I wake like an explosion, sweat slicked in the hesitant sick-light of dawn. I can’t believe I forgot to check the acer before bed. What if there had been a reply waiting for me? What if someone had been on the other end, wanting to talk, and now I’ve missed my opportunity forever? I climb on the stool in front of the laptop and stab at the power button before I’ve even wiped the crusts from my eyes. I don’t bother to sweep the night’s dust from the suncell or do my daily check of the wires. That’ll keep.
My guts are a satchel of stone and my tongue is dry in my sleep-soured mouth. The acer takes forever to load, dutifully running through one of its periodic attempted updates. At last the background screen stabilizes. I look to the blue icon at the bottom. The red square is back. There is a number in the square, the number 3.
“Yes, here is me,” says the first message in the blue section at the top of the app.
“I Onye Na-Acho Ihe Omuma am,” says the second message. I almost can’t believe it. She’s Ṇ́dị́ Ìgbò too! The name means Seeker of Knowledge.
“Who you are?” says the third message.
“I like your name,” I type. And then, “My name is Binyelum.”
I see a little green circle spinning in the upper box. This is new. I wait.
“Call me can you Onye. Your name I like too.” Just below it the spinning circle reappears, and eventually another message pops up—the spinning circle must indicate Onye is typing on her end. The new message reads “I mean, I like your name too.”
“How old are you?” I ask. The green circle spins for nearly five minutes and I force myself to breathe.
“I am not sure. I am on my own. I am still growing up, so I think I am young. How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” I reply. “Where are you?” This time the green circle spins for ten minutes, and it goes away and comes back several times. I get up and pace, never far enough away to lose sight of the screen.
“I not sure was of the name of this place, until I learned to use this thing. I learned to search. It is called Yaoundé.”
“I’ve heard it. A great city, before.”
“I think so. But it is a bare place. Quiet. Much broken stones and old metal things.”
I have so many questions for Onye, I can’t gather my thoughts in order. I want to know everything: how she found whatever it is she’s communicating with, and how she figured out its workings. How long has she been using it, and how she found me? Has she found others? Are we not alone, and are others trying to restore the world? Is there hope?
Instead, I type, “That’s amazing! Yaoundé is in the same part of the world as I am.” I have heard the scavengers speak of it, though none in our generation have ever made the trek. It’s too far for us.
“How far?” Onye asks.
“One moment,” I type, and open the web and navigate to the site I use for maps, and enter Gembu (the closest ruins) in the first block and Yaoundé in the second.
“About 800 kayems, I think.”
“What means that?” Onye replies.
“Perhaps three weeks away.” The green circle spins.
“I am excited. I must come to you.”
“Too dangerous,” I reply immediately. “There are scorpions in the forest and along the rivers.”
The green circle spins so long I almost restart the app, thinking it’s frozen. At last, Onye’s message appears. “I know how to avoid trouble. I will write you tomorrow again morning. But now I go. I must prepare for the trip.”
“Wait, it’s not safe!” I type, my fingers flying across the keyboard. But there’s no spinning green circle. Onye has gone.
I cannot allow this child to traverse hundreds of kayems through the scorpion lands. The discovery of someone else out there is the most incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime and I’m going to get her killed. My hands won’t stop shaking.
I should tell someone about this. My father died of the tumor disease before I was born, and my mother died in the crucible of my birth. I was raised in the crèche, never anyone’s sole responsibility. I might have told old Adaeze. She was the kindest to me of all the crèche aunties, but she’d been dead since I was nine.
The okenye? He’s told me in no uncertain terms to focus on the things that would keep us alive and not on hunting for other people. He’s a small-minded man, focused only on the world inside our walls. He’s tolerated me because of the help I’ve been, but if I go to him with this, I can see what would happen. He will tell me I’m crazy, that I’ve made it up, that I’ve spent too long sitting in front of a stupid piece of the gone-away world, and that some time spent in the fields will be good for me. Then if I’m lucky he’ll take the acer away and, if not, he’ll destroy it. If he did believe me, he would view her as nothing but another mouth to feed if she made it this far.
Onochie? He’s strong, the bravest person in the village. But he’s single-minded, focused only on defending the settlement. Even if he believed me he might view Onye as a threat, and my communication with her as an enabler of that threat.
Ejikere? An unimaginative grump. He’d never believe me. I consider Isioma, the girl on the wall who’d struck the saving blow against the scorpion the night before. I don’t know her well, but she’s bright and curious. A possibility. But she’s still so young and she lost her only family not so long ago. It would be cruel to expose her to a hope like this. Onye told me she was alone, after all. Not another settlement, a hope for the future. Just a lone candle in the dark.
I don’t think I can tell anyone. All I can do is try to convince Onye not to come, and she won’t be back on the Mercury app until tomorrow morning. I clench my fists over my eyes, fighting against the gravelly heat of tears, and breathe deeply until I can do it without a hitch in my lungs. I can’t sit in front of the acer anymore so I get up, sweep the suncell, and check the wires.
I go to the fields and pull weeds, then I pump water into the irrigation channel for a while, giving Bundo a break. After that, I find myself on top of the wall where I’d been the night before. I watch the men breaking down the carcass for a time, but I don’t really see them. I’m playing through possible conversations in my mind, thinking about how I can convince Onye to stay put, to stay safe.
And then it hits me. I never told her where I am. I put the directions into the mapping site, but I never told her we were close to Gembu. She wouldn’t know which way to go. I sigh, exasperated at myself, but still worried. Onye’s going to want to know where I am. If I can’t talk her out of her crazy plan and insists on knowing my location, I won’t give in. That might drive her away. She might never talk to me again and just like that, it’ll be over. The candle in the dark will hood its light. I’ll be alone again. I’ll have to tread carefully to keep her safe and still willing to talk to me. Most of all I have to protect her. If that drives her away, at least I’ll have saved her life.
By the next morning, it’s a moot point.
“Hello, friend Binyelum,” is waiting for me when I open the app.
“Good morning, Onye. Listen, I need to talk to you about this plan. It’s really not safe for you to come.”
“Do not worry,” she messages back. “I will be very safe. I am already on the way.”