The Nature of the Beast

To breathe the air was to breathe needles. One had to prepare oneself for sharp nose pricks. The cold was barely bearable by Lagos standards, but it was bearable. Everything was coated in a thin film of dust; eyebrows, cars, glass window panes of tall buildings, green apples being sold by the woman with a child on her back. The harmattan was greedy, it lapped up every bit of moisture available in the air, clothes dried quickly, lips cracked easily. The skies were not left out. Cloudless with a light blue hue that stretched as far as the eyes could see till it met with the horizon. Omoyeni peered around the queue he was on, it was almost his turn. He counted eight people ahead of him. They were all waiting to enter the new ero ifonasoda 5.0. The newly installed models had fewer kinks or so Ogbeni Awojobi and his cohorts said. The new models would not cause nausea or the dizzying feeling one caught after stepping out at the other terminal.

He still never understood how the machine worked. One moment he was stepping into a chrome non-descript box at Oshodi, the next moment he was stepping out into the chilly morning air at the destination terminal in Victoria Island feeling raw. Omoyeni could scarcely believe his eyes each time scenery changed. Perhaps he was in a matrix and this was a simulation. Certain things like going into the machine and not seeing the human that had just entered before one reinforced and fueled his paranoia. It felt like going directly into the mouth of a beast with a cavernous stomach and insatiable appetite. The beast had to be fed. Everyone fed the beast. He felt that he was crazy to willingly always use this mode of transportation, yet everyone seemed willing enough. The virtues of ero ifonasoda were extolled by the press. Lagos once known for its legendary traffic gridlock now had free roads akin to its less populous neighbour Ibadan. Red lines had disappeared on google maps. The country was jubilant as quality of life soared. Life was good.

Certain religious organizations especially the Absolutists decried the advent of these new teleportation devices. Protests were staged all over the world. Slogans were made, lungs strained to scream refrains.

“DON’T PLAY GOD”

“THE END IS NIGH”

“HELP, MY NEIGHBOUR IS AN IMPOSTER”

The propaganda machine was in full swing. Turmoil reigned across the face of the earth. The leftists slung mud back. Absolutists were derided for being myopic and backwards. Ultimately, what was meant to be a watershed moment in the history of the human organism turned into an ugly war of words. The Absolutists boycotted the machine. Life went on as usual in its usual mundane pace, one moment blended into the next.

***

Common sense had won, or so it seemed until a prominent scientist spoke up against ero ifonasoda. Okola had been widely respected in the scientific community. A science popularizer in the mold of Neil Degrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan. Soft spoken and short with deep set eyes that kindled with kindness when he smiled. His high forehead along with three diagonal lines running across each cheek might have been ugly on another person. Somehow, he made it work. Okola was a nickname that had stuck during his science popularizing days on the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA). Now he had grown old and weary. His left knee throbbed when it rained. To escape, he would drive along the seedy areas of town and pick up prostitutes. He would wrestle dispassionately with a random girl in a dirty bed in a cheap motel with a fan on the ceiling. Of course he would feel dirty afterwards but who cares, the carnal need had been satisfied. Sex was nothing to feel ashamed about anyways, he would always console himself. One paid for it one way or another. When Okola came out in vehemence against the machine, it was a surprise to many. People wondered what a two bit hack like him would know about such a complex piece of machinery. It mattered not that he had a doctorate from University of Zurich in physics. Okola would go to radio stations to talk about his ideas most of which were rooted in philosophy and not physics. To most who bothered to listen to him, his arguments were too vague and the ease of teleportation too easy. It was easy to dismiss his opinions as childish ramblings of a man who longed for his glory days.

Talking to Dennis, an on air personality for Kakaki, a small radio show, he would argue his points with long-winding denunciations of ero ifonasoda.

“This machine is killing people on a scale hitherto unheard of. They tell you it works with quantum physics and it is as simple as people being transported from one point to the other without traversing distance. Basic physics tells us that is impossible without shattering the space time continuum by entering a black hole. We certainly do not have the technology to manufacture black holes on demand”

“So what do you suggest is happening?”

“Copies. The machine is making copies.”

“Cloning tech? Cmon, that’s science fiction.”

“Yes, so is teleportation. If you went back in time three hundred years ago, as a species, we didn’t even have cars. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He delivered, his voice rising an octave. This dance he knew. To raise his voice at this critical juncture would be committing intellectual suicide. All facts would be distorted, the first casualty. Passion would take the guise of hysterics. Keeping an even keel was extremely important.

“Look at it this way, the FBT liaises with government database which contains everyone’s genetic information. They say they collect our information for security purposes and to enable easy identification. We all know that is a lie. They do it to control us. There is only so many places a person can hide if his genome is floating out there like a piece of nylon bag”

“But it’s not floating around, it’s secure”

“Pish-posh. Your pedantry is remarkable. Of course you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t know what you mean. Maybe you should be clearer in the future.”

“I am only responsible for what I say and not what you might understand or glean from my statements.”

“Oh please, take some responsibility. Always say what you mean”

These sessions always got heated. One does not go around accusing The Federal Bureau of Teleportation of beguiling citizens without proof and not expect these things to occur. They were the darlings of the populace. Tell me which man would like to spend six hours in traffic every other day. Ogbeni Awojobi had created something that made everyone’s lives easier. In human existence, pleasure and ease was not something an individual easily parted with. What was a little freedom compared to that.

“So cloning?”

“Yes cloning. Everyone walking around today including you whom had used that machine is a copy of a copy. It’s massive genocide. It destroys our original selves and a copy is born at the destination terminal complete with the memories of the original.”

“Are you also a copy?” the sarcasm thick in his voice

“No, like the Absolutists, I also abstain”

“So, you are not like the rest of us”

“No, I’m afraid not”

He had taken the bait, Dennis was good at this. The listeners would think he was a classist pig. That was no way to win over the masses.

“Let us humour you for a moment and assume your claims are true. Biology tells us that cells die and new cells are generated to replace them no?”

“Yes, this is quite true. In fact after seven years all the cells in our bodies have been replaced” he added.

“So would you suggest that you are an entirely different individual after seven years. Are you your cells Mr Okola?”

“Well, no” he sputtered, stumped and at a loss for words. He had never anticipated the turn of the conversation. Eager to press home his advantage, Dennis continued

“If we are copies made by a machine, you are also a copy made by natural processes. Ours may be instantaneous and yours gradual, but it does not negate the fact. What then is a copy in the grand scheme of things? Is a copy so evil after all like you said? Is it genocide?”

He went home that day thinking about all the failures in his life. He had handed Dennis the ammunition he needed. Why couldn’t he ever say the things he needed to say when they needed to be said. All the smart rebuttals he could have posited floated around his headspace like phantoms of conversations past. About how we are the sum of biological patterns and not cells. And that this new machine duplicated patterns and did not follow the already laid natural template. The ethics of it all. Each time he remembered the conversation, he cringed as though he was struck by invisible horsewhips. Life had lost its meaning for him. The hollow would just not fill. A huge chasm opened in the inner recesses of his mind. The abyss was a specter which hung over his shoulder. An existential dread had come over him. His self-loathing grew with every passing moment. What was the point of it all? He was no different from an Absolutist. Ki ni Okola mo?What did he really know?

***

Omoyeni got to the office relatively early. The long hand of the wall clock in the lobby was on nine. He was fifteen minutes early. There was a slight pep to his walk. Already, his nerve endings were getting acclimatized to the tingling sensation that he felt whenever he used the teleportation device. It was like putting clothes on bare skin, after a while, one forgets about them. It stilled amazed him how he could wake up at seven, get dressed by seven thirty and be at the office with fifteen minutes to spare. “In this Lagos?” He pondered. How people got to work late never ceased to amuse him, especially Adesewa. She had a languid fluidity about her which never ceased to amuse him. His eyes lit up when he saw her walk up to him. They worked together as customer care representatives for one of the telecommunication giants. Only a partition separated their cubicles. Adesewa with the doe-eyed stare of a sad bird. Everything about her seemed breakable, her long legs which tapered into a slim waist and angular jaw with sharp striking facial features. He would go as far as to say she was pretty in an understated manner. If only she wasn’t so clumsy. Her ungainly walk made Omoyeni feel like she might topple over at any moment and shatter like porcelain.

“Yeni, hi”

“Sewa good morning. How you dey?”

“We’re good o. I slept well”

“That’s nice”

And crickets

Six months had passed since she was transferred to his department and he still couldn’t hold trite conversations with her. Already he could sense an awkward silence descend upon them as they both made for the elevator. Great, he thought, this is about to get worse. His relief was palpable when he saw a crowd of co-workers from various departments move towards them. No small talk for him. The inner introvert in him did a double flip.

The day passed slowly as any day would when doing things which do not stimulate the human spirit. Talking to disgruntled customers who looked for avenues to vent their frustrations was mentally tasking. Having to read from a carefully prepared script which did not take into consideration the variables of human conversation made him feel like a limited puppet dancing on strings. All the calls were recorded, big brother was always watching. Omoyeni hated his job yet quitting was not an option. A man has to eat and besides, he had a responsibility to Omoyele and Isaac, his younger ones. To find another one in this market was no different from looking for a needle in a haystack. Millions of the unemployed would gladly snatch up his place in a heartbeat. Thoughts of Adesewa filled his mind as he went through the drudgery that was his job. The thin partition that divided their work space did nothing to separate them. Her musk pervaded the air and the very knowledge that she was but a few meters did not help matters. He would conjure up scenarios in his mind’s eye where they were a couple and she was laughing at his joke and smiling that her wide eyed smile because of something he did. It would never happen, he knew. Still, a man could dream. Perhaps one day, he would get over his lack of spine and ask Adesewa out for drinks after work. For now, he would die in silence.

The sun was orange red when he emerged from the glass monolith. Golden hour, the building cast strange reflections on nearby objects. Dusty leaves on the hibiscus flowers which lined the paved roads reminded him of the importance the wealthy placed on aesthetics, they had that luxury. There was a certain symmetry to it all. His favourite bookstore dwarfed by two giant monoliths felt out of place. Maybe that was why he loved it so much. For he was an outcast in this world he did not fully understand. Perhaps, he should not draw so many parallels between his human experience and a bookstore. A sneezing fit seized hold of him and he stuck a finger in his ear, trying to reach the itch. Walking always calmed him and now nearing the terminal, looking across the large expanse of water he would soon cross in a blink of an eye, he felt strangely serene. His life was anything but peaceful. Filled with repressed desires and shouldering the weight and expectations of his family, he was anything but free. Yet at that moment, with the warm glow of sunset shimmering across the water, he felt at peace. He ate through the road and soon enough the chrome beast was upon him. He bought his ticket from a distracted attendant chewing gum. This irritated him to no ends. He wondered why the automated payment option had been discarded. Apparently, people had found a way to game the system. Naija!

He took his place on the queue and soon enough, it was his turn. Putting on the generic black sunglasses, he selected his destination and waited. This he did without thinking as one would a process one repeated every day. The hum of the machine broke his reverie and he was transported back to the present. Was it louder than usual or was his mind playing tricks on him? Fluorescent lights flickered on and off entrancing him. His chest felt tight and to draw breath was a struggle. Dread tingled from his spine down to the tips of his fingers. Soaked through his blue shirt, goose bumps broke out all over his back. What was this feeling, he feared? An overwhelming premonition a malevolence filled hid bones. Suddenly, darkness engulfed the beast and he could not even see his own fingers. Everything was pitch black. Panic seized him. The air redolent with the presence of something other than himself. He could smell it. This was not supposed to be happening. Clearly, this was just a malfunctioning of the machine. Everything would be fine and he would step out into the chilly night air at Oshodi. Yet, everything was not fine. The walls had started to close in on him, deepening his sense of claustrophobia. Time had lost its relativity for him in the box. How long had he been there? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? He could not tell. For all he knew, he had spent an eternity inside the beast. Perspiring profusely and panting heavily, he fell to his knees, feeling for anything real, something solid to center himself for he felt disoriented. The lights came on after what seemed an interminable amount of time had passed. Though it hurt to look as his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he nonetheless was grateful for the flooding the cramped space with light. A reflection of a fleeting image of himself on the shiny chrome surface of the box caught his eye. He turned reflexively, hoping against hope that his mind was playing tricks on him. Yet, there he was staring back at himself, registering the shock that spread across his own face mirrored. His voice failed him and he could only manage a pathetic sound.

Out of the abyss whence it came, so it went. Ephemeral and intangible, the man bearing his face floated away like ashes from burnt book pages. He left no trace of his presence and Omoyeni was inclined to believe that he had dreamed it all. Twas naught but a dream, he tried to convince his subconscious self. Whoever said fooling oneself was the easiest thing in the world was definitely telling a lie. His own rationalizations rang hollow. He knew what he saw, yet admit it was to himself a truth far more dreadful than his mind could accommodate. Still grappling with this existential crisis, he breathed a sigh of relief as the door opened and the familiar sounds of Oshodi under bridge assailed his ears.

Okola had been right and they had all laughed at him. What did this new discovery mean as regards to him? That he was a copy was no longer a thing he doubted. So were millions of people living in the city, a shell of their previous selves. They were just as real as anything else. The government, the media, the FBT had all lied to them. Led them on like they were chattel. And they in their infinite ignorance had swallowed the lies. Give a people comfort and plausible explanations and he himself finds a way to make the narrative fit logically. Of course teleportation was a joke. But facts are immaterial to faith and they all had faith.

Omoyeni never woke to see the light of the next day. Official reports claimed he had died of a heart attack in his sleep. The wheels kept turning and the biggest genocide of our time continued. Life went on.

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