Midmorning was already upon the hills when I woke up. At first, I could not understand why my body ached all over, but then it all came back to me, the dance, the hastily swallowed concoctions and the visions of talking spirits they brought.
I stood up, groggy, and groped around the bed to shake my brother awake. Rex murmured some incoherent sounds that translated as leave me alone. Reflecting on the beat state of his otherwise more attuned body, I made up my mind to do just that. I shuffled into the bathroom and was dabbing water unto my face when I heard him screaming.
Startled, I rushed back into the room to find him standing near the bed asking his onboard computer to run diagnostics. Running a diagnostics is routine, but my brother’s shout and the fact that he was having a verbal conversation with his computer—who does that in these days of mental synch—told me something was very wrong.
He turned towards me, his face a disoriented mask. “My implants are offline.”
“What do you mean your implants are offline? Did you turn them off?” I knew what he was going through; the white silence of an offline implant could be very disorienting for anyone used to permanent Netlink.
“Not just offline, my memory chip has been wiped clean.”
Pondering how that was possible when he had not plugged into any external power source, I asked him to check his backup memory—which I knew he got after he lost months of stored memory to a hacker. I could see that in his panic he had forgotten all about that backup. I heaved a sigh of relief when he said that it was intact.
Fearing that whatever it was that wiped his memory might still be in his processors, I asked him to synchronise his brain chip with the house computer. A quick scan should show the moment the safe mode kicked in and severed the link to the main memory. Feeling the worst was over, I was returning to the bathroom when I heard him gasp. I turned to see what had gone wrong again andsaw it. Shocked out of my wits, I walked over to stand beside him. Before us, the house computer’s holoprojector tinted the air green.
Not trusting my voice, I pointed to the projected image, “What the hell is that?”
“I have no idea, that’s the last thing my ocular implant captured before it shutdown,” I wasn’t sure if it was fear I sensed in Rex’s voice, but it was close.
I rubbed my eyes, hoping to see clearer. I felt icy fear crawling up my back as I turned to my brother, my eyebrow rising. Rex nodded once in a yes-it-is-real manner. I returned my gaze to the projection.
It was not human, that much was clear from first glance. The large, bulging eyes, the long teeth, curved and sharp, could never belong to a human. It was over seven feet tall and though it had two arms, they hung too low from shoulders that showed little trace of neck. Leonine hair that started just above eyes devoid of eyebrows flared in all directions.
A sense, a tingling at the back of my brain, signalled familiarity. I felt sure I had seen similar features before. It took some time before I could place it, masquerades; it reminded me of an Mmanwu indigenous to these hills. The only problem was, what we had before us, was a flesh and, perhaps, blood being.
I stood beside my brother, numb. I knew about Rex’s ocular implant, what I did not know was that my brother had the money to pay for the large memory required for constant recording. I am the one with the eye for details, the one who opted for journalism, but the hologram before us was not a spur of the moment recording. For how long has Rex been planning to record the initiation rituals, I wondered, and why didn’t he tell me anything? That was not to say I was surprised at Rex’s boldness. However the thought struck me that with this, we have a documentary, and could be in the running for a Pulitzer.
“How many hours do you have?” I asked Rex whose open-mouthed stance I didn’t understand. He recorded this, what’s he surprised about?
Rex turned to look at me, his lips quirking as it did when he was scared or angry. “I don’t think you understand what we are looking at Ebuka. That thing is no Mmanwu, that thing is alive!”
I looked at him, wondering if he had gone mad; of course, an Mmanwu must be alive to be an Mmanwu. I was about to voice my thoughts when I looked a little closer, at the image of what should have been a large Mmanwu. “You have this on pause Rex, the image is wavering. Play it.”
Rex did, moving the sequence back a little. “See,” he said, “it is alive.”
It was, and not in the sense I had thought.
“It is more than alive. See the markings on its torso and the gadgets on its arms.” I don’t know how my voice managed to sound calm, how the quake that was my heart beating did not show in my voice. Fear, I was sure, must have caused the trickle of sweat that ran down my armpits, for the house cooling system was operational. “That thing is not of this world. It is most probably an alien,” I said.
After Chinedu arrived, Rex showed surprised that our cousin was more keen on the fact that we had not told him about our implants, and was going on and on about repercussions for breaking the oath. “Chinedu, how can you be talking about propriety at a time like this? Are you seeing the same thing we’re seeing?” Rex asked.
Chinedu looked at the hologram and for a moment appeared to be deep in thought. Just when I thought he would say something, he turned to leave the room.
“Are you leaving?” I asked.
“Yes, I am leaving. I don’t know what you are up to, but I am sure I want no part in it. You know as much as I do that it is taboo to record an initiation ceremony, yet you failed to tell me about your implants. I can understand an auditory implant, but having the nerve to record with an ocular implant is what I can’t get my head around. Do you not see that this undermines everything we are trying to preserve? Please erase that file and do not speak to anyone about this, I will see what I can do about reparations.” Chinedu was angry but still had enough wits about him to whisper his words.
“Chinedu, I can’t believe you. In the face of evidence as great as this, you chose to talk about broken rules?” I asked.
“Chinedu, please look at the hologram and tell me that thing is not flesh and blood? We can argue about broken rules and the retributions later, but we really need you to confirm this… please,” Rex said.
Perhaps it was what Rex said or the way he said it, but Chinedu turned back, sluggish, as if it was against his better judgement. He stared at the hologram, the look on his face changing from repressed anger to wonder, then to fear.
“Was this all you got?” he asked.
Rex said nothing, I am sure he had anticipated Chinedu’s question, and had already sent the necessary command to the house computer. The hologram began moving, in reverse. Chinedu watched, silent for a few minutes then said, “Stop! Play it forward.”
Rex obeyed. I stood, silent, watching.
We watched the first masquerade exit the hut, followed by a succession of masquerades, all real, all with large carved masks aping the grimaces of spirits from the unknown. They came out, twelve masquerades in all. Chinedu named them as they stepped out. “…Atu, Agaba, Izaga, Aguinyi, Atuma, and that is Agu-nmuo.”
It struck me as odd that of all the masquerades who exited the hut to join the dance in the clearing none looked anything like the one at the end of the recording. Yes, the bulging eyes and bared teeth had the same odd look, but not exactly, it was as if they were copies, inferior copies. Rex glanced at me and I lifted my palm to signal wait.
I saw that Chinedu was paying very close attention to the hologram, watching every movement, calling for a zoom here or more brightness there. “Nothing appears to be out of place,” Chinedu said.
Everything still appeared normal at this point: the masquerades, the dancers and elders in and around the square—people I was sure Chinedu had known all his life. I exchanged looks with Rex, we both knew when the scene changed and were waiting to gauge Chinedu’s reaction. Rex mirrored my surprise when Chinedu pointed above the young trees, where the full moon peeped now and then through the rain clouds. Then we saw it.
It, was a speck of light in the sky, like those shooting stars that flash across the night sky, only this one did not burnout like any shooting star, neither did it flash by, instead it changed course and hovered for a bit before moving beyond range.
How did we miss that? I thought. Rex and I had played back the recording several times, scouring it for clues, but neither of us had noted the light and its irregular movement.
Chinedu’s gasp didn’t surprise us when it came. The strange masquerade didn’t come from the ritual hut; it had shimmered into being in front of Rex. Without any prompting Rex called for a structural model of the strange apparition.
The structural model was clearer and as it replicated the movement of the masquerade, it clearly showed it was flesh and blood, and carrying a device, one that probably shorted out Rex’s implant.
“Were your implants affected?” Chinedu asked me.
I frowned. Rex smiled. Rex knew I preferred it to remain a secret. I am sure he was thinking, ‘let’s see how he plays this.’ I took a deep breath. Chinedu may act and appear dense at times but he was no dunce. Auditory and ocular implants are common enough technology for those who feel the need to have a more personal interaction with the Netlink. Auditory implants could be attached at birth to allow the individual grow with the technology and provide better synch, but ocular implants required the attainment of twenty-one years, and special insurance clearance. Despite the danger, I believed that allincom, its ocular and auditory components, ranked among man’s greatest inventions. Same as I believed the secrecy law passed ten years before, which ensured the right for secrecy for an implant wearer, was a superb legislation on human rights. I glanced at Chinedu, though there was no way of knowing besides a high-level scan, I was sure Chinedu was not wearing any implants. Jeez, the guy does not even wear a wrist allincom, I thought, his car could drive itself, yet he prefers to go manual, how can one expect him to have an implant.
“No, I was not recording; I shut down my implant when we reached the square. The drums you know… they were hurting my ears and distorting my perception. Why do you ask?” I held my breath.
“Because I want to be sure the entity targeted Rex’s implants purposely, you two were the only ones with any technology higher than an organic torch on that hilltop last night. And had I known of it I would have stopped you from coming at all.”
“Why is that? I mean, how come we were the only ones with technology on the hill?” I asked, letting the breath I was holding go. Whew.
“Because it was outlawed. The Mmanwu society is an ancient one and the use of technology had no bearing on the rituals and had always been a source of distraction, so it was outlawed in our grandfather’s time when the cultural revival started. It is taboo to bring anything other than an organic torch to the square of the ancestors, same reason why the square is very far from town.”
“How convenient,” Rex said.
“What do you mean?” Chinedu asked.
“How convenient for the alien or whatever it was that showed up last night.” Rex said. I noticed he was looking at Chinedu, perhaps trying to gauge if he was telling all he knew, I guess he too could tell Chinedu was calm about this, too calm even. “I say alien because the structural model, as you can see, indicates the presence of technology. Notice that the left hand fiddled with that glowing square on its arm just before my implant shorted out?” Rex added.
“And the moving light Chinedu pointed out, don’t forget that,” I said.
“Yes, and that light, I bet that was the ship or whatever brought it here,” Rex agreed.
Chinedu snorted, crossed his arms across his chest, a sly look crept into his face as he looked from me to Rex and back again. I knew then that Chinedu had heard enough, and that while he knew something was out of place, he wasn’t buying the alien story.
“I know you guys, as such I know the kind of mischief you get up to. However, I want to be sure about this. That entity could be an invention of yours, a prank. Don’t scoff Ebuka, we both know this is not beyond you guys,” Chinedu said.
“You think this is a prank? Why is that? I might have thought little of the Mmanwu society before, but after last night, I believe we can rightfully claim to be custodians of our ancestor’s culture. We took the oath of secrecy didn’t we?” Rex was furious enough to cause Chinedu to take a step back.
I stood next to my brother, saying nothing, shaking my head from side to side.
Excerpt from “Masquerade Stories”, published in Afro SF, the first PAN-African science fiction anthology. Afro SF is available on Amazon