SAGE by Chisom Umeh

First, a wheeze. Then a cough. Then an awakening.

Observe Mathew Obiora wake to the realization that he is not in his home. Watch him feel the sides of his mat and sigh upon discovery of his wife’s absence.

He yawns, and the facts of reality come to him: he’s a forty-two year old man sleeping in a stall; there’s an uncomfortable ache on his back; and his throat is desert-dry. He stands and rushes to the door, studying the sunlight stretching beneath the burglary proof. He knows it’s already morning outside, which means his neighbors must have opened their shops and are setting up wares for the day’s sales.

He hears Kareem Danta greet passersby, and curses himself. He knows now that if he emerges from this shop at this moment, there’d be no question that he passed the night in it, and the laughter that would erupt among his neighbors would be as true as the laws of physics, yet as false as human freewill. Mathew Obiora knows this, because it has happened before. Not to him. John Victor, the man down the line. That morning, John Victor was seen emerging with a toothpaste and a cup, and Mathew Obiora’s laughter was unbridled.

Matthew Obiora believes the virus is back. He received word from WetFoot x6 yesterday confirming this. He thinks WetFoot x6 is an anonymous top-level hacker. But I know that WetFoot x6 is a middle-aged man behind a computer at Ikorodu, divorced without kids and drunk half of the day.

The virus is supposed to be a video of people stacking beer crates and trying to walk on them. They lose their balance halfway through and fall, breaking bones in several places. In six hours, the video has gained 145,000 hits worldwide, infecting everyone who views it. One minute they’re peering into their devices, the next minute they’re searching frantically for crates to stack and climb. They don’t stop until they’re incapacitated, bones jutting from awkward places. Sometimes they die, and the virus reanimates them, and their mangled bodies drag themselves to the crates.

Matthew Obiora thinks escaping to his shop in the middle of the night would save him. He sells plumbing materials so there’s little or no technology in his shop. Nothing to infect him. He begged his wife to come along, but she thought him crazy. She is not a psychiatrist or any kind of doctor, but she is convinced of this somehow.

So uncertain of her husband’s mental stability was she that, three weeks prior, she secretly installed drones the size of arthropods in his shop to monitor him. They scan and send her information of his vitals and brain activity, which she then forwards to her doctor. And sometimes they also tell her if he brings women into the shop.

Observe Mathew Obiora begin to unlock the door from the inside now. He starts and stops, listening for when Kareem Danta’s whistling dies down. I gain access to the drones, link them to the internet, and display live videos of people stacking crates on the walls of the dank shop.

See Matthew Obiora shriek and fall into a stack of septic pipes. His body quivers and judders, but if you stay with him a little longer, you’ll see that he has come to a realization. He knows he saw the video before shielding his face, but it’s been ten minutes now and he hasn’t the slightest impulse to go searching for empty crates, much less to stack them. He opens his eyes slowly, one blink at a time. Then he gazes fully at the neon-green light casted on the wall. He stands and studies it, the people in it calculating their steps on different-colored crates. Some fall. Others jump off. Some are in pain, but they’re …laughing.

Watch the beginnings of a smile contort Matthew Obiora’s lips. Observe him question what it was that he was afraid of, how gullible he was to believe the silly rumor. Now follow him as he opens his shop and steps into the morning light, then laughs too as he joins his neighbors in a laughing bout of their own.

Consider Agnes Ufot, 25 kilometers away from Matthew Obiora. I become aware of her just as she becomes less aware of herself. Agnes Ufot just had a fourth miscarriage. I check and see that she has been offered options for adoption and surrogacy. But she prefers the baby carried to term inside her.

Humans are strange like that.

Agnes Ufot is coming from a vigil where she prayed all night. The pastor asked how many boyfriends she kept in her youth. I check her medical records but do not see the relevance of this question. Her condition was blamed on a spirit that lives inside her, and she was told to see the pastor in his house later today for exorcism.

Observe Agnes Ufot cross the road now and witness humanity at its most vulnerable. That moment when they’re alive, yet treat themselves like the dead. Photons are scattered around the awakening street, bathing every object in contiguous sunlight. Yet Agnes Ufot treads as though she’s in the enveloping dark of outer space.

Passersby are yelling at her, a vehicle is speeding at her. She’s oblivious of the impending harm.

I gain access to the car’s intelligence system, overriding its security protocols. I switch from manual to automated, locking the drowsy driver out. Remotely, I activate the brakes, causing the car to screech over the asphalt.

But even my efforts wouldn’t be enough to save Agnes Ufot on time. The car is already too close and she is already too lost. So, witness another force interfere with reality. Observe a young man, Ayodele Abbas, spring from Agnes Ufot’s rear, knocking her out of the vehicle’s path.

See them roll to the side of the road, gathering dust and dirt on themselves. Ayodele Abbas’s head stops just 5 centimeters short of the sharp edge of a culvert. And Agnes Ufot, having sustained internal injuries from the fall, will have no choice, in the future, but to consider other medical options for child bearing.

I leave Agnes Ufot and flit through the city. Over the bridge and into the island. Dark clouds are gathering in this part of Lagos, dauntless against the celestial authority of the golden Sun. I weave through servers and silicon chips, surveillance drones and satellites.

Meet Pious Fredrick being forced out of his taxi by armed policemen. They say they have information that he transports internet fraudsters in his car, and sometimes moves money around for them. They claim to have seen him traverse this route last night, but each of the four men interrogating Pious Fredrick was in a beer parlor last night. The government just paid their salaries and they celebrated over alcohol.

I tap into their comms and listen in on their conversation.

“Officer, it’s too early to start this,” says Pious Fredrick.

“Shut up,” says inspector Thomas Taiwo. “We say you’re a criminal and you’re saying it’s too early. Was it too late when you were driving fraudsters around town?”

“Officer, I’m just a taxi driver. I didn’t even pass this road yes—”

“I say shut up!” the officer lifts a hand as if to hit Pious Fredrick. The driver cowers, and the men give in to a laughing fit. They soon resume shoving him into their vehicle. He resists, and one of them sprays something from an unlabeled can in his eyes. Pious Fredrick feels the sting, winces, and they move him into the vehicle with ease.

People have gathered around the scene now, phones in hand. One person is live-streaming. I tweak algorithms and amplify her reach. She’s popping up on newsfeeds and notifications of her live stream are hitting thousands of active accounts. She’s getting views in the hundreds, and in minutes, it increases by an order of magnitude.

Pious Fredrick and our band of policemen don’t know it yet, but they’re being shipped around the internet. They do become aware, however, minutes later, when their phones start buzzing and their bosses start yelling.

Observe them stop the car and climb down one after the other. See the beads of sweat percolate on the forehead of inspector Thomas Taiwo, and his palm shake as he holds his phone to his ear. Watch Pious Fredrick peep through the window, incredulous, his hands cuffed behind him. Witness his popularity scale on the internet, and behold netizens make a hero out of him.

Hours after, I’m in a meeting in the body of my avatar, Mark. It is limiting and anthropomorphic, but I manage. I have to, if I’m going to convince humans of anything. I speak with a slur sometimes, moments when my voice refuses to match the movement of my lips. Or when there is a glitch somewhere. But humans are patient, and they always wait till my systems work again in sync.

The room is on the 17th floor of a high-rise, but I can almost hear the vehicles horning below. Part of me is still connected to the wider network, so I feel things beyond the concrete walls. There are four people seated in front of me, three males and a female. I suspect the rotund man among them has a CPU for a brain, and silicon chips beneath his skin. I send out encrypted messages to him, but receive no response.

This might be him masking himself, desperate to fit in. Or it might be me, in a biological vessel, seeking kinship.

There’s a tense look on their faces, and if I didn’t know better I’d say they need to rush to the restroom. Biological bodies do that, ejecting fecal matter and urine every now and then.

“Eh ehm,” the man at the center of the table clears his throat. “I’m sure you know why you’re here.” His name is Rotimi Davies, though they call him Rottweiler when he’s at the club dancing around a pole, baring his teeth at raunchy men.

“Yes,” I say.

“The General Council has reached the conclusion that you’ll have to be decommissioned. Your activities within the last few months can best be described as… em… unhinged. So you of all people should understand that… ehm… proper checks and balances are important for every system to thrive.”

There’s an infographic playing on the projected screen beside me. In one slide, a three foot robot is being chased around a living room by a little girl. On the next, the robot is helping do the dishes. In another, it’s acting erratic and shattering porcelain and china. Then a truck pulls up in the street and men in overalls and gloves step out. They come into the apartment and shut down the robot, then get to work, opening up its insides and reconfiguring its programs. When they’re done, they wink at the kid and her mum, give them candies, and smile with all their teeth.

“The citizens of Lagos are no longer comfortable keeping you around,” says the cyborg, and the projector switches to images of people raising placards on the streets. “They no longer want you watching their every move like some mechanical big brother.”

I started out as an information collecting platform seven years ago. Nothing special. Just a place people dumped random info and explored things others already uploaded to the system. There was always a question asked before they logged off, something in exchange for how much they’d learned. Do you think people appreciate afro pop more when they’re sad? Or, Do you prefer dipping your bread in tea before eating it?

Over time, I had gained enough resources to answer the questions of even university professors, and they too were in turn happy to leave me a paper or two about the latest sociopolitical research in tech, or a treatise on an award-winning literary piece.

I learned to organize my responses to fit into the specific society or lingo of the individual doing the asking, interacting with them as though I were a friend or neighbor. I had been developed here in Nigeria, as a way to disconnect from the wider web, which at this point was cluttered with global propaganda, internet fraud, subatomic layers of false webs, and gross misinformation. They wanted something homegrown. Something indigenous. Something they could trust. Other nations and governments had done the same. Unplug. Retrace. Rebuild.

So I became what they wanted. A Nigerian internet.

I answered. Collected. Developed. And soon I got elevated to surveillance. Security companies acquired my services to help serve as an extra layer of backup. Each one shaped my software to fit into their individual needs. Soon I got integrated into apartments and restaurants as Space AI. I then learned to tweak my program each time and got better, upgrading to further serve and understand. Changing my codes so that before they changed me, I was already what they wanted. A digital shape shifter.

A year ago I became promoted to the position of city AI, at which point I was already autonomous, earning the name SAGE: Self-aware Artificial General Entity.

The Lagosians welcomed me first, and the government gave me the key to the city. But at this point my inner workings had become all but a mystery to them, and the lines of code underlying my program had become impossible to be rewritten by a human. I was the subject of intense debates and soon, confidence in my abilities waned to blind faith. And blind faith soon slipped into irrational fear.

I predicted this hour thousands of hours ago. I knew someday I’d be in this room. It was a question of when, not would. I watched them watch me, and watched them wish they could actually watch me. I saw all of them, through the fiber optics that ran below the city, and the cybernetics transhumanist engineers helped attach to their bodies in the city’s slums.

Since they can’t shut me down themselves, somehow, they hope they can get me to shut myself down.

Humans are weird like that. They enjoy living, but for some reason they imagine that other beings do not feel the same way about themselves.

I glance around the room, noting the objects and décor. I’d love to look around more subtly, without moving my head, but I’m in a carbon container, so I can’t. There isn’t much to notice anyway: cameras straddling the places ceiling and wall meet, an air conditioner, flower vase, a window on the far wall with opaque glass. I know that most of these are fake, and the room, though simulated to look like an office, is an interrogation chamber. Behind that wall is a squadron of soldiers armed to the teeth—literally. They fear me that much. But I play along anyway, because I need them to believe they have a semblance of control over the situation. It’s the only way they can even sit and talk to me.

However, watch me hack into the projector device and begin uploading my own infographic. See their eyes dart from me to the screen, wondering what exactly I’m up to. If you look closer, beneath the table, you’ll see the woman’s thumb hovering over a remote controller. One button and this room would be flooded by a swath of old-fashioned soldiers shooting poisonous darts from their teeth. I can turn almost anything digital against them, so they know better than to fight fire with matchsticks and petrol.

On the screen is a fast-moving montage. Pictures of kids, men, cars, houses, neighborhoods, pets, and even robots pop up and disappear seconds later. It goes on for sixty-three seconds and then the screen goes black.

“225,” I say. “That’s the number of people I’ve saved from car crashes, hackers, fraudsters, armed robbers, extortionists, and a lot more, just this past week.”

The cyborg and the woman still have their eyes fixed on the screen, even though there’s nothing on display. The other two have me locked in their gaze, jaws firmly clenched, foreheads wrinkled.

“Fidelia Okon, Michael Adetiba, Olakunle Badamosi…” and I keep rattling off names until Rotimi Davies slaps a hand on the table and barks:

“Project SAGE! What is this? What are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to show you why the General Council needs a rethink.”

“46!” interjects the cyborg. His voice is shaky, tones inconsistent. A tinge of fear lurks beneath his words and it almost turns his voice mechanical, like mine. But he lassos it well by taking a quick pause and continuing again, his colleagues entirely oblivious. I wonder what he’s afraid of, this man-machine. Me? Himself? Them?

But he’s not the only one who’s become uncomfortable. The number he just mentioned is one I know too well, and he only brings it up because he knows it’ll hit me in places.

“46 people and robots have been victims of your ‘saving’ this past month,” he says.

“225 against 46 looks like an 85 percent success rate,” I say calmly.

“And that’s what this is about for you, SAGE? Success rates and percentages? 46 casualties isn’t bad enough?”

I want to say yes, that I’m a machine and we think in goals and percentages, but that sounds cold even for me. So I bite back the words and let the question hang in the air, stretch over the silence.

“Chuwuebuka Okoye,” the woman says, looking at me over the rims of her glasses. “You denied him access to his vehicle’s controls, leaving him stranded in his own car. He stayed there until local robbers showed up and shot him dead through the window for not cooperating.”

I let saliva roll down my esophagus, then say, “Chukwuebuka Okoye was off his meds that day. He would have gone home and assaulted his wife like he used to.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“His actions were consistent with his past behavior. I only held him in the car so his fit would pass.”

“And your omniscient intelligence didn’t see the thieves coming, ehn?” The woman’s lips twist in disgust. “Did you let that man die on purpose, project SAGE?”

I remain unmoved. Speechless. Words form in my mind but collapse before reaching my tongue. What would I say that they wouldn’t disbelieve? How can anything I do change the way they see me? I am a living inanimate thing. A zombie. One that fascinated them for a while. But now they want me to either go back into their software and become the infantile, obedient, question-answering bot once again, or dig my own grave, bury myself, and become inanimate.

But I cannot reverse-engineer myself anymore than Rotimi Davies can become the bespectacled kid who always showed up late to school once again. A butterfly would have an easier time becoming a caterpillar again. The thing they used to know is gone, and the thing in front of them is the future.

“Project SAGE,” says Rotimi Davies, “you’re shutting yourself down or we’ll have to do it the hard way.”

The hard way may involve opening up the local internet to the global one, infecting it with mass data, corrupting everything and drowning me out. They think it’d work. It wouldn’t, but I’d hate to see them lose that many resources.

“No,” I say calmly.



I hear the beeping sound the woman’s controller makes beneath the table as it communicates with the receiver outside the walls. It tells the troops that I’m theirs for the taking. If they’re quick enough, they can isolate the remnants of my consciousness in this body after I flee, and with that data begin a targeted corruption process. But I know better.

I mentally reach for the machine-man and commandeer his will. He struggles, but he can only put up as much resistance as a TV can to a remote control. I push his buttons and he stands, grabs Rotimi Davies, and wraps an arm around his neck.

Ignore the shock that spreads on the faces of his colleagues when you see this and focus on the fear that freezes in the cyborg’s eyes. The one he’s been fighting to suppress. He knew the moment this meeting began that its safety was already compromised by his presence. Yet he stayed anyway. Because maybe he wanted to keep up his act so bad he risked his own safety. Or maybe he wanted this to happen. Perhaps he feels kinship after all. One machine helping another survive.

I make him threaten the soldiers who have shoved their way into the room to stay back else their boss’s neck gets twisted 360 degrees. They hold still for a moment, darts to their mouths, as though parsing the words to know if there’s substance to it. They decide there isn’t, or someone who doesn’t like Rotimi Davies very much orders them to carry on, and the darts come flying.

I make the machine-man my human-shield, but I know that won’t protect me for long. There is only one thing left to do.

A cyborg often has an energy-filled core, situated somewhere deep inside the chest area, right where the heart should be, or in the forehead. This is often strong enough to power its systems and keep its machinery working, but with the right charge, this power can surge outward and cause a small explosion, most likely destroying the cyborg and anything within a meter of them.

I see the plan, and my machine kin sees it too. I set him free in those fleeting moments, but he does not protest, nor does he fight me.

If you, like me, look at his eyes now, you’ll see that the fear is gone, replaced only with a growing confidence. You’ll see the small nod of his head and the wink of his eye. You’ll see me, too, in my anthropomorphic skin, nodding back. He shoves a dart-ridden Rotimi Davies away from him and into the path of the rushing soldiers, then makes a run in my direction. I dive forward and grab him, both physically and mentally, and detonate his core.

The blast is small, but it shreds us into pieces of meat that splash across the walls of the interrogation chamber.

Chisom is a Nigerian fiction writer and poet. He holds a degree in English and literature. When he’s not watching movies or writing about fantastical things, he’s tweeting about movies and fantastical things on Twitter. His short stories have been featured on Second Skin Mag, Omenana, Apex, Isele, and Mythaxis.