A rather different perspective ... and a single voice.
They came in the night, of course, the discordant sound of trucks echoing around the shanties, waking the neighbourhood, a baby's sudden cry adding to the cacophony of boots, shouts and the crashing of breaking doors. I lay in the dark waiting, glad that Namono was away with her family, knowing that there was nothing to be done but wait. The chaos moved along the street, punctuated now by screams, the occasional burst of gunfire, the flashes of torches and storm lamps ... more cries.
My own door was not locked but they smashed it with a rifle butt anyway, four of them storming into the single room with AKs at the hip, one sweeping everything off the table, stamping on anything that would break, the others converging on me as I lay on the bed, hands above my head, pointlessly showing that I would not resist ... even as the guns were reversed, the blows raining down on my body ... my head...
I did not die that night, unfortunately.
Instead, I came to in the back of a truck racing along a dirt road, surrounded by a mass of other bodies, some conscious and peering terrified into the night, others lying still but bleeding, yet others, clearly ... dead, necks at odd angles, gaping wounds without any blood flowing. One of the dead was lying across my legs, her dead eyes open and staring at me. I tried to close them but I could not move my arm. I saw it was hanging limply over my t-shirt, broken in many places. I closed my eyes, prayed, if you like, and perhaps those prayers were answered ... I became unconscious again.
When I woke I was in the dark, not sure for a moment whether I was dreaming, whether this was just another of my recurrent nightmares — my nation's nightmares — but the feel of dirty straw I was lying on, the wet concrete underneath it, the constant buzzing of flies, was no figment of my imagination. I was in a large room, I saw, as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, possibly underground but lit from a couple of small, dirty windows high in one wall. I could not tell what time of day it might be ... or even whether the light might come from a floodlight of some sort and that it was night.
There were a couple of other dim shapes on the straw which I took to be fellow humans, a rustling in the straw indicating the presence of rats, itching across my body that of lice. I was in a dungeon, then, probably the Government Information Centre in K ... a building we had all heard rumours of, some of us had seen through its high razor wire fences ... and that some had seen the inside of and survived to tell stories about. I was not surprised, knew that one day I would end up here, but I hoped that I had not brought too many of my neighbours with me.
I was also thirsty, so I went to stand up to see if I could find some water. I had forgotten my wrecked arm, had not previously known that my legs, too, would not work. I could not stand. There was no pain, which was strange, I thought, but I could see that both of my legs lay limp beneath me, a great deal of blood covering the shorts I had been sleeping in. I pulled myself over with my good arm, began to crawl towards the nearest body, hoping for news of where I might find liquid.
The body ... a woman, possibly a girl, no more than a teenager ... was dead, flies gathering on her sightless eyes. There was no water, I knew, then, and gave up my crawling, collapsed beside my companion, lay there and waited to die, if they would only let me.
It might have been days, weeks or months later. The pain had come, eventually, and gone ... to some extent. I would never walk again, I knew, but my arm had healed to an extent — grossly malformed, but movable, usable if I should ever need it. I had been moved to smaller cell of my own, fed, at times, given water that had poisoned me until my guts got used to it, shitting blood for a while, vomiting constantly ... but kept alive ... after a fashion.
And in this place, that meant I was being kept alive for a purpose, and that purpose could only be one thing. None of my family — even if they were not somewhere else in this building or another like it — could afford to ransom me, no International would be lobbying on my behalf. Therefore, They wanted information, wanted me to feed their conspiracies: Give them names that would continue to spread the web they were smothering the country with. I was not able to kill myself directly ... there was nothing sharp, nothing to strangle myself with, nothing useful ... so I stopped eating, did not drink the foul water any more. This may have provoked them.
They came in the night, of course. Boots kicking open the door of the cell, shouts, a torch shone directly in my face as they dragged me out into the corridor, threw me into a barrow, wheeled me away, guns pointed directly at me throughout. Did they think I could run away? That my one good arm could grasp the weapons, turn them against them ... or against myself? I did not know, I did not care. It was happening, I knew, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I hoped it would be quick, even as I knew that it would not be.
This time, I was taken to a clean room, thrown into a tiled area and sprayed with a fire hose, freezing water pummelling me against the walls until I was pulled into a sitting position and some chemical sprayed all over me — get rid of the lice, I thought, as I would get rid of you — and then left, naked, in a smaller room. This was tiled, too, with a steel door and an electric light from above. There was nothing else in it. I went to sleep. There was nothing else to do.
I woke strapped to a trolley, like you see in Western hospitals on the TV, with a man standing over me ... not an African ... attaching thick wires to my arms and chest, strapping them in place with canvas webbing. He made some comment to a man I couldn't see, in a language I couldn't understand, pushing my crippled legs around and laughing. I knew he was joking about the pointlessness of attaching his tools there and I hated him for it. Even as I was wheeled away, through to another room, this one lit by masses of lights so that it was brighter than the noonday in the mountains. My eyes hurt instantly but closing them didn't make any difference. I felt almost as much as saw a man attach the wires to a machine in the corner, reach towards a large red switch.
Despite myself, I screamed, the terror reaching me before the agony ... and the room seemed to become even brighter.
When the light faded ... which it did quite quickly ... I found myself in a room that was anything but bright. In fact, it appeared to be entirely black and I was no longer on the trolley. I was lying on a soft padded floor ... also black ... and warm, warm for the first time in ages. I tried to focus my eyes, noticed some writing on the wall — not graffiti but something official. It said, in English, French, Swahili and, yes, even in Lingala...
'You're not dead, you're not dreaming, you are alive.'
I did not understand, knew that it must be a threat, knew that this was just another phase in my long and painful death.
I did not try to move when a section of the wall opened almost like the peeling apart of two skins in the door of the shelters my grandfather had built ... and a white woman appeared, standing over me for a moment, scaning my naked body. I thought she must be CIA, perhaps French, Belgian, something similar ... I did not know that they were helping our government, could not believe that I was important enough to come to their attention even if they were. Had I broken under torture, told then what they wanted to know ... making things up to satisfy their paranoid fantasies? I wondered what sort of diabolical tools she would be able to employ, the technology she would be able to use, the power she had. Involuntarily, I scrabbled away from her, the floor smooth and soft beneath me. I was still staring at her in terror when she spoke for the first time, quietly, and in Lingala.
"I'm really sorry about the wait and the stuff you've been through in the past few weeks, we should have got you out earlier" she said, "but the wall's not a joke. You are safe, and the pain's all over. Now we just need to get you patched up, see what we can do to make things a little better for you."
And the room seemed to buzz ... and I was unconscious yet again.
This time I woke in an actual bed, like I was in a hotel room only without the shoddy furniture or the sounds of others through the walls. The room was warm and the bed soft, the quilt raised over some sort of frame around my legs, my head and shoulders propped up, one arm bandaged heavily ... but back to its normal shape. I saw a glass of water on the table beside me, used my good arm to drink deeply, finding it chilled and utterly clear, so that it felt like the water of life itself. I was still drinking deeply, hoping that there would be more, that I would not regret drinking all of this in one go, when the door opened and another white person came in.
A man, this time, not the woman I had seen before, and nothing like as pleasant a sight. Whereas I remembered her as statuesque, authoritative in a quiet sort of way, this one was shambling, untidy, unimpressive. He was tall, for sure, but he was dressed like the Anglo charity guys who used to come to our country before the war ... come to patronise us with their advice and their spare change, acting like children playing at being poor while knowing — as we knew — that they were rich beyond our wildest dreams, could end their game without a thought. I would not dress like a tramp if I had their money and I would not respect a man who did ... who could not even get his hair cut, could not be bothered to shave. I knew that he must be in a position of total — life or death — power over me, but I despised him more for his disheveled appearance, at that moment, than anything he might be planning to do to me.
When he spoke, I was hardly surprised any more that he, too, was fluent in Lingala.
"Mr Kimoko," he said, quietly, "Glad to see you awake. My name's Xavier and I'm sort of your host while you're staying with us. If you need anything, just let me know ... you'll see a call bell on the table beside your bed ... or you could just shout ... and I or a colleague will be here in a moment. Is there anything we can get for you now, though?"
I stared at him suspiciously ... his easy use of my own language actually increasing my feelings of vulnerability ... and I did not know how to react. I was frightened, of course, and also, I realised, extremely hungry ... but mainly I wanted to know what was going on. Who were these people, where was I, what did they want with me? I was sure that I was no longer anywhere near home — I hadn't been beaten for hours — but I had no idea how I might have got to wherever I was. I needed to know these things urgently, and while I had no reason to trust this Xavier, I also had no other way of finding the answers, so I asked him.
He told me. And he sounded sincere as he did so, answering the questions that I put to him without hesitation or evasion. We talked for perhaps half an hour, a dish of mwamba chicken arriving — I wasn't quite sure from where — while I was still trying to understand what I was being told.
Eventually, I became tired, told him so ... and he left me to get some sleep ... and to think.
I woke to find food on the table beside my bed and ate it gratefully even as my mind whirled with the 'information' that I had been given. I was not sure that I entirely understood what had been said — Lingala did not have the words for everything and my English was not good enough to deal with very technical concepts — and I was not sure that I could believe it, even if I thought I ought to ... which was a question in itself.
Even so, the man had told me that I was no longer in my homeland ... or in Africa ... or even on the planet Earth. This did not seem to me to be likely — surely not even the Americans could do this? — but I had no other information to go on. As I was eating and thinking, I realised that I was holding the plate with my 'injured' arm ... which was no longer bandaged ... and seemed to be perfectly mobile, even if the flesh had shrunk and the bones were more visible than before. I stared at it for some time ... food forgotten ... and wondered what had happened. I had seen the arm as it was ... living with a useless appendage for weeks if not months. But now it was OK.
I did not understand.
When I put the plate to one side, I became aware that having eaten well for the second time in a few hours, I was now feeling in need ... in urgent need ... of a toilet. I did not see a bed pan, did not know what I was supposed to do. I remembered the bell, decided I had no choice but to use it ... I could not bear the humiliation of soiling the bed.
Mortifyingly, the bell was answered not by Mr Xavier but by the woman who I had seen when I woke in the dark room. I was speechless and could not tell her what my problem was, the idea seeming almost as humiliating as the alternative I had previously rejected. While I struggled with my embarrassment, the woman preempted me, apparently guessing — or sensing — my need. She smiled, reassuringly, told me that there was a toilet behind the door in the corner of the room. Still struck dumb, I waved a hand at my useless legs, at the distance across to the door in question. Did she expect me to crawl? Was this the beginning of a new humiliation? I could not have anticipated her response to my distress.
"Ah, yes," she said. "your legs. Xav really should have explained things better to you, but I think you'll find your legs are a lot more functional than they were a while ago. So you can get out of bed on your own steam, if you'd like, though I suspect you'll be a bit shaky for a while — there has been considerable muscle wastage and we couldn't repair everything all at once — so I'll give you a hand over to the bathroom if you'd like.
Astonished and amazed I took hold of her outstretched arm and — yes — found that I could move my legs, could walk ... and, after a short while, could do so unassisted.
Zara — as she had told me to call her — left me in privacy and I found I had even more to think about. I was no longer crippled, for a start, but I also realised that Zara had been speaking English throughout our conversation ... and that I had understood every word.
It was only a couple of weeks later that I met with Zara and Xavier again to find out at last just why I was here. I had seen them in the interim, of course, Zara in particular spending time helping me with work in the gym — restoring me to a level of physical health that, to be honest, I had never even aspired to before — and showing me how to access the incredible archive of data they had about my own country and the world generally. Many things had been suspected about the regime I had lived under, about their actions against my people and their kleptocratic abuse of the nation and its future, but here it all was, in black and white, as they say ... and often in full colour ... and full motion ... as well.
I was by turns, amazed, shocked, and appalled but very soon I found any doubts I had about the veracity of the information faded away. It was just too detailed, too consistent, too real. I'd wondered why it was being shown to me, what they planned to do. And now, I hoped, I was about to find out.
In fact, I met with Zara and Xavier — the latter dressed more formally than I had ever seen him before — in the company of a second woman — Yvonne, as Zara introduced her to me — who was as tall and willowy ... and as blonde ... as Zara was curvaceous and dark. For some reason she sat on the floor in front of Zara's chair, keeping her eyes demurely cast down almost throughout the meeting.
It turned out that there was another participant, too ... the 'Artificial Intelligence' that Zara had told me about ... but which now revealed itself to be capable of talking and responding directly, its voice appearing somewhat mysteriously from the middle of the room.
The AI — I did not yet feel comfortable with calling it the Wisdom, as Xavier and Zara did routinely — took the lead. We had reached the stage when we needed to take action, it said, and the decision had been taken to start with my homeland, both because its crisis was most acute but also because it offered the chance to positively influence the entire region. To do this would require people to return to Earth and directly intervene with key individuals. It set out a detailed plan, naming people and places of which I had previously read only in newspapers — or heard on the underground rumour mill — describing how we would set them against each other, eliminating most through their own efforts while simultaneously promoting more honest and well intentioned individuals as positions became available. At the same time, a few individuals — in my country and others — would need to be addressed directly. I did not know exactly what it meant by that — or why Yvonne grinned the way she did, looking quickly round at Zara, as if for approval — but somehow I knew that I would be doing much of the addressing.
I did not think this would be a problem, remembering my times in their prisons, the friends who had never reappeared. I was glad that my wife, Namono, was safe across the border with her family. Zara had promised that she would be Protected ... kept safe ... and that I would see her soon. I hoped that she would not worry too much about me in the interim.