The dusty, bumpy road linking the magnetic hyper-expressway to Ijebu-Ode was nothing like the smooth, organised, and illuminated tunnels from which it branched out. I focused on the lush green forest that flanked me on each side of the ancient, red road as my brain and my transport pod AI conspired to navigate the way to Professor Olukoya’s country home.
The burden of vengeance was heavy in my right hand; two decades worth of hate compressed into one millilitre of clear liquid held in a small, silver tube. I looked through my window, took in the sights of untarnished forest, and allowed them to sink in. It was only on rare occasions that I got to see nature like this, as yet untamed. It was all so strikingly different from the domestic, subjugated pockets of greenery that dotted the Lagos supercity complex—six solid structures, each one towering seven kilometres into the sky and imposing a ten-square-kilometre footprint on the ground like giant fingers insolently poking at the eyes of gods long unworshipped and ancestors long forgotten—in precisely picked parks and conservatories.
Above me, the setting sun peeked out cautiously from behind the silver skirt of low-hanging clouds, framing the vast tableau of trees and grass around in a reddish-grey haze. Mesmerised by the sea of endless green, I found myself lost in thought until my transport pod AI transmitted an insistent direct message to me through my neural implant. “Switching to Driver Direct Neural Navigation. Take left turn in two minutes. Caution: Non-hyper-express terrain.”
The viscous voice seeped into my consciousness like ether, and even though I knew it was nothing more than a series of electro-chemical signals exchanged between the pod and my brain, I still interpreted it as a voice. I’d heard good axiological arguments against humanisation of neural signals from direct brain-machine interfaces, but I liked that my pod sometimes sounded like a caring aunt asking me a favour, and other times like a brisk and efficient agent giving me instructions, depending on my mood. I focused on the road, and in two minutes, did as I was told, thinking the pod through the turn.
I felt it in my bones when I reached the professor’s home, this particular direct-neural message coming not as sound but as a small, pod-induced electro-muscular vibration. I was afraid, and my neural implants were adjusting my body’s responses accordingly. My Lifedock readings were all over the place. I needed to calm down, so I breathed slowly, deeply to calm myself. When my Lifedock readings settled down, I threw the round-ended silver tube into the pocket of my bodysuit and thought the transport pod to a stop. I pulled my neural engagement key out of the chamfered sync slot and carefully reattached it to the Lifedock jack in my left arm. Stepping out of the sleek, white pod and into the dizzying heat, I briefly regarded the intricate whorls and arcs in its surface finish that served as its unique identification, wondering if they had any significant correlation to my own fingerprints, and if, when I finally had the blood of this old enemy on my hands, its next owner would insist on having its exteriors changed. Dismissing that thought, I mentally instructed the pod to secure itself before slowly taking the first step toward my revenge: approaching the veranda of the red brick bungalow that lay before me. I froze a few steps away from the entrance and stood outside for almost a minute, staring at the strange, ancient red-brick-and-wood construct. It must have been six or seven hundred years old. I had never seen anything like it. I was still studying it when I heard a voice call out to me from within the house that looked like it was built with caked blood.
“Well, do you want to come in or not?”
“Err. Yes … Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” I responded, a bit too effusively and rather clumsily. I was angry with myself for using the word “sir” twice in an apology that only consisted of four words, and even more disgusted at the act I needed to put on in order to get close enough to do what needed to be done. Flustered, I cantered hastily to the open entrance of the house and through a screen of beads and cowries, which hung just past a door that had receded into slats set in the wall. My short-range wireless neural interface auto-connected to the security AI of the house, and I felt it as a tightening in my throat. The AI was a powerful security program, but the professor had already preapproved clearance for me, so it wasn’t trying to override my neural pathways and tell my own body to kill or incapacitate me, as it would an intruder. The important thing was: I was in.
The professor was sitting on a weathered, brown sofa the colour of moulding clay. Cracks in the leather ran all over it like fractures across a dried-up pond. The sofa seemed as though it were an extension of the old man, with his clean-shaven head, grey beard, and weathered, brown skin. It was a fitting place for him to die.
“Sit down,” Professor Olukoya said, pointing at a plain black stool opposite him. As I took a step toward it, it seemed to spontaneously liquefy, morphing into a higher, solid-backed chair. It was a nice piece of high-tech, programmable nanomaterial furniture; the kind our country’s nanotech industry had made trillions of dollars from exporting to the rest of the world.
“I was making efo riroand amala. Would you like some?” he offered with a tight smile.
“No sir, I’m fine. I ate on the way here,” I lied.
“Very well, then. Let us begin.”
The professor’s voice carried easily, and even though I detected no accent, he still carried the cadence and the speaking manner of a typical Yoruba man, his syllables more sung than pronounced. I took out a rectangular, black device from my bodysuit cargo compartment and settled into the nanomaterial chair, face to face with the man who had taken everything that mattered from me.
I cleared my throat.
“I’m sure my editor already explained to you why I’m here, so I suppose we should just begin,” I said, in as professional tone as I could, hoping he didn’t notice the gentle undulation of my voice.
“Of course. The interview. That is your neural recorder?” He gestured toward the black box.
“So, when people download your log file to their Lifedocks, they will feel exactly what you felt as you interviewed me?”
I fought the urge to scream her name and kill him with that querying look plastered onto his face, but I forced myself to remain calm; I needed him to know why.
“Yes, sir. It will be just as though they spoke with you themselves, in this place.”
“Interesting. I’ve personally never cared much for neural sharetech—so many young people only use it for pointless social nonsense—but this seems like a good application for it. Anyway, very good. You can start.”
I pressed the FullRes button on the recorder and shivered as it came on, syncing with my neural implant and priming itself to record the full range of my sensory interactions.
“Good evening, Professor Olukoya. It is an honour to finally speak with you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, and also your audience.”
The old man’s excessive smile threatened to colonise his wrinkled face. He was playing to the imagined gallery, focused on projecting as good an impression as possible on his potential audience, and distracted by his own pretentions.
“Tell me about the Eshu Protocol,” I said sharply, sans smile.
A sheen of sweat appeared on the professor’s head, where his hairline had once held a border. In the cool air of the temperature-regulated brick house, the sweat might as well have been little droplets of acknowledged guilt, condensing confessions, secretions of liquid fear.
“Wha … Excuse me? What kind of … you’re not from Timeline Magazine, are you?” the old man asked, his voice shaking and betraying his age for the first time.
“My name,” I began as I reached for the silver tube in my cargo compartment, “is Yemi Ladipo.”
The professor’s face went hard and white. I snapped to my feet, and in one smooth motion, crossed the space between us, trailing the silver tube full of vengeance and death in my left hand. I landed on top of him; so close, I could smell the tobacco on his breath and the cocoa butter on his skin. I pinned down his right forearm with my left knee and held down his left hand with my right. I flicked the cap off the tube to reveal its thin, long needle like the proboscis of a thirsty mosquito, jammed it into his neck, and squeezed. The professor became a dead man walking. I pulled back to see shock and fear and confusion in his eyes. I expected to see those. What I did not expect was for the confusion to quickly morph into anger and for something cold and liquid to wrap itself around my throat and solidify into a vice, trying to strangle the life out of me.
His face took on a bone-tight grimace as I let go of his hand. Through my retreating vision, I saw him reach under the sofa. I thought quickly, resisting the pain and fear and darkness of suffocation with gritted teeth. I pulled the empty silver tube from the professor’s neck and jammed the needle into his left eyeball.
There was a scream. I felt the vice around my neck loosen. There was a burst of bright light. A bolt of pain ripped through me at the speed of a malicious thought. I fell back onto the floor, away from the mewling old man on the brown sofa, clutching his punctured left eye socket. There was a silver plasma pistol slipping from his right hand and a black-edged, bloody hole in my belly.
He was done for, but so was I.
I mentally cycled through the readings of my Lifedock, and with a thought, commanded my neural interface AI to dump endorphins into my system for the pain. There was no way I could get back to the Lagos supercity medical centre in time for a rectification specialist to plug the hole in my belly with bioengineered stem cells. I tried to keep pressure on both sides of the hole in my torso, but blood was leaking out between my fingers. I did not want to go into shock. The professor had stopped screaming and the smell of blood and ozone filled the small space between us. My thoughts drifted to my mother. I wondered what she had been thinking when the professor had sat behind her on the Accra-Beijing hyper-expressway, back in 2486, and burned a hole through her brain with plasma hotter than the core temperature of the sun.
I struggled to my feet—the pain dulled to a persistent gnawing—and stumbled forward, each step a painful reminder that I was going to die soon.
“What did you do to me, boy?” the professor asked from behind the bloodstained sofa. He sounded more like a man asking a technical question to a colleague than a mortally wounded man with one eye, dying a slow and painful death.
“I injected you with malcore nanomachines. They will weave the iron in your blood into stable, long chained molecules until you die or pass out from the pain.”
He only sighed heavily, and asked, “You are Omolara’s son?”
“Yes, I am,” I responded, somewhat less triumphantly than I had imagined I would.
He took his time before replying, probably focusing on dumping enough endorphins in his system to stem the tide of pain. Eventually, he struggled up to sit on the floor, propped against the red brick wall, looked up at me, and said, “I regret nothing. I did what I had to do to advance our people.” A rill of blood and clear liquid poured down the side of his cheek like unholy tears.
Weak, I hobbled past the bloodstained couch and slumped to the ground beside him. “I don’t need your regret; I just need you to acknowledge your crime and then I need you to die.”
He went silent again for a few seconds, and then he said, unexpectedly, “I carried you when you were born, did you know that?”
Surprised, but unwilling to show it, I focused on my leaking midsection, tore open my bloody bodysuit, and stared at the hole that would kill me. I was sure he was lying.
“Of course, you don’t remember, but I do,” he rasped. “Three months after the end of the Singularity War, just when we’d started rebuilding everything. Your mother and I were stationed in ChinoSovia. You were such a small, lovely thing then,” he said. “Quiet, for a boy.”
My heart went arrhythmic. The old man was confusing me. I had come prepared for him to plead with me, beg for his life, fight, rage, rampage, apologize … anything except this. I said the only thing I could think to say, which was, “Shut up.”
He took a hard, long draw of air and looked at me, as though all the logic of the world were in his eyes. “You hate me for killing her, but you don’t even know why I did it,” he managed. I could hear the faint tremble of some long-buried emotion in his words. “Do you?”
I wanted to scream that it didn’t matter, that nothing he could say would ever justify what he had done. But sitting there on the floor, dying beside him like comrades on a battlefield, it just seemed easier to let him go on speaking.
“You need to understand, those were the days following the technological singularity and a terrible war with an artificial superintelligence that humanity had created with its own hands. Everyone was afraid of any kind of technology they did not understand. Governments were destroying ideas they had spent billions of dollars investing in, wiping out whole generations worth of research in a knee-jerk reaction.”
“What does any of this have to do with my mother?”
“Everything,” he snapped as he was seized by a sudden coughing fit. Pressurised blood vessels strained against the flesh of his forehead, and his eyes began to bulge. The nanomachines were wreaking havoc inside him. I felt an urge to tell him to rest and stop talking, but I said nothing because it was such a strange situation and there was the smell of blood around us and I was curious to know his reason, to see where he was going with his story. The coughs stopped and he continued speaking.
“In ChinoSovia, we’d found a computing cluster that the independent superintelligence had been using. Your mother and I were part of the United Nations task force assigned to assess the data there, and if there was anything related to artificial intelligence, to destroy it. That’s where we found the Eshu Protocol.”
The Eshu Protocol. All I knew about it was that it was the codename for a secret my mother had been investigating when she was killed. It was one of the few intelligible fragments of data left in her neural profile after her brain was fried with plasma. That, and the fact she was absolutely convinced Professor Olukoya would kill her moments before she died.
“What was it?” I asked. There was a strange tugging sensation coming from my wound with every breath I took, reminding me that I didn’t have much longer to live.
He coughed and said, “It was a detailed methodology for the superintelligence to easily give itself a physical body and self-replicate using programmable nanomaterials—the first quantum wellstone. It was almost complete. We were lucky. If the superintelligence had completed it, humanity would have surely lost the war. When we found it, your mother wanted us to destroy it according to our mandate, but that would have been a terrible waste. An act of people without vision. Without ambition. I could not let it happen.”
He stopped talking, and I turned my head to see if he was still alive. He was shaking. I could tell he had dumped all the endorphins he could afford, and the pain was still permeating through. Soon he would not be able to talk.
“The world goes through cycles.” He spat the words out through tight lips. “It has history and it goes through cycles. And the history of mankind is the history of technology. When each new technology comes, it comes with a shift in our social and economic systems. There was a time when people like us were treated as subhuman, and either carted off as slaves or colonised because we lacked the technology to defend ourselves. And even after that terrible time, we kept approaching technology and development from the wrong direction, constantly playing catch-up with other nations while they constantly sprinted ahead, leaving us in a constant state of underdevelopment. What we needed to do was stop running a race we had already lost and start preparing for the next race, creating the next technological revolution. And the Singularity War gave us that opportunity on a silver platter. We were presented with a new technology, one with which we, the African people, could build the future on our own terms, once the initial technology paranoia that was sweeping the world subsided. We had the chance to ride the crest of the technological cycles and socioeconomic hegemonies that had perpetually left us disadvantaged and jump into the future headfirst instead of being left clutching at the tail again.”
He shook his head. “So, when I insisted we not destroy the quantum wellstone, and Lara said she was going to report me to Accra operations office, I did what I had to do.”
Every blood vessel in his body seemed visible now, and he was shaking more violently. Very soon, there would be too much pain from the pressure for him not to vent it out with a scream.
“You killed my mother,” I said, “just so you could hide the Eshu Protocol data and bring it back to Nri-Odua, to share with the rest of Africa?”
“Yes. And I do not regret it. Look at what we built from it; an entirely new industrial age of which we are still the custodians. For the first time in the history of humanity, since mankind first became a global community, a nation of African people are the dominant hegemony on the planet. It was worth it.”
“No. Not if it’s based on a lie, on theft, on murder.”
I heard his laboured breathing and saw his wincing, and wondered how much longer he would hold on. How much longer I could hold on.
“All great nations are built on some injustice,” he rasped. “The Mongols built an empire through mass murder. Caesar’s disregard for democracy gave us the Roman Empire. The Americans built an agricultural base economy on slave labour. The Chinese great leap forward came at the cost of mass starvation. I’m sorry, Yemi, but Omolara’s stubbornness made her death a necessary and sufficient condition for the African technological renaissance.”
Angry and too weak to argue with him, I spat out the only thing I could think to say.
The edges of the world were blurring and my Lifedock readings were no longer making sense in my head.
“It was not easy for me,” he responded. “But suffering is always necessary for progress. This… is the way of things.”
I would have loved to tell the professor just what his vision had cost me personally in pain, but even in his agony, holding hands with death, all he wanted to do was explain, not express shame or remorse or anger. In his mind, nothing but an inflexible iron conviction prevailed, and much of my hate for him melted into pity.
“You are a sad, sad man,” I said.
He said nothing but made a sound like a muted whimper. Looking up, I saw a shaft of red sunlight stab into the house through a window, reminding me that there was more world outside. It made me think of the green, green trees and the dusty, bumpy road to Ijebu-Ode. Then, suddenly, I remembered that if I could just get to the illuminated magnetic hyper-expressway, my direct neural link would auto-connect to the national emergency services network and my Lifedock distress signal would automatically guide my pod to the nearest rectification specialist station with high priority. Perhaps, if I could find a first aid station here or nearby with enough bioplastic sealant to stop the precious fluid loss, I could remain alive long enough to make it onto the hyper-express. I rose to my feet and began to hobble towards the beaded entrance, then turned back to face professor Olukoya.
“You don’t deserve the dignity of dying beside me.”
He muttered unintelligibly to himself. The nanomachine-induced agony had fully blossomed in his blood.
I thought my way fully into the AI of the house, ignoring the noisy emergency signals it was transmitting. Out here in the countryside, it would take at least an hour for someone to manually interpret the signals and dispatch a police android. I requested first aid and the system guided me to the guest bathroom, just in front of the curtain of beads I’d stumbled through on my way in.
My vision narrowed to a tunnel. I entered the bathroom with a wince and saw the holographic first aid display panel. It was very modern, the kind I had only seen in the new federal facilities on the 453rd floor of the Lagos supercity. I thought through it quickly, ignoring the genetic analysis menu and the neural pathway modifier menu and went right to the inventory menu, where I requested saline solution and bioplastic gel. They slid out through a recess in the wall. I removed my hand from the hole in my belly, trying not to think too much about how close I was to dying already. I took the bioplastic gel and sprayed it into the hole. Coffee coloured foam filled it and blossomed at the charred edges of the wound.
In the pause, I considered the kit menus I’d just seen and the things the professor had just said. A question crystallised in my mind. I felt my heart start to pound in my chest and tried to use my neural implants to think it back to a steady rhythm. But the question remained, and now I had to know. Even if I died here, I had to know.
I thought the display back to the genetic analysis menu.
It requested a blood, hair, or saliva sample, a green holo-image pointing at a small black circle beside the display panel. I smeared my bloody right hand over it and the menu lit up with a green progress bar. It only took three silent seconds to complete.
My ears picked up the call of pigeons to each other outside. My mind followed the steady, insistent static hum of the professor’s home network AI. My heart slowed to a sick thud, despite neural regulation.
The progress bar reached the maximum level and the results parsed out directly from the kit to my mind, knocking me to the floor and clearing what was left of my vision.
Your mother and I were stationed in ChinoSovia.
I commanded my neural implants to stop blocking the pain, to flood my brain with nociceptin and atriopeptin, induce vasodilation and flush out the endorphins.
It was not easy for me, Yemi.
The pain washed over me like salty ocean surf and threw my Lifedock readings into disarray.
I carried you when you were born, did you know that?
I wanted to suffer. I wanted to die. I wanted to lie on that wet bathroom floor and let everything that made me me leak out onto the cold tile floor, bleeding and bleeding until there was none of the horrible man who I now knew to be my father left inside me.