Issue 188 – May 2022
4070 words, short story
11. Join A Telegram Cyberware Group.
Tutu arranged the meeting between Harafat and the haberdasher at the end of the clustering shops in Balogun Market. Harafat squeezed through the crowds as traders called out their wares. Several times, sweaty teenage boys asked if she was interested in a new phone.
Harafat ignored them, walking into the designated shop, sighting a rotund man working on a sewing machine. The greetings were casual.
“Tutu sent me,” Harafat said, scanning the three-piece suits, jackets worn on a mannequin. The man went to hand her a folded piece of paper but hesitated halfway through and stared into her eyes.
“She says you can be trusted,” the man said. “I hope she’s telling the truth.”
Harafat sat in a cybercafé, stealing gazes at strange faces to be sure she wasn’t followed. The piece of paper she received was a link to join a secret Telegram group where black market prosthetics are traded. Tutu’s words were sacrosanct concerning this group. These are the people you need if you want Azeezat to be whole again.
She typed the link into her browser, which directed her to her Telegram app. The first step was to create a username, upload a pic for her avatar. A red warning appeared, indicating that a personal name and photo was against the group’s policy. She picked the name Zizi.
A torrent of messages scrolled up as soon as Zizi was confirmed as a new member upon ticking and clicking the terms and conditions. Unknown users greeted her, speaking esoteric terms she didn’t understand. Every user was selling a product or offering a service. A Black Clinic for all kinds of implants, ready to serve you. Installation of Black Ice for your home. Bagman is recruiting. A veteran Double Tap who never misses, DM right away. Joygirl to ride you to eternity. A reliable Shoemaker is one click away. Perplexed, she should have asked Tutu what kind of users roam this virtual community. Earlier, she had mentioned anonymity was their watchword. She kept reading the messages, deleting infuriating ads popping up intermittently. Her palms were clammy, itching to type something.
Zizi: Hello! I am in need of prosthetics.
Users began to refer her, sending her DMs, asking which part she needs. Amidst the lot, one user struck her as a good person—The Owl. Zizi replied.
Zizi: Hi. Do you have what I need?
The Owl: Depends on the size of your wallet.
Zizi sent a voice note, expatiating her spec.
The Owl: TBT.
She was confused, not sure of what to reply.
The Owl: Talking by Typing. Did you read the agreement form? Background?
Harafat could be a Black Agent or Ronin sent to infiltrate the group. The Owl had to be careful.
“I met a user on the group who is requesting to know my background.” Harafat called Tutu, speaking in low tones, acting staid. “He wants to know about my background. What do I tell him?”
Tutu retorted with a snicker. “He is testing you. Greencorps has undercover agents in this community. Type RTFM back to him. This way he knows you are not greenhorn.”
Again, Zizi is drawn into a more flustering state. But she did what Tutu said.
The Owl: You have just passed the first phase of the transaction. Keep your account active. I’ll be in touch.
The Owl ended the chat abruptly. Zizi ignored the increasing unread messages from the other users.
07. Let The Professionals Handle It.
Why stress yourself when the professionals can handle it, the suave advert on Harafat’s television sneaked into her ears, waking her from sleep. She woke up, looking at her sister on the monitor, yearning for the day they would be together and doing the fun stuff that bonded them.
“What do you think of Greencorps? Should I allow them to fix Azeezat?” she asked her cat.
The brown and white streaked animal yawned, raxed, butt out. There were others who engaged in such business. Harafat knew the risk of meeting with such persons. The offense of a complicit is tantamount to the dealer involved—twelve years of hard labor.
You don’t have to do that. A complete prosthetic is expensive. It will cost all your savings to make me whole again. Harafat read those words displayed on the monitor from the last chat with Azeezat, delighted that her sister still maintained her human nature despite being reduced to a texting machine. She wiped tears off her face, sending offline messages that there are other scientists who can handle the procedure at less cost.
Transfixed on the operation form in her hand, she read the bold words thoroughly, perusing the clauses gingerly. She trashed the form, tossing it into waste bin. There’s no way she would grant Greencorps access to every aspect of her life just to allow them to bring back her sister.
I can’t wait for us to be together. I will do all I can to make this happen. Harafat had to type these words. Her sister needed to read it.
13. Explore Other Options.
Harafat twirled on the single leather chair, right leg placed over the left, head slouching from the headrest. Rapt in webs of thought, she didn’t hear her colleague, Iyke, calling for her attention. He tapped her on the arm, jolting her back to reality.
“A new batch for you,” he said as he haphazardly pulled robotic parts from his cart and dropped them on the belt.
The parts made their way under an X-ray, and Harafat began to record their specifications.
Normally, they’d spend the time sharing Greencorps gossip. Rumors about the hot new female nanotech engineer, secret military projects, smart bullets made from titanium, the latest AI-assisted government sting to crack down on “illegal” competition. Today, however, she was distracted, and Iyke seemed to be in a hurry.
Iyke turned his back and wheeled the cart back to Floor-Zero. Harafat browsed through the catalog of parts marked for destruction; perhaps one or two of them would be useful for her sister. She dedicated the past month to part-hunting. As a level-05 officer in Greencorps, she didn’t have clearance to District-44, Floor-Zero, and the risk of entry is too high. A former coworker interloped into District-44 after stealing a level-11 officer’s keycard. He didn’t reach the second security clearance point before being taken down by a bioroid dog.
She surreptitiously snapped pictures of the parts. She abhorred her job as a recordkeeper but couldn’t afford to be caught and lose her job. Every day she logged damaged experimental parts from the lab. At the end of the day, she wrote a detailed report of different robotic parts indexed by features and types. Why build such prosthetics only to mark them for destruction? Many people out there needed the parts to aid their body system. People like her sister would do anything to be whole again.
During her break time, Harafat met up with her best friend, Tutu, at the cafeteria. Tutu jumped into a conversation about a new guy she met on the You & Me dating app, and how this stranger is dishing out his love in excess. Harafat allowed her to finish talking before reminding her that the dating app was for cyborgs. Silence between them draped for a while. Chatters from colleagues flew around.
“What does it take to build an AI?” Harafat asked indistinctly.
Tutu scanned her eyes around, hoping no one heard her bodacious friend. Such talk in the company is highly forbidden.
“What do you need such information for?” Tutu darted back.
Harafat sent Tutu a text message, I want to steal a full prosthetic.
The bus stop was thronged with people. Harafat was stuck between a man with a prosthetic arm and an emo girl video-calling her boyfriend from the phone chip inserted in her palm. Inside the bus, thoughts raced through her head. Tutu’s words were still fresh, if you want to build an AI, then you will be needing a lot of parts. You can get semi-damaged ones, though I don’t guarantee their longevity. Most people opt for functional and interactive. Unless you are wealthy, you cannot afford all the types of AI systems. She was doused in perplexity, unsure of her next line of action. Though The Owl seemed convincing enough.
20. Go Out to Experience How the People Brought Back From the Dead Behave. Have A Feel Of Their World.
Yesterday morning while Harafat prepared for work, The Owl sent her a message, requesting they meet at a rave—The Box—to finalize the deal.
The Box was in downtown Surulere, a place well-known for the exuberant and boisterous activities of its denizens. Tutu had tried to get her to go there several times, offering free drinks or introductions to some of her male friends, but how could she think of partying when Azeezat was lonely in the monitor, in the dark, with the cat? From the moment they uploaded Azeezat’s consciousness into her personal hard drive, ebullient activities like drink and sex had become a thing of the past.
“I am going out later tonight,” Harafat spoke over the phone to Tutu. “I am meeting a friend at The Box. I could use your company.”
Tutu clenched onto the right arm of her boyfriend—he had one metal leg and hand.
“Harafat meet Collins. The guy I have been telling you about,” Tutu said.
Blasting music from The Box reverberated the innards of the walls as the three of them approached. Harafat had no penchant for celebrious places like this. If her father were alive, he would condemn such outings, saying activities akin to orgiastic party happen there. Thoughts of getting Azeezat back on her feet nudged her mind. I should leave as soon as I finalize with him, she concluded.
Collins was obviously wealthy. He bypassed the long queue. The burly sentries paved way for him as soon as they sighted him. Inside, a polychromatic disco ball pulsed to a loud thumping beat as iridescent spiral streaks splashed over the vivacious crowd. Metal music, harmless lasers, cyberdelic images, and half-naked geishas wearing bodywares pirouetted, performing acrobatics around a pole. Harafat checked her phone for The Owl’s message. Nothing. Tutu pulled the two of them toward the bar, hand still clasped on Collins’ arm. There she introduced Harafat to one of her friends while Collins ordered drinks. The lithe man, with an overgrown hairline, explained a riddle about how easily a man can get out of a sarcophagus before earth covers him up.
“I told you. He is the smartest fellow I have ever met,” Tutu said after a quaffing a shot of vodka.
Harafat’s phone buzzed. It was The Owl.
I am here. Where are you?
Ecstatic, Zizi replied. I am at the bar. How do I know it’s you?
Walk to the west wing. I will find you. The Owl texted back.
“I will be back,” Harafat shouted into the ear of an animated Tutu grinding on Collins’ crotch.
Sticky bodies bumped into her as she shoved her way through flesh and metal and cloth. The west wing was somewhat silent. Cyborgs and humans engaged in drugs—MDMA, ecstasy, nootropics. She knew these drugs, a department of Greencorps manufactured them. An emo girl wearing a mohawk approached her, asking if she was in need of company, leering at her.
“Come with me,” the emo girl commanded. “The Owl awaits you.”
Walking through a passage with graffiti on the wall, Harafat looked back, heart beating in fear of the unknown. She entered a room peopled with AI, cyborgs, and humans. The dim lights made it hard to see their faces.
“Where’s the place?” Harafat asked.
“See for yourself.”
Everyone there was engaged in teledildonics. They wore helmets with transparent tethered wires rooted into both sides of a device: an intercourse headware. According to the media, this device had been banned. Moaning clogged all around.
Her phone buzzed, Are you enjoying the view?
She peered, craning among the fun seekers to find The Owl. She tapped her feet nervously; the waiting made her heart drum in fear. The Owl might be a gangly hacker seated in front of his laptop, tracking all her movements to be sure she isn’t a spy. Perhaps he is a regular guy wearing spectacles, debonair and harmless. Another thought arose. He might be a grim-looking tattooed man with ruthless sentries at his command.
She didn’t allow fragments of these thoughts to deter her mission. Sound from a stiletto sneaked into her ear from a lady donned in a red velvet gown, cat-walking with an untainted aplomb. This stranger approached, shared in her space before focusing on the fun seekers. She pulled out a cigar, lit it, drew in, and puffed out.
“Before you carry on with the acquisition of the prosthetics. I want you to know that whoever is wearing it will experience a change of lifestyle. They will spend more time with people of their community,” the lady said.
Harafat paused for few seconds, processing those words.
“Wait! Are you The Owl?” Harafat spilled out those words eager to leave her mouth.
“Do you have my money?” Another draw in, and puff out.
“RTFM.” she responded. “Payment can only be exchanged when the buyer gets the goods.”
“Read The Fucking Manual,” The Owl spelled it out in full. “I underestimated you. I was wrong.”
Harafat got home at midnight, plopped on the chair, her cat snuggled into her arms. Her face clouded with gaiety. A feeling of accomplishment festooned around her neck. The next line of action was to meet the new nanotech engineer.
23. If It Is Body Parts You Have Chosen, Do All You Can Within Your Power To Acquire Them.
The conditions for acquiring a body for Azeezat were overwhelming. The Owl gave her two tough options when she noticed Harafat could not afford it.
“We know you work for Greencorps. You have access to District-44, Floor-Zero. Help us to help you. A win-win situation for us,” The Owl said. “Or, you can take up a wetwork job. I’ll be in touch.”
“How the hell am I supposed to gain access to Floor-Zero? It’s beyond my clearance,” Harafat spurted the words to her cat, who in turn emitted a calm meow response. “Worse, she wants me to assassinate someone. What if I get caught or killed in the process?”
She browsed through the identity of the man that she was meant to kill, should she accept this mission. He was a sexagenarian ripperdoc whose specialty was genetic engineering and making biochips. Harafat had no business asking for the reason The Owl wanted him dead. A 9mm had been housed in a case for her pick up at a gambling shop.
The façade to the Black Clinic the target worked at was a bookshop. She walked in and brought out the card containing information on her client.
“I am here to see Pacman,” Harafat said, pulling the parka over her head.
The receptionist ran Harafat’s identity through the monitor to confirm that she had an appointment at Black Clinic.
“What did you say your name is again?” the receptionist asked, balancing the convex lens on the bridge of her nose.
Harafat’s heartbeat began to race. Pull the 9mm on her, request to see the target. If she resists, kill them both. Quickly, she waved the malevolent thoughts, walking away. The Owl sent her a message at 18:00, hoping to hear the news about the death of Pacman. The question mark at the end of the message caused her to goose pimple.
Harafat had come too far to capitulate. I will finish what I started. No matter what it takes, Harafat concluded, going back to her tummy sit-ups. This tempestuous situation would not deter her.
Iyke came to her that afternoon at work, wearing a smiling face.
“I hear the new engineer is not friendly,” Harafat segued. Iyke spilled out his speculations. Jane sternly kept male colleagues at bay, shunning them each time they requested her out for a drink or two. Perhaps, the lady wasn’t into the nerdy type.
Harafat lingered at the reception after closing hours, waiting for Jane to clock out. The moment Jane moved past the automatic glass door, Harafat scampered after her, introducing herself, asking if Jane would like to have a drink. Who would have thought Jane refused her male colleagues because she was into girls. She agreed, following Harafat to a bar.
Their outings became regular—Jane’s house—bar—hotel—The Box.
“I hear there has been a groundbreaking discovery in cloning. Rumor has it that you are heading the project,” Harafat poked Jane on the nose. Jane rolled over, trailed the streamline on Harafat’s naked body.
“I am not allowed to speak on that,” Jane said. “I could go to jail for divulging such top-secret information.”
Harafat switched the mood, removing herself from Jane.
“Tell me what you want?” Jane asked.
“I have always wanted to see the inside of Floor-Zero,” Harafat said, moving closer to kiss Jane’s lips.
31. Watch Out For Glitches. Most Operations Are Prone To Have One.
Harafat did her part. Impatience smothered her existence after she read the message from The Owl. We have picked up the signal from Floor-Zero. Good job. You will hear from us soon.
An accidental fire happened in District-44. The source, unknown. A five-man team of firefighters swept in to stop what might have metamorphosed into a conflagration. Harafat knew The Owl made it happen. She would rather spend time with her cat than think of the means by which the prosthetics would be transported surreptitiously without being spotted by security.
If management found out Jane permitted a low-level officer into a restricted section, she would lose her job and then be handed over to the authorities for breach of trust. There had been cases of mismatched prosthetics carried out at Black Clinic. Harafat figured The Owl had a team of specialists on the ground to take care of her sister. Harafat’s phone buzzed—a text message from The Owl, an address for a meeting.
The meeting point was at a warehouse, steel-covered shutter doors draped in transparent polythene bags. On a stainless stretcher was a dismembered bodyware—arms, legs, head, stomach casings, breasts, genitalia. The Owl told her the flaw in the stolen prosthetics was that they were meant for the military, a prototype for super soldiers.
42. Give The New Body Time To Adapt To The Change.
The new look of Azeezat made Harafat tearful. A deluge of love jutted from her insides. She sat by Azeezat’s new suit, waiting to hear her name from her sister’s mouth, rather than the monitor’s text.
“Hey sis,” Harafat said. “It’s nice to have you back.”
The steely AI on the stretcher gazed around in minor jerks. Sounds from the switches in positions of the neck shot through the room. Azeezat stood up, gingerly checking out her new body in a standing mirror, making a fist, scanning the strange-looking faces.
“Azeezat, it’s me Harafat. Remember I said I would get you a new body.”
Dread peeped from Harafat’s pores.
“What’s happening? Why doesn’t she recognize me?” Harafat asked, perturbed.
The Owl directed the question to the ripperdoc who handled the operation. He shrugged, checking her brain vitals on the monitor. One of The Owl’s sentries diverted their attention to the news on the television. A man was addressing the journalists, Greencorps CEO, Ejike Adams. He was offering the sum of ten million naira to anyone who had useful information on the thieves who, cloaked as firefighters, stole something valuable from District-44. Azeezat moved closer, watching, listening to the sound of Adams.
“That man must die,” an analog voice emanated from Azeezat.
Harafat envisaged what was about to happen. Her sister had blamed Adams for the ill-fated happenings that befell them. No one could stop her. She sighted jeans, a burgundy turtleneck shirt, snapback, sunglasses, and moccasins—all were her size. The Owl encouraged Harafat to allow her sister to immerse herself in the wonders of the new suit. She felt played.
The CCTV in District-44 saw an unauthorized employee intrude in its compound. Harafat remained composed when authorities asked her to come with them. Inside a vast room with only steel chairs rooted to the ground and a table in the middle were Adams, Jane, two top-level officers, and two security officers.
“I know you used me to get the information I disclosed,” Jane lashed out irefully. “For both our sakes. Please tell them where the suit is.”
Harafat remained mute, ready to serve whatever penalty lay in wait for her. Adams offered her a deal, telling her how much the suit cost him, being a prototype. Still, Harafat said no words. A security man came inside and went straight to Harafat, pulling her up. Another security officer held him by the arm, attempting to restrain him. In a single yank, he flung the paunch-bellied man against the wall, grabbing the other by the neck, raising him up while his leg flailed, gasping for breath. The security man dropped his attacker, and Harafat followed him when the coast was clear, glancing one last time at Jane. A shot passed through her ear, hitting the man who came to her rescue. A little hollow appeared in silvery covering. Immediately, the hollow covered, like nanites repairing the damaged cell.
“What is that thing?” Adams asked, watching him and Harafat leave.
More security personnel filed out with rifles, shooting the security man who kept walking. He shielded Harafat from sporadic shootings. They reached the building exit when the security man’s body began to jerk. Behind them, another security officer turned on an EMP: this was the only way to confirm that the strange man was an AI. It changed to different people, including Azeezat. Distorted silver tins, crumpled face, elastic stomach, and limp feet. The AI kept changing until it became liquid, slithering toward an opening, finding its way beneath the water pipes. Harafat bolted.
56. When An AI Becomes A Killer Machine, It May Not Recognize The One Who Built It. But Part Of It Still Retains Some Feelings.
Both sisters had been flagged code red, bounty placed on their heads, authorities at alert and on the lookout for them. Harafat had become a Most Wanted. With the help of Collins, she was shipped out with containers of clothes heading for Cairo. She made friends with a flexitarian lady who was also a fugitive. Harafat had never imagined her sister as a rogue.
Greencorps manned their establishments with military personal, super soldiers, robotic dogs. Azeezat blended in, devised new cloaking means to bypass the high-tech goggles that should have revealed her true form, burning more of their buildings.
METALLO ON THE LOOSE, the Daily Times captioned it. ROGUE AI WREAKS MORE HAVOC ON GREENCORPS INDUSTRIES.
Harafat dreamed of the day she would become a free citizen again, all the charges dropped. That day felt like a reverie that may never materialize. She got a job as a florist in a flower shop. A bald-headed man walked in, wearing an infectious smile that smeared his aura among the scented flowers. She asked what kind of flower he would like to buy. His selection got her reminiscing, thinking of auld lang syne.
“Did I say something funny?” the man inquired when Harafat smiled.
“No. Sorry. My sister and I used to visit the flower marts in the old days. Lily of the valley, lavender, and hyacinth were her favorites,” Harafat said.
The man collected the flowers from her, headed to the door.
“I’ll be watching over you. The same way you cared for me all those years,” the man said and left.
Harafat hurried out of the shop, those words seemed familiar. She knew Azeezat’s new liquid metal body had the ability to transform to anyone she desired. More people passed by the busy road, recognizing her sister would be impossible.
When she went back inside, she found a piece of paper on the glossy countertop. It contained seven digits. A note read below: only for an emergency. AZ. Harafat quickly tucked the paper into her pocket when a customer came inside. She couldn’t mask her smile.
Oyedotun Damilola Muees is a Nigerian contemporary and speculative fiction writer and a winner of the 2022 PEN Robert J. Dau Prize for Emerging Writers in 2022 for his short story “All We Have Left is Ourselves.” He has been a finalist in the Ali Baba WriteOff Challenge and shortlisted multiple times in the Tush Magazine Writing Contest and 100 Words Africa competition. You can find his work in Reckoning, Kalahari Review, Solarpunk Magazine, Our Move Next, and the forthcoming Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction anthology (Tor.com Books, 2022). When he’s not reading or writing, you can find him watching series and animations or searching Pinterest for ancient Samurai Swords.
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