Shikara’s World – 10: Electricity

by Paul du Pré

Africa, in an alternate world.

A 9+1-part series.

In 1800 Alessandro Volta created the first electric battery. And in 1806 he was forced to admit the possibility of ‘electrical sentience’ (sensibilità nell’elettricità) an effect proportional to current. It first became apparent at moderately low voltages; sparks could be induced to leap between terminals, but their behaviour was erratic.

His battery had been meticulously engineered. Surely this inconsistency was not its fault?

There was natural evidence in support of the intelligence of electrical current. Even children knew that thunderstorms behaved with inscrutable orderliness, successive lightning strikes stitching geometric patterns across the flanks of mountains, or fusing prominent rocks into spheres, arches or other more complex shapes.

Meditating on this; comparing the haphazard behaviour of smaller discharges to the discipline shown by lightning, Volta was moved to postulate that, in addition to electrical sentience, there was a secondary effect – capriciousness (capricciosità) – inversely proportional to current. In essence, the smaller the discharge, the stupider and more mischievous it was.

(Fortunately – as we now know – sentience becomes negligible in electrical perturbations below approximately 50 milli-volt-amperes. Otherwise, molecular bonds would disintegrate, we wouldn’t be able to think, and light – ah, light…there’s another story – light would be completely capricious instead of merely moody.)

Others continued Volta’s research. And in 1827 Georg Ohm – while making significant progress – nonetheless admitted bafflement, writing: “Hypothetically, one might describe the behaviour of current in a wire, but a different kind of mathematics is needed to account for its sentience; a mathematics we have not yet invented.” Ohm later founded, and became First Adept of the Order of Electricians – a departure towards the ‘mystical’ that his scientific colleagues found deplorable. Howbeit, the Electricians flourished, recruiting people who had an aptitude for sensing and, indeed, controlling electricity (abilities previously obscured by myth and folktale). In time, Ohm’s colleagues recanted their opposition and the ranks of the Electricians were augmented by enquiring and disciplined minds.

Progress was made.

Steamships sailed the oceans, colonization accelerated. The machine gun was perfected.

The winds of change blew, and the colonies – South Africa among them – became sovereign nations.

***

Bulumko is among the seven percent that possess significant ability to sense electricity remotely (using the many thousands of cutaneous electroreceptors that stripe the convolutions within his sinuses – electroreceptors similar to those found in the Platypus) and, in limited fashion, to control it (well-developed Organelles of Benford swelling his frontal lobe, give him the ‘brainy’ look that favours those so endowed). He is about to be inducted into the Order of Electricians, Cape Town (intake, 2029) and is midway along a queue tediously centipeding its way towards a russet-gowned clerk; she is seated in a gloomy nook, and the registration ledgers that lie open before her are illuminated by a wall-mounted gas lantern.

Bulumko is ten years older than the other neophytes, and is explaining: “…the butchery was doing well, so I persuaded mom to let my sisters help out…” He pauses to field a question. “Yebo, in Overcome, back by the marshes… Yes, a lot of shacks still. But hey, people like our meat. You must have heard of our Saturday barbecue? We have tourist parties…”

He is stocky, with an open, friendly air. Two girls are animatedly interrogating him while the other students pretend not to listen.

“…and, so I got into show-sparking. Well, I had the gift…”

Further down the queue, a tall, cadaverous youth with midnight skin skews an irritated glance at Bulumko. He is draped in a soot-black undergraduate gown, frayed at the hem. The gown’s hood is up.

Bulumko is wearing blue jeans, and Nike rip-offs. “…Saleem Irbon, the rapper – you must have heard of him – I always spark for him.”

The girls nod and squeal. They’ve heard of Saleem.

A venomous hiss: “Sparky, go back to your meat-shop.” It’s the youth: lips curled back, teeth and eyes luminescent beneath the hood’s shadow, stark against his coal-dark complexion.

“What?” gapes Bulumko.

“You’ve no respect. No gown. And you’re too old – not fit to learn more than party tricks.” Spittle flies.

“Whoa! Who put a cockroach down your pants?” The girls titter uncertainly.

Bitterly affronted, the youth turns his back. Bulumko conjures amber and violet sparks; manoeuvres them suggestively above the young man’s head: “Hey, gown-clown!” The girls giggle.

Outraged, the youth wheels, snatching back his hood. “Remember the name: Uuka,” he growls. His forehead is unusually large and his nose pinched and narrow. His eyes seem to glare like fiery torches and Bulumko feels pressure mounting in his head. As if his skull is about to explode.

Bulumko has heard rumours of adepts able to destroy a man by manipulating the electricity in his brain; knows that there’s some truth in them, and recognises that this youth’s extraordinary talent is messing with his mind – he’s experienced something similar before. He also knows that no amount of talent is proof against a forceful kick to the groin.

But, the girls won’t like it…

Instead, he fishes in his jeans-pocket, palms a flat, circular capacitor and, pantomiming a show of distress, presses it to his forehead. And focuses on channelling the rogue charges stampeding his brain into it – a nauseating sensation that leaves his mind blank. He staggers, and the girl with corn-row braids – Thandi, he remembers – is bold enough to steady his arm.

“You trying to kill me…Uuka?” He doesn’t have to exaggerate his disorientation. The girls coo in alarm. “Listen,” he says, steadying, appraising Uuka’s threadbare clothes and gown. “You may have lots of talent…” Uuka sneers triumphantly. “…Yeah, yeah, you win. But I’ve got money. And I could really use a coffee after this…” Bulumko waits, just long enough for anticipation to charge the atmosphere, before blanking Uuka. “What do you say girls?”

The girls say yes.

Uuka turns away. By now he’s nearly at the head of the queue.

***

Image Credits

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Disclaimer, Copyright and Permissions

Shikara’s Wolrd: Electricity is a work of fiction by Paul du Preez, writing as Paul du Pré. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of Paul du Preez’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights are reserved, including without limitation, the right to reproduce Shikara’s Wolrd: Electricity and the original art or music associated with it, or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Paul du Preez. Copyrighted 2020 by Paul du Preez.

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