zebra walking freely without fear of being hunted by predators, and harmless birds that were not constantly watching their backs. One would think these creatures were not affected by the scourge. The peace of mind that thrilled them seemed like the feeling I got when I boarded this aircraft. Believe me when I say I wish the gods had chosen you instead of me.

Somebody had coughed behind me. I ignored him, still feeding my view on the scenery that embossed my heart with delight. He coughed again, this time a guttural one.

“Are you okay?” I asked him.

He simply nodded, a piece of cloth covering his mouth.

“I suggest you fold that cloth over so you don’t get more germs,” I added.

He nodded again, saluting me with a thumbs up. The little monkey perched on his shoulder made a funny sound at me. It couldn’t come closer because of the chain around its neck, held by this boy. I pulled out a fresh handkerchief knitted by Mama and gave it to him. The remaining four people onboard ignored us, holding on to their bags. One of them was reading, the other was fiddling with his wrist watch, another was holding a compass. The last placed his head back on the headrest, eyes closed. I think he was meditating.

“Sit tight, we are descending to our destination,” the pilot said.

We clutched to the seatbelts, muttering a prayer for our safe landing—it was obvious that many of us were first-time aircraft travelers. When we alighted, we were flabbergasted by the astronomical size of this settlement, or maybe it was just me. How many people live here? How come the climate disasters hadn’t swept to this community? Was this the heaven I dreamt about? Maryam, all of these thoughts left me dumbfounded, left me in a reverie.

We were handed over to an old man who bore a semblance with Pa Francis, the codger. To my left was a wind turbine, rotating its blades as though happy to see us. Fresh water from rocks flowed down a fountain with a fringe to keep it from overflowing. Tall flowery trees with healthy petals towered above us as we passed by it. I picked a fallen leaf, and sniffed it to refresh my nose. People were working inside a greenhouse. The smiles on their faces showed their happiness in their work. We were handed over to a woman dressed in an immaculate white pantsuit. A sprinkle of smiles dotted all over her face upon sighting us. That must be the person who runs this place, I thought.

“Welcome to Papylon,” she said. “We are honored to have you all here. My name is Anne Pelumi-Thomas. But you can simply call me Anne. I’ll be your host throughout your stay here, so feel free to inform me if you need anything.”

She ushered us into our rooms, while some well-dressed girls and boys took our bags from us. The sick boy coughed again, three times in a row. Anne told him to come with her, the rest of us kept moving.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

There was rainfall yesterday. Kids and teenagers came out to play in the downpour, jumping and smiling as they got drenched. I watched them from the window of my room, the slanting strokes of the rain hitting my windowpane, calling me out to play. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Hurtful memories of the flood and acid rain in our village still gives me goose bumps. I hope to outgrow that fear soon.

How possible was it that Papylon had rainfall free of the toxicity that caused skin irritation, crops free from dioxins, plants healthy and not attacked by pests? I sat on my bed, Arabian style, thinking. A plausible answer came to mind while I was speaking to Anne.

Later in the day Anne sent for us. Seven of us sat in a meeting room. Paintings of bearded men, animals, cerulean seas decorated the walls. Each of us was served compote.

“Do you know why the six of you were chosen?” Anne asked, looking at each of us for a response after sipping tea from her cup. It felt like a rhetorical question until she pointed to one of us.

“Ikey, I know you are from a hamlet where your people are predominantly fishermen. I hear your ancestors have their souls in dolphins who come out at the full moon to deliver messages to the chief priest.”

Ikey only responded to the truth about his people being fishermen. He allowed Anne’s other claims to get swept away by the singing bird outside.

She went on to the others. Qudus the veggie: their ancestors used to kill lions until a pact was made. Now they live in harmony with animals—this explains his distaste when he saw the venison. Michael, the man whose progenitors could be traced to the Iron Age. Their kind had a knack for electrical inventions, and innovating machines. Kingsley, a member of a community famous for being scholars. His people have vast knowledge of science, economics, and arts. I totally believed this, he read all the way here. Ramon originates from a tribe whose leader received messages from the sky god about the administration of his community. Each child from his community has innate knowledge in organizing people, animals, and things. All eyes turned to me, waiting for Anne to speak about my tribe.

“You are one of the most important pieces on this board,” Anne said, sipping some more. “Your people are blessed with the gift of giving the environment a facelift. The trees and gardens from your village thrive more than other communities. I can’t say for sure if it’s the sand, the air, or your soils are naturally blessed. But I am glad you are here.”

With all Anne said, we were still in the dark, oblivious of what we were doing here. She took us out, showed us around. The blades of the wind turbine emitted croaking sounds, one could see that it needed to be fixed. The bulbs in the hallways were flickering. Soon the power supply would be unstable. Michael said the gearbox and the generator need to be checked. The colorful plants in the cloche had shed their leaves. Some of their buds were already wilting. I noticed the bark of the trees, shriveled and frail for lack of nutrients. At the pond, catfishes fed on each other, injuring the weak. She told us about a leopard who attacked a rabbit pen, stealing four of them.

Maryam, it saddens me to tell you that beneath all the luxury in Papylon, they suffer just like us. The aftermath of the climate conditions that tore our homes apart had found another way to wreak havoc in their homes. Their machines are failing. Their animals are acting unruly. They are not being fed like they used to. Papylon needs our help the same way we need theirs.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

We were merged in a group of twos. Our first assignment was to find expedient ways to solve the ongoing challenges before they escalated. This morning there was no milk because it had gone sour. A glitch in the generator inside the wind turbine powering the entire building made the lights go out, leaving us with only the backup solar-powered generator. It was a matter of time before the backup generator also developed a fault, too, hence the need to repair the wind turbine. Michael was tending to that.

I was paired with Ikey. We had so much to talk about. He was a garrulous young man, telling me about how he and his brothers raced on the fins of sharks. No one suffered drowning because they were allies with these creatures and the sea denizens. Their happy home vanished when a sea horse was found floating, dead. Other sea creatures soon followed suit. A black substance like crude oil spread on top of the lake. The black oil smeared all the bodies of water, killing their primary livelihood. As if the oil spillage hadn’t caused enough damage, the drought came, accompanied by sandstorms. They migrated, currently residing with an ally community they used to sell fishes to.

“I miss my home,” Ikey said.

His words made me think about you, Maryam. We passed through the thicket. Many of the trees there were living their last if I don’t do something to reinvigorate them.

“My mother used to call your people the sand tribe. She said you control the soil and everything beneath it. Some of my people believed it was your tribe that sent the sandstorms to us,” Ikey said.

He was quick to assure me of his disapproval of that assertion. I could also say the same about his people. We said they caused the destruction of our homes through the flood that ravaged it, extirpating our healthy trees from their roots, and destroying the villages’ garden. The time for altercation wasn’t now. I had no plans to open sealed wounds, at least not under these conditions.

We went to a lake, both of us stood at the edge of the flowing water. Ikey made an esoteric sound, calling out to the water creatures. None of them answered—they must have migrated. He stepped into the water, ripples tripling as he slapped his feet hard on the surface, perturbing its peace. He made another sound, this time louder, with his hands bracketed around his mouth. I envied his ken of the aquatic. But I dared not go with him in the lake. He was about to leave when a call returned to him. Excited, he rushed back in, making a reply sound. A dolphin calf sneaked its snout out of the water, swimming towards him. They communicated until the calf swam away.

“What did it say?” I asked.

He sighed, saying the dolphins’ family were being hunted by humans. He wished to gather all the dolphins, care for them. I cheered him up, praised him for his daedal way of calling them out. If he could summon a dolphin, then he could summon other creatures. But first, we needed to create enough space so as to avoid overcrowding.

Maryam, I think of you and Mama each night before sleep takes me away. I pray that the rainfall ceases. But its refusal to fall will cause harm to another community. Except for the xerophytes, drought will harm us all. Instead I changed my prayer to the gods, telling them to give us rain at intervals. I hope the massive flooding will be reduced to flash floods.

On our walk back I stood in front of a coconut tree, placed my palm on its roots. Its phloem was sick. This may be a result of the heat wave which I was also feeling. Ikey stood aside, watching me. I brought out a pouch trussed with raffia. It contained some otjize. Another pouch had red sand given to me by my mama before I embarked on this trip. I applied a modicum of the otjize and red sand on the root—this was the part where this tree should kick back to life with fresh produce. But nothing happened.

“Are you sure you said the incantation well?” Ikey asked.

I returned my focus to the tree. The mixture was well applied. I had to be sparing in its application. I don’t think Anne would fly me back thousands of miles to get another mixture, besides, the village oracle wouldn’t release it for another settlement’s use. My heart pounded with anxiety. I touched the bark, placed my ear to its cries. Rain began to fall. Ikey called out to me, saying we should leave. I froze, legs unable to move as though caught in a trench. The throbbing sound of the rain on the ground brought back painful memories. I thought I saw runoff near a waymark. Or maybe I was absentminded. The last thing I remember was Ikey pulling me away while a tree fell towards my direction.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

I hope you received the last message I sent you. You didn’t send a message like you do every night. A reply from you now would do me a whole lot of good. The ache in my head that was gradually bulging out beyond its corner has attenuated. Save for Ikey who pulled me away, you would have gotten a message that a descendant of the tree gods had passed away.

Anne came to my room in the wee hours, asking how I was faring. The look on my face when Ikey told her I couldn’t revive the trees made her ask me if all was well. I was equally bewildered, bringing a tree back to life from its deteriorated state had never been a challenge. Our ancestors frolicked with the trees upon their arrival in the beginning of creation. The trees provided them with food, blessed the air with serenity, and offered them protection when foes came.

“The fate of this place lies on you,” Anne said. “Even if seeds are protected from the harsh weather, grown in a secluded place, feeding on the faint sunlight and manure they can get, what happens when the flood comes?” She stood up, watching children chasing after each other. “With your help the trees can be saved, many of them. They can stand firm enough to keep the flooding away, feed us and the animals who are killing each other.”

Maryam, it’s been so long since I felt this weak. Despondency filled me, reminding me of my inability to bring normalcy to the weather. Anne asked why I looked so unhappy. She offered to help. With tears in my eyes, I told her, Maryam, all of it. I had to so I could be free.

• • • •

The scourge started with the foulbrood disease. The bee hives were affected, shortening our supplies for trade. Papa thought it was a minor occurrence until the heavy rainfall went on for days. It brought shoals of salmon and tilapia to our lands, gasping for breath. The flood had taken a hegemony over our lands, forced us to stay indoors. On the night Papa and five men headed outside towards the overflowing river, the men said he slipped and fell when the angry water swept him off the ground. That was the last we saw of him. We moved, taking few supplies until we arrived at the camp where I met you.

• • • •

Anne hugged me, handing me a handkerchief to wipe my tears.

“Now that you have unburdened yourself,” Anne said, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Walking through the passages, I sighted Qudus and Michael. The latter wore goggles, soldering a part of a circuit board. Moving ahead, we got to a lift which took us downwards, past many floors. I never thought Papylon had so many secret layers. After what seemed like a ten-minute stroll along an illuminated walkway, she halted in front of a room with a mahogany door. The fluorescent bulb above us was unflinchingly bright. Inside the room was a man seated on a rocking chair, a respirator over his nose. He was reading a book. The room was vast enough to accommodate many. Portraits and sculptures and rococo furniture embellished the space.

“Meet Mr. Bright Adekunle. The man behind all you see,” Anne said, holding his hand.

Mr. Bright was happy to meet me, as I was happy to meet him. He was a comical man, telling me how the lion cubs roamed this settlement without anyone getting scared of them.

“You know,” Mr. Bright said, coughing. When he was stable, he continued. “I want to bring as many people as I can to Papylon. We are so blessed here. The food, water, air, everything you can find here is safe. The influx of people into this area has depleted our supplies. I know you want your people to come here. Your friends whom were chosen alongside you demand their people come here, too.”

He coughed, held his chest. I watched the rhythm of his chest rising and falling. I suggested Anne find spicy herbal roots, and make a mixture in boiling water. This mixture should be poured in a bottle, airtight, shaken, and served to him three times daily. Mama made this herbal drug for me each time I consumed too man palm kernel nuts that clog my chest. Mr. Bright was led back to his bed.

“Why is he kept away from the others?” I asked while we were returning back.

“He doesn’t want people to see him in such a state. He would rather the people go on about their lives, instead of worrying about him.”

I had to garner my sleeping chi. Maryam if I want you and mama and the rest of the village to become a member of this settlement, the dead soil must come back to life.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

I am not sure if you remember what happened on the third day we met. Mrs. Jibola, that cantankerous woman, had theatrically denounced Stanley and Olumide when she saw them kissing. At that point the feeling budding inside of me for you was upended, knowing that the village wouldn’t permit two ladies falling in love with each other. Today I watched two men, hands clasped in each other’s. It was at this point I knew Papylon was where we were meant to be. But first there was something I had to do. There would be no home for us if we do not have enough supplies to go around.

The nick in my face from the day Ikey pushed me was fast healing. I went back to that spot. The memories tugged my heart. The flood had caused a gorge in the ground, dead leaves turning from their original color in the heat. A stagnant water with flies hovering all over it was a few meters from where I stood.

All I had with me was a tiny bit of our native sand. I chose not to wake Ikey. He had suggested we create an aqueduct to feed the dying plants—the space meant for growing new plants with seeds preserved with artificial lights had been overrun by animals from the menagerie. I noticed a growing dandelion, its yellow petals smeared with mud. I had to start with this, attempting to make it grow bigger. It’s times like this I wish you were here. In that soothing voice you will say; keep calm, breathe, focus, you would say. You were my personal healer in times when adversity stands as a stumbling block.

I thought about you all through the process. The dandelion was still firm, protected from the violent flood. After sprinkling the materials from my pouch around the plant I shut my eyes. A chug rang in my ear, the factory was alive and running. I touched the marshy ground, packed a handful of wet sand. Mama’s voice came into a flash: The plants would be in sync with you if only you open your heart to them.

Series of my first day here breezed by me in a slide: the food, people, environment, and you. Soon all of these sweet-sour memories were engulfed by a turbulent storm. Eyes still closed, I switched into another scene. Here I was in a garden feeding my eyes on the waving, healthy plants. You were there too, plucking strawberries from their plants. The birds perched, tweeting in their melodious voices. The animals were not left out, either. A little boy was feeding a cub. I must have been so submerged in these happy moments that it took the snap of a twig to bring me back to the present.

“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Ikey said. “I can see you have gotten your mojo back.”

He beckoned me to look ahead. The dwarfed dandelion had increased in size and length, nourished. Excitement saturated my heart upon seeing this metamorphosis. I packed a handful of sand at the feet of the erect dandelion, and then spread it around. Malnourished plants returned back to their healthy status, springing back to life—fresh and gay.

“There’s something you must see,” Ikey said, taking the lead.

We got to the lake. Dolphins filled the waters, playing. He encouraged me to put out my hand. One of the dolphins came to me, rubbing its snout on my palm. We made progress today, Maryam. In a little while I’d see you again.

• • • •

Dear Maryam,

This will be the last time I’ll be sending you a message. It is with great pleasure in my heart that I inform you about the progress six of us have made this far. The catfishes in the pond have doubled in size, and they no longer feed on each other. I visited the gardens this morning. My face was streaked with happiness upon seeing the greenness of the cucumber and okra, redness of the pepper on the stalk, and freshness of the pumpkin leaves. Even the coconut had so much water stored in it.

Michael fixed the wind turbine. He modified a new panel from the old one to boost its efficiency. The eerie sounds from the blades have stopped, too. The engines are back, grinding and working at optimum capacity. Ramon was given a new post, special assistant to Mr. Bright on matters on managerial affairs. His foresight into food storage, education, and other spheres of Papylon was highly recommended by The Council. Kingsley made a mural on the paradisiacal setting of what Papylon would be like in the coming years. Qudus was now in charge of the animals. A zoo is currently in construction. The number of animals in his care are massive. Ikey tends to the water, ensuring its purity. I saw a whale in the ocean that was once only a stagnant expanse of water hyacinths and lettuce. My best guess, the oil spillage had stopped. The sea has become a place that reminds me of us. I know how you like nature.

Mr. Bright had fully recuperated. The herbal mixture did magic in his body system. He wants me to teach the elderly how to prepare this concoction. Anne asked if I can make this medicine into a tablet. Mr. Bright pleaded with us to extend our stay. The people of Papylon have a lot to learn from us. I agreed, and made a request which he granted instantly.

Get ready, Maryam. I have appointed you as my new assistant. You can also come along with another. Please bring a good quantity of our native sand. I anticipate your arrival.

I hope you had your own share of the basketful of food and fruits I sent to the camp. Tell Mama I am well, and she should be proud of her daughter.

Oyedotun Damilola Muees

Oyedotun Damilola

Oyedotun Damilola Muees is a Nigerian contemporary and speculative fiction writer and an associate member of SFWA and ASFS. He was a winner of the 2022 PEN Robert J. Dau Prize for Emerging Writers, and a winner in the First Annual Utopia Awards in the short story category. His areas of interest are queerness, environment, history, war, tradition, myths, folklore, and pop-culture. You can find his works (published and forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, Our Move Next, Solarpunk, Reckoning, Kalahari Review, Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction anthology (Tor.com Books), Science Fiction World, and other places. When he is not solving customers’ issues in his daily job, you can find him watching animations, horror and thriller series, and surfing beach and sword pictures on Pinterest. You can connect with him on Twitter, @dhamlex99.