Adelehin Ijasan’s stories have appeared in The Best of Everyday Fiction, Takahe, On The Premises (second place winner Mar 2008), The Tiny Globule, Page and Spine, Pandemic Publications, Omenana, Sub-saharan Magazine, The Naked Convos, Kalahari Review and Canary Press. He was once nominated for the Commonwealth short story award (2014) and was recently on the Nommos award long list for African speculative fiction (2021). Adelehin also spends his days peering into or operating on eyes as an ophthalmologist. He can be found at http://www.adeijasan.com/.
A Monstrous Bargain
by Adelehin Ijasan
Our internal clocks chimed in unison. Zhuhr. We were in a private train carriage and Zuwaira retrieved her prayer mat and unfurled it with a tenderness. She donned her pitch black hijab and faced northeast, her arms folding across her brass-plated chest.
“Bisimillahi rahamani raheem,” her speakers purred. She bowed, kneeled, every movement a constellation of moving parts and efficient joints. “Salaam aleikum warakmatullah,” she bade the invisible angels on either side and then twisted her neck to look at me.
“Won’t you join me, Aisha?”
I stared out at the countryside: a vista of trees, farms and the occasional herdsman and his herd of white cattle. “I won’t pray to a non-existent God.”
“Cover yourself!” she said, getting up and rolling her mat. My burka had slipped off. I pulled the black chiffon material over my head and tossed it across my shoulders. I have a transparent body made of pure silicone and hydrophobic acrylic… only haute chiffon will do. Somewhere inside me is a machine core powered by uranium and it burns fluorescent white.
“Are you not even a tiny bit concerned for your soul?” She asked.
Zuwaira believed we were already dead-dead, our continued and perpetual existence a blight on the face of the earth, an abomination, a sin and a debt to Allah multiplying by compound interest every tick of our nuclear powered hearts. She hoped that prayer was payment for the passage of our dear departed souls into the seventh heaven. Basically, Allah had our souls hostage and we must pay obeisance or else…
We got off at the Ahmadu Bello train station and basked in the familiar smells of incense, agar wood, and turare. After all the time spent in the south, we were finally home. Tafira was waiting for us, Baaba’s sagely and dutiful driver; we hugged him tightly and when we pulled away, saw tears in his eyes. He had been more than a driver to us, taking us to school and back, all those years; buying us toffee; and as teenagers, allowing us smoke shisha secretly in the back seat on the way back from Isha. We used to be Tafira’s girls, but now we had no warmth and it was like a dagger through his heart.
“Ba damu’a, Tafira.” Zuwaira held his shoulders and looked him square in the face. “At least we’re here, somewhat.”
He stared instead at a loose thread on her shoulder, avoiding her gaze. He looked like a husk of what he once was, as if someone had scooped all of his insides and what was left was this fragile paper thin effigy. The ride home was silent. I stared at the tarred streets of Kano: not much had changed; the almajiri thronged as usual in various states of undress and malnutrition. I scanned the area with a magnetic pulse and picked up the occasional artificial limb; there was not a bionic person in the next five hundred miles. Lagos had been different. I’d met Kate and Bayo at a droid club on Admiralty way, overlooking the lagoon.
“Tafira,” Zuwaira muttered. “You’re not taking us home?”
“Baaba is at the mosque, he’ll see you there.”
“You know we aren’t allowed in God’s house.” I touched his shoulder from the backseat. The poor man was brimming with tears.
It was Mahgrib by the time we arrived at the mosque. We avoided ablution and scurried into the women’s section. We pulled our shoes and left them at the door in the bubblegum heap of slippers, sandals, flipflops and I wondered if we would ever find ours when we got back out.
“Sannu,” the women greeted.
“Sannu,” we replied.
It was only harmless curiosity. They were wondering whose wives or daughters we were. I had the mind to drop my chiffon and shock them, but was stopped by Zuwaira’s stern telescopic eyes. We prayed together. I had deleted all the Quoran from my mind, but somehow I remembered a phrase from the Fatiha, so I said “… maleeki yau medin…” over and over as I kneeled and bowed and thumbed an invisible tesbih. Oh, master of the day of retribution.
There was a man waiting with Baaba in the inner sanctum of the mosque. He had a raging beard and was dirty, but wore his dirt like a cloak, with pride and a certain arrogance. I did not recognize him at once, but I should have. A quizzical smirk hung on his chapped lips as he watched us throw ourselves into Baaba’s arms and bury our faces in the plush safety of Baaba’s fatherly breasts. I knew that smirk all too well; I’d gotten a few such smirks in Lagos, walking unclad, hand in hand with first Kate, then Bayo on Kuramo beach. My two loves. The smirk that said, how una dey take fuck sef? We were droids, not robots. (Technically, we were bionic humans but the name android, initially derogatory and in homage to the defunct telephone of the 2000s, stuck.) We were people too. Or at the least used to be. Baaba broke my porcelain heart once and forever when he introduced the man to us.
“Zuwaira, Aisha, meet Shekau…”
A toothpick appeared out of his mouth and spun between teeth black and red with paan. “Sisters,” he said, and hugged us without our consent.
“A terrorist?” I asked Baaba.
“Ah, that is the language of the infidels.” Shekau stepped in front of me, peeved. “The word of Allah is absolute and the word of his messenger, Mohammed—”
“Sallalau wallehi wassallam,” we chorused.
“—is divine. I am of the one who sent me,” his voice crescendoed, “al mujahid, al ghazi, kayan aikin Allah!” He grabbed my burqa and pulled it off in one swift movement, almost to say I was nothing but furniture clad in clothing, and did not dare call him a terrorist. I could crush his windpipe. But I stood there naked in what Bayo had called “my beautiful android glory”. Lithe acrylic legs, buxom silicone buttocks and breasts, and a transparent torso that showed the inner workings of my gears and circuits—I let him stare.
“Bisimillah!” he gasped finally.
“What does he want, Baaba?” Zuwaira asked. “We are tired from our journey and just want to go home.”
Baaba, like Tafira, couldn’t meet Zuwaira’s gaze. Shekau held up a small device. I recognized it as a vircator. It was useless unless calibrated to the specific frequency of the droid being attacked. A frequency known only to the droid herself or…
I looked at Baaba.
The screech of an electromagnetic pulse rang in my ears and then darkness.
In electromagnetic limbo, I dreamed of my time in Lagos. Bursts of light and color emerging from vantablack: Kate’s ululating laughter echoing within the riffs of Afro fusion music, the rush of waves at the sea and the bright flare of yellow danfo buses. I dreamed of the whale we once saw, Bayo and I, exploring six thousand miles offshore and twelve thousand feet below sea level. A giant swirling with a ballerina’s grace in the blackness of my limbo, corrugated fins the size of houses, a mournful howl. I relived the car accident that severed our cervical bones many years ago when we were drifting Baaba’s Tesla at Kano stadium, and heard in excruciating detail all the arguments about the meaning of life that tore Kate and I assunder.
I came to to the sound of Zuwaira screaming. I looked around and found we were in a cave of sorts, lit with a small oil lamp. They had chained me to the wall in the most gruesome manner, like a pig to slaughter, and Shekau was finishing up a prayer in the corner, counting his tesbih and muttering a hadith. Propped along the wall were endless rows of guns and ammunition and men crawled in and out of an inner room from which Zuwaira’s screams emerged. One of them was a young boy. Shekau caught his pitying eyes and said to him, “They’re not real women.” He added, “they’re not even human.”
“What are you doing to her?” I twisted around to look at him. He didn’t bother to reply. He crawled over, unfurling his loin cloth. There was no pain, only humiliation. And like Zuwaira, I screamed.
What is it about women’s bodies, bionic or otherwise, that men believed they were owed the right of ownership? What is it about these primal desires that drove men to madness?
“Would you rather my men use real women?” Shekau replied. He had just returned from battle, and blood dripped from a gash in his forehead.
“If we weren’t ‘real women’, why then do we serve this obscene purpose?”
“For that, Insha Allah, you are real enough,” he countered. “We are fighting for the soul of all people, against the infidels of the south who persist in sinful western ways, who extend their lives with androids and other tools of the devil.”
“We are Muslim too.”
“You can never be!” he spat.
“Zuwaira prays five times a day, fulfills the zakat and took the hajj. Are these not the pillars of Islam? Even now, as you defile her, she prays. There’s no place in the Quoran where it says an android cannot be a Muslim.”
At this, Shekau laughed, a full bellyaching sort of laughter. “It is only common sense,” he said. “You are already dead.”
“Yet here we are.”
He scratched his rough beard with long, untrimmed fingernails. “You are nothing but soulless automatons, sex toys.”
“I do not know of sex toys who scream.”
“That is true,” he replied gleefully.
So this is our story, and I truly wish it could be different, that it could be a nice revenge tale where we escaped our chains by dislocating our joints—or with some other kung-fu—and killed our captors in gruesome ways for maximum comeuppance, but that would be far from the truth. Most stories of captive women never end this way, regardless of what you’ve seen in the movies.
We were in captivity for six years, and during that time, my sister Zuwaira lost her mind. Perhaps it was the gradual decay of our bodies which naturally needed maintenance: bionic parts like any sophisticated mechanical vehicle wore out with time, use or disuse. Limbs needed changing, gears and joints needed lubrication; the occasional tune up for fried IC circuits; updates of drivers or antivirus; biofuel engine flush; and perhaps a hard reset or two to put things back in working order. She lost her voice first, which could easily have been fixed had we been in Lagos. Then her joints came apart and her limbs got scattered around the cave. Soon she had no further purpose and parts of her went the way of junk: her hand became a paperweight for maps and tactical plans; her pelvis, eviscerated, became a bowl for holding water, kunu or tuwo shinkafa. And finally, her head was turned upside down, filled with oil, primed with a wick, and it was used as an oil lamp that illuminated the cave quite nicely for a number of years. My fate was no different, no better, so there’s no need to describe it all again. At the very end, most of the boys and men who worked for Shekau died in battle and were replaced by new ones. Shekau himself was killed in a bomb blast during a meeting with a breakaway faction of the group (they had a slightly different ideology but they were all assholes), and by the time we were rescued, there was a whole new set of terrorists who did not know we were anything more than paper weights or oil lamps, or interesting looking food containers.
We were rescued by a special battalion of Nigerian soldiers who stormed the Sambisa forests to flush out the terrorists from their caves; it was a unit comprised solely of bionic men and women, the first of its kind, and they’d only been able to find the cave and warrens because I and Zuwaira (what was left of us anyway) lit up on their radar. The gun fight was quick and glorious. Bullets tore through soft flesh and shattered the skulls of the mujahideens. It was a battle between gods and mere mortals. When the dust settled, only droids were left standing. Their commandant, a Major Nzeogwu, sculpted in a body reminiscent of Spartans, was a living miracle: pure steel and not much else, a tattoo of the setting sun on his chiseled shoulder plate.
“Help us,” I croaked from my resting place near the latrine.
Much later, I sat on a hill that overlooked Baaba’s compound. The good Major had retrofitted me with a temporary body; it was a clunky old model that responded to commands with a nanosecond—but perceptible—delay. What was that phrase about beggars and choices? My sister Zuwaira had been unsalvageable, dead-dead, and I wanted to know why.
In the villa opposite my father’s, there was a Nikah marriage ceremony in full swing: colorful horses, turbaned in-laws, camel riding entertainers, dancing sword-fighting women, canopies, coolers of bright red jollof rice and in the center of it all, a little girl, budurwa amarya, being given away. I could see her eyes through her veil, full of uncertainty as her father and elderly husband shook hands over the Mahr, the bride price. Why do fathers give their daughters to men who would hurt them? What was my father’s excuse?
I saw Baaba’s car appear at the end of the driveway and park near our compound. Tafira got out, opened the door for him, and two android girls appeared on the patio to meet them. One of them hugged him, the other took his bags. I recognized Zuwaira and myself. So this was the monstrous bargain my father made, this was the Mahr he took. As they disappeared into the house in a cacophony of Hausa and laughter, my doppelgänger stopped and looked to the hills, one beautifully hennaed hand holding the sliding glass door open. Perhaps she sensed me, an identical copy of our original consciousness. Our gaze locked for a moment. There was no recognition in her eyes, only surprise at finding another droid in the residential hills of Kano.
I raised my hand. She waved back.
Copyright 2021 by Adelehin Ijasan