Nick Wood and Tade Thompson

The Last Pantheon, part 3

Chapter Eleven

Lagos, Nigeria

          He was not really here. This was a memory or a dream. Hanging there was a space station, spiky, crystalline almost. The hull was grown by a layer of bacteria genetically modified to produce the bulkhead. It was constantly sheared off and constantly regrown. Inside, there were hundreds of individuals. Tope was once there. Sleeping for millennia, aeons, time immeasurable in Earth terms.
          The memory wavers, then there is a skiff, broken off from the space station, a needle, with dozens on board. A blue planet. Beautiful. Atmospheric. The needle breaches the atmosphere, shatters and the people scatter into different areas of the landmass. Tope and his brother land in what will be known as Africa. They land, steaming and smoking from the heat of re-entry.
          Tope woke up.
          At first he did not know where he was. There were empty Guilder bottles all around him, brown, broken, some half-full. His bottom felt cold and at first he felt he had wet himself, but no, it was the cold of concrete.
          He had a headache and the world seemed too bright.
          “Pan-African, stay where you are!”
          A loud voice projected by a megaphone. Stern. Loud. Did it have to be so loud?
          He waved the voice away and tried to open his eyes again. Tope was in the centre of a crater. This was about a foot deep, fifty yards wide. Cracked rocks radiated away from him. The blackened carcass of a twisted bicycle smoked close by.
          He could not remember the night before. There was spent ordnance all around. He felt his body, nothing damaged. His force field always kicked in when he was unconscious.
          God, he needed a piss.
          He pulled down his Y-fronts and urinated, a long satisfying, steaming stream of yellow. Then he realised he was surrounded by the Nigerian army.
          Ah, hence the debris and shells.
          “Please, I beg you, stop shouting,” said Tope. “I have a hangover.”
          A shot rang out and others joined in. Tope’s force field stopped the urine and the reflux caused pain to shoot up his pelvis. The bullets also managed to buffet him about. His head throbbed. Oh, God. Why won’t they leave me alone? What did I ever do to deserve this?
          He flew straight up into the sky. At a hundred feet he pissed over all of them.
          “Golden shower, assholes!” He shook himself off and giggled. Maybe he was still a bit drunk. Fragments of the night before came back.
          From the height he could see the devastation. The crater he woke up in was the tail end of a three-mile serpentine path of destruction which included broken shops, ruptured roads, twisted median strip railings, upturned cars, concertinaed lorries, uprooted street lights (they didn’t work anyway!), snapped palm trees, downed power lines, cracked buildings, shattered glass, and clumps of…smouldering matter that he hoped to God were not the remains of human beings.
          There were sawhorses and barricades keeping people at bay, and the army was in position with tanks, armoured vehicles and a mounted multiple rocket launcher.
          They fired up at him. He flew higher, then away. Had he done that? He had seen the Nigerian Army use a scorched earth approach in Obalende during the attempted coup in 1976. Tope could remember flattening the trucks. He got flashes of violence and laughter. Smiling lissom women. Booze. More booze. Music. Orlando Owo and Victor Uwaifo. Trumpets and guitars. Groovy!
          He came down in Oworonsoki, near the Lagos Lagoon. Mostly unpaved streets with pools of relentless mud. Low-income residential area. Barefoot children. He staggered, swayed, and vomited into the stagnant water of the open gutters, disturbing the mosquito larvae as they incubated. A Danfo bus thundered by, spraying him with red mud. He attempted to be angry, but his headache was too severe. He giggled instead.
          It was mid-morning and school children in primary colours stared at him as they went to seek an education. He stumbled along to a street called Kiniun-Ifa, and he heard Akpala music come from a kind of grotto. A hand was painted on the wall to the left of the door. An open eye-ball with crude lines spiking away from it lay on the palm. The fingers were all the same size, including the thumb, and they all pointed upwards.
          Tope went in.
          “Eka’abo,” said an old man. Welcome. He was seated on the floor on a raffia mat, holding a necklace. He gestured to the mat.
          Tope sat opposite him. He handed Tope a gourd of water, which went down in almost one gulp. A woman came with food, as if they were expecting him. Which, of course they were. The old man was an oracle, one of the real ones. It wasn’t magic; some people were just better plugged into the quantum nature of time. If time was occurring all the time, all moments at once, then travel or prophecy was theoretically possible.
          Tope asked to wash, and they led him to a backyard where a pail of water, a plastic bowl, a raffia sponge and ose okpa (locally made soap) waited on a sheet of corrugated tin. He took off his clothes and soaped himself. The water was cold, but he didn’t mind.
          He returned to the first chamber when he was done. He noticed for the first time a shrine off to the left, an earthenware alcove with a lit candle illuminating an information leaflet from W.H.O about small pox immunisation and a statuette of Sopana, the Yoruba god of small pox. With the eradication of small pox from Nigeria this was effectively a dead god.
          The old man said some incantations over his necklace, and then held it between clasped hands.
          “Ifa olokun, a s’oro d’ayo,” the man said. “Blow.”
          Tope blew over his hands, feeling like a magician’s assistant.
          The old man threw the necklace to the mat and peered at it. He shook his head.
          “What?” asked Tope.
          “Iku,” said the old man. “Death.”

Lagos, Nigeria

“Tell me about your childhood,” said Elizabeth.
          “I don’t remember it,” said Tope.
          “Any of it?”
          “That’s right.”
          “Does that seem odd to you?”
          “It does. I don’t think Black-Power remembers either. I wonder if we were just created like this, or grown in a vat somewhere and then activated. Or perhaps we had our memories wiped.”
          “Let me send a car for you.”
          “Come on,” said Elizabeth.
          “I’m in the middle of something.”
          “The middle of what?”
          “I’m writing something,” said Tope.
          “What a coincidence. So am I. What are you writing?”
          He was writing a will, but he did not tell her. Instead he closed the chat window, intending to lie to her about a power failure. His phone rang immediately and it was her so he ignored it.
          Tope did not have family among the humans, neither did he have any real money to speak of, but if the bout went ahead he would be rich, or rich and dead. He looked out of his window and saw the settlement. He had virtually built the whole place by hand. A young girl bounced by, revelling in her new pubertal body, a girl Tope had seen squalling and smeared with meconium on the day she was born. Her mother had died, but she had been adopted by the entire settlement. The government had not succeeded in kicking them out and Bank was right. With money they could buy a fucking ministry.
          The bout would happen. Lekan had called and was spreading cash around Jo’burg. “No results yet. These motherfuckers are tight-lipped, but there’s some guy here or around here called Fulani or something. He may know something. I’m meeting with someone who knows his second cousin tomorrow.”
          And so on.
          He seemed to take for granted that Tope would fight.

February 18, 1979
Sahara Desert

“Fight me, you bastard,” said Black-Power.
          He smashed into the Pan-African with his right fist while holding him with the left.
          Grains of sand rose off the desert floor with each hit, but the Pan-African’s force field held fast. He felt no direct pain, but somewhere in his brain he felt weaker.
          “I’m not afraid to die, Dingiswayo,” said the Pan-African. “Are you?”
          Black-Power head-butted him on the nose.
          It got through.
          And hurt.

Chapter Twelve

Radium BeerHall, Johannesburg

Jozi, Jo’burg, Johannesburg, iGoli, City of Gold…
          Your golden heart is eaten out, surrounded as you are now by huge piles of empty mine debris, smaller splashes of barricaded plushness, and far vaster brooding settlements of cheap brick and shantytown settlements. But, despite the emptying of your beating heart, you continue to burn, to throb…
          Detective Cele, AKA Black-Power was eGoli and at rest, with a pint of the finest Charles Glass has to offer—although Phaswane Mpe had expressed this state of being far more eloquently, when he was alive and welcoming people to the Jo’burg suburb of Hillbrow.
          He was slumped in his old favourite beer-hall from the 1930s—although then he had to put up with drinking in a back-door shebeen section, apartheid well on its way, even before the Nats got to power in ‘48. He’d even put on his old brown trilby hat from the 50s, sharp end crammed low onto his forehead, dark coat—Wesley Snipes ‘Blade’ style—draped over his formidable bulk.
          Still, he was indeed at rest, albeit grudgingly nursing his beer, because alcohol—like so many of the viruses and bacteria around him—had limited impact on his physiology. He envied those who lost control of their speech and functions as they drank constantly, gradually slurping their way into oblivion.
          Like the young white man sitting opposite him, who was seemingly not frightened by his bulk—or his silence. The immediate seats around them in the Radium Beerhall were empty, as if people could sense his brooding, fragile peace.
          The Detective was trying to work out whether the man—apparently Colin Jordaan—was seeking a payoff of companionship or sex.
          “So they left me,” said Colin, drooping into his emptied beer mug, “and I got no fucking idea why.”
          Perhaps he’s looking for a shrink? The Detective, as always, decided to cut to the chase.
          “Man or woman?” he asked.
          “Eh?” the young man lifted his long orange curls out of his mug, “Uhhhh… Joey’s a… dude.”
          Maybe sex then. The Detective smiled to himself. He’d enjoyed a number of male encounters down the decades, but he had been forced to reign in that side of himself—he had an image to maintain, after all.
          He patted Colin’s hand gently, but the man still winced through his drunken stupour.
          As Black-Power, the Detective had been attacked by the gender brigade in the past for not embracing more sexual ambiguity and variety, especially in the light of declared Gender Wars and violence. As always, somehow he found himself on what felt like the wrong side, trying to straddle a fence that was impossible to balance on, despite all of his super-powers.
          And he knew—from long history—that culture was certainly not set in stone.
          Tope’s comments had always hurt, when he challenged his asserted umZulu identity—for Cele sensed the truth in this, although he did not want to face the void of identity as to who he really was, underneath the suit and mask…
          Brother, yes, maybe a long time ago. So long ago he had no recall of any mother or father, he seemed to have been born old and almost eternal.
          The Detective had a sudden impulse to whip off his dark overcoat to reveal his Black-Power suit, to don his mask—and to pick up this young man and walk past gasping patrons of this restaurant-pub, who would be snapping away at him with cell-cameras.
          A pudgy, dark and greying man, suited in tribal Afro-Amani chic, shoved the drunken youth off his chair.
          The young man could only say “shitttt..,” before falling in a complaining heap on the floor. He had enough control, however, to lever himself up onto a chair in the next table, glowering his discontent.
          He was not noticed, the Detective and the Suit crouching over their Castles, mumbling.
          “You’re looking older, Phulani,” observed the Detective, with the eye of one who misses little.
          “And you’re fucking not…” scowled the pudgy man, wrinkled and grey, with the air of a man who had seen everything under the sun.
          “So,” said the Detective, “what news?”
          “Pan African,” said the old man slowly, “wants one last bout. A final decider. To the death, winner takes all.”
          The Detective rocked back on the couch, which creaked its protest at his 200kgs and almost 7 foot of mass. “Really? What’s his conditions?”
          Phulani looked around the Beerhall slowly and then leaned forward. “We’ve got to wait for—wait for it, Lekan Deniran.”
          The Detective stroked his chin, smiled, “Ah, the huge fight promoter—Pan-African always did aim big.”
          He hauled out his cell and opened his messages, but there were none—still—from Thembeka, his phone seemingly blocked to her.
          He tapped in a message and sent, but nothing seemed to happen. Cursing, he threw it across the Hall, where it clattered in a sprinkle of glass through a closed window.
          “Fine,” he said, “what time did you set? Is he late?”
          A small, dark wiry man stood there expectantly, in jeans and a District 9 T-shirt, with the ‘No Humans Allowed’ sign and a shambling alien that looked like a Parktown Prawn from the movie emblazoned across his chest.
          Phulani stood up and shook hands, “Cute T-shirt, Mr. Deniran.”
The wiry man smiled and sat smoothly, as if accustomed to cutting to many chases. “Thank you, Fulani, I take it this big man is Black-Power, in subtle disguise?”
          “Phulani, the ‘ph’ is pronounced like a pee,” said Phulani, with creased brows, “Nice T-shirt as I said—what were you, a Blomkamp extra?”
          Lekan Deniran laughed, openly and genuinely, “Nollywood would have done a much better job, Phulani, but let’s get to the real business at hand, shall we?”
          The man turned and focused his intent gaze on the Detective; Black-Power could almost see the yen signs rolling across the small man’s eyeballs. “So, what are your terms and conditions, Mister Black-Power?”
          “I’ll fight him any which way I can, I’ll fight him in Soccer Stadium, Soweto, I’ll fight him on top of fucking Table Mountain, or even in the Tata Raphael Stadium, if I have to!”
          “Good,” smiled Lekan, hauling out a tablet, “There’s a contract template on here—what are your conditions?”
          “One mill, US dee’s, here…” The Detective handed over a small square piece of paper.
          Lekan looked at the paper and laughed. “Very generous, to allocate all of this to your old and ailing ex-president’s charity, ex-prisoner 46664.”
          “For some reason I have an affinity with prisoners,” said the Detective, signing with an e-pen.
          With a nod and a wink, Lekan slipped the tablet into his leather bag and was gone.
          “What about my payment?” asked Phulani.
          “The usual,” said the Detective tersely.
          “Oh…Can you beat him?” asked Phulani boldly, “Can you beat Pan-African, once and for all?”
          The Detective stood up, whipping his hat and coat off and—in full regalia, once he’d flicked his cape open and donned his mask—he bent down and kissed the very surprised, drunken white youth at the next door table.
          Phulani howled his outrage as cameras began to snap across the hall.
          Nothing like the scent of death to focus the mind…
          Thud! The young man had flung a drunken upper-cut against Black-Power’s chin. Black-Power, stood up, surprised, the punch had tickled, but he’d felt it.
          “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean it’s all about sex,” said the young man, “We’re all just people, you know.”
          Humans! Who could understand them?
          Phulani slipped a phone into Black-Power’s coat pocket and pulled at his arm, “Let’s roll,” he said, “bigger fish to fry.”
          Now fish he could understand!

Chapter Thirteen

February 18, 1979
Sahara Desert, Africa

Black-Power slammed him into the side of a mountain. There was a brief rock fall and a tumescence of dust but before the Pan-African could cough there was that grip on the scruff of his neck and…g-forces. Flung into the sky.
          The rush of air, the blue sky…
          The cold rouses him.
          It’s beautiful up here.
          Impact. A light brighter than the sun, then darkness. He woke, then two seconds later he hit the desert ground.
          Black-Power landed after him with a heavy vibration. He grabbed the Pan-African’s right arm and spun him like a centrifuge, clockwise, then after a half-turn he stopped, then turned counter-clockwise.
          The Pan-African’s body was still moving clockwise and the bones popped like cheap fireworks. His scream echoed and the involuntary psychic feedback immobilised Black-Power.
          In desperation the Pan-African poured his pain into Black-Power’s thalamus. As he recovered he saw his opponent recoil in pain. His right arm hung useless at his side and blood poured out of both nostrils. He channelled all of his power in the pain, all his resentment of this hero, this shining one. He punched Black-Power in the centre of the chest. He felt the ribs go, the sternum crack.
          The Pan-African reached out with his mind, found the small electric charge that gave rhythm to Black-Power’s heart and stopped it.
          He held on for as long as he could, and that mighty heart struggled against him.
          It got colder. The sun darkened and clouds gathered.
          The Pan-African collapsed.

Lagos, Nigeria

“I found him,” said Lekan. “He spells his name ‘Phulani’, like Fulani, but with ph. We’re on. Black-Power’s in.”
          “He’ll fight?” asked Tope.
          “He was always going to fight,” said Bank, not looking up from his tablet.
          “To the death,” said Lekan. “Signed the document, which you haven’t, by the way.”
          “I’ll get to that,” said Tope. “How much did he want?”
          “He said he’ll fight you for free in a telephone booth in Tafawa Balewa Square, if need be.”
          “Hmm. Ali, Boma ye.”
          Bank said, “Is a death match legal? Even in Nigeria?”
          Lekan sucked his teeth. “My cousin is a councillor in Surulere. I’ll get all the permits I need. We’ll say the death match thing is only for publicity. If anything happens and one of you should… accidentally die, well, I’ll bury the Lagos State governor in an ocean of Naira. Trust me, the bout will happen.”
          “And the dome?”
          “It’ll be a sphere. I’ve already commissioned my nephew to build it. Parts are already en route.”
          “How many of you are there?” asked Tope. “Your grandfather was pretty busy.”
          Lekan laughed. “‘In a land where nepotism is currency, the man with plentiful relatives is rich.’”
          “Don’t be too sure,” said Tope. “Do you know what Operation Deadwoods was?”
          “1975. Nigeria’s then Head of State Murtala Mohammed started Deadwoods to purge the corrupt officials from the government bureaucracy. He swept away hundreds of the unscrupulous civil servants and planned to return the country to civil rule.”
          “Hmm. And where did that get him?” asked Lekan.

February 13, 1976
Lagos, Nigeria

Presidential car, riddled with bullets, Murtala’s cap on the back seat. The perpetuators, who hid sub-machine guns in their agbada, were gone.
          Tope shook his head and flew away.
          You could have kept him alive, brother. I told you. I told you!
          This one time, Black-Power responded:
          -Fuck off-

Lagos, Nigeria

“An international airport and his face on a twenty-naira bill,” said Bank.
          Lekan snorted. “Murtala died for similar reasons to Lumumba. You played in that war theatre in the seventies, right? Murtala declared support for the MPLA. Any African leader who even smelled of Soviet or socialist leanings was a target for the CIA. Notice how Nigeria got a U.S style constitution soon after Murtala died?”
          “I don’t want to think about that time anymore. When is the bout?”
          “Six weeks to build the geodesic, five if I can get a hooker to blow my cousin.” Lekan guffawed at his own wit.
          “Which one?”

Elizabeth stirred and Tope felt the weight change on the bed. He opened one eye. She padded to his desk and opened the laptop. She punched a few keys and gasped.
          He allowed himself the pleasure of ogling her fundament, then spoke: “What’s wrong?”
She brought the screen to him. It was a tube video. A man forcefully kissed another man in a bar of some kind. Tope recognised the aggressor’s face. The scene paused and a voiceover began commentary.
          “The man in the video is Sipho Cele, a police detective. The smaller man in the picture is Colin Jordaan, and he has accused Detective Cele of rape. What is more astonishing is that Jordaan has alleged that Cele is the super-powered adventurer from the seventies called Black-Power.”
          The scene cut to an interview. Jordaan now sported several bruises, a black eye and a torn lower lip. “He walks around with this old, worn black mask in his pocket, fingering it for sexual pleasure. He was…I mean, I go to the gym, but there’s no amount of resistance training that would make me strong enough to…” The man burst into tears.
          The reported said Detective Cele could not be reached for comment and it was unclear if he was under arrest.
          “What do you make of it?” asked Elizabeth.
          Tope didn’t speak. He knew Black-Power took male lovers from time to time, but rape? If he raped Jordaan the guy would be in hospital or a morgue, not on a TV show with minor bruises.
          “This may not be what it looks like,” said Tope.
          “What? He’s kissing a man.”
          “Yes, he is. That means he’s gay or bisexual, but not necessarily a rapist.”
          “Will you fly over?”
          Tope laughed. “When I went to prison one of the charges was violation of airspace. The other was flying in an urban area without a flight plan. Also, flying in a rural area without a flight plan. Flying without a permit. You get the etcetera? To do that, they first had to classify my body as an aircraft, then retrospectively charge me. It was a work of profound legal gymnastics. Bottom line is none of the Organisation of African Unity countries want me flying. So, no, I will not be flying to South Africa.”
          “Is it him?”
          “The relevant question, Elizabeth, is how you knew about the video. I watched you. You woke and went straight to that web page without a search. What are you not telling me?”
          Elizabeth stared at him.
          “I can get it out of you if I want,” said Tope. “But I want you to tell me.”
          She knelt back on her haunches, swallowed and said, “I have an implant.”
          “What kind?”
          “It…I got it designed and needed thirty hours of surgery to have it inserted.” She took his hand, parted her hair and ran his finger over the skin. He felt the bump. “That’s the power supply. I have to change it every five years. It’s experimental, but I had to have it. It cost fifteen million dollars and change.”
          “Again, what kind?”
          “It keeps me connected to the Net wirelessly and sends the data to my sensory cortex. I can also feed data back down the same route. I see everything that goes on the net. I know everything. I bypass VPN tunnelling, software or hardware firewalls, and one sixty-eight key bit triple DES encryption before breakfast.”
          “I don’t know what that means.”
          “It means I can go anywhere on the internet, like God intended.”
          “You have a chip that helps you do that?”
          “You’re online all the time.”
          “Yes. Searching, cataloguing, looking for news as it happens. On people’s mobile phones, on their fucking e-readers just because. I spent last night talking to eGhosts.”
          “What’s an-”
          “You know social media? Well, when people die in real life their online persona still exists, like their profiles, their email accounts, their blogs, their Tweets. This is an eGhost. If you amalgamate all the data, all the status updates, all the Tweets, you can pretty much construct a being who will respond and show quasi-independent thought.”
          Tope got up.
          “Does this freak you out?” she asked.
          “I don’t know,” said Tope. “You could have mentioned it.”
          “I don’t know. I would have wanted…I don’t know.”
          Elizabeth started getting dressed. “You know, you peer into people’s heads and I trust you.”
          “I trust you.”
          “I don’t see that from where I’m standing.”
          Soon, the door slammed.
          She was gone.

Chapter Fourteen

Alexandra Township, Johannesburg

          More killings.
          Just foreigners, they said, kwerekwere.
          This was on a wide open field, stunted bushes bristling across from crumbling shacks and the firmer brick of township houses.
          These had been people on their way to work perhaps, or just on their way somewhere, to talk, to have fun—not expecting to die.
          Detective Cele bent down, looked at the two twisted, burnt bodies, with gathering rage. The site had been roped off, but a crowd stood watching, silent and sullen. The open field itself was partially scorched and baked a blackish brown, smelling of dirt and charred meat.
          He had to be detached and forensic about this, the support squad from his police unit combing the field for murder weapons; crusted blood from the corpses ragged head and torso wounds suggesting both pangas and knobkieries. Surprisingly, no guns.
          Close quarter murders, personal and intimate. Cele gritted his teeth, he needed to be cool and professional, after all.
          He stood up and shouted at the milling crowd: “You fucking bastards, why murder your own brothers and sisters?”
          A slow growling noise from the mob, a faint echo of umshini wami, bring me my machine gun.
          You’ll just tickle me with that, Cele thought, and make me angry6 —and you won’t like me when I’m angry. A faint echo in that phrase, perhaps not his own?
          A young police-woman came over, neatly uniformed, professional, holding out a partly burned bundle of papers. “ID documents, sir,” she said.
          He did not bother to take them. Wearily, “What nationality?”
          “Not sure if they’re from the victims, sir, but Mozambican, Malawian, and Zimbabwean.” (Zimbas were the main targets at this time)
          Not Nigerian. Not…his brother’s people. Not yet, anyway.
          He opened a sterile bag for her and she dropped the papers in, with black gloved fingers. He sealed lives away, with one thick brush of his thumb.
          “Take this to the van,” he said brusquely, “Call the meat squad in.”
          She almost curtsied in deference—he was a senior detective who had been around for many years, after all. Even more than you think, girl, he thought, watching her bustle back to the van and wishing he could meet someone who would stand up to him, just a bit.
          Like this crowd.
          He walked towards the end of the plastic rope, pulled taut between two stakes, but with enough give for him to stalk several metres into the crowd, without snapping. The mob moved back slowly, grumbling, ready to strike again.
          He smiled, waiting for something to happen, fingering the mask in his pocket.
          Slowly, in ragged groups, the crowd dispersed, trailing back to homes and places of meeting, a lucky few perhaps even to various jobs.
          Behind him, bodies were removed.
          But he could smell the muggy wind picking up now, lacings of moisture in the air as grey clouds boiled in from the horizon.
          He stood, alone in the field, as rain lashed down on his face, cleaning the air and the ground. He could smell damp earth and sense the stirrings of worms beneath the ground, a few broken thorn trees in the distance standing out suddenly in the flares of sheet lightning.
          Life goes on, he thought, but is this only the beginning?
          All things start, but when will it end?
          Shit, he’s soaked—his suit will shrink on him if he’s not too careful, time to go home.
          Or, at least, just a place to sleep.

Cape Town

He could hear sounds on the Foreshore, near the docks, sounds at did not belong; the sound of deep drilling, within a bank filled with gold Kruger rands.
          Intel had it that a foreign force had slipped in quietly to town, looking for easy pickings. There were no easy pickings on his watch…
          There was a security van waiting for pick-up on the kerb outside, but he could tell the markings were fake, they had been sprayed a little too loosely, a little too unprofessionally. It took him one big bound to land on its roof, crushing and buckling it with the pounding weight of his feet and fists. There was a scream from a driver in the front carriage, a scream over breaking glass.
          The white tellers and customers were calm when they saw him, splayed on the ground as they were, hands clasped above their heads. His mask and cape were well known around here, his power even more so—even though he had calmly stepped through the plate glass doors, showers of glass sliding off his impervious skin.
          A semi-professional operation then, they at least had a man holding the forecourt of the bank, alert and armed, opening fire with fear, when he spotted the giant super-hero.
Black-Power moved with easy speed—speed that no man could get a lock on. A left jab caved the man’s skull, sending him sprawling across the polished floor in a spiral of blood, his gun mangled by a crunch from ‘Power’s right hand.
          Deep inside the vaults, the drilling stopped.
          Black-Power bounded outside to land on the wrecked getaway van again, a man crawling away from the wreckage as sirens started to howl. Best keep the fight outdoors, where the chances for collateral damage was less.
          A man stepped outside, and Black-Power felt the weight of sudden unease. This man was tall, compactly built and walking with the ease of someone so capable as to fear very little.
          “If you surrender now, I will spare you the might of Black-Power,” he boomed.
          The man started and looked as if he were suppressing a laugh: “Brother, is that you?”
          Black-Power stepped off the broken van and approached cautiously. A tall man indeed, not much smaller than he, neatly dressed, but sporting a huge fuzz of head hair. His features were sharp, mobile, familiar…
          It had been a long time.
          A very long time.
          “What the hell have you done to your hair?”
          The man smiled: “It’s called an Afro, you know, like the Jackson Five?”
          Black-Power snorted. “It looks ridiculous… are you robbing this bank?” Three nervous, armed men stood behind his…brother.
          “Brother, will you not greet me with a kiss? I haven’t seen you in-“
          “You were supposed to stay up north.”
          “I know. Things happened. I have been travelling around the world. I have much to tell you.”
          “You can tell me from jail. There can be only one penalty for breaking the law.”
          Cop cars were screeching to a halt nearby, but he waved them to a stop, he had this in hand.
          “Brother, there is no need for violence. This money is going to feed women and children in Angola.”
          Black-Power stamped forward, rippling a force wave through concrete, buckling the pavement, upending the three men, who fell with a clatter of weapons.
          The tall man stood, several feet above the wrecked concrete pavement, hanging in the air like a mirage. Slowly, sadly, he shook his head, and then with a blur of speed, he was up into the sky, a speck disappearing amongst the few clouds leeching off the cloud cloth of Table Mountain.
          Brother, why have you turned back to crime? thought Black-Power pensively, as he strode into the bank hall again, where customers and tellers were picking themselves up.
          They looked at him, but no one clapped.
          “Ja sure, I know you don’t allow black people in here—but your asses just got saved by a black man, so chew on that, honkeys.”
          He was met with blank looks. Of course, none of them would have seen Shaft, or anything like it. He sighed, feeling faintly ridiculous, knowing his brother would not be able to stop laughing, if he had watched and heard him just now.
          For both our sakes, he thought grimly, don’t come back, brother.
          The police were moving past him now, careful not to touch him, heading for the vaults. One police man leveled a gun at the man lying against stairs at the far side of he hall, his broken automatic weapon crumpled like his body.
          “Alamu,” he’d heard a name mentioned. Yet again, black men die.
          Black-Power crouched low and then jumped, bursting through the roof in a spray of wood and brick, heading up and up, towards the Mountain, where no one would find or see him.
          At least there, alone, hunched by yellow sandstone rocks and with an orange-breasted sunbird calling nearby in the mountain fynbos, he began to feel somewhat at home again.
          But his thoughts brooded north: Brother, after all these—millennia—still the sharp tongue and the patronising tone, even though I am as yet ever the elder…

Somewhere over Africa

Phulani Mabuza sat alongside Black-Power in the specially commissioned SAA jet, loaded with ANC government officials and a small, but selective, press entourage. Black-Power, besides taking up two seats, wore a discreet grey track suit over his bodysuit, stitched in green letters on the back : ‘Black-Power’ – he was not going to be mistaken for a British Petroleum flunkey again.
          Phulani nodded to the ‘Power’s hand-luggage, a subdued but tall Italian leather man-bag, well within luggage allowances.
          “What you got in there, BP?”
          Black-Power leaned forward and flicked it open with his finger. He took out a cowhide covered shaft and flat blade, about a metre in length, decorated with bright beads on the grip, balancing it on his fingers.
          Phulani goggled at him, “What’s that, a fucking assegai?
          “No,” said Black-Power, “An iklwa. Shaka himself gave it to me.”
          Phulani laughed then, clasping his suited belly, which had grown with the greying of his hair. “You always were a fucking clown, BP.”
          Black-Power glowered at him through the mask.
          Phulani unlaced his fingers and shifted back in his seat, a little nervously. He knew Black-Power had limits to his tolerance, even though they went back as partners many, many years.
          A young aspiring official from Foreign Affairs stood deferentially at their shoulders, a comic book in hand, holding it forward to be signed.
          Black-Power took it gently, knowing his fingers could shred the ageing yellow paper with the slightest of heavier touches.
          “Ah…” he said, “The last issue.” Battle in the Sahara. A few pen marks, crumpled spine, VG at best, he thought quietly to himself.
          The official scurried off hurriedly—but with a pleased smile—holding the scrawled signature across the cover reverentially.
          No comic book violence coming up, thought Black-Power drily, and with a faint frisson of fear.
          “What else you got in that bag there, BP?” asked Phulani, a little more relaxed, now that Black-Power had signed his name on a collectible so cheerfully.
          Black-Power rummaged and pulled out a long cape, slowly and carefully.
          “You – have – got – to – be – fucking – kidding – me,” said Phulani.
          The cape was a bright, luminescent rainbow in colour.
          “Just making a statement,” said Black-Power.
          “What,” swallowed Phulani, “That you’re representing the fucking rainbow nation?”
          “And gay pride.”
          Slowly, Phulani shook his head, “Tell me it’s a secret weapon to kill your brother by laughing until he chokes?”
          Black-Power shoved the cape back into the bag, almost bursting the bag’s seams.
          “You still miss Thembeka, don’t you?”
          Black-Power was huddled forward, but still shot a sideways glance at Phulani, who had surprised him with the sensitivity in his comment. Not usual, nor in character, but Phulani had showed flashes of insights down the years, which had cemented the bumpiness of their years together. And he was a damn good fixer!
          “Yes,” he said shortly.
          “Well, for fuck’s sake, kiss another woman instead next time, okay?”
          The plane’s intercom system kicked in, as the aeroplane began to buck up and down with tropical turbulence and the seat belt signs pinged on.
          “This is your captain speaking, we’re about to head down towards the Murtala Muhammed International Airport.”
          “Fuck…” said Phulani, clasping the sides of his seat, “I wish we were going to watch the Bafana Bafana play the Super Eagles instead.”
          “Ha!” barked Black-Power, “I stand a much better chance of winning this, than the Bafana would have.”
          Despite his words, Black-Power suddenly felt very cold indeed, as the plane began its dip down towards Lagos.

Chapter Fifteen

Lagos, Nigeria

There was a crackle down the phone line that suggested either wind or that manoeuvre where the device is held between shoulder and ear, freeing the hand for other activities.
          “I don’t see him,” said Bank.
          “He’s there,” said Tope. “I can feel him. Hasn’t been this strong in years.”
          “I’m telling you, I’ve seen all the flight data from Jo’burg. There is no listing.”
          “Look for a big Zulu-looking motherfucker with an entourage. He might be wearing sports clothes.”
          “Isn’t he supposed to be under arrest?”
          “Maybe, but I doubt it. The case was thin.”
          “I see him.”
          Tope took the image out of Bank’s head. It took fifteen seconds to resolve the image. While doing that he picked up Bank’s fear of being arrested as a terrorist for using field glasses in an airport. Boko Haram had been quiet, so it was reasonable to expect fireworks soon.
          Bank was at the airport while Tope stayed home answering mail. Since the bout was announced all kinds of people sent all kinds of things for Tope to sign or touch and send back. They wanted him to contact their dead grandfather. They wanted to know who stole their money. They wanted to know if the baby was theirs, or if the baby was a boy, or if the baby had Sickle Cell Disease. Wasn’t there a blood test for that these days? Hadn’t these people heard of ultrasound?
          It was Black-Power all right. Age had made Cele slightly gaunt. His muscles didn’t pop the way they used to, although nobody but Tope could notice such a difference. He wore a New York cap and an Addidas tracksuit. Duffel bag hooked around left shoulder. He did not look happy. Actually, he never looked happy.
          “Actually, he never looked happy,” said Bank.
          “Bank, I seem to be influencing your thoughts. It’s not on purpose, but my control is a bit off. Try to think of a white screen.”
          “Just ignore the porn.”
          “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
          Weather forecast was good, temperature holding at a steady forty Celsius. Their presence together in the same geographic location hadn’t caused any meteorological change. Yet…
          “What’s that in his hand?” asked Bank.
          “It used to belong to Shaka Zulu. It’s a weapon.”
          A priest once told Tope a story about Shaka Zulu. A white soldier told the great king that the manner in which the Zulu troops fought reminded him of the Spartans. He asked if Shaka had heard of them. Shaka asked if the Spartans died like other humans. The soldier asked what he meant. Shaka asked if, when pierced by a spear the Spartans would cry out in pain. The soldier said he thought so. Then Shaka Zulu looked away from the soldier and said he had no use for such soldiers.
          “If I command it my impi die in silence. These Spartans cry like women and give away their position,” Shaka had said.
          Tope smiled. Only Shaka kaSenzangakhona could call the Spartans pussies.
          “Spartans pussies,” said Bank.
          Tope broke the link.
          “Come home, Bank,” said Tope.

Lekan hawked and spat.
          “Yes, he’s here. I didn’t want to tell you yet because I didn’t know if that rape allegation would go forward.”
          The dome was all but complete. It was a gigantic structure covered in scaffolding and bathed in Klieg lights. Construction continued day and night. Welding sparks floated slowly to the ground. Booms and cranes placed men in unusual positions over a hundred feet in the air.
          “How’s the foundation?” asked Tope.
          “It’s wedged in bedrock. Don’t worry; it’ll hold.”
          Lekan was happy, and he had good reason. He had already made one hundred million U.S. dollars in pay-per-view bookings alone. Advertising had not collated data yet and the gambling data was astronomical. Merchandising…the figures were beyond what Tope was used to or interested in.
          Two men shuffled up in hardhats. They looked harried.
          “id4870407Tope, I want you to meet Nick Wood and Tade Thompson.”
          “Pleasure,” said Tope, but it sounded like a question. He wasn’t sure what their role was. Both were slightly bookish, wore glasses and seemed in awe of him. Tade was black and Nick looked like he might be a Pacific Islander or mixed race, but both had that endomorphic look that Tope associated with academics.
          “They’re in charge of the novelisation,” said Lekan.
          “What novelisation?” said Tope.
          “Graphic novelisation,” said Nick. “We’re immortalising the bout in print.”
          “Do you think you have the time to look at some character sketches?” said Tade.
          Tope frowned at Lekan. “You know how I feel about this.”
          “Pele, o! Sorry. I know you would prefer Joe Orlando. Look, I couldn’t get at Armand Hector-”
          “Hector’s dead,” said Tope.
          “That explains a lot,” said Lekan.
          Indeed. Armand Hector was rumoured to have been a consultant on the early MKDelta-sponsored Black-Power comics, in addition to other African comics like South Africa’s Mighty Man and Nigeria’s Power Man. The projects all died off when CIA interference in Africa became unfashionable.
          “We need some background information on you,” said Nick.
“On both of you,” said Tade. “The 1970s comics were simplistic bullshit.”
          They were both sweating and Tope got the impression they were not used to the warm climate. “Let’s get some beers…”

The drums kept beating.
          Tope was naked.
          The babalawo sliced the cockerel’s head off and sprinkled blood on Tope’s head, all the while continuing with his monotonous incantations.
          It was going to be a long night.
          None of these rituals existed eight hundred years ago.

He saw Bank into the taxi.
          “Uncle, are you sure you don’t want me to-”
          “I’m not coming back, Bank. One way or the other, this is it. Just share out the money the way I told you.”
          Bank’s cheeks were wet with tears. “We will never forget you, Uncle.”
          “You better not! I made you all millionaires.”
          “Just kidding. Go. Go now.”
          “You can win this.”
          “I can’t kill him. He’s my brother.”
          When the taxi pulled away, Tope felt the loss like a knife to the gut.
          Question: What do you do on the eve of your death?
          Answer: Slot in a DVD and watch John McClane perforate European terrorists in a high rise building over one hundred and twenty frenetic, action-packed minutes!

There weren’t many people around the dome. It had no seating and was opaque so nobody could see anything but a dome during the fight. A security cordon went up weeks before and there was a desolate circle a mile wide around the arena. There were two doors, each coded to admit only one. The North face was for Black-Power to enter, while the South was for Tope. There were no roads, and Tope flew up and dropped straight down by the dome from orbit. The flames of re-entry died quickly against his force field.
          He placed both palms against the south door and waited. It opened with a klaxon piercing the silence.
          A shining walkway led to a metal platform in the centre.
          Tope walked to the centre and sat cross-legged on the floor.
          He closed his eyes and waited.
          A sudden, loud vibration alerted him an hour later.
          Black-Power had landed.
          Morituri te salutamus.

Chapter 16

Geodesic Dome, Lagos

Pan-African sat calmly, eyes closed, meditating.
          But Black-Power knew his presence has been marked…
          …And that his brother was listening to him.
          There would be no surprising him, they both knew each other too well.
          Black-Power bowed, blanking his mind.
          Jump, swing….
          Pan-African rolled with his right hook, a glancing body blow, but still he gasped. Keep on him—left uppercut, right jab, scorpion kick, keep the fucker rolling and dodging, no time to think, no time to use his fucking mind.
          Swivel kick, fucking sweet that one, sent him soaring into the top of this spherical dome, ramming him against the metal structure, blood spilling freely from his face. Jump now, nail the sucker…
          Shit, missed, uh!—these bars are titanium hard—losing that bastard to close quarters was a fucking mistake. Where’s he?
          Black-Power grunted as he felt a rock hard fist ram into his midriff, and he started to fall, blows now raining against his face. “The sky’s this fucker’s space, air’s his power, grab him, hold him, down to the ground…”
          Unhhhh, he’s spun on top, using me like a fucking cushion—bastard’s smaller, but still no fucking light weight. Off he goes again, ha—got his foot, swing him down, hard!
The ground shook with the impact, blood flying again, as if in slow motion. Bounce him down hard again, his head fucking first this time.
          Flashing red stars, stagger back, blink, one eye’s puffed and gone, Pan-African’s free again, must have kicked him hard in the face with his free leg. Tope, his brother, the younger, hangs on the edge of the cage, crouched, panting, bleeding.
          Black-Power could taste sour blood in his own mouth and strained to focus on the Pan-African with his good left eye, wiping blood from a cut leaking on his forehead.
          Fucking corny, those fight scenes in comics, when light repartee is exchanged. When it really gets down to it, each fucking word will cost you. Just get your breath back…
          It was then that he heard them.
          A roar from the baying mob outside the cage, the audience packed in this huge open aired stadium, thousands upon thousands, baying them on, to kill each other. Millions more besides—probably several billion, watching, screaming, from across the digital globe.
          Whom should I be fighting, Black-Power thought, and why am I fighting?
          “Lost your balls then?” Pan-African called. “Kissing too many men?”
          Fuck you, he thought…. fuck everyone!!
          Black-Power inhaled deeply, settling his weight squarely into his braced legs and haunches, summoning a focus of his strength, sweetly into his favoured left fist.
          Pan-African steadied himself on the opposite wall, ready…
          But he was not the target.
          Black-Power pivoted and drove his fist hard into the structure next to him—it stretched backwards, bent, buckled… exploded…
          …and fragments of death flew everywhere…
          Black-Power opened his one good eye, feeling the ground beneath him shake and snap.
          His brother, the Pan-African, hung in the air, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his chest. He appeared to be crying blood as he clenched his left fist—and Black-Power could feel the ground lifting him up, fragments of the cage hanging like scattered, glowing ingots, caught in the might of the Pan-African’s mental force field.
          “Where the fuck’s he going?” thought Black-Power, as the air grew chill around them and the blue sky deepened into indigo, the ground now a very, very long way below them indeed…

Chapter Seventeen

Lagos, Nigeria
Sixty-two miles above the surface

Dick Tiger once told me that boxing fights were abnormal. In fact, all sporting fights were abnormal. Fights in their natural state last seconds. Those that last longer than five minutes are usually between people who are not trying to hurt themselves.
          The fight took seconds. Forty-five seconds to cross the Karman line.
          Forty-five seconds for Cele to cave the Pan-African’s chest in.
          I am dying.
          I am using micro-sized force fields to keep some of my blood in, but that won’t save my life.
          It’s cold.
          Black-Power feels it too.
          My mind can keep the platform up here long enough to freeze his blood.
          We both die.
          Check, mate and fuck you, brother.

The remnants of the geodesic dome fell to the earth as a meteor shower, red hot chunks of titanium which set off forest fires and destroyed houses. Families watching the bout on television found their living rooms torn asunder with scant warning. There was no advantage to being outside as crowds were subjected to the shower and people were reduced to flaming, pulped flesh. A cruise liner traversing the lagoon took a hit to the bow and burned furiously and rich passengers and less-rich crew took to the lifeboats. Those who chanted for blood mere minutes before ran for cover wherever they could find it. Despite the carnage the sky looked beautiful with bright orange and yellow streaks.
          Seventy-one people lost their lives.
          The Pan-African’s body burnt up in re-entry, lacking a force field to protect it.

Black-Power was frozen, then burned, then broken against the Earth’s surface. His suit was carbonised and the skin blackened and peeled off.
          Trees still blazed around him. He tried to stand but his muscles would not obey. He remembered being struck by lightning three times during his descent, each hit like the accusing finger of God.
          He could not cry—his tear ducts were gone. He could barely see. His harm-resistant eyelids had been able to protect his corneas only so much. The left was scorched, but the right had better light perception.
          He sensed someone close by.
          “Are you proud of yourself, old man?” said Thembeka. “A little fratricide to prove you still have lead in your pencil?”
          “He was kin to us. I could feel it…”
          Black-Power could not see her clearly but he felt the rage coming off her. He tried to speak, coughed instead. The fire had gone down his throat. He could rasp, though.
          “Thembeka, fuck off. We are not related to you, Tope and I.”
          She edged close to his ear.
          “‘Were’, asshole. You mean ‘we were not related’ not ‘are’. Tope is dead, remember?”
The pain threading his nerves intensified and he gasped, clutching at air.
          “Shit, Black-Power, you’re an fucking absolute mess,” she cradled his head then; held him.
          “Thembeka”, he croaked, “I’m sorry.” All he could smell was burning, and the all consuming pain threaded itself tighter and tighter into his body, constricting his throat.
          “Shhhhh,” she said, “I can hear you. So… you did love him, once.”
          “Yes,” he said.
          Black-Power wished he could cry. Instead, he managed a painful croak. Thembeka poured some water onto his lips and tongue. He coughed his thanks.
          “You forgive me?” he managed.
          “No,” she said, “it’s not that easy.”

A strange weather formation over Africa.
          Several listening posts were already turned towards the continent as a precaution in case the bout between superhumans developed complications, so it was well documented. The clouds seemed to be on fire, but it later became clear. A wormhole terminated there and left a ship, some said a shuttle.
          It looked like a grand, black metal spider. It flew as if light, but the earth reverberated when it touched down above the spot where Black-Power lay against Thembeka.
          The woman tensed for battle.
          “At ease,” said Black-Power. “I… I know this ship, or it’s like. I remember now. It’s me they want.”
          Two constructs emerged, shining ones like Biblical burnished brass men. Black-Power struggled to his feet and accepted the inhibitor bracelets, starting to go with his gaolers.
          “What are you?” asked Thembeka.
          “A criminal,” croaked Black-Power. “Protect them, Thembeka. I always wanted to…”
          “When you weren’t trying to forcibly copulate with them,” she said, but the fire was gone from her eyes, “What was your crime?”
          He looked down. “Forcing myself sexually on others, amongst other things.”
          She laughed then. And cried.
          He held out his blackened mask. “Please, carry on, you will do better than me.”
          “I don’t need that,” she said, “I won’t hide behind that. But, is there any chance I could get your rainbow cape, the one you never fought with?”
          “Phulani told you, the bastard,” Black-Power cracked a painful smile, “Sure—sala kathle, sister.”
          “Goodbye to you too, detective.”
          Black-Power’s last words floated over his shoulder, as he entered the ship: “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu.”
          Thembeka smiled—a human becomes human, through being with others. “Not bad pronounciation for a kwerekwere,” she said.
          Black-Power’s laughter echoed on, long after the ship’s doors closed.
          The ship rose, the burning cloud phenomenon happened again, and then it was over.
“…And then it was over,” said Thembeka. “That was the end of Black-Power, returned to interstellar incarceration somewhere left of the I-don’t-give-a-fuck solar system.”
          Elizabeth Kokoro stopped typing and saved the document. She switched off the recorder.
          “You were in love with him,” said Thembeka. “I can feel it.”
          “I think I loved them both,” said Elizabeth. “And hated them too.”
          They both laughed until they cried.
          “What are you going to do?” asked Thembeka.
          “A book. The Last Pantheon. You just helped me finish it and I already have a publication deal secured. What of you?”
          Thembeka went to the window and opened it.
          “Fight crime,” she said. “What else is there for people like us?”
          The curtain fluttered—Elizabeth caught a last rainbow flash of colour.
          Thembeka was gone.

Comments are closed.