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Author:Nnedi Okorafor

“Stop staring at me,” I muttered. My chest felt tight and I coughed. Some woman chuckled. Those men kept staring at me as they talked amongst themselves. I bought a bag of the onions and bell peppers I planned to use later in the evening despite my instincts telling me that I should leave.

The ground was pounded dirt that had been walked upon, stood upon, day in, day out. Sandals, boots, shoes, bare feet, the paws of cats and dogs, the taloned feet of vultures, the clawed feet of pigeons. It was soaked with spilled Fanta and Coca Cola. Sometimes it was turned to mud by the occasional rain. Leaves tumbled on it in the wind, trash was dropped on it, fruit was mashed into it. Motor oil, goat feces, chicken shit, semolina, garri. The dirt told everything. It was the greatest griot. It was blended with my tears, my skin cells, one of my torn off dreadlocks, the hot juice from my crushed peppers.

However, it wasn’t blended with my blood. That was their blood. Only their blood. None of mine. And yes, my legs and arms and several of my organs may be 3rd Life, but I do still have human blood. And I have a human heart. For now.

They spoke, then they yelled at me in Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, but mostly in English. I understood all of them. A good mechanic knows how to communicate with customers, even when she can’t speak their language. Plus, YouTube had taught me how to build and take apart technology, and that includes the technology of language. Especially after I got the neural implants.

“What kind of woman are you?” the beautiful man asked me in English. He had a robust, well-groomed beard that he’d dyed reddish orange, full lips, bright sparkling light brown eyes. He was as tall as me and standing way too close. I could smell the perfumed oil he wore. Yes, sandalwood. One of my favorite scents.

I looked him in the eye. I could feel every part of my body, my pumping heart, my shaking hands. Adrenaline. I was furious. My head throbbed harder than ever. People knew me here. I took my time. I chose my words carefully. The beautiful Hausa man reminded me of my fiancé who’d asked the same question not long before he walked out the door. “What kind of woman are you?”

I said to him what I said to Olaniyi who hated all my augmentations so much yet still loved me, “I will never answer your question.” My voice was cold, even hard, and it was low. And as I spoke, I looked the beautiful man dead in the eye, just as I had looked into Olaniyi’s eyes.

And like Olaniyi, he slapped me in the face. But much much harder. Hard enough for my world to burst into silver, red and blue. It was as if Amadioha or Shango had slapped me. With an electrified hand. Like lightning. I was in a nightmare with my eyes open. I blinked and for a moment, I saw a million eyes, red red red eyes, a honeycomb of eyes, a pomegranate of eyes, all on me. Then all those men started beating me, and it was their wild eyes I saw between fists and feet. I don’t know when they’d stood from their stools.

No one helped me.

I don’t remember if anyone spoke or shouted. But I know that no one helped me. My eyes were open. I saw between the feet and legs, past the arms and I smelled the fear.

So I helped myself.

I was down, then I got up. No, I didn’t just get up. There was a feeling in my head, a warm liquid itchy pain, like something had ruptured and was now freely bleeding at the back of my skull. But he’d slapped me in the face, why would I feel it in the back of my skull? Then there was what I could only call a . . . a difference. Something felt different. That’s when I got up. I glanced at the sky, past the tops of the market booths. At the sun that shined down on me. The heat. Dry and clear, arid, Abuja was not the desert, but it wasn’t far from the deserts of the north. It may sound strange, but to me, deserts were always a place of optimism and possibility, not death. I could always smell the desert in the air, more nearby than far away. I felt electrified. Solar energy is powerful.

I took on the beautiful man first. I don’t believe in the traditional aesthetics of beauty. Not for me. For me, it is not in the look, it’s in the function, the kinetics, the motion, the fluidity of moving in space and time. My body could never be beautiful by traditional human aesthetics.

I was born outside of beautiful, with a gnarled stump where my left arm should have been, my legs withered and misshapen. On the inside, I had intestinal malrotation and only one lung. When they’d seen the state of me on the sonogram in my mother’s belly, they’d said that my mother’s body would reject me and that would be that, but it didn’t. I stayed. My parents and their church felt obligated to keep me. I don’t think either of them will ever forgive me for not dying, nor will my father ever forgive my mother. So why revere the aesthetics of traditional beauty? It’s like worshipping a god who cannot see you. It is choosing to never be celebrated. I wanted to be celebrated.

I was given an artificial 3D-printed second lung that expanded as I grew. They gave me the prosthetic arm and intestines made of genetically grown and enhanced spider silk. They gave me leg exoskeletons that allowed me to walk while using, and in spite of, my withered legs.

But that wasn’t the only physical challenge the universe had in store for me. When I was fourteen, I was in a rare automated-vehicle accident, the only one of its kind. To this day, even the best engineers could not get to the bottom of what happened. My withered legs were crippled even further. I’d had to finally have them removed and get full cybernetic leg transplants. Because it took so long for my nerves to fuse with each leg, I learned what it was to sit or more often lie down for weeks at a time. I was in too much pain to be a wheelie.

When I was seventeen and able to give my consent to remove the arm stump, over my parents’ pleas to keep this withered useless piece of flesh and bone, the doctors gave me my cybernetic limb. When they explained the procedure and showed me the robotic arm, I asked, “Why cover it with flesh?” My parents couldn’t afford it, I didn’t need it. I am part machine. I am proud to be part machine. I was born twisted and strange by their standards. And after so much recovery, I was somehow amazing.

* * *

I smashed my machine fist into his flesh face. Why did these men think they could treat me like one of their women and suffer no consequence? Because I was polite? Because I yielded to them? Shrunk myself for them? They didn’t know respect when it was given. My ex-fiancé Olaniyi was the same way.