Destroying Babel 

Seshat Project site, Southern Bioko, 2115 AD

Egwu sat and looked out his window and studied the ocean as it raged and angrily beat against the land. The seas were always furious, lashing out and striking the land with so much bitterness. Egwu tried to imagine the days when the seas were much calmer, the days before it began swallowing lands and people. Before humans and their wastefulness had angered it. Before it poured its wrath on land causing men and women of all creed and race to put aside their petty squabbles and unite under the sudden realization of their inconsequentiality in the workings of the universe. He could imagine the seas, in those days, as he had read them in books, calm and with sea birds chirping as they dove in for food. He pictured the exotic islands as he had seen them in decades-old movies, with their sandy beaches and clear blue waters. He had once seen a picture of a bed floating on the clear blue waters off the coast of Zanzibar, back when the waters were blue and the island was twice the size it was now.

Nowadays, there were several large platforms, floating islands they were called, braving the angry seas. Egwu imagined how seasick people who lived on these islands would be. He had had an opportunity to be on one; his wife had wanted their honeymoon in one of them (some of these platforms take on the look of those old exotic islands). He liked the land better, much better. It was firm and hardly ever caved beneath one’s foot. So, they spent the two weeks after their wedding backpacking; visiting remnants of holy sites across the globe.  

In the midst of the raging seas beyond his window, were giant cranes jutting out. Standing firm, unmoved by the tumultuous sea. Their levers stretching across to the land, to lift huge concrete slabs, already placed at their reach. And setting them in the depths of the sea, where smaller robots worked to fasten them to the ocean floor. Working with that efficiency that was synonymous with them, that efficiency that had put them in control. Working to build, what Egwu had named, the Seshat Project. It was to be his legacy, a lasting gift to a world that seemed to – with amazing speed – always forget.

A dull vibration in his chair called him out his reverie. He turned away from his window, “What is it, Runi?”

Runi’s voice filled the room, warming it up a bit – or so Egwu thought. “Officer Maita is outside,” he said. Egwu nodded and the blinds that cut him off from the rest of the world opened. The officer stood outside, the badge sitting on her bosom glittering through the glass walls and behind her the Seshat construction committee was bustling with activity. Egwu signalled her to come in.

“So sorry to disturb you, sir,” she said as she swung the glass door open and marched into the office. Everything about her told stories of her days as a soldier. “But you asked me to come and see you by 9.”

“Yes, Maita, sit down.” He motioned to one of the chairs across the table from him and she sat. He continued: “I was in no mood to discuss anything about work at the time you called last night.”

“I apologize for disturbing you, but it was urgent.” The authority in her voice echoed in the room.

“So, these people, you have them in the holding cell, yes?” he started off, not wanting to waste her time. She never seemed like one for small talk.

“Yes, I do and I want to immediately hand them over to the police and have them prosecuted.”

“Okay, before we do that, can I know the extent of the damage they caused? I don’t think they could have done much, Runi.”

“Egwu,” the AI’s voice filled the room again. “The attackers pulled down four wind turbines and three photovoltaic cells, that is 0.587% of the total grid.”

Egwu caught himself laughing.

“Just 0.6% of the total grid? They barely made a smudge!”

“Sir, this is more than just the amount of damage they were able to make, it is about the motive and capability to plan and execute such an attack,” Maita said, irritation seething beneath the composure of her voice.

“I totally agree with you, Maita,” Egwu said. “But you and I know that it was barely an attack, that it’s impossible for a bunch of lunatics with bulldozers to do any harm here and as for the motive, we know that too.”

“The planning of this attack is not really unsophisticated, someone amongst them has a bit of sense.”

“No, if anyone amongst them had any sense, they won’t have carried out this attack in the first place. Runi, can I see the extent of the damage?”

A hologram popped up on the table between Egwu and Maita, it was a 3D image of the Seshat Project construction site and it’s power grid. The areas that had been attacked appeared as two tiny red dots on either side of the hologram.

“As you can see,  sir, it was a two-pronged attack,” Maita explained. “One bulldozer attacked the eastern side of the property, taking down the photovoltaic cells and another attacked from the west, taking down the wind turbines.” She paused and waited for him to say something. Maybe he could now see  what she saw. When he didn’t say anything, she continued: “They had to have had some kind of intel to pull off this attack.”

“No, they didn’t have to,” he argued. “Everyone who drives past this property on the highway knows that the cells are on the eastern side and the wind turbines are on the west. We give tours, we are an open book, nobody needs any kind of special intel to carry out an attack this stupid.”

“Okay, sir,” she concurred. “What do you want to do with the attackers?”

“Let them go,” came his simple reply.

Maita stared at him in disbelief. “Let them go?”

“Yes.”

“The attackers?” she asked, to be sure they were talking about the same people.

“Yes, let them go. I am not about to turn a bunch of lunatics into martyrs.”

“So, we let them go unpunished?”

“Do you know why those rapture maniacs became so popular years back?”

“Because of their failed attack at the Department of Intelligence Production in Aba,” she answered. She could still remember how hard she had laughed when she saw on the news that a group that called itself “AI is the devil” – AITD for short – had infiltrated the lobby of the department of intelligence production in Aba and tried to detonate a poorly built IED. The superior sensors at the department had immediately detected the chemical reaction as the suicidal man detonated the vest he was wearing and doused him in a silicon based reactant that had been recently developed to stop bombs from exploding. It worked, the IED failed to blow up but the man wearing it – Henry was his name – suffered first-degree burns.  Turned out that the reactant was corrosive.

“No, that’s not why they became popular,” Egwu said.  “If the department had just let Henry go with just his burns as punishment, his crazy teachings wouldn’t have found its way to the thousands of homes the way it did as a result of his highly publicized prosecution. The department invariably turned him into a martyr by prosecuting him.”

Maita was beginning to understand Egwu’s point. What Henry had needed and wanted was attention and his prosecution brought it to him in spades. Before then, no one gave heed to the man and his little group, who went about preaching that the floods of 2057 and ’58 were the rapture and that Artificial Intelligence and robots were the Antichrist. But after his prosecution, his teachings became wildly popular. “These people do not have the same motive as Henry did,” she said.

“They don’t?” he asked her. “They are not seeking attention too?”

Maita nodded, she agreed with him. When the African Space Exploration Agency had announced their plans to build the space elevator – which later came to be known as the Seshat Project – they had began to receive petitions from parties who thought that the idea of an elevator that ran straight into space was a terrible idea. A small group had sought for the relocation of the project. Maita had never truly understood why they wanted it relocated, the locals were glad to host the project. But this group had turned out to be the biggest thorn in their flesh. Organizing protests and sit-ins in front of the SASHET premises, organizing this attack – she had known they were responsible from the moment the alarms began ringing as they pulled down the first turbine. Their protests had gone on deaf ears and their sit-ins had been ignored. They clearly needed the attention.

“Just let them go,” Egwu said.

“And their punishment?”

“Runi, what is the estimated cost of the damage?”

“An approximate of 2 million,” the AI answered

Egwu squeezed his face a bit. “Do you think they would be able to pay, Maita?”

Maita laughed. It was a roar that seemed to shake the glass room. “No, of course not, not in the next hundred years,”  she laughed.

“Then, they’ll work here till then,” he said.

She stopped laughing and stared at him in shock,.

“Runi will draw up the legal papers,” he continued, ignoring her.

“Work here?” she asked when she finally found her voice

“There’s no punishment that would be worse. If we prosecute them, they’ll get like five years each in prison, where they’ll be fed and clothed for free. And something tells me that the prison cells are so much better than their homes. That’s no punishment at all.”

“So, they’ll be comfortable. But they can’t plan another attack form prison.”

“Neither can they from here,” Egwu countered. “You do know that even I cannot do anything to hinder the progress of this project. I, who designed it, I who know every inch and corner of this construction, I cannot do anything that can stop it. Even if I suddenly became the leader of some group against space exploration bent on destroying the Seshat Project, I still won’t be able to do anything.” He dragged in a lungful of air and stood up. “You see this?” he asked pointing at the cranes jutting out of the sea beyond his window. “Nothing can stop it till it reaches its destination. It’s like one of those old timey trains.” Maita nodded in agreement. “So, go let those lunatics go home and tell them to report to work here first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Maita answered and took her leave.

“Egwu, if I may...” came Runi’s voice after Maita left.

“Go on.”

“Refusing to prosecute these attackers makes no logical sense.”

“Well, not everything has to be logical, Runi,” he replied dismissively and took his seat.

“Chances are that they will plan another attack while working here.”

“Runi, you’re the computer. What are the chances they will be successful?” Egwu  stretched and stifled a yawn.

“Considering that all their actions will be observed, none,” Runi answered.

“That was rhetorical Runi. You know I think sometimes you state the obvious just to show off,” Egwu joked.

Runi’s laughter filled the room, and Egwu felt the room warm up a bit. Runi had been with him for two decades – since he installed him in his first flat in Aba. This was after he had finished at the Tindouf Space Exploration Institute and moved to Aba to work at the Department of Intelligence Productions – back in the days when humans still worked there. Runi had been more than the intelligence that controlled his small flat; he was his flat-mate and best friend – until he met and married Nassira. When Nassira was transferred to the Department of Food Engineering headquarters in Arusha, and they moved to Arusha, Runi went with them. When Egwu got his job at the African Space Exploration Agency, Runi moved with them back to Aba. When their daughter, Funmi, was born Runi was there and when the Seshat Project was announced, Egwu installed Runi in his office. Runi was his personal assistant, his confidant and his friend.

*****

Several floors below Egwu’s office, Hilda sat on a bed in the holding cell, looking out the window at the cranes standing proudly in the midst of the raging sea. Her heart and stomach raged as the sea did, with so much anger. It was anger she’d felt for decades, it was anger her father had taught her.

“You have to be angry, Hilda,” he’d say, with veins spreading across his face like worms and his eyes threatening to pop out from their sockets. “Do not be deceived child by what you see, do not be fooled by the so-called progress you see, we are headed for destruction!”

He had fallen to his death while trying to deface a billboard written in Nsibidi script. “The devil’s writing,” he called it. He had died and left the little Hilda with nothing but anger.  Anger at the “hubris humans wore as cloaks”, hubris that made them feel like gods. Anger at the machines they had created, machines that wielded even greater creation powers than their human creators. Anger at the “neo-paganism”, as her father called it. The structures and buildings named after African gods and built to look like symbols from African mythology. The body art that she had wanted so much as a child, till her father slapped that demon out of her. The pagan scripts that were taking the place of the Latin script and how gladly and naturally people took to them. Her second son, Danso, had taken so much to Ge’ez as a young boy and was now the deputy director of the Institute for the Restoration of Indigenous African Scripts.  She felt nothing for him but disappointment, disappointed that he wasn’t angry like she was, that he was genuinely at home in this world that was heading to hell. Fortunately, he was her not her only son.

Hilda stood up and walked to the glass door. It annoyed her how something could look so vulnerable and yet be indestructible (it had to be, if not they won’t use it in the stead of bars). She looked across the aisle at her son in the cell opposite hers. Pete paced about the room. She worried for him, he never knew how to handle stress. She walked away from the door and walked back to the window and stared at the cranes – the bane of her existence.

Four years earlier, Hilda had taken an early retirement from her job as a caregiver at a Hospice in Aba. It was one of the few jobs that robots and AI hadn’t usurped from humans.  Most people still preferred a warm human hand taking care of them as opposed to the cold touch of some machine. She left the city as soon she could. In the 45 years she had lived there, everything that made her angry had gone from being mere irritation to causing her to lose her mind more often than she cared to. She bought a small cottage on the southern coast of the island of Bioko. It had been peaceful on the island. She had a small garden in her front yard, where she planted vegetables and from the lawn on her backyard, she could watch the ocean rage. She enjoyed the sight. It gave her peace. On days when she had to drive into the small town close-by to buy provisions, she’d stretch out on her lawn chair to unwind afterwards. Having to deal with the automated selling points in the market made her cranky (even here in Bioko, robots were robbing humans of their livelihoods).

It was on one of those days that she saw the cranes. She was lying down on the lawn chair, her eyes shut as she listened to the restless sea. She opened her eyes and they were there, the cranes, rising from the midst of the seas in the distance and glittering in the sunlight. When she stared out of her window that night, lights beamed from the cranes. Whatever it was they were building, it was obviously too urgent for breaks. The next morning, she drove out to the highway and towards cranes, which hovered in the horizon. She didn’t know how it was that she could not noticed them earlier and how they were all she could see now. She had driven only a few minutes when she came upon a large archway by the side of the road. The arch looked like something out of ancient Egypt with several hieroglyphs carved into it. At the top was carved in English, AFRICAN SPACE EXPLORATION AGENCY. She made to drive through the archway and into the property. She decided against it and drove back home. She called her son Pete once she got home. He led a flock of the faithful in Yaoundé and had a lot of time on his hands. A hologram of his head popped out from the phone once he answered. Hilda complimented his  haircut and he thanked her with a bright smile. She had brought him up well.

“Hmm, mother, I don’t know about any projects that the Space Agency has in Bioko oo,” he answered when she told him about the cranes. “Perhaps, you should ask Danso, he’s the one who follows all these new developments.”

So, she called her second son. A frown masked her face immediately Danso’s head popped out of her phone. His hair seemed several stories high and looked as if wild animals could live in it.

“What is up with your hair?” she had asked. “I thought you had dreadlocks.”

“I cut my locks last year, now I just let it grow.”

“It looks bushy.”

“It is well kept mother, I was combing when you called…”

She cut him short; she couldn’t care less about his hair. She went on to ask him about the cranes and he laughed heartily before answering.

“This is why you shouldn’t be offline. How can you not be aware of something happening in your backyard? History is literally being made in your backyard.”

“What is it?” she asked, her patience running out.

“Well, the space agency is building a space elevator.”

“What is that?”

“It’s basically a cable running from earth to the space station. It’s the anchor and base they are building off the coast of Bioko”.

“Why, do we need a cable running to space?”

“For transportation obviously, pay load and humans. It’s supposed to be fast and cheap.”

“Why do we need more options for space travel? I mean people are travelling every other minute”.

“The correct question is always, ‘why not?’ mother.”

She then told him about the archway at the entrance into what she now realized was the construction site for the base of the elevator.

“Is it like an Egyptian thing?”

“Not really mother. The project is called Seshat’s palm. It’s named after the Egyptian goddess of writing, astronomy and astrology. The whole structure is actually supposed to look like the palm-leaf rib she’s seen carrying in several representations of her and…”

Hilda had stopped listening when he made mention of the Egyptian goddess. A familiar feeling settled in her stomach and troubled it; it was a feeling she had almost forgotten. Anger.

“There’s going to be a pagan idol standing in my backyard, with its head literally touching the heavens?” she cut him short again

“Mother, please not this again,” Danso said sighing. “I thought the reason you moved to Bioko in the first place was to gain clarity.”

“Clarity? I am clear son, I am very clear,” she spat in anger. “We are destroying our world.”

“By being African, mother?”

She disconnected the call then. He called back severally, but she did not answer. She drove into town and bought a new phone. Danso was lost, but he was right: she needed to be online. She needed what to know what was going on around her. She dug out an old TV screen she had owned for decades and mounted it. From that day onwards, she followed every news of the Seshat Project. She wrote petitions, hundreds of petitions to have the project relocated, citing several reasons that the Agency classified as ludicrous. The project was in conflict with her religion, the project was in conflict with the religion practised by anyone living in Bioko, the project stood to the east of her property and stole sunrise from her, the project went on tirelessly and kept her up at night with noise and lights.

Unfortunately for Hilda, she was the only one making these complaints. So, she took to protesting, she carried a placard with the words ‘Some of us are still monotheist' scrawled on it, drove down to the archway and sat there. The first month no one noticed her, not even those who worked there. She had begun to think that no humans worked there and would have given up if she hadn’t run into the director of the project, one morning. She had parked her car by the other side of the road and walked across to sit down under the arch. She had already sworn that it was her last day protesting when a car driving into the property stopped in front of her. The glasses of the car rolled down to reveal its sole occupant sitting on the passenger side – she had driven her clunky old car for years and never really come to terms that every car on the road was now autonomous.

“You have a way with words,” the man in the car said nodding at the placard. “If you want it to sound so much more personal, make it read ‘Egwu, some of us are still monotheist'.”

“And who is Egwu?”

“I am,” he stretched out his hand for her to shake. “Egwu Mbachu, the director of the Seshat Project.”

She eyed the hand suspiciously and ignored it. Egwu smiled and took back his hand. “Runi, let’s go, we’re running late,” he said to the car and it zoomed off, leaving her in the dust.

She sat there her purpose renewed. She saw the laughter in Egwu's eyes. It was hubris. He was certain that her protests held no water, that she was just wasting her time. So she called Pete, he was the only person in the world who would understand her. He did. He brought his flock from Yaoundé and they staged a larger protest at the archway. But another month later, no one still had noticed them and Hilda was tired of hosting 20 people in her small home. They too grew tired, having burnt off the steam that had driven them to Bioko. And before she knew it, she was alone again in her fight. She and Pete. It was he who came up with the idea of causing damage.

“No one would listen till we do something,” he had said. “While you’ve been carrying placards, the project has gone on undeterred. The base is almost done. You have to do something.”

He came up with the idea of hitting their power supply. He knew where to hire bulldozers from and when the day came to leave their mark, he talked her out of her cold feet. “We need to do this,” he had said. “We knock out a few photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, enough to make them stop and take us seriously.”

“We’ll go to jail,” she had said for the umpteenth time.

“We won’t go to jail. it’s not serious damage we are going to cause.” He sounded sure. “We will have to pay for damages though, Danso has money, but that’s not what matters here. What matters is that they know we mean business. The media will hear our voice, the world will hear our voice. You will find out that you are not alone in this fight, because there are other people out there who want what you want. They are just waiting for a sign. This hit is that sign. Remember Henry, the rapture guy? Sure, he’s crazy. Sure, he’s rotting away in a jail on the moon! But there are thousands of people who now see the world the way he sees it, because he made the bold move.”

“I am not some lunatic looking to start some ill-planned revolution. I just want this project relocated from my backyard.”

“I know, mother, don’t worry, your voice will be heard.”

Now, she stood in a cell watching the cranes doing their work, undeterred, like nothing had happened, like she and her son had not attempted to stop their progress with bulldozers. She was angry, but beneath the anger, she felt remorse and fear. She wanted to be at home, stretched out on the lawn chair, listening to the sea rage. She wanted to be anywhere else but in that cell.

A beeping sound made her turn around. Officer Maita stood outside her cell door as it opened. Hilda felt her heart leap a beat as the woman stepped into the cell. “Was she being taken away to an actual prison?” she wondered. But the officer produced a tablet.

“You can go home, Mrs. John,” she said curtly. “But, you have to sign this document.”

She shoved the tablet into Hilda’s hands.

“I can go home?” Hilda asked confused. “Why?”

“Sign the document,” Maita said.

“What are they?”

“You will report here everyday from tomorrow by 8am and you won’t leave till after 5pm. You will do any job assigned to you, attend any training you asked to and you will accept any stipend given to you at the end of the day, week or month.”

“You’re offering me a job,” Hilda said, she had never known the kind of confusion that overwhelmed her.

“We are giving you the job, not offering. And you have no other choice but to take it, so sign the documents.”

“I do not want to work here. Over my dead body will I work here,” Hilda swore.

“You are looking at 10 years in the lunar penitentiary with hard labour, if we prosecute you and your son. You do not want to know what  being in a prison on the moon feels like.”

Hilda looked out the cell, to Pete’s cell across the aisle. An officer stood with him, he had the tablet with him. He looked at his mother defiantly. “Sign it,” she mouthed to him. Then she pressed her thumbed on the tablet. As Maita led her out of the cell, Hilda felt an avalanche of emotions, from anger, sadness and shame, to disappointment. But beneath all of them, she felt relief.

*****

Egwu smiled as Hilda and Pete let themselves into the office. He was taken aback a bit when his saw the son. He had expected a young impressionable man and not a grown man in his thirties. Some apron strings were difficult to sever.

“Do you remember me, Mrs. John?” he asked as they came in.

“I do,” she answered.

“You can sit down,” he said and they obeyed. “I hope you had a good night rest in your own beds last night. The beds in those holding cells are okay, but nothing is like the warm bed in one’s own home.”

“Thank you for allowing us go home.”

“You’re welcome, Mrs. John. You know I half expected you to not come back today.”

“You did not give us any choice.”

“Well, yes. If you had run away or anything, this grace I just gave you will be for naught.” He then added, “the lunar prison is no joke at all. I’ve visited once.”

“So, what jobs would you like us to do?” Pete spoke for the first time; his voice shook like that of a primary school pupil at a presentation, “We are really not qualified for any job in this place.”

“I am sure we’ll find something for you, but first, let’s talk.”Egwu stood and walked towards the window. “We are in the golden age of the African culture. A century ago, this continent was the poorest in the world. All the wars were fought here, more than half the population did not have access to clean water, not to talk of good food. But look at the continent today, look at how far we have come. The rest of the world wishes it has made half of the achievements we’ve made! How is it that this does not make you excited? Are you like Henry? Do you think AI is the devil?”

“I think Henry is a lunatic,” Hilda ventured. “But I also think that we have become too attached to these machines. The last time I was in my second son’s home in Arusha, his 8-year-old daughter spent the whole weekend connected to a virtual world, I doubt she ever sleeps.”

“But these machines have made our lives easier!” Egwu’s passion showed in his voice. “Can you believe people drove their own cars only a few decades ago?”

“I drive my car.”

“Well, that does not shock me a bit.”

“But if machines do everything, what then can the humans do?”

“Well, we don’t have to waste time doing mundane things, we focus on things that truly matter.”

“But then, it’s not just the mundane things that the machines are doing, is it?”

“True, it is not. But the truth also is that with these machines thinking for themselves, there’s nothing we cannot do. Okay, you do know about the terraforming of Mars?” Hilda shook her head. “How can you not know that, are you some kind of recluse? Well, Mars is currently undergoing terraforming, that is the process that can make it habitable to support human life. Seventy years ago, it was thought that this process, would likely take a thousand years. But with the technology we have today, we are likely to be moving to Mars in less than a decade. That is just mind-blowing!”

“But why? Why do we need to make Mars habitable? Why do we tamper with the way God made things?”

“The correct question is always ‘why not?’ If we can, Why shouldn’t we?”

 “Let’s just say that playing God is okay, let’s just assume that I can stand the machines, the robots. How do you justify the idols littered everywhere, the open paganism? There’s no way I can stand that.”

Egwu laughed. “That I know, I read every petition you wrote. But do you really think it is paganism? To use indigenous African script as opposed to Latin script? Designing buildings with original African concepts or naming buildings after African gods? I mean, we still have Thursday, we’ve had Thursday for centuries and I don’t see you writing any petitions complaining about naming a whole day after some Viking god?” When she didn’t reply, he went on: “There’s a reason why we are not prosecuting you and your son, come with me.”

 He beckoned on them to join him by the window.

Pete stood first and walked towards the window, his mother followed him, but he turned around and pushed her away. Then ran towards Egwu, pushing the button hidden beneath his sleeves to detonate an IED he had built back in the days when he still followed Henry. Before the vest could explode, the roof that only a few seconds earlier was solid glass, caved, releasing a large amount of white goo that covered Pete, making him fall face flat in front of Egwu. A resounding silence descended in the room. Egwu stood wide-eyed, his heart racing rapidly as watched Pete lie on the floor covered in thick goo. His mother lay on the other side of the room, her face the picture of shock and fear, as she stared at her son. Pete lay there, not lifting his face. A thought flitted through his mind: “Had Henry felt this much shame at the Department of Intelligence Production?”

“Egwu, how are you?” came Runi’s voice.

“I don’t know,” he replied. Behind him the sea raged on and the cranes worked undeterred.


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