Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for January–March 2018: Home.
“Error, fear, and suffering are the mothers of invention.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes
It was a beautiful sunny day, and yet Anwuli knew the weather was coming for her.
She paused on the lush grass in front of the house, purposely stepping on one of the grass’ flowers. When she raised her foot, the sturdy thing sprung right back into place, letting out a puff of pollen like a small laugh. Anwuli gnashed her teeth, clutching the metal planks she carried and staring up the driveway.
Up the road, a man was huffing and puffing and sweating. He wore a clearly drenched jogging suit and white running shoes that probably wanted to melt in the Nigerian midday heat. Her neighbor, Festus Nnaemeka. The moment she and Festus made eye contact, he began walking faster.
Anwuli squeezed her face with irritation and loudly sucked her teeth, hoping he would hear. “Don’t need help from any of you two-faced people, anyway,” she muttered to herself, watching him go. “You keep walking and wheezing. Idiot.” She heaved the metal planks up a bit, carried them to the doorstep and dumped them there. “Obi 3, come and get all this,” she said. Breathing heavily, she wiped sweat from her brow, rubbing the Braxton Hicks pain in her lower belly. “Whoo!”
One of Obi 3’s sleek blue metal drones zipped in and used its extending arms to scoop up the planks. The blown air from its propellers felt good on Anwuli’s face, and she sighed.
“Thank you, Anwuli,” Obi 3 said through the drone’s speakers.
Anwuli nodded, watching the drone zoom off with the planks to the other side of Obi 3. Who knew what Obi 3 needed them for; it was always requesting something. Obi 3 was one of her now ex-fiancé’s personally designed shape-shifting smart homes. He’d built one for himself, one for his company, and this third one was also his, but Anwuli lived in it. And this house, which he’d named Obi 3 (not because of the classic Star Wars film but because obi meant “home” in Igbo, and it was the third one), was his smallest, most complex design.
Built atop drained swamplands, Obi 3 rested on three mechanized cushioning beams that could lift the house up high when it wanted a nice view of the city or keep it close to the ground. The house could also rotate to follow the sun and transform its shape from an equilateral triangle into a square and split into four separate modules based on a mathematical formula. And because it was a smart home, it was always repairing and sometimes building on itself.
Over the past five months, Obi 3 had requested nails, vents, sheet metal, planks of wood, piping. Once it even requested large steel ball bearings. Paid for using her ex’s credit card, most of the time she just had it delivered and dropped at the doorway, or she’d pick up the stuff and place it there, where she quickly forgot about it. By the time she came back outside, it was always gone, taken by the drones. None of this mattered to her, though, because she had real problems to worry about. Especially in the last eight months. Especially in the next hour.
“Shit,” she whimpered, holding her very pregnant belly as she looked at the clear blue sky, again. There had been no storms in the damned forecast for the next two weeks, and she thought she had finally been blessed with some luck after so long. However, apparently the weather forecast was wrong. Very, very wrong. She felt the air pressure dropping like a cold shiver running up her spine. Mere hours ago, Dr. Iwuchukwu had informed her that this sensitivity to air pressure was part of the allergy.
Several honeybees buzzed around one of the flowerbeds beside her. The lilies and chrysanthemums were far more delicate than the government-enforced supergrass, but at least they were of her choosing. Just as it was her choice to stay in her house. She listened harder, straining to hear over the remote sound of cars passing on the main road a half-mile away. “Dammit,” she whispered, when she heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. She turned and headed to the house.
The door opened, and she went inside and slammed it behind her before it could close itself. She stood there for a moment, her hands shaking, tears tumbling down her face. The house had drawn itself into its most compact and secure shape: a square, swinging the triangular sections of the kitchen and living room together. Outside, from down the road, the mosque announced the call to prayer.
“Fuck!” she screamed, smacking a fist to the wall. “Tufiakwa! No, no, no, this is not fair!” Then the Braxton Hicks in her belly clenched, and she gasped with pain. She went to her living room, threw her purse on the couch, and plopped down next to it, massaging her sides.
“Relax, oh, relax, Anwuli. Breathe,” Obi 3 crooned in its rich voice. “You are fine; your baby is fine; everything is fiiiiiine.”
Anwuli closed her eyes and listened to her house sing for a bit, and soon she calmed and felt better. “Music is all we’ve got,” she sang back to Obi 3. And the sound of her own voice pushed away the fact that she and her baby would probably be dead by morning, and it would be all her fault. Pushed it away some.
Music and Obi 3. Those were all she and her unborn baby had had for nine months. Since she’d learned she was pregnant and stupidly told her fiancé, who a minute later blurted to her that he was married with two children and couldn’t be a father to her child, too.
The city of New Delta was big, but her neighborhood had always been “small” in many ways. One of those ways was how people stamped the scarlet badge of “home-wrecking lady” on women who had children with married men. Her fake fiancé had deserted her, using the excuse of Anwuli playing the seductress he couldn’t resist. Then her friends stopped talking to her. Even her sister and cousins who lived mere miles away blocked her on all social networks. When she went to the local supermarket, not one person would meet her eye.
Only her smart home spoke (and sometimes sang) to her. And then there was the baby.
Boy, girl, she refused to find out. It was the only good thing she had to look forward to. But her baby was making her sick too, specifically allergic. Dr. Iwuchukwu had been telling her to leave New Delta for months, but Anwuli wasn’t about to leave her house. The house was her respect; what else could she claim she’d earned from the relationship? She knew it was irrational and maybe even deadly, but she took her chances. So far, so good. Until today’s diagnosis at her doctor’s appointment. And right there in that antiseptic place, whose smell made her queasy, she’d decided for good: She wasn’t going anywhere. Come what may. Now, as if the cruel gods were answering her, a storm was coming.
“Seriously,” she muttered, sinking down on the couch, letting its massagers knead the tight muscles of her neck. “I have such bad luck.”
“Bad luck is only a lack of information,” Obi 3 said. “Dr. Iwuchukwu has sent you a message saying to go over it again.”
“I understood it the first time,” she said. “I just don’t care. I’m not going anywhere. The idiot left me. He’s not getting his house back, too.”
Before Anwuli could launch into a full-blown rant, Obi 3 began playing the informative video the doctor suggested. She sighed with irritation as the image opened up before her. She didn’t care to know more than the bits her doctor had told her, but she was tired, so she watched anyway.
The man walked with a cane and wore an Igbo white-and-red chief’s cap like an elder from Anwuli’s village in Arochukwu. The projection made it look as if he walked in from the bedroom door, and Anwuli rolled her eyes. This entrance was supposed to be more “personable,” but she only found it obnoxious.
“Hello, Anwuli,” the man said, graciously. “So, you live in New Delta, Nigeria, the greenest place in the world. Fun fact: 100 years ago, this used to be swamplands and riverways, and the greatest export was oil. Violent clashes between oil corporations and a number of the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups who felt they were being exploited … ”
“Skip,” Anwuli said. The man froze for a moment and went from standing in the living room to standing in the middle of downtown New Delta. Anwuli was about to skip again, but instead she laughed and watched.
In the area between New Delta’s low skyscrapers, buildings and homes were carpeted with its world-famous stunning green grass, and the roads were fringed with it, but in this scene the grass was covered with smiley-faced bopping periwinkle flowers. It looked ridiculous, like one of those ancient animations from the early 1900s or a psychedelic drug–induced hallucination. The man grinned as he grandiosely swept his arms out to indicate all the lush greenery around him.
“Grass!” he announced. “Whether we know it or not, grass is important to most of us. Grass is a monumental food source worldwide. Corn, millet, oats, sugar—all of them come from grass plants. Even rice was a grass plant. We use grass plants to make bread, liquor, plastic, and so much more! Livestock animals feed mostly on grasses, too. Sometimes we use grass plants like bamboo for construction. Grass helps curb erosion.”
He walked closer and stood in the center of town square in the grassy roundabout, smart cars and electric scooters driving round him. At his back stood the statue of Nigeria’s president standing beside a giant peri flower. “The post-oil city New Delta is now the greenest place in the world, thanks to the innovative air-scrubbing superplant known as periwinkle grass, a GMO grass created in Chinese labs by Nigerian scientist Nneka Mgbaramuko.
“Carpeting New Delta, Periwinkle’s signature tough flowers are a thing of beauty and innovation. A genetic hybrid drawn from a variety of plants including sunflowers, zoysia grass, rice, and jasmine flowers, we can thank periwinkle grass for giving us the perfect replacement for rice just after its extinction. The grass produces periwinkle seed, more commonly just called ‘peri,’ is delicious, easy to cook, quick to grow. And it can grow only here in New Delta, because of the special mineral makeup from its past as a swamp. What a resource!” He held up a hand, and the point of view zoomed in to the soft light-purple–blue flower in it. The man looked down at Anwuli as he grinned somewhat insanely. “One week a year, the harvester trucks come out to—”
“Ugh, skip,” she said, waving a hand. “Just go to ‘New Delta Allergies.’ ”
The man froze and then reappeared in what looked like someone’s nasal cavity, the world around him red and smooth.
“Allergies,” he said, looking right at Anwuli with a smirk. He winked mischievously. “Humans have had them since humans were humans, and maybe before that. One of the earliest recorded incidents was sometime between 3640 and 3300 BC when King Menses of Egypt died from a wasp sting.
“In New Delta, pollen allergies are commonplace. Milder symptoms include skin rash, hives, runny nose, itchy eyes, nausea, and stomach cramps. Severe symptoms are more extreme. Swelling caused by the allergic reaction can spread to the throat and lungs, causing allergenic asthma or a serious condition known as anaphylaxis.
“New Delta is a wonderful place of spotless greenery where one can walk about with no shoes on the soft grass, breathe air so clear it smells perfumed, and drive down Nigeria’s cleanest streets.”
At this Anwuli laughed.
“But in the last five years, due to an unexpected shift in the climate, pollination season has become quite an event. This means more copious harvests of peri. But because peri grass is a wind pollinator, it also means what scientists have called ‘pollen tsunamis.’ ” The weather around the man grew dark as storm clouds moved in and the room vibrated with the sound of thunder. Anwuli glanced toward the side of the room that was all window. Outside was still sunny, but it wouldn’t be for long.
“Skip to Izeuzere,” she said.
The man froze and then was sitting behind a doctor’s desk, wearing a lab coat. He still wore his Igbo chief cap. “…a few New Delta citizens were diagnosed with an allergy called Izeuzere. The name, which means ‘sneeze’ in Igbo, was given to the condition by a non-English-speaking Igbo virologist who liked to keep things simple. If someone with Izeuzere is caught in a pollen tsunami, there will first be severe runny eyes, sneezing fits, and then an escalation to convulsions, ‘rapid rash,’ and then suffocation. Most who have it experience a preliminary sneezing fit and then the full spectrum of symptoms the moment a pollen tsunami saturates the area. Deadly exposure to the pollen when a tsunami hits takes minutes, even when indoors, and is instant when outside. Treatment is to leave New Delta and go to an arid environment before the next pollen tsunami. Once there, one must be given a battery of anti-allergen injections for five months.”
“What if I lose everything if I leave?” Anwuli asked the virtual man. “What if moving out of this house allows the father of my child to get rid of me without lifting a damn finger? Do you have answers for that in your database?” The man’s eyebrows went up, but before the man could respond, she screamed, “Shut up!” She punched the couch cushion. “Off! Turn off!” The image disappeared, replaced by her favorite soothing scene of an American cottage covered in snow. The sound of the wind was muffled by the blanket of snow, and smoke was rising from the cottage’s chimney. She knew what would happen if she couldn’t leave the area. “Dammit,” she hissed. “I refuse! I refuse!”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to buy a ticket for you to Abuja?” Obi 3 asked. “There is a flight leaving in two hours. Your auntie will—”
“No!” Anwuli sat back and shut her eyes, feeling her frustrated tears roll down both sides of her face. “I’m not leaving. I don’t care.” She paused. “They probably all hope I’ll die. Like I deserve it.”
“What kind of dessert would you like? There is caramel crème and honeyed peri bread.”
“Deserve,” Anwuli snapped. “I said deserve, not dessert!”
“You deserve happiness, Anwuli.”
Anwuli closed her eyes and sighed, muttering, “Left me alone here for nine months; their message is clear. Well, so is mine. I’m not going. This is his baby. He can’t deny that forever.” She paused. “Now this stupid storm rolls in out of nowhere when I could have this child at any moment. This is God’s work. Maybe he wants all my trouble over with fast.”
“Would you like some jollof peri and stew?” Obi 3 asked as Anwuli slowly got up. “You haven’t eaten since before you went to your appointment.”
“Why would I want to eat when I am about to die alone?” she shouted.
She got up. She stared around Obi 3. Not spotless, because Anwuli didn’t like spotless, but tidy. Her space since he had left her to fully return to his marital home. One of Obi 3’s interior drones zipped into the bedroom with a set of freshly washed and folded clothes.
“What do I do?” Anwuli whispered. And, as if to answer, the sound of thunder rumbled from outside, this time louder. “I don’t want to die.”
She’d always had allergies. Her father had even playfully nicknamed her ogbanje when she was little because she was always the one sniffling, sneezy, and sent to bed any time the peri flowers bloomed. Goodness knew that when her allergies flared, she did feel like a spirit who’d prefer to die and return to her spirit friends than keep living with the discomfort. But never did she imagine she’d eventually come down with the rare illness everyone had been talking about. And her doctor, also a local to her community, had been so cold about it.
“I don’t know why you haven’t left yet, but don’t worry. You’ll give birth any day now,” he’d said at her earlier appointment, clearly avoiding her eyes by looking at his tablet. “Then you take your baby, fly to Abuja immediately and get treatment there. No storms are due in the next week, so you will be fine.”
Anwuli had nodded agreement. What she didn’t say in that room was that she had no intention of leaving. Obi 3 was her home as long as she lived in it. Bayo was an asshole, but he could never throw her out of the house, no matter how much he wanted the situation to go away. She was sure he still loved her, and above everything, this was his baby. However, his wife certainly would love for her and his “bastard” baby to simply leave the area. But none of it mattered now because here was the thunder.
Anwuli went to her room and curled up in her bed and for several minutes, minutes she knew would be her last, she cried and cried. For herself, for her situation, her choice, for everything. When she couldn’t cry anymore, the thunder was closer. She got up. Her belly felt hard as a rock, and the pain drove even her fear of death away. At the same time, Obi 3 brightened the lights, which seemed to amplify the pain.
“Blood of Jesus!” she screamed, crumbling to the floor in front of the couch.
She was 29 years old and she’d watched all her friends settle into marriage and have child after child, yet this was her first. And there had been so much chaos around the fact of her pregnancy that although she went to regular checkups, she hadn’t really thought much about the birth or what she’d do afterward. Shame, desperation, embarrassment, and abandonment burned hotter and shined brighter than her future. So Anwuli wasn’t ready.
Now her pain had begun to speak, and it told vibrant stories of flesh-consuming fire that burned the body to hard, hot stone. It was as if her midsection was trying to squeeze itself bloody. She rolled on the floor, more tears tumbling from her eyes. And then…it passed. Her belly melted from hot stone back to flesh, her mind cleared, and a light patter of rain began tapping at the windows.
“Better?” Obi 3 asked.
“Yes,” Anwuli said, grasping the side of the couch to pull herself up. Beside her hovered one of Obi 3’s drones. “I’m OK. I can do it myself.”
“That was a contraction,” Obi 3 said. “The variations in electromagnetic noise my sensory lights are picking up tell me that you’ll be entering labor soon.”
Anwuli groaned, glancing at the window. Of course, she thought.
“Not yet but very soon,” Obi 3 said. It beeped softly, and the lights flashed a gentle pink orange. “You have a phone call. Bayo.”
Anwuli frowned. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. “OK, answer.”
There was another beep, and Bayo’s face appeared before her. He looked sweaty, and his shaven brown head shined in the light of the room he was in. He squinted. “Anwuli, turn your visuals on,” he said.
“No,” she snapped, propping herself against the couch. “What do you want?”
He sighed. “Your doctor just called me.”
“What did he say?” she asked, gnashing her teeth.
“That you’re sick. That you have … Izeuzere. How can this be? Is it the pregnancy?”
“Is it legal for him to discuss confidential patient information with strangers?” she snapped. “Doubtful.”
“I’m not a stranger.”
“The last time you spoke to me was nine months ago.”
His shifty eyes shifted. There was a shadow beside him; someone else was there. Probably his wife. Anwuli felt a wave of wooziness pass over her. “I…I think I’m in labor,” she said.
He looked surprised but then shocked her by saying nothing.
“No ambulance will drive through this storm,” she said. “Can you…?”
His wife’s face suddenly filled the virtual screen. “No, he will not,” she said. “He has a family and cannot afford to go driving into pollen storms. Clean up your own mess. And get out of our house!” Bayo’s wife continued to block Bayo’s face, and if Bayo said anything, Anwuli could not hear him.
“Whose house?” Anwuli shouted at her. “Did you design it? Build it? Pay for it? Does this house even know your name?”
“Go and die!” his wife roared. The image disappeared.
Anwuli flared her nostrils, but no effort could stop the tears and hurt from washing over her like its own contraction. She hadn’t known a thing about that woman. Bayo had. Yet who did his family and the rest of the community embrace? Who still had his own body to himself? Well, Anwuli thought, maybe I did know about her. Maybe. Let me not lie when I am so close to my death. I knew. I just chose not to see.
“Call parents,” she breathed.
Their phone rang and rang. No response. Not surprising. They’d stopped picking up her calls months ago. She sent a text explaining it all, then went to the kitchen.
* * *
The strain of throwing up and having a contraction nearly caused her to pass out. One of Obi 3’s drones pushed itself beside her to keep her from tumbling to the floor.
“The variations in electromagnetic noise my sensory lights pick up alert me that—”
“Shut up!” Anwuli screamed.
“—you are now in labor,” Obi 3 finished.
Boom! the thunder outside responded. Sheets of rain began to pelt Obi 3. The lights flickered, and then Anwuli heard her backup solar generator kick in.
“What do I do?” she grunted, using a napkin to wipe her mouth. “What am I going to do?”
“Shuffling songs by MC Do Dat,” Obi 3 cheerily said. Bass-heavy rap music shook the entire house, making Anwuli even more nauseous.
“Ladies do dat,
Bitches do dat!
Get down low and,
Do dat, do dat!” MC Do Dat rapped over the beats in his low raspy voice.
“Music off!” she screamed, tears squeezing from her eyes. She clenched her fists with rage. “No music! Ooh, I hate this song!”
The music stopped in time for the sound of thunder to shake the house. Anwuli slowly dragged herself up as the contraction subsided.
“I’ll help you to the couch,” Obi 3 said.
She nodded and leaned against the drone that floated to her side. As she did, reality descended on Anwuli. Obi 3 was only an extension of herself. She was only talking to herself, being helped by herself. She was alone. “The storm…pollen…I don’t want to…” As she stumbled to the couch, the drone holding her under her armpit, she started to cry again. She cried more as she fell onto the couch and rolled onto her back, her clothes now drenched in sweat. She cried as she stared at the spotless sky-blue ceiling, which she had used Obi 3’s drones to paint when Bayo left her. She cried as lightning flashed and the thunder roared outside, the unpredicted storm’s winds blowing.
She’d been crying for nine months, and she cried for yet another 10 minutes, and then another contraction hit, and she forgot everything. As the minutes passed, and the contractions came faster and faster, she didn’t remember where the pillow came from that propped her up or how her legs held themselves apart. What she did recall was the window across from her shattering as a palm tree fell through it. She remembered the wind and rain blowing into Obi 3, filling it with the heat and humidity from outside. Tree leaves, new and dry, slapped against the couch, onto the floor, but no peri flowers were blown in. Those were strong like men; they didn’t even lose petals in the worst wind. Built to survive and reproduce, not to keep from killing us, she vaguely thought. She couldn’t help but note the irony: Plant fertilizer was going to kill her as she was giving birth.
Her face grew damp with sweat and rain. As she gave the great push that thrust her first child into the world, the storm outside exhausted itself to a hard rain. The coming of her child felt like her body submitting after a battle. The sharp pain peaked and then retreated. And that is how the first to carry her squirming daughter was not a human being but a drone, using a plastic scooper as its long sharp knife cut the cord. When the drone placed the child in Anwuli’s hands, she looked down at her daughter’s squashed, agitated face. For several moments, she stared, unmoving.
“Don’t you want to cry?” she asked the snuffling infant.
“Mmmyah,” the baby said, turning her head this way and that. Anwuli found herself smiling. She poked her daughter’s little cheek. The moment she felt the baby’s softness, Anwuli began to weep. She touched the baby again, running a finger delicately across the baby’s cheek to touch her lips. Immediately, her child began to suck on her finger.
“She’s breathing strongly already,” Obi 3 said. “Maybe she does not need to cry.”
“Mmiri,” Anwuli said, holding the child to her. “I’ll name you Mmiri. What do you think, Obi 3?”
“Mmiri means ‘water’ in the Igbo language,” Obi 3 said.
Anwuli laughed. “OK. But do you approve?”
“You do not need my approval to name your child.”
“But I would like it, if you think to give it.”
There was a pause. Then Obi 3 said, “How about giving her the middle name Storm? Storm was the American Kenyan superheroine from Marvel comics. She could control the weather and fly.”
Anwuli’s eyebrows rose. “Hmm, wow,” she said. “Mmriri Storm Okwuokenye, then. I approve.” The house glowed a soft lavender color that turned the ceiling a deeper sky blue as Anwuli stared up at it. “Mmiri Storm Okwuokenye,” Anwuli breathed again, looking at her new daughter, who smelled like the earth. Bloody, coppery, yeasty. Hers. She held on to this beautiful thought and the sound of her daughter snuffling as the pains of expelling the afterbirth came. When this was over, she slumped on the couch, watching the drone take away the bloody mass.
She already felt much better. Then she sneezed, and her eyes grew itchy. “No,” she whispered. Baby Mmiri decided it was time to start wailing. The rain had stopped, and the sun was already peeking through the retreating clouds. She sneezed again, and the house drone flew to her, a clean orange towel now draped over its scooper. Anwuli put her daughter into it and was wracked by a sneeze again. She sat up, surprised by how OK she felt. The second drone flew up beside her carrying a glass of water and her bottle of antihistamine tablets. “Hurry, take three,” Obi 3 said. “Maybe—”
“There is nothing to be helped now,” Anwuli blurted, looking at the shattered window. Already, what looked like smoke was wafting into the house. Soon visibility outside would be zero, and it would last for the next 24 hours. “I’m a dead woman.”
No one had predicted weather patterns shifting. This is why scientists were calling the occasional spontaneous variation in weather patterns “climate chaos” instead of “climate change.” That’s what they’d recently been saying on the news, anyway. The pollinating grass was genetically staggered to release pollen at three separate times during the year, with one-third of the grass pollinating in each period. However, over the last 20 years, an unexpected shift in the length of the dry, cool Harmattan season had scrambled that timing, causing the pollination periods of all three groups to align.
The immense wealth made from peri production went directly to the Nigerian government and to the Chinese corporations who’d invested so deeply in Nigeria for decades, and next to nothing went to New Delta, much in the same way it had when the greatest resource had been oil. For this reason, the initially lovely city that was New Delta began to deteriorate, and the Chinese and Nigerian governments paid less attention to the pollination misalignment. News of pollen allergies had become nationally known only when Izeuzere set in during the last two years. But only because the way it killed was so spectacular. And this year, rainy season had been particularly wet.
“I’m dead,” Anwuli muttered, using all the effort she could muster to get up. She threw her legs off the couch, planting them on the floor. Ignoring the blood soaking her bottom through the drenched towels, she pressed her fists to the cushions on both sides of her. Then she lifted herself up. The pain was far less than she expected, and she froze for a moment, glad to be on her feet.
“Standing,” she whispered, her nose now completely stuffed and her eyes still watering. She sniffed wetly. Her insides felt as if they would plop out between her legs onto the blood-spattered carpet. But they didn’t. She touched her deflated belly. Then she sneezed so hard that she sat back down. In the kitchen, her baby was crying as the drone put her in a tub of water to wash her off. Anwuli pushed herself up again and took a step toward the kitchen. But as she took another, her chest grew stiff. She wheezed.
She couldn’t tell if the room was blurry because it was full of pollen or because of her watering eyes or the fact that she could barely take in enough oxygen. And then she was falling. As she lay on the floor, she heard Obi 3 talking to her, but she didn’t understand. Her baby was crying, and if she could smile, she would have, because her baby was not sneezing. Then she closed her eyes, and it was as if the world around her was breaking.
* * *
The floor shook, and Anwuli heard the walls cracking, shifting, crumbling. Her nose was too stuffed for her to smell anything, but she could feel pollen coating her tongue and blood seeping from between her legs. Things went black for a while. Mmiri’s cries faded away and stopped. The noise of things breaking became a low hum. The shaking stopped. Anwuli must have slept.
She sneezed hard and wheezed, cracking her gummy eyes open. Everything was a blur until she blinked. She gasped. Then she realized that she could gasp. And the room was suddenly warm, like outside. She blinked several more times, wiped her eyes, and then just stared at where the broken window had been. Her daughter began weakly crying. The makeshift cradle the drone had began to gently rock, and Mmiri quieted a little.
Still staring but slowly sitting up, Anwuli said, “Bring her here.” She took the baby into her arms as she stared at what looked like a smooth, shiny metal wall. So shiny that she could see the entire living room reflected in it. She remembered these metal sheets; Obi 3 had asked her to order them weeks ago. Something clanged, and the wooden wall beside the metal wall buckled in a bit. She turned and looked down the hall toward the front door, and there she saw another metal wall blocking the view of outside.
“What’s…did you do something?” she asked. In her arms, baby Mmiri squirmed and nestled closer to her.
“I did,” Obi 3 said. “Do you like it?”
Air was blowing near the ceiling, the Nigerian flag hanging from a bookshelf flapping, and for the first time, Anwuli noticed something. The vent grate was gone, and the air duct inside was a shiny aluminum, not the dull steel. She pointed, “What is that?”
“I built a duct to filter pollen from the air.”
Anwuli glanced at the air duct again. And then she looked around the room. Then she looked back at the air duct. She sneezed, but doing so cleared the snot from her nose. She wiped her face with her sleeve and sat on the towel of blood, the coppery, yeasty smell of birth floating around her.
For months, Obi 3 had requested things. Had it been since before Bayo left? Anwuli couldn’t remember. She hadn’t been paying attention. The last nine months had been crying, shouting, back-turning, embarrassing. Swollen ankles. The day she was in the supermarket and all those women had pointed at her belly and laughed. Swelling body. Her parents ignoring her in church. Wild cravings. Running to her self-driven car after turning a corner and walking right into Bayo’s wife. The heightened pollen allergies. And she couldn’t stop crying. And all that time, her house had been asking her to buy things.
It would put the items on her phone’s grocery list. Nails, sheets of metal, piping, plaster, tool parts and, yes, two air ducts. She’d hear banging on the sides of Obi 3, sawing, creaking, but who could care about repairs Obi 3 made to itself when her life had fallen into disrepair? Who could care about anything else?
“What have you done?”
After a long pause, Obi 3 said, “Please, can you walk?”
“What have you done?” she demanded.
“Go to your room … please,” Obi 3 said. “I will tell you, but please take baby Mmiri Storm to your bed. The pollen outside just increased. I can’t … it’s time for phase 2, or you will die.”
Anwuli got up. This time, doing so was more painful. She bent forward. “Take her,” she gasped. “I can’t.”
The drone swept up, and as gently as she could, shaking with pain that broiled from her uterus and radiated to every part of her body, she took a step. She felt blood trickling down her leg. “I…should…wash. Can—”
“Yes, but use the towel beside the bed to wipe it, for now, and just get into bed.”
“Why?” Anwuli asked, stumbling to the back of the couch and then into the hallway to her room. She leaned against the wall as she stiffly walked.
“There’s no time,” Obi 3 said.
She took more steps. “Talk to me,” she said. “It’ll help distract…yeeee, oh my God, this hurts. Feels like my intestines are being pulled down by gravity.” She stopped, leaning against the wall, panting. “Talk to me, Obi 3. Tell me a recipe, recite some poetry, something.”
“You are 0.8 kilometers from the center of New Delta.”
“T-t-tell me what you did to yourself … and why?” She shut her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Just pushed out baby, she told herself. Pain is just from that. I’m OK. I’m OK.
“I’ve listened to you,” Obi 3 said. “One day, you said you wished someone would protect you like you protected the baby.” Anwuli remembered that night. She’d been unable to sleep and thus had stayed up all night, thinking and thinking about all the weeks of being alone. Scared. She hadn’t been talking to Obi 3. Nor the baby. She’d just talked to herself, to hear her own voice. Maybe she’d been praying.
“You were speaking and asking,” Obi 3 continued. “I did my own research and then engineered my plans,” it said. “I had answers. Every smart home watches the news, its central person, and its environment. Nearly one-third of all pregnant women will develop an allergy they have not previously suffered from, and the allergies they already have tend to get worse. You have always had bad allergies; you told me how they used to call you ogbanje. Also, remember the day your stupid, useless man left? You turned off my filter because he liked to have it on.”
At this, Anwuli snorted a laugh, and she felt blood gush from her privates and a pang of pain strong enough to make her stumble. She’d been brash. No one turned off a home’s filter. Not after all the incidents of smart homes being too nosy and intrusive.
“Ah, so you predicted I’d get Izeuzere?”
“Yes,” Obi 3 said. “I used formal logic.”
“Then you decided to find a way to protect me.”
“Yes. I invented a way, then I built my invention.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Anwuli said, with a weak smile. “Wow. Technology harbors a personal god; my Chi is a smart home.” She laughed, and her body ached, but a good ache.
“I have decided to call it a ‘protective egg,’ ” Obi 3 said. “Is this all right?”
Anwuli frowned for a moment. Then she shrugged. “It’s kept me and baby alive.”
“Watching you inspired me. Your body protects your baby. Steel plated, impervious exterior, an air filter … ” It paused, and Anwuli frowned.
“Tell me all of it,” she demanded, entering her room. “Oh!” she said. Here, the window wall in front of her bed had mostly been fortified with metal except for about three by three feet of it. And outside, a blizzard of bright-orange fluff thick enough to mute the midday Nigerian sunshine. Never ever ever had the pollen been so thick. Towels had been placed on the bed and beside it. Anwuli grabbed one, wiped her legs, and then pressed it to herself. “No use hiding it from me now,” she said. “We’re in this together, no? We have been for months. Is this why you haven’t tried so hard to get me to leave?”
Anwuli chuckled tiredly. “Interesting. So interesting.”
As Anwuli laid herself on the bed, Obi 3 told her all about what it called “Project Protective Egg.” And then, as she clutched Mmiri in her arms, watching her death swirl about outside, the entire house began to rise up. Obi 3 had rebuilt its own steel cushioning beams, used to support it above the delta swamp floor, into three powerful legs.
“I can take us beyond the tsunami before the filters are overwhelmed,” Obi 3 said.
“If we can make it that far, there is no peri grass in Abuja.”
As it walked, the room gently rocking, Obi 3 hummed the song Anwuli’s mother always hummed when she cooked. Anwuli rested on the pillow the drone had pushed beneath her head, held Mmiri closer to her, and hugged herself. Yes, Obi 3 was like an extension of herself. Like part of my immune system who has just saved my life, she thought, staring at the window. Or my Chi. Anwuli hoped Obi 3 crushed the hell out of as much peri grass as it could on the way out of town, and maybe the house of her ex-fiancé…if they weren’t home.
Baby Mmiri Storm cooed in her arms.
* * *
Two miles away, Bayo sat in his study frowning as he looked out at the whirling pollen through the room’s triangular corner window. He was still thinking about Anwuli. Praying she was not dead. If she had finally decided to leave the house, she was out there in that pollen storm right now. He shook his head, frowning. “Please, let this woman be alive,” he muttered. “Please, oh, Biko-nu, Holy Ghostfire, laminate her life for protection, in the name of Jesus.”
His wife was in the kitchen making peri cakes and fried fish, but he didn’t dare look at his mobile phone, let alone make a call on it. The house was listening, almost every aspect of its mechanisms tuned to his wife’s preferences because it was she who spent the most time here. Maybe I should have stayed home more, he thought. At the same time, he wished today weren’t his day off. Even with the noise of his sons and daughter playing in the living room, he knew he couldn’t call Anwuli. And if he got up to leave when the pollen passed, there would be trouble.
Suddenly, the entire house rumbled. Then it began to shake, and the children screamed. As Bayo jumped up, he could feel it. The house was rising. And that’s when it all dawned on him, a horrid sense of doom settling on his shoulders: His wife…not only had she known of Anwuli all along, but so had their house, Obi 1. And neither his wife nor her house was the type to easily let things go. “Shit,” he said. “Why did I make these goddamn smart homes so smart?” He heavily sat down on the couch and held on for dear life.
“Mother of Invention” was originally commissioned for the collection A Year Without a Winter, edited by Dehlia Hannah, Brenda Cooper, Joey Eschrich, and Cynthia Selin. The book will be published in May 2018 by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City (distributed by Columbia University Press), and is available for preorder now.
Previously in Future Tense Fiction:
• “Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
• “Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
• “The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders