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Harabella

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We are pleased to publish today part of a novel-in-progress by Gambian writer Biram Mboob. The Stampede is set in West Africa across different time periods reaching from the distant past, through the early 1990s, to 2047. In this extract, a young Cadet in the Homeland Army finds himself drawn into a treasonous plot to steal a strange immortality virus from the government – in an Africa that has been colonized by the People’s Republic of China.

Harabella

The Harabella Rubber Plantation, The Liberian Protectorate, 2047

Rimroad was cold, gusty, and deserted. As Chimere walked down towards Quarters, he began to sober up. The streetlamps were a string of sodium suns floating overhead, their light contrasting sharply with the dim tree lines to either side. The rubber trees stood like wizened sentinels in the shadows. It was past curfew, and the ancient roadside cameras occasionally swivelled towards him, wheezing and clicking, checking in with Protocol for his clearance status.

Chimere had been walking for some time before he became aware of his empty holster. Crusoe must have taken his gun away from him at some point. And he must have planned it from the start: getting Chimere smashed like that before doing it. Perhaps it was his own strange way of allowing Chimere to keep face.

Of course, he didn’t blame Crusoe for disarming him. It was likely a rule of Protocol and standard practice after any weapon discharge resulting in fatality. Some part of him was beginning to understand why. He was conscious of something that had been growing in him as he walked here alone on Rimroad: some dark unreasoning paranoia. Although he didn’t have his gun anymore, he still had his police hand-tool, strapped to his belt – and he found himself grabbing hold of it every time the short gusts blew and the siding leaves rustled. He could not shake the feeling that something was creeping behind the tree line, between the wizened sentinels, stalking him like retribution. Protocol must have foreseen that this would happen: that he would not entirely be himself after such an incident. Protocol was clearly experienced in these matters. The night wind gusted again, making Chimere finger his hand-tool and quicken pace.

In his twenty-three years, he had never left Harabella. He had travelled to all its distant sectors, but like a son born into one of the hereditary Tapper families, he had never had reason to leave the Plantation’s borders.

A Tapper had found him when he was scarcely a day old, nestled in the hedgerows, asleep in a blanket. Whoever left him there had placed him far from roadside cameras but near enough the dark walkways that some Tappers used at dawn. It was a dangerous place for a baby. The hedgerows were filled with serpents, and the mornings were always cold. But his luck – his Ji – was furiously strong. The Tapper that found him had carried him along on his rounds, and then handed him over to Protocol later in the day, a hungry, wet, screaming bundle. His mother might have been a worker desperate not to lose her job, or a mother who already had a child and didn’t want to break Protocol’s one child rule. Or perhaps she was just an unlicensed girl who didn’t know what else to do. If he had been born – or handed in – ten days later, then he would have been sent to an Orphanage in a tribal homeland, an experience that he might not have survived. But on the day that he was born, Protocol’s standing order was still that he be raised in one of the Plantation’s network of spinster homes. For a small stipend, Ms Tam had taken him in – the very last of her charges before Protocol on this matter was formally changed. Chimere had always been a furiously lucky boy.

By the time he made it back to Quarters, it was well past midnight. He blipped himself into the squat brown building and walked down the long grey concrete corridor until he reached his studio. His throat still felt seared from Crusoe’s liquor and a hot poison vapour still burned his nostrils.

He took a plastic quart of plain congee out from his cooler. Ever since he had left home, Ms Tam had sent him a crate every week – convinced as she was that he would not feed himself properly. He stuck the plastic quart into the heater machine and gave it a blast. After kicking off his boots, he drank it down in a few long gulps and then immediately realzed that this might have been a mistake. The rice sat heavy, congealing in his stomach. He groaned and fell into bed, still fully clothed.

He slept only long enough to dream. He dreamed that the Plantation around him was dissolving into miasma: the buildings, the infinite rubber trees, the Rimroad and roadside machines, the Tappers, the Overseers, all dissolving into black motes that were creeping into his studio with purpose: through the small crack of open window, down the long corridor and under his door.

He woke up and retched on the floor beside the bed. Then he sat up, gasping. His watch said three thirty. The room was infused now with the smell of sour rice and he needed to get out of it. He put on his boots, knowing instinctively where it was that he wanted to go. He didn’t bother calling ahead because he knew that his brother would be awake.

As soon as he was outside, Chimere felt better. The night was still cold, gusty, and deserted. He took in deep breaths, and began to walk. The Creek was some distance from his Quarters, nearly two miles along Rimroad. He walked briskly, no longer noticing the tree lines that had seemed so sinister a few hours earlier. He walked past the air-field and past warehouses, storage depots and water towers. Finally he went off-road and began to walk down a gentle slope into West Creek, a vast concrete valley that stretched out into the distance, filling the dark horizon.

One of the Plantation’s works of real technical genius, the Creek was both a fishery and a huge reservoir of clean water. As Chimere descended, he could already make out his brother Sultan – a brown blot stooped on one knee in the shallows of the Creek, handling his nets, levers and pulleys. The tawny spotted him first. It wailed twice, the harsh caw alerting Sultan who stood up and waved. Chimere walked slowly now, down the incredibly steep incline.

They used to play here, during that brief period when they were both young enough to find the Creek interesting and old enough to be allowed out on their own. Chimere called Sultan his brother – but this was only a habit that Ms Tam had encouraged. They looked nothing alike. Sultan was a short stout man with bow legs, walnut skin, and thick curly hair. His African and Chinese features were interspersed across his face in some strangely easy harmony.

‘Chimere, back from mysterious lands,’ he said, wiping down his wet hands on his shirt before hitting him on the back. ‘You don’t look well,’ he added. He turned and began to walk towards the Creekside warehouse where he lived. Chimere followed.

‘Ms Tam came by the other day,’ he said as he walked ahead. ‘She said she’d been trying to reach you.’

The tawny flapped towards them, cawing again. Then it changed heart, and swooped back towards the Creek. It seized on a flash of silver in the water and then made off to the water’s far shore, a small flapping tilapia in its talons.

‘That bird of yours is going to get fat,’ Chimere said, stepping up onto the large porch that skirted the warehouse entrance. Two dogs lay in the corner, asleep.

‘Are you hungry?’ Sultan asked.

‘Yes. Sure.’

He disappeared inside the warehouse. While he was gone Chimere uncovered the long charcoal brazier that sat in the corner of the porch and set about making fire. Sultan was old fashioned. He liked these old things. When the fire got going, he sat down on a stool and whistled out for the tawny. The bird ignored him. According to Sultan it had just appeared one day and set itself down on the porch railing, waiting for food. ‘Strangest thing you’ve ever seen,’ Sultan had said at the time. ‘As if I owed him something from another life.’

As wards of the state, Miss Tam had been obliged to give the boys an opportunity to find their own religion once they turned fifteen and were deemed old enough by Protocol to make such a decision. For five Sundays in a row she had dropped them off at one of the Harabella Churches. Then for five Fridays in a row she dropped them off at one of the Harabella Mosques. But Miss Tam had a way of bending the rules without breaking them. After she picked the boys up, she’d always take them straight to Temple and teach them how to breathe with qigong, how to burn Hell Bank notes for their unknown fathers, and how to meditate and gravitate towards P’u. Without entirely breaking Protocol, she had set out The Way for them. She had fostered dozens of boys over the years, but Chimere and Sultan were her last two and this made it different for her somehow. She was meant to teach them English and she did – but she also taught them Mandarin. After they left her care, Protocol assessed their skills and found that they were too well schooled for fieldwork. That was how they wound up with Level 2 licenses, and how Chimere wound up being eligible for Security. Sultan of course, was a different story, always.

He re-appeared a moment later with a dressed snapper, squeezed between two barbecue grills.

‘Good job,’ he said, examining the fire.

Sultan had elected to work at the Creek, because it was a solitary job. He wasn’t any good with people because he was neither one thing nor the other. There might have been places in the world where this would be an advantage, but Harabella was not one of them. The Plantation was not some anonymous City or backward tribal homeland. It was a place of work, a place of structure, supply depots and schedules. Things had to be very clear in a place like this, and Sultan was anything but. Protocol understood this perhaps, and allowed him the job. So he stayed here, alone with his pets.

‘Have you ever thought about leaving? ’ Chimere had asked him once. His brother hadn’t answered the question.

After they had eaten, Sultan pulled out two of his more comfortable chairs, and set some gunpowder verte on the brazier. He rolled up two cigarettes and they smoked.

‘You still haven’t asked me why Miss Tam was after you,’ he noted, through a mouthful of smoke.

‘I’ll go see her,’ Chimere said. ‘I’ve had a lot going on.’

‘You want to talk about it?’

Chimere didn’t respond.

‘Maybe another time then,’ Sultan said, standing up and attending to the teapot on the brazier.

‘I shot a man today,’ Chimere said.

Sultan didn’t turn around. He started pouring tea alternately into two tiny glasses, raising the pot high as he poured, creating heads of froth.

‘He was attacking an Overseer. So I shot him. Then they took my gun away and sent me home.’

‘I heard,’ Sultan said. His back was still turned, but he tapped his ear.

Illegal wire. Chimere had grown tired of warning his brother about using it. Protocol was curiously tolerant for now. But one day Protocol was going to change its mind. One day, every single person in Harabella with an illegal wire would be discovered and liquidated for spare parts.

‘What else did you hear?’ Chimere asked.

Sultan shrugged, still pouring tea. ‘I didn’t pay much attention. They said a young bruiser was getting reckless and got shot.’

‘And anything else?’

‘You want to know?’

‘No,’ Chimere said. ‘Not really.’ He might be strapped to a detector one day and asked if he had ever listened to or used information from an illegal wire. And when he answered no, he would have to truly and utterly mean it. He’d sat in a room before and watched Crusoe interrogate someone. The detectors were as close to perfect as men were ever going to be able to make them.

‘They’re going to destroy you,’ Sultan said.

An irritation rose up in Chimere like quick bile. His brother lived here, on the outskirts of the world with his pets, almost beyond the reach and concern of Protocol – and he behaved like he had no idea what life was like in the real world. He had illegal wires, and on his general machine he had entire libraries of banned books.

But when Sultan turned around, holding two glasses of tea, his face was heavy with concern. It was not the face of someone spoiling for a fight.

‘I didn’t have a choice,’ Chimere offered.

‘Didn’t you?’

Quick bile rose again. ‘Well, I suppose I could have shot the Overseer instead,’ he said. ‘Then they would have liquidated me. Maybe called in Ms Tam and put her on a detector. And don’t think they wouldn’t bring you in too. You’d fail. And then all the shit they would find when they search this place. What do you think they would do to you?’

‘I’m not afraid of them.’

‘It’ll be nice to see if you’re so brave when the time comes.’

Sultan shrugged, stubbed out his cigarette and handed him a hot glass.

‘Another smoke?’ he asked.

Chimere nodded but didn’t speak. ■

***

In other web-exclusive fiction, read ‘In Shinjuku’ by Yang Sok-Il, or former Best Young American Novelist Madison Smartt Bell’s ‘Rabbit Cycling’.

See also: new poetry by Patricia Smith and Vénus Khoury-Ghata.

Image by Axel Boldt

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