This story won the award for Most Outstanding story in the 2017 Imbube Creative Writing Competition. I’m currently working on turning it into a novella.
In an overpopulated Nigeria where parents are forced to have a robot child instead of a real one; and where reproduction is a crime punishable by death, a young couple find out they are expecting a baby.
Our first Machine Baby came in 2047, when I was just 10. It came in a big brown box that said, “Fragile, Handle with Care”. I watched with fear from behind the sitting room curtain, as my parents unboxed the robot.
“Bunmi, come say hi to your little brother”, my mother called. But I wouldn’t budge. I’d never seen one up close but the sight was absolutely terrifying.
It was big…almost as tall as me. Its face was chubby and almost lifelike. It could make some weird gurgling noises which I guess babies are supposed to sound like but it couldn’t talk, instead it had written prompts on a screen underneath its shirt. It looks just like a Tele-Tubby, that’s what my 60-something year old grandmother said. I had no idea what that meant, but she says I lot of crazy things so I wouldn’t bother.
M-Babies are updated every year. They come a little bigger with the previous years’ memory programmed into them. By the 5th year, TOBI as my parents fondly call it, no longer had a screen prompt. It could talk in a high whiny electronic voice. I found it extremely annoying but my parents loved it.
One thing my parents don’t know is TOBI and all other M-Babies are actually spies sent to monitor civilians by the government and keep us from escaping the country, not like there’s anywhere to escape to. But I doubt if my parents would even mind if they find out the government spies on them. You see, my parents love our almighty government so much. They rescued us from the Sun and the Great Famine.
It all started in 2030, when our ozone layer kept getting thinner faster than it could repair itself, major parts of the world became too hot to plant crops or even live. A lot of people died, more than half the country. That was when our leaders, THE CREATORS arose. They invented, a giant square shield, which was like an artificial ozone layer, it could keep away most of the harmful rays but not all, therefore food became scarce. With the help of the military, the CREATORS overcame the civilian government.
Nigeria became a closed country called New Era and we stopped communicating with other countries. Reproduction became a crime because there was simply not enough food and resources for extra mouths, therefore all adults had to undergo sterilisation. While the children were left alone till the maturity age of 18, to reduce the chances of total genocide.
I was just a baby when all these happened, but somehow I managed to survive. My paternal grandparents and maternal grandfather weren’t so lucky.
Instead of kids, our merciful Creators invented M-Babies and each family had the right to purchase one machine baby. My parents wanted another child so they worked extra hard at the Crop registry as statisticians till they could afford their very own M-Baby.
Sometimes I hate my parents, they seem so content in this world; my grandma told me stories about the old world and how beautiful it was. Some I believe but most of them are just too good to be true. She talks about craving things like sweet frozen water in a cone, she calls it ice-cream, such indulgence! Grandma sometimes gets depressed for me because the only thing I’d have to call my own is a robot baby. But you can’t miss something you never had, and I’ve also vowed never to get an M-Baby.
But despite life in the New Era being stifling, it’s the only world I know and I have a good reason why I look up to each new day in New Era, Nonso. My lifelong friend and now love of my life. We’ve been friends since we were kids, and lovers since I turned 14. Nonso spent most of his childhood battling for his parents’ affection with their M-Baby. He has a theory that the CREATORS want to wipe away all children and create only M-Kids instead but I think if they wanted to kill us they would have done that a long time ago.
Nonso and I live in the same sector so we attend the same Sector School but we have to pretend like we are strangers. Our classrooms are divided into two, male seats and female seats. So despite the fact that we see each other every day, we are not allowed to relate with or even have conversations with the opposite sex.
We’ve been sneaking out to meet every week since we were 14, it’s been four years now and we’ve somehow managed to keep the same hiding spot to ourselves. But for the past month, we haven’t had a chance to meet up. To prevent stealing, a crime also punishable by death, security has become extra tight in our sector because we process all the food grown in all other sectors.
After dinner, which usually consists of TOBI yammering away with my parents and grandma dozing in her chair, I wear my grey coveralls and boots, and lie in bed wide awake. I can’t leave my house immediately because unknown to my parents and most New Eranians, all M-Babies carry out a general sweep of the
house at midnight.
Like clockwork, TOBI walks into my room a few minutes after midnight. I close my eyes and even out my breathing while he scans my room. It turns to leave then pauses at the door as if suspecting I was still awake. I quickly throw in a heavy snore, convinced, it exits the room. I wait a few more minutes for TOBI to go to its room and re-boot or “go to sleep” like my parents’ like to call it. Just in case I make a dummy of myself as a decoy, lower my room window and climb out as quietly as I could.
Nonso’s house is just a few blocks away from mine but we can’t meet there, it’s too dangerous. We have to meet at the millet mill close to the edge of the Sector. After several minutes of running, crawling and sneaking in the dark, I arrive at the Mill to find Nonso waiting for me.
“You’re late, Bunmi”
“Yeah, I know. TOBI seemed a bit suspicious so I had to wait a bit more, how long have you been waiting”
“I just got here. I’ve missed you”, he said before pulling me close for a long deep kiss. A few eternities later, we pulled away and looked into each other’s eyes. On other nights, we would usually talk about our theories on the CREATORS and what our lives would have been like if we were living in the old Nigeria. But tonight felt different, it’s like something has changed between us.
We start kissing again, passionately this time. Nonso’s lips were soft and firm and moved slowly over my lips, I felt short stabs of pleasure travel all the way from my lips down to my core. He grabbed me by the waist and we fell onto a sack of flour. We couldn’t see in the dark but he knew just where to touch me, almost instinctively. We spent the next several minutes exploring each other’s bodies until I couldn’t take it anymore, our clothes disappeared and our bodies melted in a dance as old as time itself. We instinctively found a rhythm and kept riding the wave till we reached a crest.
We both lay on the sacks of flour, spent; we lay there in comfortable silence and didn’t utter a word. After an hour, we both got dressed and exchanged a quick kiss, then said our goodbyes.
The next month, my period did not come. I didn’t think anything about it. And I completely ignored it, until two weeks later when a classmate of mine Hauwa, was caught by their M-Baby having sex in her house with a boy from a nearby sector. They both died a horrible public death to teach the rest of us a lesson. That was when I got really scared.
I looked forward to the next two weeks hoping to get my period but it still did not come. I started to panic. The next day in class I risked being suspected by the teacher and walked up to Nonso’s desk in class and walked right past him back to my seat. I hoped and silently prayed that he would get the message that we have to see urgently tomorrow.
I leave the house as usual and hurry towards the Millet Mill. I hear some soft noises and quickly hide behind the tall grass on the path behind the mill. Several armed security men are pacing around the mill. Suddenly someone grabbed me from behind with a hand over my mouth as I tried to scream. A few seconds later my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I recognized Nonso.
“It’s me, we need to go somewhere safer. The mill has been compromised”, he whispered as my heart pounded wildly. He holds my hand and leads me through the tall grass towards an unknown location. We walk and walk, taking several turns until we get to a small clearing in the bush.
Nonso turns to me and looks earnestly into my eyes, my hands cupped within his.
“What?!” I shrieked and jerked my hands away from him, “Are you crazy? We’ll get killed if we’re caught. Have you forgotten what happened to Hauwa and James? They were publicly electrocuted, in front of their families and entire sector”.
“Bunmi, I want to be with you. I want to have real babies with you. I want to be able to see you and talk to you. I thought that was what you wanted too. Wait, why did you signal me yesterday?”
“It was for something else”, I hear myself saying with a small voice.
“What is it? Bunmi tell me. Did TOBI see something?”
“No”, I swallow, “I think I’m pregnant. I was hoping you’d know how we could make it go away”
I watch Nonso freeze in front of me. He was so still, he almost looked like a statue.
“You’re pregnant with our baby and the first thing you want to do his kill ‘him’? This is not a thing or a machine, he’s a human being. Bunmi why?”
“Why?!” I cry out in frustration. “Because I don’t want to die. There’s no way we’re going to make it out of here and even if we do, there’s no life out there, we’ll waste away and die.”
I burst into tears while Nonso gathers me up into his arms.
“Bunmi, I love you and I’d never let anything happen to you. There’s something I’ve not been truthful about, but I have no choice but to tell you now. Or rather, show you.”
He lets go of me and takes a few steps forward to kneel on the ground. Then lifts up a patch of dry grass to reveal a secret door in the ground. He knocks 7 times, twice, twice and thrice. He does this three times and then the ground opened up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nonso took my hand and pulls me inside the gaping hole in the ground. At first everywhere is dark then about a tiny thousand blinking lights come on.
Startled by the brightness, I cover my eyes.
“Christmas lights”, says Nonso. “It used to be a holiday in the old world, like CREATORS day but a thousand times better”. He said referring to the annual holiday we dedicate to honouring the CREATORS, we also get an extra meal.
“Meet Hakim”, he says referring to the tall dark boy of about 20 that opened the door for us.
“Where’s this place, how is this possible?” I ask, more to myself than to anyone. But Nonso replies:
“This is THE BASEMENT. There’s so much I have to tell and show you. Come along”
We walk through a small tunnel and it led to a wide room. There are many people there, about 40 of them. There seem to be many other people in other rooms, we can’t see them but can hear them shuffling about, making weapons and fight-training.
A dark tall man walks towards me, Nonso and Hakim.
“This is my girlfriend, Bunmi”. Nonso introduces me to the man who looks like he’s in his late twenties.
“Bunmi, this is Dayo, our leader”.
“Dayo, Bunmi is pregnant”, Nonso explains to him and pulls over my top, even though I’m not showing any signs of pregnancy yet.
“What’s that on your belly?” Dayo asked,
“What?” I looked at my stomach only to see a small chip taped to the underside of my top.
“No. no. no. NO!” I cried, nausea washing over me.
“What’s going on, Nonso.” Dayo asks.
All of a sudden, we hear muted sounds, gunfire.
“That f**king machine baby! She’s been bugged. Our base has been compromised! Hakim take her. Make sure she’s safe. I’ll find you when this is all over”.
“Nonso where are you going? Nonso!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine just go. GO! Wait for me, I’ll join you soon.”
** * * ** * * * * * * * * * *
“I’ve been waiting for the past six months. Several of us escaped from New Era safely that night. There were a few other pregnant girls too, some more heavy than mine. We keep moving and hiding from the government’s drones that are searching. My baby keeps growing every day, I hope his father gets back in time to see him, I hope he can find us. But the war has been going on for so long I barely have any hope left. Hakim explained it all, how the ozone layer has been healing and the CREATORS kept it secret from us to keep us under control. How Nonso has been a major factor in the revolution, how they have been stealing weapons right under the noses of the M-Babies. But one day the New Era will be defeated, and maybe we can all come to live together in a new and better Nigeria. A Nigeria that seeks to grow and not repress. A new era both in name and in truth”