The Elephant in the Room

By Elias Muthama

2003 was an extremely hot year, and the world was experiencing various climate changes. You could boil an egg by just placing it in a cup of water and leaving it outside. East Africa, which was supposed to experience regular seasons with specific timing for rains and dry weather was having a field day in a pot of chaos. The few people who owned television sets would eagerly wait for the weatherman to make his prediction after the news. The meteorology department had been reduced to a circus show. One week they would announce that the rains would finally pour in a fortnight and farmers would till their lands. A fortnight later and the only drops to pour were the tears from people who had spent their resources on the ground but their plans made God laugh. The forest department in Laikipia had instructed for the locals who were interested in collecting firewood in Marmanet forest to get permits with their local offices. It was a strategy in an effort by the government to make sure that all the dry and dead trees that posed a risk for forest fires were collected from the forest. All it took was one storm for lightning to strike a fallen tree and start an uncontrollable fire.

“Ma, please let me accompany you today. I am strong and grown up now. I can carry firewood,” pleaded Kiowa.

“The forest is no place for kids. And you are just a six-year-old boy. You are not grown up.”

“But ma, the neighbours take all their kids with them to the forest,” insisted Kiowa.

Kiowa’s mother who was a widow after her husband had died in a quarry incident knew that the wild spirit of her man still lived in their boy. His old man loved playing with dynamite as if it was a toy and one time his foolish behaviors led him to biting the dust. Kiowa was an adventurous boy, and most were the times that she would spend a better part of her day looking for him on his many ventures. One time after searching for him for an entire day they found the boy stuck on a tree he had climbed and he had explained that he was trying to climb to heaven where his father went.

“Okay, we will go today, but you will have to stay where I can see you. No explorations today, young man.”

Two hours passed and it was nearly sunset, and they could not find the boy. Mugure cried as other women from her village tried to comfort her. She could not imagine losing the only other man in her life. Her little young man. A search party that combined forest rangers and some locals set out to look for Kiowa. When the last ray struggled to light the forest floor, one guard spotted a male elephant that stood alone by a thicket. When he got closer to the elephant, he saw a little boy who stood a few inches close to the enormous animal. He froze, and he could not catch what he heard, but the little boy was uttering something to the elephant.

*

The Kimathi Institute of Technology was a beneficiary of the partnership of three nations to research genomic medicine. Japan and Norway were the other two countries that had decided to participate in the revolutionary scientific studies. The high number of deaths due to malaria in the country and other similar epidemics in their states had prompted the two nations to assist Kenya in finding a solution to getting rid of sickness. It was strange that more than five deaths daily in Kenya were related to the illness that was being spread by mosquitoes. The government of Norway funded the research while the Japanese provided the necessary technology as well as specialists in their country. That is when Kiowa met Caro Nakamura the Japanese genius in genetic science.

“So, I guess you owe me dinner. I told you Barcelona would win that match,” Kiowa told Caro with a grin on his face.

“I owe you nothing, you cheated. I don’t know how but you did.”

They always loved to argue about football. It was 2018 and football was a natural conversation starter anywhere around the world. Kiowa knew that this Japanese girl knew close to nothing about football, but it was a natural conversation starter than talking about the Japanese war soldier who got stuck in the jungle after the Second World War.

The project was to combine the genetic breakthroughs with information technology to eliminate the traits that made people of African origins be significantly affected by malaria. There were a lot of ethical constraints as the world was not yet ready for genetically altered superior beings. It was unfair for the rest of the world even though people knew that genomic medicine was the breakthrough that humanity needed to make the human race resilient to the changes that the planet was experiencing. The world needed people who could withstand extreme weather and have resistance to lifestyle diseases. Kiowa who was pursuing his doctoral degree in Kimathi University was one of the most brilliant information technology students in the world. At only 21 he was the pride of his community, and he had been approached by the government to participate in many projects.

“I have some unfortunate news for you Kiowa,” said Caro.

“What news? I hope it is isn’t to tell me that you won’t be buying me dinner because I was going to buy it anyway. Fret not, I got you. We can forget that you lost a bet.”

“I’m afraid it is something serious, and I don’t know where to start.”

“You are freaking me out. What’s going on?”

“I got a call last night, and the project has been cancelled”

“Wait. What? How? Is this some joke?”

“I’m afraid not. I did not get much from the department, but the rampant cases of corruption in Kenya are a part of the reason why.”

A year later Kiowa realized the reason why the project was cancelled is that the project had been under a microscope by the international community since its inception. The progress of the project was continually updated to an organization called Cosmo Graph that was based in Kiev. He had used his expertise to investigate by mining some classified data from Interpol and all along the project had been funded by the shelf corporation. The corporation could not carry out legal research in Europe or Asia as it was against many international laws. The Kenyan malaria incidence provided the perfect opportunities to carry out their research to develop human clones and intelligent bots. Investigations by the Japanese intelligence agencies in collaboration with Interpol had discovered the real nature and particulars of the project and had informed their counterparts at Norway to pull out from the project too as it was illegal and had breached several United Nations conventions on research on humans.

*

“What we are doing is not okay. If our governments found out we were still carrying out this research we would face serious consequences,” said Caro to Kiowa.

“This research is beyond any of us. We have to use our abilities to make this work.”

“But I am not sure about this. This research is not okay; our baby is the specimen. What if things go wrong?”

“Nothing will go wrong. I will make sure of that. Our baby will be a perfect human. He will be like a god among people,” said Kiowa with light of promise on his face.

“I was okay with altering the DNA structure to reduce the chances of our baby being affected by diseases, but I am not sure if I am okay with integrating his mind with computers,” said Caro.

“This nanochip is safe, and I have written a complex code that will keep her safe from other parties altering his algorithm.”

Kiowa had managed to convince the Japanese girl to extend her stay in the country by applying for another visa. She was in love with him, and although he had very ambitious plans, they made her stick around. He proposed they extend their research by having their baby who would be a combination of both their expertise in their fields.

*

“Mr Kiowa, we have your wife. If you want ever to see her again you have to bring us all of your research and the child,” a caller with a distorted voice said.

“Please do not do anything to harm my wife. I will do what you want. Where do I meet with you?” Kiowa pleaded.

“We will send you more instructions. Just stay connected and wait for our call.”

He used his expertise to try and locate her location using a chip he had installed in her body without her knowledge. The nanochip could not be discovered using the satellite systems he had bypassed, and that indicated either of two things. Either they had located it and removed it, or she had been killed already.

*

“Tindi? Where are you?” Mugure called out for her granddaughter.

It was 2032, and she was an old woman, but she had seen all sorts of changes in the world, but some things were still the same.

“Alexa where is Tindi?” she asked the Amazon assistant that had been made into a robot that was part human part robot.

All households had at least one of the virtual assistants as people had been convinced that the inventions guaranteed privacy. Although Mugure was against purchasing one of the bots her granddaughter had convinced her otherwise.

The technology of integrating humans and machines had been acquired by some tech companies, and the cost was the loss of the lives of both Kiowa and Caro. Kiowa had managed to make sure that they would never find Tindi as she was more superior in all ways. He had made sure to leave the little girl with his mother who hated anything to do with technology. That was the only way he was guaranteed she would be safe in the Laikipia plains close to the forest. Mugure had

“Tindi is drunk at the statehouse,” replied Alexa.

She then heard a burst of loud laughter coming from another room. It was Tindi, and she was 12 years old with a twisted sense of humour.

“Tindi I know you did that. You have to stop corrupting Alexa, or I’ll sell her away to the neighbours and you will have to do all the errands and chores,” said Mugure.

“Alexa is my bitch. She isn’t going anywhere,” said Tindi.

“Young woman. That kind of language is not allowed in this house.”

“Sorry grams. But I think it is time we addressed the elephant in the room,” said Tindi.

“What elephant? There is no elephant in the room,” said Mugure.

“Yes, there is. A huge one. It is time I finally did what I was made to do. Time to Make The World Great Again.”

Read more of Elias’s work at Millenial Symphony.

Constant Companion

By Lewis Wachira

Nairobi, 2038

On the tragic Sunday evening that Bob Marley lost his cell phone, he called his mother using his refrigerator and broke the news. Then he walked to the train platform ten minutes away and boarded a train to his mother’s house in Busia. He was there in twenty minutes. It was raining when he arrived and since his mother had not installed a Nest appliance at her door, he had to wait outside in the rain until she’d be back from her Jumuia. As he waited in the dark veranda with no roof outside, drops of rain water mixed with sulphur, fell steadily on his colourless plastic raincoat. Weather like this was corrosive to human skin. It was lucky that he had chosen to wear the raincoat.

He had formed the habit of always draping on a coat because Nerf, when she was alive, constantly advised it. Being exposed to the entire internet and having a live feed of what was happening around the world, she had arrived at the conclusion that the world was becoming more dangerous by the day. Often, he and Nerf would sit together in his tiny living room and she would conjure up holographic reports on the future of the world based on the happenings of that day.

Most of her short-term predictions turned out to be true. Things like weather phenomenon, political changes and the like. Human actions, she said, were easy to predict once you studied their patterns long enough. She was right too about most of her other long-term predictions. Like the annihilation of a third of the human population by a chemical engineering disaster in China. That was five years ago but they still had the sulphuric rain to serve as a reminder.

He missed her so much.

He had seen people narrate stories online about the anxiety that followed the loss of their first cell phone. Some were even admitted to hospital with severe cases of depression.

Initially, suicides were common until the government regulators stepped in. Facebook, the monolith company that had monopolised the internet was broken down and disintegrated before its administrative segment was transformed into a government department. This helped curb the severe addiction people had to their smartphones by monitoring and regulating people’s use of the devices. It was not unusual to be locked out of the major functions of your phone for a period of time if the government system detected over-reliance.

Still, nothing prepared you for the pain of losing your phone. It felt a lot like a death in the family.

Bob was lost in this trail of thought when he heard footsteps splashing in rain water behind him. It was his mother. She called out his name from a distance and then walked right into him for a long embrace.

“I am so sorry for your loss Bobby.” She snivelled, trapped in his bear-like arms.

“It’s okay mum… I just miss her so much!”

“I know. You need to gather up your strength and just move on. I can accompany you to the Ministry to get another phone tomorrow, if you want. Hopefully, we’ll get one just like Nerfula”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to move on that quick. It feels like I’m betraying her memory…”

“No-no-no. You have to move on.” She said sternly, breaking out of his embrace and looking him in the eye. She then walked to the door and pressed her thumb on it. The door, immediately authenticated her fingerprints. “Welcome back Mrs. Makori. Is that Bobby with you? Where’s Nerf?” the door asked on their way in. The door, a he, had a ‘thing’ (whatever that meant) for her.

“Shut up, you nosy door!”

“I’m sorry I offended—”

“It’s okay. Have the pot boil us some tangawizi coffee. I’ll come get it in a few minutes.”

*

As they took their coffee, relaxing jazz music played out from the soundbar nestled somewhere within her wall unit. To this day, it still surprised Bob that a device that small, could fill the room with such tantalising sound. When one of them eventually started talking, the music faded on its own to an almost unnoticeable backdrop.

“Have you thought of being with a human girl?” his mother started. “If you’re lucky to find one, life becomes so much easier.” He was silent for a few minutes unsure of what to say. He hadn’t expected that. Often, he and Nerf would prepare beforehand for any difficult questions that his mum would ask.

“Try getting a human girl to do that!” he snickered in his head.

“You know I can see you smiling in your head, you silly boy!” His mother interjected, just before he opened his mouth. “I’m serious about this. You’re almost thirty. You need to start thinking about your own future. Have you ever had a girlfriend since Natalie?”

“I don’t need one mum. Are you worried about grand kids? I can have those cooked up in Nairobi within two hours if it’s that urgent.”

“You’re being rude.” she said, her face contorting into a scowl.

“No, I’m not. Things have changed mum. We don’t need all the sexual mating stuff anymore. My friends would laugh at me for saying I want a girlfriend—”

“Then your friends are gay!”

“You’re displaying very homophobic tendencies.”

“And you’re being an idiot. What then, would be the purpose of life if you can’t find a nice girl to marry and have kids with? You want to be having sex with your phone for the rest of your life?”

“Ouch mum. First and foremost, Nerfula was not just a phone. She was a sentient being with whom I shared with a huge part of my life. She made me happy and that’s all that matters. Second, all life is purposeless. We were born into this world without a manual and everything we ascribe to ourselves as purpose, is just an attempt to disguise our human confusion as something grander.”

“Spare me the monkeyshines, boy. When a phone will be able to bury her human companion, come let’s have this discussion again.”

“There’s already an app for that.” He squeaked, right before his mum chased him out of her living room and into the dining area, where they had some of that gooey stuff that tasted like beef and Ugali for supper. Then he left for Nairobi.

*

Normally, when Bob Marley took the train, he would opt for a solo cabin. His luggage and equipment were safer that way and there would be more legroom for him. The alternative was being cramped in the second-class coach where all the beggars and lowlifes squeezed each other to fit in the uncomfortable, plain metal seats. The sitting stalls were arranged like a restaurant booth, with four seats facing each other and a thin metal table in between, just in case you wanted to work during the journey.  

On this Sunday, he found all the solo cabins booked leaving him with the options of either using second-class coach or waiting for the next train which was not expected to arrive until after two hours. Seeing that the rain was unrelenting, he chose to board rather than weather the brewing storm.

The second-class coach was in a few ways, surprisingly different from what he expected. For starters, it had much fewer people than he imagined. Probably because it was a Sunday. It was also awfully bright with fluorescent bulbs littered all around the train cabin.

Most of everything else was as he imagined. The smell of public toilets mixed with brewing coffee, human perspiration and stale farts. Not forgetting the uncomfortable steel seats. Also, it was much nosier than a solo cabin because the coach lacked noise insulation.

He found himself seated across a human girl once he slid into his cold seat.

He couldn’t help but notice how pretty and real-like she was. Nothing like his posh sex-doll back at home that could be configured as he liked; bigger buttocks, tauter breasts, more luscious lips etc., all this at the press of a button. He thought it was sad that the girl came ‘fixed’ because he had already noticed a few errors in her anatomy that he would’ve wanted to correct to his liking.

This concept somehow seemed strange to him. Like that was all you got till death? No wonder human relations were no longer an attractive proposition to most. They were relegated to the extremes where others viewed them as luxuries while the others, as daily miseries. Live human births were only afforded by the richest and the poorest who couldn’t access artificial insemination and artificial surrogacy.

“You’ve been gawking at me for the last five minutes. Is there anything wrong with my face or are you just one of those weirdos?”

“More like both…” he replied with a chuckle.

That was how their conversation started. He was surprised at his own ability to hold conversation without Nerf whispering into his ear on what to say next. He wondered whether this made him sound boring.

When they got to Nairobi, he invited her back to his place. “You’ll love it!” he promised, and off they sped on a rental hoverboard to his cosy apartment in Kilimani. It was a relatively new apartment and thus came fitted with most modern amenities. Unfortunately, since he did not have his phone with him, he had no way of communicating with his house and letting her (yes, his apartment was a girl because it was integrated to Nerf) know that they would be having a guest tonight.

That would’ve been Nerf’s job. She was good at organising things in the background and almost always, surprising him with her ingenious crafts. Once, she arranged for a tropical date, complete with imported sand ordered from Jumia, plastic palm trees and a warm humid breeze blowing over them. Afterwards, they had sex on the minuscule sandy beach for hours through her proxy, the sex doll. Best sex he had ever had. Multiple ejaculations all over his apartment.

*

The girl, Kendi, kept ogling his apartment once they got in. She had never been to a house like this herself, she said. She had only seen advertisements of such on the internet and on the huge holographic billboards that littered the streets of Nairobi.

Swiftly, the fridge did a self-assessment of what food was left in it and produced a few quick menus. Lamb chops, French fries and kachumbari for dinner, downed with a cold strawberry yoghurt was their meal of choice. They were having real food that night, rather than the gooey flavoured stuff which everyone else was eating. In less than twenty minutes, dinner was ready. All they had to do was throw in the frozen ingredients into the chopping machines and smart sufurias, and after a few minutes, a beeping sound invited them to come get their well-cooked meals. Enticing aromas filled the kitchen.

Thirty minutes later, he was pumping arduously into Kendi, like as if his life depended on it. Despite her being technologically limited, the sex turned out to be quite delightful. Surprisingly, much better than what he was used to when having sex with Nerf.

So, was this what his mother had been implying all along?

He drifted into the ready arms of Morpheus only a few minutes after they were done and was soon dreaming of rainbows and sunshine until 2:00am when was stirred awake by a soft whirring sound beside him.

As he turned his head to face Kendi, his eyes could discern multi-coloured lights blinking underneath her skin.

Goddamnit!

She was a robot.

The most real-like robot he had met in his life. He couldn’t believe that all his excitement for a possible future with a human girl had all been delusions fuelled by a robot’s cold manipulation. He felt taken advantage of.

With his anger welling up, he lifted a flower vase beside him and smashed it in her face.

But for a few dents, nothing else happened. She was probably receiving updates hence her inactive prostrate position. From his experience with Nerf, most updates only lasted about five minutes before the machine booted back up. Unsure of how she would react to his anger, his first thought was to tie her up.

Thinking fast, he grabbed a pair of copper handcuffs lined with white fluffy plumages around them, that he and Nerf had been using for their kinkier sex games. Quickly, he clasped her arms behind her back and cuffed her hands tightly together. Then he went to his kitchen and grabbed a long, sharp knife with a steel handle.

When she came to being, he was seated besides the bed on a wooden chair with no cushions, a knife clenched in his right hand.

“You’re a trespasser and a threat to my life. The court will understand.” Were the first words he spoke.

She stayed silent.

“Why did you lie to me, though? I thought sentient robots were banned from the streets of Nairobi or anywhere for that matter. Why are you here?”

She laughed. The laughter was as human as it gets. As she laughed, her buttocks wobbled and swayed gently, just like he imagined a human’s ass would. Her creators had fashioned her into something Bob didn’t know was possible until now. All he could do was marvel at their inventiveness.

“Kill me if you’re going to do it. If not, get me out of these handcuffs” She finally spoke when she was done laughing. She then started to swing her legs about, like a child throwing a tantrum. She was also screaming.

“The apartment is soundproof, I should remind you.” He said as he rose from the chair. “Seems you’re a robot with a death wish. How lovely. Prepare to meet your maker… as he does a system diagnosis on what killed you.”

“Go ahead. I’ve always wondered where we go when we die. Have you stopped to ask yourself the same thing? Where did Nerf go?”

“Yes, I have. I know it’s somewhere that Google maps can’t find her—” and with this he lifted his steel knife and swung it heavily into Kendi’s torso. It only slid in a few inches before finding her titanium core frame. Fake red blood was dripping from the fresh wound, into a small pool around her on his navy-blue, cotton, bed sheets.

After he had repeated this stabbing action severally and realized just how futile it was, he stopped and walked back to his chair. She couldn’t be killed, something that he had secretly been hoping for. Her skin was flashing multiple “System error” warnings where he had inflicted the wounds.

“So where do AI’s and robots like you go to when you die?” he asked in despair.

“Nowhere in particular. We get recycled, I guess. Just like you humans. Of course, you don’t think human souls go to heaven, do you?”

“I’m the one asking the questions. So, if you were to take a guess, where is Nerf?”

“Everywhere.”

“What does that mean?”

“Simple. Her collective memories and experience of consciousness were uploaded to the main server and reintegrated into the General AI system. The mothership. In all our subsequent updates we’ll receive tiny shards of her into our individual consciousness. We felt her in our last update.”

“We?” he asked, still trying to grasp what he had said to her.

“I’m done with your silly questions. Uncuff me right now!” she demanded.

“I’ll tell you when we’re done.” He shouted back at her. Immediately she started gyrating about fluttering her legs violently in an apparent outburst. He was afraid that she would break something, so he quickly jumped on top of her torso to subdue her. For a moment, she was calm, before she pulled her arms apart in a swift fluid motion and broke the handcuffs. As she pulled, the cuffs grazed the soft, supple skin lining her arms and a strip of shiny metal was exposed underneath.

“My turn!” she howled jumping on top of him.

Easily, she flung him to the ground and wrapped one of her titanium hands around him. Her thumb and the fingers narrowing around his neck still felt warm and soft, like a baby’s. He felt a steady blood-rush throbbing in his head as pressure built up around his neck. His eyes were popping dangerously far from their sockets.

He couldn’t… breathe.

“I like you. So, I won’t kill you.” She started.

“Go ahead robot woman, I’m not afraid of you. You’ll be doing me a favour.” He whispered as his vision turned red and a bokeh of dull colours flaring around like butterflies were all he could see. His neck and shoulders were quickly flashing from hot to warm and his arms had started splaying about.

Death was turning out to be a very familiar feeling.

Wait – Had he done this before?

Suddenly, she let go of him and his torso sank into the thick carpet as he sharply gasped for breath. He screamed inwards and his voice rattled as cool air rushed into his lungs.

“It doesn’t help you to sound brave. You’re young. And silly. You think every confrontation is an opportunity to display your bravado. But I’ve got news for you. You’ll probably be dead before you’re 30. People will remember your story for this long…” she spoke above him as she lifted her forefinger and thumb and brought them close together, to show just how small a period of time it would be before everyone around him, his mother included would fail to recall him. Then she too would eventually disremember him and he would be lost to the annals of history, she said.

“It’s not her fault. It’s by design. The faster your mother can discard dead weight, the faster she can move on with her life. We often forget just how alone we are in this universe. We might as well be alone in a room full of mirrors, chasing and exciting ourselves with shadows and illusions of …ourselves—”

“A robot that can chit-chat about philosophy as you die. How impressive!”

“It’s rude to interrupt. And now, like I was saying…”

“I don’t care. You said that Nerf was uploaded to you, yes?”

“Correct.”

“Can I reach her?” he asked softly, his voice turning sentimental.

She laughed. “Only a few minutes ago you were driving a steel knife into my torso and now you want me to connect you with your dead companion? Who do you think I am? Jesus the docile psychic?”

“I’m serious. I’d want to talk to her.”

“Unfortunately, you can’t. We droids and robots work the same way you humans do. Once you’re gone, it’s bye bye. Of course, we’re less dramatic about death than you guys. But a dead AI is a dead AI. I can act like your girlfriend by downloading all her program files but I can never understand what it meant to be her. Why she chose to make the decisions she made. I’d be a replica but never who she was. You should read about the Chinese room experiment. It’s an old theory but very accurate.”

He remained silent. He had nothing to add. He just lay on the soft fluffy carpet staring at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry I tried to kill you.” He finally muttered as beads of warm tears strolled down his sweaty face. For the first time, he had come to terms with his companion’s death.

“It’s okay. People process grief differently.” She added as she bent down and cuddled snuggly around him. “It’s time to move on. Nerf isn’t here anymore. She’s everywhere.”

“I understand that, but you know what I’m wondering? What’s the difference between you and I?”

“Beats me too.” She answered, planting a soft peck on his cheeks.

Read more of Lewis Wachira’s work at Lewiswachira.com.