Accra.city, 2080

After his wife died, David drew his daughter, Yaa, even closer. Or tried to.

They had stopped for breakfast at a food stall on their way to her high school, both sweating in the heat. He watched as she bit into a slice of melon. A trickle of juice escaped down her chin, which she wiped distractedly with the back of her hand. A smear remained. She was probably full, he thought, of wondering about her best friend and the sensa they had been telepathically exchanging that morning via their beads. Images, sensations and thoughts sent by one appeared almost instantaneously like tiny dreams in the mind of the other. The mental link was supposed to be unobtrusive, but he could see the arrival of the other girl’s transmissions reflected on Yaa’s face. He would have turned off the wireless connection if he could.

As the traffic of market-goers passed them, he tenderly wiped her chin with a corner of a serviette. Last night he’d dreamed that she was taken from him, kidnapped. And when suddenly, in the bustling reality of that morning, a young man pushed by them quickly through the crowds, his detective’s instincts bristled. But the man disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.

“Da-aad!” She grimaced as David turned back to dab at a spot of juice he’d missed. She was still embarrassed by him, no matter what he did, at age sixteen. “Leave me here. I’ll make my way by myself. It’s not far.” She looked at him imploringly, peering round to see if any of her friends had observed them together. She wore a silver choker with an adinkra medallion which he knew to be Nkyin kyin, symbol of twisting and versatility. And in that choice of jewellery she followed her mother. She was tall like her, too, with cascades of fine curls and intelligent, liquid eyes. He wanted to pinch himself every time he looked at her, every rare time she confided in him. He wondered how long it would be before she left him altogether to go her own way. Twisting, versatile.

“No. You’re not going without me. Ready?”

Yaa pouted, but she never disobeyed him. She tossed what remained of her melon slice into the bin. David knew only too well that dangers lurked in Accra.city, especially since his promotion from beat policing to tracking down the renegades – criminal hackers, that is, who had turned against the government. David could never tell Yaa about the lengths to which they would go for a piece of the government’s profits.

David and Yaa didn’t speak for the rest of the way, as they crossed streets nimbly, carefully avoiding the swarms of bikes and tro-tros filled with passengers. After he’d left her at the school gates, David switched on the beads embedded in his left wrist. He left them disconnected whenever he was off-duty, sometimes even when he was at work. He sent a telepathic message of love like an intuition to Yaa. It was no surprise when she didn’t respond. He couldn’t bring her mother back, just as he hadn’t managed to heal their estrangement before she died a year ago, however hard he had tried. Yaa had wanted so much for them to be reconciled. Her mother’s loss was still fresh within her. She felt it with the keenness of her age.

Loosening his tie in the damp, oppressive heat, David decided to take a few moments to himself on a bench in the shade of tall wawa trees. He looked up into the spreading foliage before taking a seat, then clutched his hands together, tense about the case he was working on. David’s job was to hunt the renegades down, and there was one particular individual whose scent he had caught. At the thought of this man, who was known to have tortured anyone who got in his way, David rose and moved on, unable to sit still.

All that day, he flashed his badge and made enquiries, repeating the same questions endlessly, receiving the same practised blank stares. Accra.city knew better than to rat on criminals whose technologies were so far ahead as to be indistinguishable from magic – dark magic like electronic voodoo. The figures that had started to appear in the city’s trees over the last six months were a grizzly testament to their powers. As he followed his investigations, taking tro-tros from one part of the city to another, David hoped he wouldn’t see any of them. Yet he felt compelled to look upwards on his journeys.

These unresponsive, void-staring husks of human beings climbed into the branches instinctively and tottered until, finally weakened, they fell like empty, wing-clipped angels into the Accra.city streets. He had seen one fall with his own eyes but hadn’t been able to get a close look. Agents of Special Branch, who appeared on the scene as soon as the first reports came in, kept him back along with everyone else while they took the corpse away. No one – outside Special Branch, anyway – knew much about what had happened to the fallers, or why. It appeared that they had had their minds removed. By all accounts they were people with no known criminal connections: ordinary folk in sales, finance, energy, as though they had been picked at random. Everyone knew it was the work of the renegades, who maybe were not entirely in control of their experimentation, for all their vaunted abilities.

When he left his former department a couple of months ago, his colleagues had joked about being careful not to lose his mind in the new job. He had laughed too; now it wasn’t so funny.

That night, David might have found out a great deal more about the type of experimentation the renegades were perpetrating on their victims had he remained conscious after he knocked on the door of a dilapidated address in East Legon. Had the careful blow to the back of his head, struck immediately upon entry, not been followed by a series of electro-biological keyhole surgeries performed on his brain over the course of two weeks. The renegades’ purpose was to implant something never before attempted: an entity that could impress itself upon his mind like a message through his beads. Except that this entity was an internal being, an agent within his mind – the ultimate hack in a world of mental content, of sensa.

When, finally, he woke up alone, flat out on a bench in the shade at midday, in a part of the city he’d never been to before, he was surprisingly clear-headed. Switching on his beads in the hope of finding out what had befallen him, he was met by hundreds of increasingly near-hysterical attempts to contact him which Yaa had made over the course of two weeks – not to mention the messages from his colleagues. Alongside this mental content – he tried hard to deny it but couldn’t, any more than one could deny the existence of pain – was the presence of an inhabitant like a weight inside his mind. It was blurry, but he could just about make it out, a muscly shadow which watched the operation of his mind from close quarters. It seemed more or less static. David eventually understood why: it appeared to be behind the door of a mental prison cell.

Special Branch came and took David back to an area of security HQ where he would normally never be allowed. An extensive medical examination revealed no ill effects, physically speaking, except for three small holes drilled in his cranium. There was no shadow on the MRI to show anything interfered with or planted inside his head. His beads, on the other hand, had been hacked beyond recognition. They had to be reset.

For three days they questioned him, let him rest, then questioned him again. An agent calling himself Detective Inspector Kojo was insistent, to the point of spitting, desk-thumping brutality, that he give them answers. David wondered, sweating and fevered with worry, whether Kojo was going to hit him. David was lucid about his activities and movements, apart from the missing two weeks. He could remember nothing after entering the house in East Legon – which Special Branch had found empty and wiped clean of any traces of occupation.

All this time his occupant stared coolly through what David could now clearly see, in a waking nightmare, were the bars of its mental cell, apparently listening to his thoughts and trying to peer through his eyes to the world outside: the special agents, the chairs, the coffee cups, the boards mounted with pictures of suspected renegades and the tumbledown house where he had been operated upon.

Had the renegades implanted it to spy on his unit? Or was he only imagining that it was looking and listening? And communicating? But then, what was it there for?

A hundred times David tried to formulate the words to describe what was happening inside his mind, to tell his interrogators. But they would think him mad. Get rid of him altogether. He would have to find a way to purge it by himself.

In the meantime he thought of the empty figures fallen from the trees. Something had taken their minds. Was this thing the perpetrator, or another like it? Was it waiting to consume his mind? Or someone else’s? It stared impassively when he looked at his colleagues, seemed unable to get beyond the bars of its cell. It didn’t even try. But what if that changed? What if the cell door opened?

The fear that choked him only increased. After the first day he was having trouble speaking.

On the fourth day they released David and told him to get some rest. He was desperate to see Yaa, even though he could tell her little that would make any sense. He had already had to lie to her telepathically, about an undercover operation that was keeping him away. It would soon be over, he told her.

Instead of returning home, he took a room in a hotel on the other side of the city. For several days he wandered the streets with a gun in his pocket. If the thing stirred towards anyone, he told himself, he would put a bullet through his head there and then. Nothing happened, despite many encounters with the denizens of Accra.city. The thing remained impassive and mute in its cell as he bought provisions, ate in cafes. He was expecting it to speak, for someone to contact him through it. To reveal whatever horrific plans they had for him.

Eventually, he couldn’t stand not seeing Yaa any longer.

He didn’t want to walk in unannounced in case he shocked her, so he sent a telepathic message ahead that he was coming back and knocked on the door of their home. When she appeared, tearful and angry, he reached out a hand. Then stopped. Almost immediately upon the sight of her – upon the rush of love he felt for her – the thing’s cell door started to open. It was pushing its meaty hands through the gap.

“Yaa. I’m… I’m so sorry, Yaa. I love you. I can’t explain what’s happened. I don’t want to go but I can’t stay. Go to your uncle. I’ll be back when I can.”

He felt for the gun in his pocket and turned. Ran.