Tochi Onyebuchi’s newest heart-stopping novel WAR GIRLS is getting ready to hit shelves next month! But since that feels like forever, we’re sharing an excerpt today. Scroll down to read the first chapter!
Southeastern Nigeria, April 2172
The first thing Onyii does every morning is take off her arm. Other War Girls have gotten used to sleeping without their arms or their legs. But Onyii’s phantom limb haunts her in her sleep. In her dreams, she has all her arms and legs and can run. She can run far and fast and away from whatever is chasing her. She can hold her rifle, and she can aim, and she can feel her face with all of her fingers. But then she’d wake up and try to touch her body with a right arm that wasn’t there anymore. She never got accustomed to waking up without all of her body there, so now she sleeps with her arm attached, even though sometimes she accidentally crushes and bends some of the machinery. Even though the sweat from her night terrors rusts some of the more delicate circuitry. Even though she wakes every morning with the imprint of metal plates on her cheek. Which is why she gets up earlier than the rest of the camp and spends the quiet morning hours at her bedside station, oiling the gears and tinkering with the chips. In the darkness, the sparks from the metal as she works are the only light in her tent.
Ify sleeps through all of it.
Onyii takes a moment to listen to Ify snore. The birds outside have just started their chirping, but they’re still quiet enough that Onyii can hear Ify’s patterns. Two smooth snores, then a hiccup. Onyii’s dreams are a blur of chaos and blood and screaming. Flashes of gunfire. Rain falling hard but never hard enough to wash the tears from her face. Ify’s face is serene in slumber, the tribal scars soft ridges on her cheeks. Her lips turn up at the edges. For almost her entire life, the child has only known peace.
When Onyii finishes, she disconnects her arm from its station and places it against the spot where her shoulder ends. She’d left that battle long ago with a stump. But the doctors had had to cut away the rest of the arm, because it had gotten infected. Now, there is only mesh wiring over the opening, so that her socket is more like a power outlet than anything else. Nanobots buzz out of the metal arm socket, trailing wires. The threading then attaches the metal to her flesh. Electricity shocks through her body—a small burst like scraping feet against carpet then touching a doorknob. Then she’s able to flex her fingers. She tries out her elbow joints, bends the arm, swings it slowly back and forth, rotating the shoulder, then stretches and lets out a massive yawn. She waits until she’s outside the tent to let out her gas.
The world is green and wet with recent rain. The dew hasn’t yet dried from the grass. Leaves bend on their tree branches overhead.
Wind whips about her. Engines scream overhead, and Onyii looks up just in time to see aerial mechs, massive humanoid robots, with green and white stripes painted on their shoulders screech through the sky, as they’ve been doing for the past year. Shoulder cannons and thrusters attached to their compact bodies. State-of-the-art nav systems. Yet they can’t detect the rebel Biafran camp right under their noses. As long as the signal dampener they rigged to hide this outpost from the Nigerian authorities is up and running, they’re safe. The government forces can’t even see the rebel flag waving right below them. A blue background with half of a yellow sun at its bottom, golden rays radiating outward like lightning bolts.
Onyii stretches her flesh-and-blood arm and shoulder, arches her back and listens to the cracks ripple up her spine, then shakes herself loose. She’s still wearing only her bedclothes—a compression bra and athletic shorts that stick to her in the heavy Delta humidity—but it’s comfortable enough for a morning run.
She makes her usual circuit of the camp. First, she heads to the camp’s periphery, past the school for the little ones and one of the few auto-body shelters—a place where faulty robotics can be tinkered with, where arms and legs can be made. Where the girls can become Augments, given limbs or organs more powerful than what they were born with. Sometimes, it’s a place where medical operations happen and people are given new eyes or the bleeding in their brain is stopped and a braincase has to be installed. Onyii knows some of the others sneer at the place, like people only go there to come out less than human, but some of those who look sideways at the people working in there and getting worked on have never seen war. Half-limbs only become half-limbs because they’re trying to make someone whole. An Augment is not an ugly thing.
She hangs a left and spots the orchard and the fruit trees that line it. Beyond the orchard, a vegetable garden sits encased in a greenhouse large enough for a few people to enter and roam about in. Rotating spigots programmed to automatically spray water on the plants hang from the ceiling, and artificial light panels line the walls. The camp hasn’t needed them for some time, but when the nights get long—too long—they can’t let the food suffer.
Onyii spirals outward on her run and passes the mess hall—usually empty this early in the morning. But as Onyii runs by she spots a girl in jungle fatigues with her jacket unbuttoned and draped loose over her shoulders as she leans on her rifle, dozing. Chike. At the sound of Onyii’s feet brushing the grass, Chike starts awake and straightens. It’s a wonder she doesn’t hoist her assault rifle and aim it right at Onyii; she’s so jittery. When Chike realizes where she is, she settles back, and her posture relaxes.
It’s only me, Onyii thinks, who will pafuka your head when your commanding officer finds out you’ve been sleeping on your watch!
Onyii ambles past. These morning runs double as patrol surveillance. Backup for those on watch. The outpost may be hidden from radars and scanners, but what’s to keep a Green-and-White from walking right through their perimeter? At fifteen, Onyii is among the oldest in the camp. The younger ones—some of them new to living on their own and some of them just learning how to be people again after having grown feral in the jungles—have trouble adjusting, staying awake during patrols, concentrating during school, not screaming in their sleep. In some of them, their guns are bigger than they are. But they’re slowly turning into steel, turning into the type of girls who can be depended on during an attack, the type of girls Onyii would be happy to have at her side in a fight. Proud, even.
Her route takes her farther out to the practice grounds where weapons training happens. Jungle trees with their broad, heavy leaves hide the girls from above, and there’s enough foliage here to absorb most of the noise they make as they shoot toward the shoreline. She gets to the cliff, and below her lies the beach. Melee combat happens here too, when it’s scheduled, but during the warm seasons, Onyii will occasionally arrive on her morning runs to see some of the girls already laid out, naked beneath the sun, giggling or roughhousing, and she’s reminded that many of them are still just kids. And the sun for them is still a gentle, loving thing. Some of them have never looked up into a clear blue sky, at an out-of-place twinkling, and recognized a drone ready to drop a bomb on their homes. Maybe some of them have seen it and still don’t care. Those ones always turn out to be good fighters. Reckless, but good.