All of this. It’s not natural.
General Okeke glared at the woman in front of him. She stared back, the way she always did when he came to this damned mountain. So smug. He pulled in a breath and held it even though what he really felt like doing was smacking her across the jaw. But that wasn’t smart. What was smart was prying more information out of this woman.
“I’m sorry, General,” the woman said, her hands clasped behind her back.“You will have to wait a few minutes more.”
He nodded.“Where is she?”
He smiled, feeling its tightness. “Of course.”
She smiled again and turned away in one swift movement, her pasted-on smile disappearing as she did so. Unbelievable. Her highness didn’t have the common courtesy to be ready on time. Even after he’d traveled at least fifty miles by air, enduring the unsteady currents that thumped against the eastern side of this mountain, landing hard on the stretch of asphalt built for their helio-pod’s arrival. Seconds after clambering out of the craft, he’d been met with Old Father and his entourage. An intimidating group draped in mud-colored cloth, one part tied into a single knot on one shoulder, the other shoulder bare. Old Father looked slightly older, a little wider around the mid-riff, his hand clutched around a cane. They stood calm while General Okeke shivered in his army-green coat, tugged at his gloved hands, breathing through chattering teeth.
It wasn’t supposed to snow in Chad.
He shook hands with Old Father, again shocked at the strength in the older man’s hands, but he didn’t say a word about it. Instead, he marched beside Old Father in silence, hating the cold wind sawing at his face, hating the edifice looming ahead where Old Father lived with his daughters and concubines.A massive box-like structure, closed up and contained, making sure nothing tight escaped onto that frozen ground with clumps of stubborn grass.
General Okeke walked forward slowly, making sure he wasn’t out of step with the older man. As they got closer to the building, instead of pale walls, he could make out the outline of an arched doorway. He paused, waiting for his host to limp through and then walked in after him. Soon they were in a dimly-lit space with vaulted ceilings and dark floors, his rasping breath echoing in the silence. It was warm in here, the smell of incense not unwelcoming. But that pleasant feeling would end as soon as they got to Old Father’s office: a cavernous room with wooden carvings spread out on the walls, slit-holed, thick-lipped monstrosities. There would be roughened cloths rolled out on the floor instead of carpets. Then the four statues that each sat hunched at the four corners of the room, naked females with huge claws for feet.
General Okeke watched while Old Father dismissed the entourage and offered him a drink. General Okeke refused. This was the reason religion had been obliterated in the dying months of 2051. Mindless conflicts by mindless drones. This was why these ones stayed up here, hidden away, their corruption tightly knit, their perversions locked in cold darkness.
General Okeke turned back round toward Old Father who was now settling behind his desk, a wide and U-shaped table of dark wood. Like all the other chairs. Like all other tables. He knew because he’d signed the invoices himself . Had them airlifted en masse. “How is your health, Old Father?” he asked finally.
The old man leaned forward, linked his fingers and smiled. “The gods be praised. We are healthy. We are prosperous.”
General Okeke eyed the room. “Yes. I can see that.”
“How about you? Are you well?”
“Your wife? Your sons?”
He felt the all-too familiar pinch in his chest. “Well. Thank you.”
“I apologize for the delay. But my daughter must prepare.”
“For forty-five minutes.”
“Her mother was always punctual.”
Old Father blinked up at him. Then he smiled his gap-toothed smile. “Patience is a virtue, General.”
“I had a talk with the Prime Minister yesterday.”
General Okeke took in a deep breath. The old fool threw in the Prime Minister whenever he wanted to intimidate him. But those days were past now. This was the future, a future where insurgents had increased their attacks seven fold and Nigeria threatened to devolve into a war zone. Parts of it already were.
Hence the birth of the morale initiative, another product of the Prime minister’s think tank yups, which had involved months and months and months of propaganda streamed into the main cities. The idea had been to forestall possible recruits from joining the resistance. The Prime minister had scrambled for the phone, hungry for Old Father’s blessing. It had been expensive and worthless. And all it had taken was one false whisper from this band of freaks.
Old Father looked past him, his face suddenly brightening. “Darling. You’re here.”
General Okeke turned round slowly, just in time to see her walking toward him. She was wearing a long dress with sleeves that ended at both wrists, the same type of outfit she wore the last time she came. But this time he could see more of her with none of the sharp angles that shaped her face and defined her shoulders. The slope of her hips and the full thrust of her chest were more evident. Unavoidable. At least she’d pinned up her braids this time, even if she had let some strands slip from their clip. But her face was calm and serene as she clasped her hands in front of her, staring forward.
He glanced at her feet. No claws.
“Good evening, princess,” he said quickly, his voice a high-pitched note that surprised him.
Princess Ini curtseyed, not so low, her eyes unreadable. General Okeke stiffened as she rose up and walked carefully toward the high-backed chair in the center of the room. She sat down, smoothing out the invisible wrinkles in her outfit. He looked at his watch. He had to be back at the State House in a hour. He needed answers.Now.
He looked from her to Old Father. Watched as they exchanged greetings, then he walked up to the table, sat down along its edge and stared right at her. He could see the look of anger flit across her face and resisted the urge to smile. Classic female response. She thought he was talking down to her. Didn’t he see her grown-up dress with grown-up hair?
“Did you sleep well?” he asked, inclining his head to the side. “I am so sorry I had to wake you.”
“I wasn’t asleep, General Okeke.”
“But you took so long.”
“I was preparing.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Of course you were.” He turned back and looked at Old Father. The old goat looked slightly uncomfortable. “Maybe next time you should start your preparations a little earlier. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the latitude allowed you, Princess Ini.”
“I don’t think-”
“Some of us grown-ups have very important matters to attend to.”
Another streak of anger. Good.
Princess Ini opened her mouth as if to say something , but then she took a deep breath as if trying to control herself and forced a smile. “I apologize, General.”
“That’s quite alright.” He said, got up and walked back to his own seat. Let her feel like she’d won this round with her control and her poise and whatever else they told her up here. After the harsh ride across this hell, he was ready for a little magic show.
He crossed his legs and waited. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the maid/concubine appear out of the shadows and walked toward Princess Ini, stopping just a few feet behind her chair.
The magic show was about to begin.
The girl took in a deep breath and stared forward. At first he thought she was staring at her father, then he realized she wasn’t staring at anything or anyone at all. The lights went dim, everything dissolving into darkness. But the girl was the only thing lighted up, like a bulb had been lit under her just for this moment.
He held his breath and waited, watched as she took in another long breath and closed her eyes. Then she opened them, the whites of her eyes now a shiny black.
General Okeke felt a familiar chill run through him, but he didn’t move.
There was another humming noise and suddenly lines began to form in the air. Bold yellow lines branching outward, like the street grid of an invisible map. Soon the colors changed, not just yellow now but red and green branching off on their own, all of them criss-crossing in the air.
General Okeke squinted at the hologram. He recognized this. This was the Western region, once filled with thick forests, thick enough to hide the early resistance fighters, now cleared to make way for the new cities. For progress. For black silver.
More and more lines formed, more colors unfolding in mid-air, bending, angling, curving until the whole map of Nigeria hung in middle air. Bright and ridiculous.
“Where?” General Okeke asked finally.
But she just sat there like some kind of freakish statue with the inky-black horror across her eyes.
“Where?” he repeated, his voice louder and rougher. He watched her shoulders twitch, watched her point a finger toward the map, swipe to the left. Some lines fell away, converged and diverged.
General Okeke squinted upward, the cushions not so comfortable anymore. Nigeria was back to being lines again. At times he thought it was the north-eastern grid, then the south-western grid, then south-east.The middle.
General Okeke leaned back in his chair. Nothing had changed.
He looked back at the girl. She was breathing hard, blinking rapidly, her hands gripping the sides of her chair. The black film was gone. “This can’t be right,” he said quietly.
“That’s what I see,” she muttered in between forced breaths.
“Black silver has never been found there. Never.”
“That’s what I see.” Her voice was sharp.
“You keep seeing our country’s greatest export in places where they aren’t.”
“I haven’t been wrong before.”
“That is incorrect, Princess Ini. You’ve been wrong four times already. Twice last year. Once last month.”
“Those times were-“
“Exploration isn’t easy and countless man hours are being wasted.”
“This isn’t fair. I come down here-”
“If you need a few more hours of rest-”
“I do not.”
She got up suddenly, her braids snapping out of their clipped prison. She looked past him. looked at her father. “May I go?”
Old Father nodded and the spoiled brat stamped back through the arched opening, her maid hurrying after her.
General Okeke spun back to the old fool.“We’ve done this dance before. The government doesn’t have more millions to throw away on another error.”
“If there are errors, they have nothing to do with my daughter.” He leaned forward, his bony elbows propping up his weight. “Maybe it’s with your machines, your robots with their metal legs and round heads. Maybe they are wrong.”
General Okeke tried to dismiss the tension rising up his legs, his arms. He couldn’t. “Maybe change is needed.”
The old man raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“A change of environment.”
“What are you talking about, General?”
He swallowed hard. Took a deep breath and turned toward one of the walls. An ugly, hideous mask stared back at him. “Maybe the princess is too distracted here.”
“Less indulgence, more discipline. Mistakes like these would be less and further in-between.”
“What matters is that you seem unconcerned.”
Old Father rubbed his eyes with both hands and looked forward. General Okeke watched him, struggling to read past the blankness in his eyes.
Then the old goat finally spoke. “I understand that you do not respect or treasure our beliefs like the Prime minister. You are not a believer in our faith.”
“I am not a believer in any faith.”
“But you do not respect ours. You think all this is a monumental waste of your time.”
The older man looked surprised, but he recovered quickly with a cold smile. “I will not be threatened. Not by you, not by anyone. This is Mount Kai and we are not under your control. We, unlike your barbaric army, serve a higher purpose.”
General Okeke felt heat flood up his neck. “Of course.”
“My daughter will never leave her home.”
“Thank you, General Okeke. We hope to see you at the National Celebrations.”
General Okeke swallowed hard. Here he was, being dismissed by a man who was nothing more than an overrated shaman with his merry band of wenches. But he was right about one thing. It was time to go.
General Okeke nodded his goodbyes and walked with slow, measured steps back through the long corridor, past the bare-chested slaves that hung by the large arched door he came through hours before. His men hovered by the entrance, sunglasses and long coats, white flakes in their hair. But he walked past them into the snow, his boots making sloshing noises through the white mush. He fumbled with the top button of his coat. Something had to be done.
He turned sharply. It was one of the men assigned to him. “What is it?”
“You have a call.”
He tapped his earpiece, and heard the familiar hum.“Oladunni?”
Oladunni’s voice came out squeaky. Must be the reception. Or maybe the boy’s weak lily-livered self. “Change of plans.”
“Sir. I don’t understand.”
“General Okeke rolled his eyes. “It seemed things didn’t work out the way I planned.”
“Well, sir. Like I said before…they are a tight-knit family. He would never agree to-“
“The mountain must come to Mohammed.”
General Okeke swiped off his earpiece and nodded at the helio-pod. The blades cut through the air with a repeating whoop-whoomping sound, its hull shuddering. He inhaled the cold air and took one last look around. In a few days, this place would be full of journalists, reporters, ministers, dignitaries, the odd diplomat and of course the Prime minister, her Afro combed into a soft cloud round her head, her lips stretched into a tight line. They would all be here, paying homage to the great and wonderful seers, praying that rubbing shoulders with this vermin would improve their lot. Like good luck charms. And that beautiful, spoiled brat. She was the most powerful charm of them all.
He nodded at the man beside him and sprinted to the helio-pod, hopping on to the metal platform, the doors sliding shut after him. Soon there would be the roar of engines and then the inevitable shuddering as it rose.
There would be no more visits to this icy hell if Oladunni did his job right. And if he did, little Princess Ini would be away from here and under his complete control. No maids, no pampering.
But first he’d cut off those braids.