Last night when I pasted my ear to the wind
And tasted the spice of eternity on my lips
I had really turned my mind away into fear.
“Room 33 became a terror zone; something kicked in when you got close. Alien telepathy was one. You could hear a person’s thought process in there. It clanged with an audible urgency like a machine that’d gone on for a while without oil. Sometimes, the sensation lingered for seconds after you left the Room. And once, it devolved into a screaming Capgras Syndrome. You know what that is, don’t you?” I stopped long enough to watch Hannah nod her reply and then proceeded.
“What happened was Dimi; the stud who diddles with gadgets was in Room 33. He and one of our programmers, I can’t remember who . . . must have been Kustley . . . yeah, ‘twas him alright, Kustley. Suddenly, they started on each other. When we watched the recording from the surveillance cameras afterwards, it was like living in a nightmare.
“Who the hell are you, Dumbbell?” Dimi said, starting towards Kustley. He was an average mammoth.
“Who you call Dumbbell, Pinhead? And what you doing in here?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dimi said. “I asked first. Who are you?”
“Kustley made to call security and Dimi came at him holding up his Phillips screwdriver like a Zulu warrior running to battle. Kustley swerved just in time. Dimi buried the tool in his shoulder blade driving it all the way to the handle. Kustley yawped and stumbled forward, blood, deep-red and syrupy spouted from the puncture in raging rivulets. Dimi pounced on him and worked at recovering the screwdriver from its position. Kustley’s hands flailed over his head, feeling for Dimi’s shirt, as he tried to get Dimi off his back. Dimi retrieved the tool, evoking a deep-throated squeal from Kustley. He reached high over his head with that thing and came down hard.”
“Ruth Benemesia Opiah!"[I] Hannah yelled. She’d been doing a good job keeping it together. Now, she just let it fly.
“The top of Kustley’s skull splintered and spat up a spray of blood where metal met flesh. His eyes bulged and rolled over to whites as his bladder let go. He trundled like an old horse that stumbles and nods half asleep as it stalks then, crumpled to the floor in a heap. He lay there with one hand shooting out, clenched into a fist as if he had died trying to play superman. Dimi - you would think that by now sanity would have reasserted itself - put both hands to his eyes like he was wiping tears off his face. He began to claw at his face. He cried as he did it. Suddenly, he clawed his own eyes out and popped ‘em in his mouth like peanuts and then, Dimi ate his own eyeballs. We had to peel the fellow off the circuit breaker when we got back in Room 33. He fried his hide.
“Tell me what actually went down,” something flickered beneath Hannah’s calm as we accessed her kitchen. “All of it. As much as you can recall.”
A sense of homecoming rushed at me like a bullet train and pushed me into the hugs of common lilac fragrance that marked every room in Hannah’s apartment. “What may I tell you? What reveal?,” I said quoting ‘Hanging Day[II]’.
“Picking off from the last rung would be a start.”
I made for the sofa in the living room before Hannah said, ‘Com’ on over to the kitchen and grab a cool cup of limeade, first.’ She was already squeezing lime with the reamer when I came into the kitchen. I took the seat by the head of the dining and immediately regretted my decision. Hannah looked at me and a knowing passed between us and following on its heels, the pangs of memory.
“Your father would have been proud of the man you turned out to be,” she said. No more or the tears would come. “Go on, grab a tumbler off the buffet and come taste the sweetest homemade limeade.” She smiled but I could see a glint of sadness in her eyes. I did as told. Her limeade was as good as ever.
“On June 9, 2007, I rooted for Barcelona[III] FC at a Suya[IV] spot just around my street corner – that’s Barça for fans. I kinda love it where it’s crowded. On a different level, there’s some dick to elbow if the God of soccer’s taking a nap on your team’s Hail Marys,” I said, easing into my story.
“Barça was thirty minutes into the game and a goal down when a Zambrotta cross sent the ball into the opponent’s danger zone. Messi[V], well positioned for the rare advantage launched himself at the ball. He missed but, connected with a fist instead, to steer the ball past the Chelsea [VI]goalie. The God of soccer winked at the referee and just like that Barça had an equalizer. There was a lot of bickering from Chelsea fans. I don’t need to draw you a picture, do I?
“ ‘It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught,’ someone said. ‘Besides, it’s Magical Messi. You can’t penalize the God of Soccer’s son.’
“The owner of the voice wore a black three piece suit and sat in a corner in Zibo’s Suya Spot. His eyes smiled when they met mine and he said, ‘Hello, Kumar.’ Hearing my name from this stranger’s lips made me feel like an artist viewing a portrait of himself as a toddler for the very first time.
“Nobody called me Kumar besides my parents. And they were dead. Besides, how could he have known any of my names when we never met? Dr. Iback had his hand extended when I got to his table. I took it. His handshake was firm and totally disarming.
‘That game proves God not only plays dice, Mr. Kumar,’ Iback said. ‘He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen. Sit with me, please?’ He got up and pulled out the seat opposite his.”
Hannah took off her chapeau and dropped it on the large oak table in her kitchen. She grabbed a bowl filled with citrus fruit and reached for a goblet on the buffet. “Iback gave you the bottom line of his offer, I suppose?” She said, back towards me as she worked at ridding the citrus of their juice.
“I guess he hinted on it when he said, ‘I love Messi. He knows fair and he knows foul. I love a player who knows when to sneak one in.’ ”
“I want you on my team,” he said, stroking his hand-to-ball spotted-tie. “A creative genius like you ought to be working for the Touchpad Corporation, the big wheel in Touch Pad technology.”
“Any fool can peel the apple,” I said. “It takes a real man to eat the core.”
And he cracked up and said, “It takes a genius to make people laugh. Laughter brings many benefits, such as increased lung capacity and the ability to tolerate idiots.[VII] You’ll do just fine with ‘DATSET’.”
“DATSET,” said Hannah. “What’s that?”
“That’s short for, ‘Dactylic Touch-Sensing Technology[VIII]’. TouchCorp’s fingerprint-sensing innovation for PCs; laptops, tablet PCs, iPhones and the iPad. Our gig was to invent a fingerprint-sensing program.
“TouchCorp managed a labyrinth-like building complex called ‘Data Base’, in the Peninsula. ‘DATSET’ was confined entirely to the left wing of Data Base. Day and night we fed data into XT3 - the Mainframe at Data Base, a 65000-processor positronic supercomputer responsible for The Project. Whoever designed that babe gave her all the features of intelligent life form.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Hannah said. “Is indistinguishable from magic.”
I took a sip of my juice, I was tensed up ‘cause I was reaching for the raw nerve.
“So, tell me, what went wrong?” She asked.
“Most of us had retired to our quarters for the evening when the entire structure lit up with a horrendous scream, shuddering, growling and moaning, filling up the hush of the night. It came from Room 33, where XT3 was housed. B-Mack, security working the nightshift got there ahead of us. He said, ‘I wasn’t quite ten paces from Room 33 when a blast of infrared spectrum blew out the screen door and almost immediately, some influence sucked the explosion right back in there in one big whump.’ The door to Room 33 was blackened, as if a blast of heat had charred it.”
“Anybody turned up dead?” Hannah dumped the dehydrated limes in the basket, grabbed her goblet and waltzed toward the table.
“I once read about a man who was chewed up by his laundry machine. Nobody figured out how he got his butt stuck in there or how the machine performed the stunt. Here’s the real whopper, we searched for Niamey who’d been in for his shift in that room, there wasn’t much space to drift, and came up with his overcoat and his ball point still in the pocket. Niamey, however, was . . . gone. On one level, that’s worse than turning up dead. I never saw the body. I don’t know why but at that instant, the story about the laundry room incident flushed my mind with desperate intensity.
There weren’t any gaping holes in XT3 to wolf down a toddler.”
“A few days after Niamey walked into thin air, one of our guys found a spatter of blood mingled with lacerated flesh in Room 33. If you can imagine a POW behind enemy lines, and this group of really stoned soldiers pulls the pin off a grenade, yank his mouth open and force him to swallow it, works for a succinct comparison. We did a headcount and Reynard came up missing.
“Let me tell you one thing, when I took Iback’s offer I didn’t know what I was stepping into. I wish Stacey had passed this up. I would have felt as if she left me in the lurch yes, but . . . When we act for the noblest reasons, the last link of the chain all too often drips with someone’s blood.[IX]” God, I wish she said no.
“Have you found God, Jase. Finally?”
I got up and walked to the refrigerator. I poured myself a glass of water and downed it. I refilled it then returned to the dining. Hannah was circling the rim of her glass with her index finger. She looked up when I sat down. I could feel the tension settling over me like a cloak.
“That was a lovely exercise,” she said. “It begs the question, effectively.”
“Why switch the subject, Hannah? Does it mean anything?” I said.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe so, maybe no,” I said. My Mom and Dad died in an auto crash. I was spared. End of story. Why blame it on God? I believe God takes a hand in things from time to time. “God is much more intelligent than I,” I said, drumming on the table. “Let Him try to find me.[X]”
Hannah reached across the table and squeezed my right hand. “In a world where death is the hunter, my son, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions[XI].”
I withdrew my hand, gently. “Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.”
Hannah sighed. “Fortune gave me, you, after your parents passed on. I do not despise him for it. Not even after my husband died leaving you and Stacey for me to raise. Rather, I cherished the privilege.” She searched my eyes, her face inscrutable like the face of a god in a shrine. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
“Well, that’s tough,” I said. “I know there are people who argue differently but, that’s just the way it is. For better or worse”
She combed her Cornrow braids with her fingers and sighed. “Some things that were science fiction a few years ago are reality today. Iback and I were the first two of a team of astronauts commissioned by the Nigerian Intergalactic Agency (NIGA) to shoot the independently-boosted Nigerian interstellar ship into orbit.” “I don’t recall discussing you or Stacey with him, though. I may have slipped on one occasion, it’s not impossible. I really can’t help it talking about you, guys.” She laughed softly. “We were boosted by The Kalabria, the positronic starship into deep-space to probe Kepler[XII] – a habitable exoplanet about two times the size of Earth.
“The hyperdrive had been invented using Nigerium, a highly refined radioactive material discovered by Sam Dukey in the Nok valley, to build its nuclear engines. When the hyperdrive field is activated, The Kalabria enters the hyperspace moving thirty times faster than light. It’s the only way we could even come close to the Kepler about 560 light years away. The field creates warp holes; a kind of hyperspatial shortcuts. We collected all the samples we could carry on Kepler and returned home. On re-entry from hyperspace, the Cherenkov radiation reversed Iback’s genetics. Medical examination revealed he caught it on our way out. Earth’s atmosphere had only amplified it. He was treated, certified cured and discharged.
“It was in the course of those very years, following the discovery of Kepler, that rocket probes began to be sent out to other planets initiating interstellar travel and faster than light transmission (FTLT).”
“There, I told you how Iback may have come about your name. I want to know how my daughter met death.”
I adjusted my position. “Nobody moved a motion to abort The Project, despite the tragic episodes. At the subconscious level where shadows grow claws, we knew there was no going back. We’ve invented the Theremon fluid before this time and worked it into touch screens and touch pads. Well, we thought we invented it but, the real deal is, it was alien fluid. It seeps through the fingertips and next thing’s you’re possessed by a secondary personality. We didn’t ship any though; we were performing tests before incidents in Room 33 reached inevitable outcomes.
“The night Stacey died, I entered that room and couldn’t shake the feeling that the air was smokin and tokin with a lethal potential. When I stepped into Room 33, strange shapes popped into my eyes and there was a feeling of coming into a grotesque room, not a computer room. I had this feeling somebody was trying real hard to lodge in my mind. XT3’s screen was horrid black. It was like looking into the mind of the devil, himself.
“I knew Stacey was in there. She’d informed me and I’d promised to catch up. I was still watching that screen when this hazy stuff started, a moving silhouette on the darker surface of the computer screen. And then, this weird inscription floated out on the screen like through a glass darkly:
“And following closely, you won’t believe this, an inventory;
“I stood as still as a paper boat upon a paper sea, waiting, my heart pounding against my chest like the testicle of the great bell at the St. Thomas Cathedral clanging against its walls at the wake of dawn. The names or the applications, stopped at 5. I sensed the wrongness before I actually saw it. It buzzed in my brain like a voice crying out from behind the walls of doubt; names of members of my team who had an encounter with Room 33 were omitted. I reckoned it wasn’t an error.
“Stacey, who I’d been with a few minutes earlier, heck, is the reason I was in that horrible place after all, wasn’t on the list either. I felt my butt plop to the floor as strength fizzled out of my muscles, and I landed on my balls. The pain shot through me and my body shuddered. I reached for the aching spot and my fingers caught something. I would have let it go under the circumstance but intuition overrode reasoning. I picked it up, instead. It was drenched in blood and body juice. I recognized Stacey’s engagement ring. It rolled off her finger when something grabbed her, must have.
“When I saw the body, Stacey wasn’t dead yet. Not by a long chalk but, what I saw . . .” I swallowed hard and almost choked on my spittle. A coughing fit shook me. I got it under control and went on “I wished she was long gone . . . I don’t need to draw you a picture, do I?
“Go ahead, Jase, I fixed my storm doors.”
“A huge tube-shaped structure, somewhat like a misplaced oviduct attached itself to Stacey’s eyes and sucked away ‘floop, floop, floop’ producing a noise like of a hidden brook. I don’t know exactly what I felt like, because a man can’t easily hold on to those things that are typically macho you know, like trying to fight back the tears and all that, when it’s all so damn personal. Wasn’t much of her left but a bag of bones when I found her. She retched like a rooster putting up with a bad case of thirst. They came then. A deluge blurred my vision I had to wrestle it or forgo what I had to do. In a sudden desperate invention, I grabbed the tube and made to rip it off her. A torrent of electricity pitched me against a processor. I was beginning to get a hold of myself when Iback’s face popped into view. Giving me the once over he said, ‘In space, it’s always one minute after midnight.’ He had a smirk but I could read nothing on the fox’s face.”
“He always said that at NIGA,” Hannah said. “Usually, when things went awry. Dreadfully awry.” This was followed by a spate of sobbing. I’d known details of Stacey’s death would unplug a river. But, some tears have to be cried or they eat away at the soul like cancer. I got her some Kleenex and as I passed by the window saw darkness creep up on the skies as the horizon gulped down the sun in degrees. “Iback was so dysfunctional after the Cherenkov experience Humpty Dumpty wouldn’t have envied him.” I’ve never seen so many wrinkles in Hannah’s face before as I did then. “I never observed a man’s nature totally translated in a short breath.” After a bout of heaves and sighs and a sip of her limeade she said, “Continue.”
I resumed my story thinking about how often we were fed with information we would have done without. “ ‘What’s done’s done,’ Iback said. ‘You can’t help her now, anymore than you can save the human race. It’s best to leave well enough alone. You can’t fight them, son. Yield. They’ll go easy on you. Call it Fate.’ ”
“‘Them’, what did he mean by that?”
“He didn’t say. But I’ll bet my shirt, he was talking about aliens. He stepped over my sprawled body and booked for the door like he was on to something. Just before he slipped through it he glanced back over his shoulder at me and said, ‘You give my regards to the devil or whoever has his job in hell.’ And then he was gone. Stacey was no longer here with us, she’d become one heap of bones covered with a very thin slice of skin. Seeing her drained me of the will to live. I felt the floor vibrate as if some monstrosity was busting through. I would have waited for it to come and get me. But I had a vision of the world under the control of some alien race and something deep in my character allowed me to take the hits and still get on with trying to win”[XIII].
Hannah broke down completely and I had to hold her in my arms for a while. It was okay, I knew it was going to be a long night. I came prepared.
But for your sake, Dear Reader. I know you’re itching to know how the story ends. The details of our, mine and the few hands left on Data Base, little adventure’s what you see on the news every other day. We threw a special cocktail party. The type where you served up exclusively, Molotov cocktails. I don’t need to draw you a picture too, do I?
☤ ☤ ☤
There’s been a lot of bickering making the rounds since the birth of deep-space exploration. Questions like, if there are aliens in deep space where does that leave God and the Angels and perhaps, even the Devil? My story’s not an attempt to answer that question. It’s one author’s shot at making the two subjects serve one story plot. I’m one of those writers who believe, a writer doesn’t write because he has an answer but rather, he writes because he has a story. Let the reader beat themselves up trying to solve the puzzle.
If you think any of the characters in this story looks like you or anybody you know, your mind’s probably playing tricks on you. All the guys and gals in this piece are fictional. But the story on the other hand, that’s real, baby. As someone once said, ‘You can’t make up anything anymore. The world is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it. Go, figure.
[I] A veteran Newscaster on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) News Network used here chiefly as a rhetorical device
[II] A Poem by Wole Soyinka
[III] Barcelona FC or Barça is the defending soccer champion of European football.
[IV]A variety of Nigerian Barbecue
[V] There is a real Lionel Messi who plays for both Barça FC and the Argentine national team. He’s a current recipient of the FIFA Ballon d’Or (formerly World Player of the Year). Messi has scored three goals similar to the one described in this story. Only one of those handballs was actually penalized. He is mentioned here in a fictitious sense.
[VI] Said match was actually against Espanyol FC. I think it ended in a 1-1 Draw. I only mentioned Chelsea to inspire well, a little bit of controversy
[VII] Robin B.
[VIII] A phrase I got online and twisted around a little bit
[IX] Stephen King, Lunch at The Gotham Café
[X] Isaac Asimov supposedly said this concerning his religious belief during an interview
[XII] There’s actually an exoplanet called Kepler-10b. It was discovered by NASA Ames’ spacecraft and speeds around a star in the constellation Cygnus. Much of the details presented in the story are factual except where I’ve stated that it is HABITABLE. It’s not. Kepler 22b’s a closer bet.
[XIII] Lionel Messi quote (paraphrased).