We Are All Outies
by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
It's the first explosion that wakes me up.
Not a big, window-shattering, earthquake-sized kind, no. I mean localised stuff; loud enough to know it’s not been reduced by distance, small enough to know it's nearby. I've heard the Lagos Force’s firearm reports enough to recognize them anywhere. This whirr, whirr, boom of a three-in-one is def not theirs.
I jerk out of half-sleep, heart thumping, goosebumps crawling over my skin. I’m halfway down the stairs before something strikes me. I'm going the wrong way.
"Tejiri! Nayoo!" comes the scream from the room at the end of the hallway upstairs. Then the sounds of heavy, muffled thuds as Momsie thunders down the soft carpeted floor, Popsie real close behind her, echoing every step.
"Tejiri," she says and hugs me.
"Where's Nayoo?" Popsie asks.
"I'm here," my younger brother says, suddenly appearing at the top of the stairs. He's always sneaky like that, light on his feet. I want to tell him if there's any time we would need the reassuring sounds of his footsteps, it's now.
Whirr, whirr, boom. Another one.
"Move, fast," Momsie is saying. She flips open the control panel at the bottom of the stairs and enters a code. Everyone else is gathering their garments from the hook on the wall next to her. I find myself starting back up the stairs.
"Where're you going?" Popsie hisses.
"I--uhm--I left--my--" I don't know what I left. I don't think I left anything. Something’s missing, something I should be doing that my sleep-drugged brain will not let me remember.
Activating IDN protocol, Ekaete, the family AI, says through the walls when Momsie closes the control panel.
Whirr, whirr, boom.
"Leave everything, no time," my father is saying. "There'll be no space left if we arrive late."
Right. I sprint back down, unhook my kaftan and slip it over my head. The fabric sings as the receptors cling to my skin and settle into place.
Four house members accounted for, Ekaete says. Proceed for extraction.
The garage is a few steps away, and as we get there, Ekaete has flipped the car parking for the AeroMoto hangar, which we never use, except in case of emergencies like this one. The vehicle is already powered on. We get into the four-seater and take our places.
My father unlatches the comms piece from his kaftan's breast emblem--the brain-with-a-spark sigil of us Neuros--attaches it to the port at nape of his neck, then powers on the holo on his sleeve. He frowns.
Momsie does the same, frowns, then glances at Popsie, horrified.
“Tejiri baby, port your comm and tell me what happens,” Momsie says.
I pluck out my emblem and allow it bite into the port at the back of my neck. I brace for the familiar swoon of my brain as it dives into the collective consciousness of the Nigerian Neuro populace. Years upon years and you’d think I’d be used to connecting to the minds others by now, but nope.
This time, however, I feel nothing. My brain feels as bland, ordinary and useless as a dried husk. No sensing the pool of other neuros, no connection to the neuro collective database. Everything that makes up our intelligence, that makes us relevant, gone.
“The thing’s not working, ma.”
“Oh my god, I hope it’s not bombed,” Momsie says.
“Must’ve got turned off for security reasons,” Popsie mutters, then says, "Everyone stay connected, okay?" He checks that all our dots appear on the AeroMoto GPS.
Nayoo is rubbing his with the back of his hand, as he always does whenever he has to wear his comms. He's never been comfortable with the little things, and it sometimes makes me wonder if he really belongs with us, if belonging is biological instinct or something you learn to perform.
Whirr whirr, boom.
"Seat belt," Momsie says, panicky. "Ekaete, take us there, fast."
The aerocar pulls out of the garage, banks into the night, and then we see it all, hear it all, smell it all. On the ground, fifty feet below us, Lagos is lit in a number of bright explosions, fires and lights. It's like fireworks without the sparks, if people ran from fireworks and screamed their heads off. Aerocars zip about in a frenzy, ignoring all the traffic signs and highway blinkers, twisting about bends and squeezing between one another but never crashing, the AIs doing their jobs well. The tang of violent smoke hits the back of my tongue. The smell of burnt metal is prevalent, the air saturated to choking with panic.
We in the car sigh in unison, our thoughts as if synchronised. I think everyone knows it: another Function has finally come for us--for real this time--and nothing will ever be the same again. Nothing.
Suddenly it hits me and I sit up. I was right, this isn't what I should be doing. I shouldn't be heading for a bunker for internally displaced Neuros with my family. I should be doing something else, something I suddenly remember and recognise from a vision. Or a memory. Or both.
I should be leaving my family. Or killing them. Or both.
Once we've cleared the townships and are overhead the industrial layout, Nayoo says: "So they've come for us finally, eh?"
"Eish, don't say that," Momsie hushes. “Nobody’s coming for anybody.”
“But we’ve always known Tecks were going to strike at some point,” Nayoo says, rubbing his neck red. “We’ve been having issues with them forever.”
Popsie turns in his chair and looks Nayoo in the eye. “Where d’you hear all these things, boy? They tell you that in tutoring?”
Of course we hear all this talk in tutoring, but does anyone need tutoring to know this? Of all Nigeria's six Functions, everyone knows us Neuros are the most vulnerable because we're the thinktanks, the brainbox of the nation. This makes us the most prized, but also the most sought after, derided and attacked.
No one ever tries to take over the Earthiers because they make what we eat. Besides food generation being hard and unpredictable work, if anything happens to our food we're all goners, what with the earth no longer responding the way it used to. No one disturbs the Shufflers either--consumer and industrial goods and services are just too ubiquitous and disorganized to exert any sense of control over. It'll be like trying to monitor a million rats running in a mighty maze. Forget it.
Then there's the nation's EnForcement. 30% human, 70% robot. Tackle them at your own risk.
The Handies are our muscle and also the most diverse Function of all, because they're essentially the dumping ground for people who slipped through the gaps of tutoring. This is probably why, for all the time they spend together working in those man-and-machine tag teams, they're unable to rouse any sort of trouble that the government reps can't handle.
The Outies, who're not a function at all (Dooakpo says they're basically all the folks who want to regress back to the old days of ethnic tribes by destroying the current system) should be our biggest foes. They used to take over small towns in the north, hold them hostage and try to force the government to do away with this function system. But they've gone silent for years now. Instead, the Tecks are our real problem. Their primary aim should be ensuring all the technology our great country runs on stays running, but they have their eyes on us Neuros all the damn time. Popsie says they think all we do is sit on our high horse and ask people to do stuff. Nayoo says they're right, that is what we do. But then, they've also rendered us homeless and without a neuro collective, so what's that, evens?
I look at Nayoo now. He's staring out the window, at the LEDs from adboards and streetlamps below. He’s always been the one reading all that shit about the history of the National Functions. I mean, yes, as Neuros, we’re meant to know and study everything, right? But with Nayoo, he stays fixated on stuff. Like, once when we were eleven or twelve or something, we were out on the patio, licking on some flavoured ice Momsie made for us. Mid-lick, Nayoo turns to me and goes on this tirade of how when the Nigerian government wiped the slate clean of all ethnic groupings, languages and alliances, they signed our death cert. He said whoever thought reducing over 300 languages, cultures and customs to a simple six-function nation was dumb: Didn't they know that order bred chaos, that it was the need for independence that caused our wars in the first place, and that no one ever puts the identity of the nation before that of themselves?
I just stared at him, puzzled, ice leaking all over my hand. Then I yelled for Momsie and snitched: Nayoo’s talking about IT again!
Momsie tells us all the time that she worries he’s going to pack up any minute and go join them Outies. I get Nayoo, though. Even if ethnic wars almost ran the country extinct in the 2020s, did it really warrant dissolution of all those tribal groups? I, for one, would totally love a small ethnic tribe of my own, just me and those I care about. Or maybe just me, who knows?
But here I go reasoning like Nayoo again. I sometimes wonder if I’m supposed to be him; if I should be the girl who packs her bag in the middle of the night and flies off to someplace else I truly belong that’s not with us Neuros. And maybe it’s a good thing Nayoo’s this way: If he wasn’t always this much of a distraction, wouldn't I have to do a more difficult job of hiding the things that go on in my head, the things I see in my memories-not-dreams?
Momsie fidgets with the aerocar’s dashboard. A vidcall is coming in. She answers it, and the face of a man with a bushy beard projects on the windscreen.
“Dooakpo,” my parents greet in unison, relief in their voices.
Gbayena Dooakpo has been our family handler since forever. Because of our collection to the neuro collective, we get a handler to help through issues we may face as a result of our, eh, adjustments. Dooakpo should be retired by now, having gone through a number of families like us, and I guess he will soon--once he’s done seeing Nayoo and I through. After saving us from whatever insurgency we’re currently facing, that is.
“The Abisos,” he says, and, then counts and recounts us with his eyes, as if he’s surprised to see us. “I see you’re all, ehm, here and enroute.” He clears his throat. “Quick response like we discussed. Good.” He sounds panicked.
“What’s going on?” Momsie asks. “What’re those explosions?”
“Tecks,” Dooakpo says, like he wants to spit. “They were quite organised, with some bad weaponry. Planted self-detonating drones around key points in Lagos, used them as diversions to invade Central Command. Hacked into the neuro collective and disabled it.”
“That’s why we can’t connect!” Popsie says. “Shit, are people dead?”
Dooakpo shakes his head. “No count at the moment, but that’s for the Force to worry about. They’re engaging currently. We’re waiting for more information, and knowing our EnForcers, that shouldn’t take long, eh?”
“But why are they attacking us?” Momsie is saying.
“Because we’re animals,” Nayoo says softly.
Of course. Here comes the boy again.
“What’s that?” Dooakpo says.
“Because we’re animals,” Nayoo repeats. “You might separate people into groups so you can run them, but they’ll still band together in divides you don’t anticipate. It’s nature. We want liberation, even if it’s bad for us. We’ll fight for it if we have to.”
“Well...” Dooakpo says. “That’s, uh, a way to put it.”
The way my parents look at Nayoo, you’d think he isn't their child. Technically, we aren't--we were adopted as under the Diversity Rotation and Regulation--to dilute ethnic-group-focused education, as they tell us in tutoring. Many times, I want to tell them that I know nothing of this shit, or anything of before I became a Neuro--they wipe that out right before sending you off into your new family--so what’s there to hold on to really?
But then these visions or memories are like deja vu. I know they’re a part of me. I just don’t know how, or what I’m supposed to do with them.
“I’m tired of this secession palaver,” Momsie says. “Can’t we just coexist in peace?”
“This isn’t just happening here in Lagos--it’s a coordinated attack all over the country,” Dooakpo says. “It’s like they really want war this time.”
Popsie sighs. “Na wah* . At least everyone will be safe at the bunker.”
“Well…” Dooakpo says, “not everyone.”
“What does that mean?” Momsie asks.
“I mean it’s not called an IDN bunker for nothing, yes? The Force’s directive is to bring in only Neuros for now. They’ll return for others once we’re sure everyone is secured.”
“You’re joking,” Popsie says.
“No. Because whether the Teck attacks are quelled or not, we need our Neuros. We must secure the future first, then the present.”
“This is--this is…” Momsie is saying, shaking her head.
“It’s a jungle,” Dooakpo says, looking at Nayoo. “And your boy is right--we’re animals. And we stay at the top of the food chain to stay alive. Right, Nayoo?”
Nayoo eyes him and returns to looking outside.
“Alright,” Dooakpo says, “Get down here so we can chuck you guys into a camp quick.”
I started having the visions when I was seven. They were less dreams, more planted memories that revealed themselves in slumber trances, like someone wanted me to remember something about myself that never happened to me. But what scared me most about them? No one in the neuro collective seems to have any similar experience.
I could never tell my parents this, of course. One of the biggest threats to my existence as a Neuro is the corruption of my brain and everything I believe in, especially since I’m interconnected to every other Neuro. It’s the one thing that defines me in this republic, and to lose this clarity on which I’m depended, to lose my firm handle on all truths, realities, knowledge and history, is to lose everything I am and represent. My brain wasn’t augmented to have visions, so having them is more anomaly than welcome development.
There are always three of us. There’s me, but I’m always a child, even though I turned seventeen a few months back. There’s two other kids with me, a boy and a girl. The boy is slim, has ringlets of hair too large for a Nigerian, so that I know he must have some Arabian heritage. Not that that matters anyway, because he’s supposed to be a Teck. I can tell by the bodymod implants he has in him--few for now, that’ll increase as he grows. Right now, he has only one regular eye, the other taken over by an electronic eye; a chip each in his palm and bicep; and a small memory mod bulging out the back of his head. He wears a protective neck guard, which makes sense, because one bad fall and he’s gone cuckoo.
The other is a girl like me, all fierce eyes and a permanent scowl. She’s bigger than us both, rotund, and has facial features so all over the place I can’t place her biological heritages. She’s a Handie-- I can tell from her bionic arm that wriggles incessantly (very unsettling, I tell you). An exoskeleton is attached to both her legs, and everytime I see her bend, I get the feeling she’s going to leap and fly away any given second.
Three of us, we’re standing before a holo that I can never seem to remember what it looks like upon waking up--like this part of the memory has been erased from my brain, I dunno? Anyway, the voice, I always remember: gruff, bassy, like those men who do vid ads for fragrance bodymods.
So this man, he’s always giving us instructions of some kind, but I never fully remember what they are--they change with each vision, see. But there’s two things stick with me every single time I come to. The first thing is that I’m always sure the information I’ve received is that I’m meant to return to my family, act as normal as possible, and wait for further instructions or a sign. The second is this one thing the holo says right before we’re about to leave (or as I see it, once I’m about to wake up).
“Consider it self-protection, yes?” it says. “It’s our only option. Either that, or we’re wiped out. Always remember that, yes? Given the chance, they’ll hunt you down and force you to do despicable things. You’re doing this for the future, for your children and their children. Always remember that.”
When I wake up, I’m never sure which side of the they I’m supposed to be on.
There’s a long traffic jam to get into the bunker, because why not? Everyone’s freaking out, obvs, and because the bunker is right over the lagoon, set next to the former Tarkwa Bay over thirty miles from Lagos mainland, we’re the only vehicles for miles. Think of it--all the most intelligent families in Lagos trapped in tiny flying boxes for hours, trying to get to safety. We forget our Neuro decorum for an hour plus, opening up the windows every now and then to yell an obscenity at some idiot who thinks they can cut in. Momsie flips fingers at several cars. Some of them pull up and the occupants let us have it. Some offer to come over and gift us bloody noses. That we don’t kill someone during this ordeal is a miracle.
Dooakpo calls us from time to time to assure us there’s a camp for us. This quells our tensions. When we finally arrive at the entrance and our biosigs are scanned and we’re assigned a hangar for our aerocar, we park and zip right for Central, where Dooakpo’s meant to be waiting for us.
He’s there alright, all eighty-plus kilograms of his rotund self. We’re busy standing there in a tight almost-huddle under the glare of bright lights, afraid that someone will get lost in the crowds, when he comes running to us. He pants as he arrives, his oversized kaftan swishing, the fabric crackling against itself. I’ve never in my life been happier to see him appear.
A frown plastered on his face says things are def worse than before.
“Come, I’ll show you your camp now,” he says, leading us away and avoiding our eyes.
“What’s up?” Popsie asks. “News?”
“Not really,” he lies, licking his bottom lip. He leads us out of Central into a long corridor with navigation signs that list numbers up to the thousands. He punches a number into his sleeve and starts some sort of nav.
Once we turn a series of corridors and there’s suddenly a little to no soul, he turns to my parents and whispers to them. As if I’m deaf, duh?
“We finally nailed on-the-ground info on the insurgents. We were right, it’s Tecks.”
“Okay…” Momsie says, drawing out the vowel. “Why’re you so damn worried then?”
“Because it’s also Handies. And Shufflers. And literally every other Function.”
All of us exclaim together.
“And Neuros?” I ask, finally giving voice to the question that has plagued my mind since I awoke. “Are Neuros killing people too?”
He glances at me, as if I’ve read his mind. Dooakpo never pays me any attention, see; he’s always more concerned about Nayoo, the way my mother is. He’s also never this serious. He’s waaay too serious right now.
“I’m afraid there might be,” he says, finally. “Everyone’s fighting against us Neuros though, so far. But without the neuro collective, we know nothing. We’ll see.”
He stops next to a door and thumbprints the panel. The door swooshes open to reveal a stark gray apartment; a small living area with gray everything, and four sleeping pods that look heavily armoured--so nothing could kill us in our sleep, I guess.
“Camp 3680,” Dooakpo says into his sleeve, then ushers us in, but stands outside. “Stay here, and speak to no one. Have to get a few other families settled in.” He half-turns to go away, then looks back at us. At me.
“Seriously, keep shut and don’t move an inch until I find out what’s going on.” He wags a finger, which he does once every never. “Until I find out who it is we can trust.”
The next time we’re let out of camp, it’s back to Central for a debrief by Chief of the Neuro Council and Director of Neuro Handlers, Ukoh Braithwaithe. Ukoh looks the same way every Nigerian politician has looked for the last 100 years: burly, hanging pouch, a rumble of deep laughter. I’ve only watched his messages on screens or via holo before, so this is the first time I see him face-to-face. There’s something familiar about him that I can’t place my finger on. From up there on the podium, he oozes a general aura of well-being I can sense even from where I’m sitting.
He starts by quelling our fears for safety, giving us a history of how this bunker has never fallen to any attacks. He then proceeds to explain the current happenings in the exact same way Dooakpo has. His voice bassoons reassurance over the audio system, but I sense a hint of trembling beneath. I’m not more perceptive than anyone, but I notice it because I recognize it.
Once the address is over, I linger and watch a few people go up to greet him, shaking hands. I inch closer, straining my ear, hoping to catch something, anything.
Then Ukoh Braithwaithe turns and looks right at me, a knowing present in that three seconds of connection. I immediately remember those eyes, and with them, realise where I’ve heard that bassoon-with-the-tremble-underneath before.
It’s the voice from the holo in my visions.
It does not shock me when all hell breaks loose at night. Nothing shocks me anymore.
First, I’m not asleep. I mean, how can I be? The Chief of the freaking Neuro Council, this man that I’ve never met in my entire life, is my handler for some, some mission whose goal I should know but obvs don’t remember.
Then the power goes out.
Look, there’s nothing more terrifying than being in total darkness in an unknown place. Worse, being trapped in an egg. With power, all conditions are provided for--oxygen, atmospheric pressure, everything to ensure I don’t go ballistic from claustrophobia. With the power gone, I’m suddenly trapped in a coffin.
Terror catches in the back of my throat. I’m about to start beating the lid above me when I realise it isn’t locked at all. I jump out, into pitch darkness and the faraway sound of a blaring siren, expecting to bump into Nayoo or my parents, or whoever opened my pod. It takes me a moment to reorient, and remember that the pod can only be opened from the inside once shut from inside. Armoured, as promised.
“Ma? Pap? Nayoo?” I feel my way around, the alarm siren a soundtrack to my panicking heart. I touch a first pod--I don’t know whose--and feel my way around the lid. It’s still shut. I pound on it with my fist. “Ma? Pap? Nayoo?”
I feel around to the next, all the while thinking I’m going to sense the heat of a human next to me, but it never comes. My heart races when I touch the next lid--shut tight as well. My God, they could be in there suffocating, dying. I feel my way to the third. Locked.
I have to get help.
I find the exit easily--it’s open, just slightly ajar. I can’t see still because there’s no light out here in the corridor either. Just the blaring of the alarm in a faraway place, possibly Central.
“Hello?” Silence. “I need help please!” Silence. “My parents are trapped. Anybody?” Silence.
What if everyone is trapped, and I’m the only one out? I have to get to Central, or something.
And it happens when I take that first three steps--that same feeling as in the visions: That deja vu of having been here, of having done this before. I have no idea why I know the way to Central, if I should. Why do I suddenly know exactly where to go, every turn guided purely by my palm and intuition, like I have walked these corridors in the dark for years?
Something is wrong about this. Something is wrong with me. Something is wrong.
Think Tejiri, think. You’re not only smart when connected.
I press my fingers into my temple and shut my eyes tight. Let me get this straight: If I know things I don’t know I know, then somebody’s messed with my brain. Either now or when I was much younger, but someone’s tapped info into me, probably under the guise of wiping my habitual memory before handing me over to my parents. Whoever planted whatever in it must’ve been smart too--they had to have tucked it under my subcortex so it’s not a front-and-centre thing, but some sort of subconscious guide fulfilling my needs. It must’ve needed a trigger event, and that must’ve been the bombs.
It was a setup, all of it: the bombings, the bunker protocol, everything. It was a setup to get me out to regroup with someone else somewhere. It was I who messed up: I should’ve taken the aerocar and let intuition lead me to the designated point. That was why I got confused at the stairs. That was why Dooakpo was surprised to see all of us in the car? Oh God, is he one of them? Of us?
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
I know I have arrived at Central when I come into an open space, where the air is less constricted. The emergency lights here are very dim, so dim I can barely see my own fingers. The blaring is louder, coming from somewhere down the west wing. I let the sound lead me, following the increasing alarm down a couple of twists in a corridor where I can faintly make out SYSTEMS CONTROL HUB: AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY. It ends in a double-sliding door that’s not fully closed, with space in the middle. I see that someone has placed something, some sort of metal slab, to prevent it from closing.
I squeeze myself through the space. “Hello? Is anybody--”
There is someone. In the far corner of the room, the glow of a screen lights someone’s face. The chair swivels, and the perpetrator of all this darkness is suddenly looking down at me.
“Congratulations, 117,” Ukoh Braithwaithe says in his fragrance bodymod ad voice. “You finally made it. Come, let’s get you out of here real quick.”
117. That’s my real name. A number. Why am I not surprised?
See, by now I should know better. Whoever Tejiri is, she is not this girl. Tejiri is the one who grew up in the house with The Abisos and had a younger brother named Nayoo. She is not this girl.
"Who am I?" I ask him.
He looks at me with pity. "You are no one," he says. "You are Outie number 117. You've been since you were placed in your family. That is all I know."
An Outie. A freaking Outie. Of course. It makes so much sense. A fake Neuro, a plant. Of course.
"I'm a nobody," I say slowly.
He smiles. "Number 4."
I wait for him to explain, but the way he keeps his smile, it's obvious he's not going to tell me more. No point, anyway, I get it. There had to be a reason why I always felt like a nothing person in Neuro skin.
I step aside and let him lead the way.
The air changes, wafts cooler as we ascend levels--manually, if I might add. I strain and listen to Ukoh’s steps. We enter an open space with a lot of metalwork. Only one large such space occupies top levels. We advance a little, and suddenly I’m in a massive collection of aerocar hangars.
It doesn’t take us long to locate ours. Ukoh, silent all through, now pushes a series of buttons and gets the aerocar open for me. Then he punches some numbers in a pad and pulls a lever. The screen flashes OVERRIDE a number of times, then turns green and the hangar lights up and opens up for departure. Sea breeze from the lagoon outside wafts in and greets us.
“What's the overall plan here?” I suddenly ask him as he stands there, all regal and shit. “Cause chaos between all the Functions and take over?”
"More like become ours," he says. "Nation, tribe, group, function, whatever--just become ours. If you really think about it, we're all Outies anyway."
Ah, I see. "If you can't beat them, steal from them. Then we put it all together and make one big pot of porridge."
"But not just for us to eat, though," he says. "For the future, remember?"
Right. The same future where some other group would come out and do this whole dance again. Happened in the 2020s, happening again. Who knows, maybe I'll even become the Ukoh Braithwaithe of said future group.
“Look, what if I don’t want this future?” I ask. “We're all Outies, right? What if, say, I don’t want to be anything? What if I just want to be me?”
He smiles, shrugs. “Then you die.”
“You die out,” he says, more sternly. “You think they prevent us from gathering all this intel out of goodwill? It’s a competition, 117. Every other Function wants a takeoever for themselves. Everyone will come for the Neuros, because everyone wants to be the Neuros. And you can't be the Neuros if you're just you.” He taps the aerocar. “Now get in there and regroup with your team, or you screw up years of planning with your juvenile indiscretion.”
I’m shocked at how direct he is, and I’m still dazed when I climb into the car. Ekaete whirrs to life and repeats the coordinates he’s punched in. Damn, that’s familiar, I think as she jerks the aerocar into launch.
As the thing lurches out of Tarkwa Bay and rises above the lagoon, I realised there’s a question I should’ve asked Ukoh that I may never know the answer to now. But it doesn’t matter, does it? Whether I know my name or not, I’ll always be an Outie-- insurgent, rebel; one who doesn’t fit into a system designed for the prosperity of all, a system which now collapses into its own self.
And, truth be told, isn’t all that what I already am, anyway?
*"Nah wah" is a Nigerian pidgin colloquial expression meaning "That's tough."