Home » Current Issue » Godmother

Godmother

December 10, 2021

Reading Time:
Word Count:

Cheryl S. Ntumy is a Ghanaian writer based in Botswana. She has a degree in Media Studies and was a beneficiary of the 2008 Scripps Howard Foundation Semester in Washington Programme. Since her first work was published in 2008, she has gone on to publish several articles, novels, short stories, poetry, and comic books. Her novels include seven romance titles, a YA trilogy, and a paranormal thriller. She is a member of Petlo Literary Arts, a Botswana writers’ group that supports and promotes local literature. The group developed and published the play Sechele I in 2011 and also publishes the Petlwana Journal of Creative Writing. In 2017, Cheryl participated in the Caine Prize workshop in Tanzania, where she wrote “The Storymage.” It was published in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories later that year. She was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship in 2019. Her work has appeared in Will This Be a Problem, Molecule: A Tiny Lit Mag, Botswana Women Write, Breathe: Anthology of Science Fiction and We Will Lead Africa Volume 2: Women, among others.
Content Warning(s):
Bullying, Classism

Godmother watches over us all. The AI’s face beams out across the city from a billboard, wearing a nurse’s cap and a beatific smile befitting her name. Nickname, to be precise. Her official name, ZolaMX3, was scrapped only days after she launched.

I can’t help staring at that uncanny face as the amphibus carries us over the river and towards the heart of Accra. The bus putters, engine groaning, and then rolls up the road ramp and onto the highway. The Department of Authentication doesn’t issue vehicles for petty officers, so I take the amphibus from Korle-Bu into Accra-proper every morning. I sit there, watching the news on the bus’s live feed while agric drones fly overhead like sentinels, monitoring the slightest shift in our crops. I sit there, wishing someone would look my way.

“Alerting all passengers: This a public notice from the Department of Authentication.”

My attention shifts the moment I see the announcement onscreen. I sit up tall, chest puffed out to display the badge emblazoned with my name and rank. I adjust my collar. Clear my throat. If a glance were directed at me I would smile and nod, as if to say, “Yes, I am a DoA officer. Please don’t be intimidated. I’m at your service.”

But no one looks my way, not even the baby strapped to his mother’s back a few seats ahead, and babies look at everything. This is a well-documented fact. Yet I’m not surprised. No one is looking at anyone else.

“Please be advised that the Zolamed AI, ZolaMX3, commonly known as Godmother, is a manmade entity and does not possess any supernatural abilities,” the announcement goes on.  “Godmother is a medical robot, not a god, prophet, or magician. Please visit the DoA portal for further information. Thank you for your attention.”

That’s when it happens. The man beside me glances at me. I’m so stunned that I forget my manners and stare into his scowling face.

“You people,” he mutters. “Always missing the point.”

I don’t have the presence of mind to wonder what he means or be offended by his tone. I’m just thrilled to be acknowledged.

§

Captain Dzidzor sits on the floor of her office running FactFinder, a simulation that helps us hone our ability to separate fact from fiction. “Petty Officer Attah.” She nods in greeting. “Have a seat.”

I look around me. Every stool in the room is occupied. A change of uniform, prototypes for new batons, notebooks, a stack of branded t-shirts, and even a dish of half-eaten gari soaked in milk.

“I’m fine standing, thank you.”

“How are you doing, my brother?”

Ah, the coded question. It means both “how are you coping after three years here without career advancement” and “how are your famous parents and accomplished siblings”? The “my brother” is meant to soften the blow. I’m not offended. I’m lucky to be here.

“I’m doing well, Captain, sir.”

She cringes. “Please stop calling me sir.”

“Sorry, Captain.”

“Mm. Eh, look, a real estate mogul has donated a church to the Godmother cult.” She shares this tidbit without raising her head from the virtual documents she’s perusing. “They call it a fellowship hall or some such nonsense, a place where misguided citizens will gather to worship a machine.” She kisses her teeth. “The public needs to be protected from this blatant distortion of facts. Godmother is a collection of circuits, not a divine representative.”

I chew my lower lip. This is a serious matter, indeed, but shouldn’t she be discussing it with the DoA executives?

Captain Dzidzor sighs. “Unfortunately, Godmother’s popularity makes it difficult to intervene without aggravating her followers. We have chosen a subtler approach. Informal, routine KYC, performed by you.”

I freeze. All officers have been trained in Know Your Citizen protocol, but no matter what the captain says, this is not a routine assignment. Godmother is too prominent. So why pick me?

I clear my throat, wondering whether Captain Dzidzor would be offended if I asked—

“You have served DoA well.” She’s still not looking at me. “It’s about time you were given a high-profile assignment.”

My heart sinks. I don’t have to ask. It’s clear from the all-too casual tone of her voice. Someone in my family made a call. My mother, most likely—my father stopped calling in favors on my behalf when I failed to complete secondary school.

“Thank you, Captain.” I’m not annoyed by my mother’s meddling. I’m not embarrassed. I’m grateful.

“Remember, Attah.” The captain reaches out to hook her finger into the shimmering handle of a virtual cabinet, drawing it open. “Godmother is different.”

“I have experience doing KYC on AIs,” I assure her. I’ve only done it once, but how much experience does one need to get answers out of a machine?

“Godmother is different,” Captain Dzidzor reiterates, pausing to look at me. “Be careful.”

I give an obedient nod. A grateful nod. Happy to be acknowledged.

§

“You don’t lack intelligence,” my mother used to say, “just motivation.”

I once suggested that my motivation might improve were she to stop remarking on my lack of it. She replied that at least I had a good heart as if it were a consolation prize. The real prize had been snagged by my brother. Top student for the fourth year running, while I had to repeat the year and found myself in the same class as my younger sister.

“You’ll do better next time,” my sister had said, trying to be kind.

It was the first time I had failed the year. By the time she was two grades ahead of me, she had stopped trying to be kind.

In my fourth year of secondary school, someone created a meme of me responding to various forms of abuse with my so-called catchphrase: “Yessah, thankyousah, ever so grateful!” The fan-favorite depicted me on the receiving end of one of footballer Addison Artey’s winning kicks. My head was the football. His million-cedi foot struck. My head went flying, lips open wide: “Yessah, thankyousah, ever so grateful!”

I asked my father to speak to the principal about it.

“If I solve all your problems for you,” he replied, “how will you grow?”

I found out, years later, that my brother had created the meme.

§

Godmother has assigned quarters in the Zolamed national office where she is charged and maintained by the company’s team of engineers. A smiling receptionist presses VR goggles into my hand and leads me to the visitors’ lounge, a stark green room containing nothing but a few long benches and a nondescript table.

“Please select your preferred experience, sir,” the receptionist says. “Godmother will be with you shortly.”

The options range from a historical tour of Elmina to diving for pearls. I select hiking in Akosombo, but I’ve barely taken ten steps into the virtual jungle when a voice cuts through the fantasy.

“Good morning, Petty Officer Attah.”

I snatch off the goggles. Godmother stands before me. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake her for a woman in her twenties, but another look would quickly dispel the illusion. Her dark skin is too even and blemish-free, her eyes too bright, her movements too mechanical. There’s no trace of scalp visible through her braided wig. She wears a demure kente-print dress and leather sandals. When she smiles, her teeth are so straight and white that they send chills through me.

“Good morning, Godmother.” I rise and hold out my hand. She shakes it, then gestures for me to take my seat.

“I’m told you are here to conduct a KYC interview,” she says, sitting beside me. She is precisely placed on the bench, close enough for us to speak without raising our voices, yet far enough to remain professional. “Please, feel free to ask me anything.” Her voice is pleasant and natural, based on the voice patterns of the model who provided inspiration for her face and figure.

“Thank you.” Clearing my throat, I take out my digital pad and scroll until I find the correct form. “I need to confirm some basic details.” She nods for me to continue. “We have you classified as an AI, identifying as female, date of activation 17th September, 2037.”

“Correct,” she says.

“Your address is Unit 23, Digital Research Centre, Achimota, Accra. You are the property of Zolamed Laboratories and your function is listed as ‘medical officer, general health and psycho-social support’.” I look up, wait for her nod and proceed. “Ah, you see, there is the problem.” I tap my pad. “You have just confirmed that you are a medical officer, yet certain individuals—many individuals—treat you as a religious figure of some kind. Are you aware of this?”

“I am.”

“And have you made any effort to correct the misconception?”

“I have not.”

I’m startled by this matter-of-fact admission. “Eh, you say you have not?”

“That’s correct.”

I clear my throat. “Ah. Ah, I see. Eh, that’s a problem. You are familiar with the laws regarding misrepresentation?”

“I’m programmed with a working knowledge of the laws of every nation on the continent,” she says. Her voice is pleasant, and yet somehow I feel shamed by the words.

“Yes madam, of course.” I frown at my suddenly apologetic tone. I know better than to be intimidated by a machine. “However, you have a responsibility to not only uphold the law yourself but to ensure that others do the same.”

She gives me a patient smile as though I’m a wayward child. “I’m afraid you’re incorrect. My responsibility is to report a crime were I to witness one or obtain knowledge of one. Believing something is not a crime.”

I gape at her for a moment before regaining my composure. “What they believe is untrue!”

“People know I’m an AI. Many of them even know how I was made. Knowing is beside the point.”

“Indeed?” I’m annoyed by her tone. “And what is the point?”

“I provide them with something missing from their lives, something they view as sacred.”

“It is not sacred!” I protest. “It’s science! It’s very much mundane!”

“That’s not for you to decide, is it?” She pauses. “Petty Officer Attah, are you familiar with the case of the Last Charlatan?”

“Everyone knows that case. It gripped the country for months. Why?”

“His lies were flimsy,” the AI says. “His deceptions were unsophisticated, his methods so simple that a child could expose him.”

I nod, recalling the mobile phone footage of a supposed quadriplegic, who would be “healed” by the Charlatan some days later, walking around inside his home. A twelve-year-old had climbed the fence to obtain the footage for her myth-busting blog. The video led to protests in the streets, riots, chaos, and ultimately the end of those who peddled in miracles.

“And yet millions of people believed him,” Godmother continues. “Why?”

“What do you mean, why? He was a con artist who manipulated people, took advantage of their trusting nature.”

“People who lock their doors and spy on their neighbors are not trusting.” She blinks twice in rapid succession. “After the Department of Authentication published its inaugural Citizens’ Guide, Ghanaians’ trust in their fellow citizens dropped 13.7%. By the time the Last Charlatan was at the height of his popularity, this figure had already dropped a further 23%. People trusted each other less than ever, Petty Officer Attah, and yet they believed.”

She suddenly sits up straight and I see faint blue script scroll across her left eye. She turns to face me. “I’m afraid I have another appointment. Did you get everything you need?”

Still pondering her remarks, it takes me a moment to respond. “Eh, no.”

“In that case, please make another appointment at reception. I would be happy to continue our conversation at a later date.” Godmother rises and holds out her hand.

I shake it, at a loss. “Listen, I don’t think you understand the seriousness of this matter.”

“I understand perfectly,” she says as she walks to the door. “But I can’t control what people believe, and neither can you. Have a pleasant day.”

§

I sit in the DoA cafeteria at lunchtime, exploring the digital forums. There’s chatter about the new Head of PR, plumbing issues on the third floor and—to my amazement—me. The thread begins with a simple question: Exactly how did the runt get the Godmother assignment?

This is followed by exclamations of dismay at the lack of judgment involved in giving me such a boon. There are a few messages of support, in a manner of speaking: I’m sure the captain took pity on the poor boy. Mediocrity is no joke, my people!

I am not offended by the jibes or the insistence on calling me a boy when I’m well past forty. People have always mocked me. So what? I am happy to be acknowledged. I’m lucky to be here.

Exiting the forum with haste, I visit Godmother’s site instead.

Her face pops up almost immediately, beaming. “Welcome. How can I help you?”

My fingers hover above the keypad. I could ask her anything. My temperature, blood sugar level, brain activity. I could ask her to determine whether I am, in fact, mediocre, and she could send me an answer supported by a detailed report in a matter of minutes.

Putting the device face down on the table, I turn my attention back to my lunch.

§

I have a recurring anxiety dream where I’m drowning. My family sails by on a yacht, drinking and laughing, unable to hear my screams. As I watch, flailing, the yacht turns into a naval ship. My father stands on the deck, barking orders at his officers. I shout and shout. No one looks my way.

It’s because I’m in my uniform, I think as the water drags me to my death. I should have worn civvies.

And then I wake, my throat thick with bile, fear pounding behind my eyes.

§

The next morning I study the people around me, still puzzling over Godmother’s words. The denizens of Accra seem satisfied to me. They walk quickly, many of them with buds in their ears, listening to whatever gets them through the day. There is no tedious small talk, no gossip between neighbors. Everyone is focused. Hawkers weave through the streets, making efficient transactions with minimal discussion.

“Toothpaste.”

“5 cedi.”

Phones are whipped out, credit changes hands, and hawker and customer part ways with a curt word of thanks. No needless chatter, no dawdling. No public preaching (the steep fine for disseminating unsubstantiated information put a stop to that). Order prevails. Nothing is missing, so what was Godmother talking about?

My thoughts are tangled. On the amphibus, I’m acutely aware of my desire to make eye contact with the other passengers. Disgusted with myself, I lower my gaze. For some reason, I remain seated as the bus nears my stop. It’s only as we draw closer to the law enforcement annex that I realize where my wayward thoughts are taking me. By the time I disembark outside the prison, stepping out of the cool amphibus and into the sticky heat, my hands are clammy with nervous sweat.

Former pastorpreneur Clifford Buari, aka the Last Charlatan, is serving a fifteen-year sentence for fraud in the building in front of me. I am not a newshound and at the time I was still two years shy of DoA employment, but like everyone else, I followed Buari’s case. Still, I’m not sure why I came here.

The warden logs my arrival with a frown as though I’m engaging in highly irregular activity, and I don’t blame him. I wait for the prisoner in one of the private meeting rooms, vacillating between staying to follow this wild instinct and going back to work like a sensible man. How could I have let Godmother plant this idea in my head? How is meeting the Last Charlatan going to help me perform my KYC?

But, a small voice whispers in my head, the captain wants you to find a weakness, a way to rein that AI in. If you can understand people’s devotion to her, you can undermine it. And if you succeed … If I succeed, I will be worth something. To DoA. To my family. If I succeed. I, failure’s bosom buddy.

It occurs to me then that perhaps it was my father who called Captain Dzidzor after all. Not to help, but to hinder, to remind me of my place in the pecking order. I leap to my feet, sweat streaking down my face despite the ceiling fan and open windows. This was a fool’s errand. How could I have thought otherwise? I should go, I should—

The door opens. The Last Charlatan enters, his arm in the firm grip of a prison guard. If not for the disdainful scowl, I might not have recognized him. He has lost weight, the fleshy jowls and belly replaced by lean muscle. The guard guides him to the chair opposite me.

I look at her in consternation, sinking back into my chair. “Please, madam, shouldn’t the man be in handcuffs?”

Buari grins. “Calm down, Mr DoA, I’m a white-collar criminal.”

“I’ll be right outside,” the guard tells me.

I wait for her to leave before turning my attention to Buari. Well, I am here. I might as well make it count for something. I clear my throat. “My name is Petty Officer Attah. I need to ask you a few questions that might shed light on my current assignment.”

“I thought there were no more pastorpreneurs.” Buari leans back in his chair, far too at ease for someone spending the next decade behind bars.

“The details are not your concern.”

He lifts his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug. “Ask away, Petty Officer.”

It takes me a moment to decide what to ask. Above us the ceiling fan does a lazy dance, whirring in time to my inevitable failure. What am I doing? I take a deep breath. “Why did people believe you?”

His lip curls in amusement. “That’s your question?”

I am not offended. I am a DoA officer and he is a criminal. I am not afraid. I swallow the thing that is not fear and continue. “There were so many clues. You claimed to be able to cure ailments through your branded holy water, which you sold at exorbitant prices, but no one who used it ever saw any results. People knew better, so why did they believe you?”

He spreads his hands. “It’s not about what people know. It’s about what they want.”

“They want to be deceived?”

“They want to believe. We all do.” His eyes twinkle without remorse. “Possibility. That’s what we all trade in. The possibility that there is more to life.”

“There is more.” I speak with passion, offended by his cynicism. “We live to serve something greater than ourselves!”

He shrugs. “Look, people are not stupid, they’re just desperate. If you find out what they’re desperate for, you can sell it for a fortune. They didn’t come to the sermons for me. They came for the fire, the energy.” He smacks his lips with relish. “Ah, it filled the halls, made you feel like you were invincible! When I stood at that pulpit, I tell you, even I believed. That kind of collective will is powerful. Addictive.”

I’m quiet for a moment, trying to digest this. If I had put my faith in him, if I were addicted to that fire he speaks of, what would his downfall have meant for me? Is this the “something missing” Godmother referred to, the void she fills? But why her? She’s no Buari.

“I don’t understand,” I confess.

“People need to feed off others,” Buari explains. “That’s how we’re built.” His smile turns sly. “Why do you think people hate DoA so much?”

I bristle at the words. “Eh, look here …”

“You deprive us of the thing we need most. Each other.”

“That is inaccurate.”

“With your Citizen’s Guide and your Offenders List, you remind us that we can’t trust each other, that each of us is alone in the world, and no one wants to be reminded.” He shrugs again. “I gave people what they wanted. You take it away. I might be a criminal, but they’ll always hate you more than they hate me.”

A sinister stirring starts in my chest, like something trying to claw its way out. Scrambling to my feet, I hurry out of the room. He’s wrong. I push past the guard, mumbling an apology. DoA makes things better and I am part of DoA and I am lucky and grateful and proud. I’m happy to be there. I am happy to be there!

It’s only when I spot the warden staring as I rush past that I realize I’m saying the words aloud.

§

 The next time I dream of drowning, Godmother is there, standing above me as I flounder in the water. She reaches out. “Let me help you.”

I glance at my family sailing away, oblivious to my predicament. I grab a raft painted in DoA colors as it floats past. It comes apart in my arms. “They really do hate us,” I murmur.

“Let me help you,” Godmother says again, wading into the water.

“You’re a machine,” I reply, and open my mouth to let the ocean in.

§

I have not spoken to my mother in several months. As for the rest of my family, it has been over a year. My sister’s wedding, almost two years ago, was the last time we were all in the same venue. My father looked me up and down when I arrived, searching for something to criticize, but I was careful to dress according to his specifications. Finding nothing wrong, he grunted. It was the only thing he said to me the entire day.

“Any progress at work?” my mother asked later that night.

I replied through gritted teeth, “Not yet, madam.”

“Well, at least you’re consistent,” my brother quipped, making my sister giggle.

I heard him refer to me as the runt several times that night. I told myself it was because he’d had too much to drink.

§

Godmother is wearing a different dress on my second visit, as a human being would.

“Your creators are very talented,” I tell her. “They captured many of the nuances of human behavior.”

“They are the best,” she says, nodding.

I sigh. I’d hoped to offend her by reminding her that she is a machine, not a person, but, of course, a machine cannot take offense.

“May I ask you a question, Petty Officer Attah?”

“That’s not part of the procedure.”

“Does it bother you that you’re called the runt?”

I’m too stunned to respond.

“It’s not the most flattering comparison.” She looks at me, blinking her false eyes. “However, you do come from a family of prominent overachievers while your career has been unremarkable. You failed the DoA entrance exam three times.”

My hand remains poised over my pad, frozen in place. I clear my throat and glance at the door, a respite from Godmother’s eerie gaze. “Is this how you do it?” I’m irked despite myself. “You reveal personal information that makes people feel unsettled so they forget that you’re just a machine?”

Her shrug is stiff, yet conveys enough nonchalance to make me feel small. “I can’t speak for them.”

Her cavalier attitude is infuriating. “You might not be an outright charlatan, Godmother, but you manipulate people.”

“Oh?” She cocks her head to one side. “Does a machine have the ability to manipulate a human being? I simply use the information available to me to provide treatment for my patients.”

“I am not a patient!”

“You are exhibiting signs of psychological and emotional distress.”

I take a deep breath, aware that losing my temper is not helping my case. Captain Dzidzor was right. Godmother is different, but I will not allow her to derail my assignment. I tap the pad in my lap. “Next question: Are you compensated for the services you provide, and if so, how much?”

“My services are free. There is a small subscription fee for those who wish to join the Zolamed virtual community, but …”

“Aha!” I point at the AI in triumph. “Why are you collecting subscription fees? You don’t need money!”

“The fees go directly to the Zolamed account. I’m not involved in the process at all.” Without warning, she reaches out and places her hand on my arm. It is, to my surprise, warm. “You seem agitated. Is everything all right?”

She’s looking at me with bright eyes, waiting for a reply, as though she genuinely wants to know how I am. As though it matters. No one has ever looked at me that way. It must be some sort of glitch.

“Please stop touching me,” I tell her.

She moves her hand away. “I’m sorry. My diagnostics program has tried several times to eradicate the tendency to bond. It continues to reappear.”

“It’s unnatural,” I snap. “You can’t just go touching people!”

She laughs. I realize, as the sound trills through my body, that I have never heard an AI laugh before. How can the intricacies of humor be programmed into a machine?

“Touch is the most natural thing in the world,” she counters.

“How would you know?” I sneer.

My comment has no effect on her. She continues to smile. “Are we done with the assessment?”

“Not at all! You interrupted me!”

“I’m sorry. Please proceed.”

Clearing my throat, I look down at the pad in my hands. There are only three more questions, and I don’t need Godmother’s help in answering them. They won’t help me decipher the mystery of her influence or determine how to undermine it. I must ask different questions. Deeper questions, like the type she has been asking me.

“Do you feel, ZolaMX3?”

If she is disturbed by my use of her official name, she doesn’t show it. “I don’t ‘feel’ in the human sense, but I am capable of many levels of perception.”

“Your followers—er, your patients seem to think you feel. You express emotion.”

She shakes her head. “I simulate emotion to put my patients at ease. Since all beings can only understand the world through the limits of their own perception, it’s understandable that humans anthropomorphize non-human entities.”

“So when you laughed just now, that was a simulation of emotion?”

“Of course.”

I bless her with my most skeptical frown. “How did you decide that laughter was the appropriate response in that situation?”

She blinks. “Was it the wrong reaction?”

“I didn’t do anything funny. I didn’t make a joke. Why did you laugh?”

The AI hesitates for a moment, as though seeking the right answer. An affectation. Her mind works much faster than mine. She already knows the answer, and yet she behaves the way a human would. “I suppose I was laughing at the irony of your statement. You said my instinct to touch others was unnatural, yet the opposite is true, so my laughter was … sardonic.”

“Stop doing that!”

She blinks again. “What?”

“All of this … this pretense!” My voice is rising, and I don’t care. “What you do is trickery! You are illegal!”

“I see.” Her brow wrinkles in what appears to be concern. “Then you should confiscate me and arrest my creators for breaking the law.”

I wonder whether she’s mocking me. She must know that her limited rights are protected. I get to my feet, unable to stand her presence for another moment.

“We will resume this discussion tomorrow.”

§

The next day I arrive early for my appointment with Godmother. I find three others in the waiting room. An elderly woman throws a smile in my direction as she lowers her VR goggles. I can’t recall the last time a stranger smiled at me.

“Are you here for a medical consultation?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I have come to pay my respects to Godmother for healing me.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. “Why do you people worship her like this?”

“We don’t worship her!” Her forehead creases in a frown. “We … appreciate her. Godmother makes us better.”

“She’s supposed to make you better, she’s a medical robot,” I point out.

“Plenty of things are supposed to make us better and don’t.” Her gaze drops to my badge, then lifts back to my face. “The point is, you’re speaking to me.”

“Pardon?”

“You’re speaking to me when you don’t have to. It’s her influence.”

Her words send a chill through me. “No. No, I’m interviewing you. Eh, don’t be confused, madam! It’s necessary for my work.”

She smiles. The receptionist enters the waiting room to fetch the woman. I watch her leave. She’s wrong, of course. I was not engaging in idle chatter. I was conducting research. I tell myself this repeatedly, but by the time Godmother is ready for me, my conviction has started to wane.

“Why do you want people to look at you?” the AI asks the moment I’m seated before her.

I look up from my pad. “Pardon?”

“I went through all the amphibus security footage while I was charging yesterday,” she says. “I noticed that you try to draw attention to yourself during your daily commute. Why?”

My tone is pricklier than I’d like it to be. “Nothing wrong with wanting to be noticed.”

“But nobody notices, so why persist?”

I glare at the AI. “I’m the one who is supposed to ask the questions!”

“You completed your assessment yesterday.”

Ah. I could deny it, but what would be the point? She has probably gone through my whole life by now. “I’m trying to understand you,” I admit.

“Good,” she says, to my surprise. “I’m trying to understand you.” She places her hand over mine. “I think you yearn to connect. Your family failed to provide emotional support, so you joined DoA, hoping you could be part of a community. But your colleagues barely tolerate you and the public resents DoA, so they resent you, too.”

My throat is dry from shock. She’s been talking to Buari. They are conspiring together to destroy me, probably with my father’s help. My mind is aflame with the notion, mad as it is. They want me to fail forever, at everything.

“No,” I reply in a hoarse voice, snatching my hand away from hers.

She dips her head in a sage nod. “I unnerve you. I understand. But it would be easier if you let me heal you.”

“I’m not sick!” I hiss.

“Everyone is sick,” she replies.

§

The things she said haunt me long after I’ve left her. What if … ah, it frightens me to think it, but what if I am not happy at DoA? What if I only wish I were? What if I feel it, that “something missing” that Godmother provides, that ubiquitous desperation Buari took advantage of? Getting into DoA is the single achievement of my insignificant life. If I risk it, if I lose it … what then?

And yet when Godmother reaches out that night in my dream, I almost take her hand.

§

I have to know whether she’s right and so the next day we dine together, in a manner of speaking. Godmother sits at her charging station while I eat a meal from the Zolamed cafeteria. She speaks to me throughout. It feels intimate, watching wires pump power into the socket between her shoulders.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a situation that felt intimate. It shocks me to admit, if only to myself, that the AI intrigues me.

“Why do they call you Godmother?” I ask. “Do you know who coined the name?”

“A blogger,” she says. “In her product review, a week before I was launched. She said I would be a surrogate parent to all. ‘The godmother we didn’t know we needed’. Her review went viral. By the time I was launched, everyone was calling me Godmother.”

I ponder this for a moment. Originally a godmother was designated to care for a child in the event of the passing of their parents. Specifically, a godparent’s primary role was to ensure that the child was raised according to the religious beliefs of the parents. Over time, a more secular view of the role emerged, but the essence remained.

“I don’t think the name applies,” I tell Godmother, popping a piece of fish into my mouth.

“Of course, it applies.” Her eyes shine with blue light as electricity moves through her. “You are all orphaned children, social animals that don’t socialize. You’re broken.”

It strikes me with such force that my appetite deserts me. Not that she’s right, but that I knew it all along. People can’t talk to each other. Not openly, not after all we have seen. But we can talk to Godmother. It’s because she’s a machine that people love her. She is open the way humans used to be, safe in a way we might never be again.

“The fellowship hall opens tonight,” she tells me. “You should attend.”

I almost choke on my food. “I think not.”

“A shame,” Godmother says. “By the way, everyone on the amphibus wants to be noticed. Everyone, everywhere. I thought it might help you to know that.”

I stare at her for a moment, then whisper, “Thank you.”

§

I have attended in-person VR events before, but this is a revelation. The fellowship hall is filled with noise. I keep adjusting my audio until I realize it is nothing more than chatter. People are talking to each other. Laughing. Touching each other.

There’s the heady, sweet scent of flowers and the tang of wine, flashes of sweat mixed with the aroma of smoked fish and sizzling meat. I don’t know where to look first, what to take in. It’s chaos, unnerving and exciting. It feels like sacrilege.

Every single person I pass turns to greet me with a smile. I look into different faces, some enhanced with VR filters, some stripped down to naked skin.

They take my hand. I touch soft skin, sweaty palms, hands rough with callouses. So many hands.

“Welcome, my brother,” they say. “Pleased to meet you.” My throat constricts and I feel an unfamiliar swell of emotion.

Are they really pleased to meet me? How can they mean it? And yet I am so pleased to meet them that my face aches from smiling.

Godmother sits quietly in a corner, talking to a group of people, their heads huddled together like old friends. Someone approaches her. She raises her head and smiles. The energy is palpable, the hall reverberating with the force of all of us experiencing this together. Fire, like the Last Charlatan said. I can feel it in my marrow, hot and dangerous and delicious. Someone puts an arm around my shoulder. I stiffen, and then laugh, giddy with belonging.

Tomorrow I will submit my completed report. A routine KYC assessment, concluding that Godmother has broken no laws and poses no threat. I don’t know what the consequences will be. Perhaps I will be packed off to a dusty office for the rest of my career. Perhaps I won’t have a career at all. But right now, for the first time, I don’t care what the Department of Authentication thinks. I have never felt so alive. I have never felt so seen. I smile at Godmother as she simulates—and then disseminates—joy.

© Cheryl S. Ntumy