We’re excited to reprint “A Dream of Electric Mothers,” the 2023 Nebula Award–nominated novelette by Wole Talabi, first published in Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, the NAACP Image Award–nominated anthology edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight.
Two hours into the third session of our fourth cabinet meeting on the border dispute with the co-operative kingdom of Dahomey, my colleagues finally agree that we need to seek the dream-counsel of our electric mother.
The dream-counsel consultation ceremony was usually a somewhat elaborate half-day affair, with a Chief Babaláwo being called in from the Ile-Ifẹ̀ Technology Center of Excellence a day before to run diagnostics, read the Odù, dine with the Ọyọ Mesi and remind us of our history and culture before we link our brains with that of our electric mother. Officially, the ceremony is performed to maintain transparency, to formally ensure that the public knows when this collective resource is being used. But everyone knows that the primary reason the ceremony was devised and is still performed is to maintain a sense of continuity of tradition because some of our people still believe that any contact with the ancestors should be mediated by a Babaláwo. Even though they know that the electric mother isn’t really the essence of our ancestors in the classical sense of the term, and that nothing more than an encrypted lifedock connection to the secure national memory data server and induced REM sleep are necessary to establish contact. Today though, we vote to forgo the ceremony and perform the consultation immediately due to the urgency of the situation. An efficient measure which I proposed, and which was thankfully agreed to by a majority vote without much objection. No need for all the bureaucratic jagbajantis that the government has developed a reputation for. We can make a full report after it is done. Besides, I have been waiting over a decade for an opportunity like this and I don’t want to wait another day if I can help it.
“Are you okay?” I ask my colleague, the honorable minister of information and culture, who is fiddling with his bronze-framed spectacles nervously as we exit the white-walled womb of the secure ministerial conference room. He was one of only two dissenting votes in the cabinet and the only cabinet member I have ever engaged with more than a professional politeness since I was appointed by the Alaafin three months ago. This is the first consultation I will be a part of, but the records show that he voted against the previous four as well. I have come to like him, but I find his apparent resistance to the consultation curious, especially since he is the one that will be responsible for the report and official broadcast once we are done.
Jibola Adegbite shakes his head, the sound of his shoes a metronome against the marble floor. “No. I’m not. And maintain my objection. I really don’t think this is necessary at all. At least not yet. It is a border dispute, not some brand-new crisis. We can figure this out ourselves.” He pauses. And then he says, “Besides, these consultations always leave me feeling somehow.”
“How somehow?” I ask.
“Like it never really leaves my head, you know? Even after. The voice, or something. It is still there. Do you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t actually,” I lie.
I have read classified reports of others who made similar claims, who thought they heard the voice in their heads or relived experiences from the consultation long after they were disengaged from the server. I don’t say anything to Jibola about the others because I know it’s not possible. Not really. Whatever they think they heard or perceived were probably just electric echoes in their brains. Like visual afterimages that persist in our vision after overexposure to the original image. An adaption of the brain to external neural overstimulation. At least that’s what the military intelligence experts that reviewed the reports concluded, a conclusion which I completely agree with. Maybe he just hasn’t come to terms with that yet. I don’t have fond memories of my time at the Ogun School of Military Engineering, or with the Army Corps, but I have found that a background in engineering gives perspective on these types of things.
Jibola turns his head and looks at me like he is trying to scan my brain and then he says, “Well I just hope it doesn’t happen to you too,” before turning away and walking a few steps ahead of me.
He is short, he’d stand shorter than I do if he didn’t have his așǫ-oke fabric cap on, with large sensitive eyes and an incipient potbelly that is starting to swell below his tailored white agbada. In a way, he reminds me of my father. At least the version of him that existed before the lunar spacelift accident. Not the broken, bloody version that spent his final seventy-five hours in and out of surgery as an army of Babaláwos tried to save his life while my mother and I watched and prayed and cried to all the Òrìṣà to save him. That’s what broke her in the end, I think. Not just the unexpectedness of the accident but the brief period of hope we held on to before they came out of the operating theatre and told us he was dead. In some ways, the accident killed both my parents.
Jibola and I are the last ones to reach the elevator. Once we step in, a red light appears, and a door materializes from nothing as its constituent molecules are telecargoed into place. It almost makes me jump back with surprise, but I don’t let it show. I don’t think I will ever completely get used to building sections being beamed into or out of place on demand.
“I meant what I said,” Jibola says as we descend quietly under the carefully calibrated control of the building AI, almost mumbling to himself. “We can figure this out ourselves. We should. We have been navigating issues along that border with Dahomey off and on for centuries.”
I lean in and whisper, “Maybe that’s why we need help, so that we don’t have to keep negotiating with them for centuries more.”
“Funny.” He snorts, waving his hand at me like he is swatting away invisible flies. “But I don’t think you see the point I am making. We keep returning to the electric mother instead of fully considering and debating our points to consensus whenever there is a threat to the peace.”
He seems a bit more agitated than usual. Perhaps the stress of the issue with Dahomey is getting to him, even though I am the one that will have to send troops into battle if the situation really deteriorates and we get to worse-case scenario. I’m the young, newly appointed minister of defense, only the second woman in the history of the republic to hold the position, and I may have to a manage a war already. Besides, I’ve never done this before. If anyone should be stressed, it’s me. And yet, I am not. I have other things on my mind.
“That may be true, but does it really matter?” I ask. “We will get the best possible advice in the shortest amount of time this way. With the least amount of acrimony.”
“Maybe you need a little bit of acrimony to be sure you are running a republic properly, especially when lives are at stake.”
That comment, uttered a bit too loudly, draws looks from the other ministers of the Ọyọ Mesi. I cannot tell if he is serious or not, so I stay silent, straighten my back and stare ahead at the plain white door while we continue to descend two thousand meters below ground level towards the subterranean cavern protecting the data server that has hosted the collective digital memory of the Odua republic since the 9878th year of the Kọ́jọ́dá.
We first began the mass archiving of memrionic copies of our citizens during the reign of Oba Abiodun III, when the great Iyaláwo Olusola Ajimobi first observed that if two digitized memrionic copies of human minds were synchronized and uploaded to the same operating environment, they would temporarily merge to form a new entity with its own unique, emergent identity. This entity could easily be deconstructed back to the individual memrionics using memory pulse stimulation with no apparent loss of fidelity. She called it a digital emulsion. Free of the artificial borders of tissue and silicon between minds, thought patterns of sentient individuals, when allowed to mix and interact, seemed to seamlessly flow into and merge with each other like rivers, completely miscible and yet still separable, with the right perturbation. It was she who first proposed the application of this observation to the creation of the national memory data server. A server that could be used to create a unique national computational consciousness based on the recorded thought patterns of every previous citizen of the republic whose neural scans could be obtained before they died. She referred to it as an artificial memrionic supercitizen. An entity made up of the minds of citizens past that could process billions of input parameters, thoughts, opinions, experiences and feelings in an instant and give advice on matters of national interest. An encoded and accessible electric voice of the ancestors. The Alaafin could not resist. Neither could the Ọyọ Mesi. They approved her plans, gave her all the funding she needed, and she became the first director of the NMDS. In school, when they first taught me about the creation of our electric mother, I spent a lot of time wondering about Ìyá Ajimobi herself. I wondered why she had never taken a husband despite her reputation as a gentleman’s woman. I wondered if she had intended for the new supercitizen to exclusively speak with what sounds like a chorus of female voices to everyone who makes a connection to their thoughtspace or if it had chosen (I suppose that technically, it continuously chooses) that voice on its own because of the magnitude of her influence on it. I never met her and yet her story has had such an influence on me and my life that I’d like to believe the latter. Perhaps our ancestral women are just more opinionated in liberated digital thoughtspace than their male counterparts or perhaps she is still driving its identity from the inside. She is, after all, one of the ancestors now. But mostly, I wondered why hardly anyone in my family ever spoke about her, considering the fact that she was my great-grandaunt before she became a component of her own electric dream.
My ears are about to pop when the elevator finally slows to a stop and the door dematerializes. A blast of cold air hits us as we step out and into the expansive grey space of the NMDS center. An array of thick, black cables cut into and run across the high, hyperbolic ceiling. That’s the first thing I notice—almost everything in the center is geometrically precise. Circles, rectangles, ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas, triangles and more. Shapes permute and combine in three dimensions all along the windowless, red walls which bear large abstract symbols drawn in harsh white, like academic graffiti.
In the middle of this expansive space sits the home of our electric mother. A large transparent cube housing an array of solid black cylindrical quantum-processing nodes. Six programmable nanomaterial chairs sit on either side of it, facing away, with an assortment of cables and jacks and connection ports sticking into and out of them, some of which are connected to the cube, like an extended nervous system. The surfaces of the chairs ripple and pulse like lovely dark skin to a lover’s touch as the nanoparticles they are made of continuously adjust to micro changes in the environment. An array of holographic projections with information about the state of the server is constantly streaming around the glass in bright orange ajami calligraphy. I recognize some of the projected readings from the technical description and reports: temperature, humidity, memrionic integration coefficients, airflow vector fields. But many of them I don’t recognize. I don’t think I’m supposed to anyway. I may have studied engineering, but I’m not a Babaláwo.
“Welcome, ministers,” a man in a white shirt, embroidered with red at the collar and sleeves, says as he steps into place beside us. He seems to be the on-duty Babaláwo, but I hadn’t even noticed him standing there until he spoke. His willowy body is stick-straight, crowned with a halo of perfectly combed salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes are bright and focused, set into a wrinkled face like jewels set in dark oak. “My name is Yemi Fasogbon. I believe all of you have participated in dream-counsel consultations before, is that correct?”
There is a chorus of discordant “yes,” with only one exception—me.
“This is my first time,” I say.
“Ah.” Baba Yemi focuses on me. “You have read the standard briefing notes?”
“Yes.” I respond. Intimately. And I have read reports from previous consultations too. Even the classified ones. But I don’t tell him that.
“Very good. Then there is nothing to worry about. You already know everything you really need to know.” He smiles, and kind lines crease his face. “Just relax. I will initiate the encrypted neural connection to your lifedock ports. Once the connection is made, a signal will be sent to your hypothalamus. You shouldn’t feel anything unusual, it’s just like falling asleep. I will monitor your brainwaves and once you are in REM sleep, I will connect your brain to the great memrionic supercitizen, allowing information exchange. Most of this will occur via auditory stimulation but some of it might be visual or tactile.”
He pauses, looking right at me. I wonder if he has any suspicions about what I am thinking of doing once I am connected. What I have been thinking since the day I found out that my mother had starved herself to death in the home our family had owned for almost three hundred years. She’d retired from her teaching position a few weeks after my father’s death, sold the house they had bought together, the house I grew up in, and left Ibadan. She spent her final months desiccating in the family redbrick villa in Ijebu-ode, ignoring most of my calls and sending the occasional cryptic message with apologies and encouragements and brief but false assurances that she was fine. I should have asked for compassionate leave from the battalion commander, but I was on the fast track to a promotion, and I felt I couldn’t lose momentum. Not when she had always told me I had to be tough, to push through adversity and show them I could be every bit a soldier and military strategist as the men that made up most of my cohort. I thought the few messages and our quiet but constant love for each other would be enough to get us both through our grief but in the end it wasn’t. They found her sitting in my father’s favorite leather chair, thin and depleted like all the life had been slowly leached out of her. The coroner told me that she hadn’t eaten in fifty-three days. She didn’t leave any final message. I never even got a chance to say goodbye. I want to change that. I need to change that.
Baba Yemi continues, “We are using the diminished external stimulation and increased brain activity of your minds in REM sleep to enable a direct connection to the complex digital system of the memrionic supercitizen. This is useful, but it also means that the connection can sometimes take on the inconsistent and unstructured qualities of a dream. Some of you may have experienced illusions before. It can seem unusual and perhaps even frightening sometimes, I know, but do not panic, no matter what happens. Just ask your questions and receive your answers. Open your mind to the ancestors and they will guide you. That’s it.”
I nod my understanding at him. I know all this. I just haven’t experienced it yet.
“How long will this session take?” the energy minister asks. They are the oldest serving member of the Ọyọ Mesi and often concerned with time, so I am not surprised.
“You will all enter REM sleep at different rates depending on your unique brain chemistry and response to the direct neural sleep stimulation, but we hardly see any consultations taking longer than five minutes,” Baba Yemi replies. “Once you are in REM sleep, the consultation itself should not take more than a few seconds. However, I will use a neuromodulation protocol to try to synchronize your emergence as a group.”
“Thank you,” they say.
Baba Yemi holds up his finger and flicks it once like it is a lever. “One final thing. Don’t worry too much about the details of your consultation. All of you will receive the same answers regardless of how you ask the question, as long as it is indeed the same question. In fact, we count on it. It’s a good control procedure, to see if there is any alternative or minority report of the consultation conclusion. I will manage the debriefing session once you are all done. Does anyone else have more queries?” he asks.
I look around and catch an earnest look in Jibola’s eyes like he is about to ask a question of his own, perhaps something that could delay or derail this consultation session, but then he changes his mind and looks away.
“Great. If there are no more questions, please follow me. I will make the connection.” Baba Yemi bows gently.
Jibola takes what I imagine is a resigned step forward. I exhale with relief as we all march to the chairs surrounding the glass cube and take our places. Out of what I think is sympathy, I take the one beside him. I think it would be nice if he sees the face of a friend when he emerges from thoughtspace. Or maybe I’m lying to myself and I’m scared that I am the one who will need the comfort of a friendly face when I am done with what I plan to do. The moment is so close at hand, I am starting to feel nervous.
Baba Yemi makes the rounds: adjusting cables, pressing keys and checking displays while we sit there quietly, the hum of the servers constant and almost soothing, like waves on a beach.
When he comes to me, he smiles his open and kindly smile and asks, “Are you ready?” as he fiddles with the cables behind me, twisting and turning them without looking.
I think open my lifedock port and tell him, “I am.” I have been waiting for so long.
“Good,” he says, straightening up. “We will begin in a few minutes.” And then he moves away.
I stare ahead at the symbols on the walls. I know that they represent something, something about the unclear nature of our connection to the ancestors, but I cannot place what it is exactly. I read about it when I was researching Ìyá Ajimobi’s work on modern Ifá theory. I’m still trying to remember when something slides into the open lifedock port at the base of my neck, sending what feels like a pulse of pure ice through my spine. My vision goes blurry, my body limp as the progmat chair adjusts to cradle me like a child falling asleep in its mother’s arms. My consciousness starts to fade. The last signal I am sure my brain receives from realspace is Baba Yemi’s voice repeatedly chanting in calm, confident Yoruba, “Relax and open your minds to the ancestors. Relax and open…”
Suddenly, I am somewhere. Thoughtspace. Stark and white. There are no corners or seams or edges or signs or horizons or anything to help me orient myself. I bring my hands up to my face to see what form I have taken but I see nothing. Am I just a mass of information floating around without a body? A disembodied consciousness? Or perhaps I am transparent, and I just see right through myself. I don’t know. The sensation of being myself here is so different from realspace that I have no real frame of reference for comparison. It’s a bit like floating in perfectly clear, colorless water. But also, not. I just feel … strange.
“Hello.” I speak into the emptiness.
There is no response and so I try to clear my mind and repeat myself.
“Our daughter, welcome,” a voice choruses.
It sounds like it is coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. In it I hear millions of women speaking in unison—mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, friends, lovers from generations gone by. But Ìyá Ajimobi’s voice, which I heard so much of in the archives during my research, still stands out, like it is both the first and the last one to be added to this superposition of sounds entering my consciousness.
“Thank you,” I respond.
“I am all. I am complete. What do you seek?”
The white of thoughtspace suddenly turns into a pale blue. Then cycles back to white. It keeps alternating, mesmerizing me. I don’t know how long I have been silent when I finally remember both my duty and my real reason for coming here. I decide to start with duty by asking the question which every other member of the Ọyọ Mesi will also ask.
“As you must already know from the data feed, we are in dispute with Dahomey again. They have violated the Treaty of Allada by sending their representatives to the Ajashe region, claiming that the population voted to be part of their kingdom in the last referendum.”
“This is true. We have validated the data.”
I’d read it in some of the reports, but I am still surprised that the electric mother converses more like an AI than an actual person. I suppose I have been anthropomorphizing her for so long that I started to expect a more conversational human response. It’s easy to trick your mind into things.
I continue, “They claim they want to renegotiate the treaty and so far, there has been no violence, but this is clearly a threat to us. We cannot allow them to just take away our control of the region, it is a part of the republic.”
“This is true. Territorial integrity must be maintained.”
“We need to take it back. But if we send in troops, we risk another war.”
“This is also true. The probability of war exceeds current national security thresholds for conflict prevention.”
A bit tired of the constant agreement, I ask finally, “We … I mean, I … have come to seek your guidance. What should we do?”
Thoughtspace adds a new color to its cycle, a deep, dark green, like moss. The cycle continues.
White. Blue. Green.
White. Blue. Green.
White. Blue. Green.
“Military confrontation with Dahomey is inevitable. Projections indicate that the probability of war increases with time. Projections also indicate that the probability of a successful invasion will also decrease with time. The best course of action is to invade now and take control while our chance of success is highest.”
I am more shocked than I expected to be. The reports indicated that the electric mother typically highlights considerations that have been overlooked and points out trends in data that have not been cross-referenced and as a result, does not usually provide simplistic answers. This, a basic analysis with a simple conclusion, is not what I expected to hear. A straightforward push to war. I don’t want to believe that this is the best advice we can receive. I wonder if the other ministers are hearing this and thinking the same thing I am.
“But to initiate a war would go against the Alaafin’s policy of continental integration and cooperation. Besides, it will violate the will of the people in the territory and cost many of our people’s lives.”
“This is true.”
More agreement. Another color joins the cycle. Red.
“Surely there must be better options?”
“This is not true. All considerations have been included in the evaluation of this situation. An extended negotiation will only delay war. Invasion is the best course of action. It will maximize the probability of the republic’s life quality index remaining above eighty-three percent over the next one thousand years of the Kọ́jọ́dá. There are no better options for the overall good of the republic.”
This feels wrong. I don’t know why exactly; it just feels wrong. Like a badly constructed response based on fear, not logic, despite its scaffolding of data and numbers. But I don’t know what else to say and I have done my duty, so I decide to finally attempt the thing that has been increasingly stepping out of the corners of my mind since my mother died, since I researched the archives, since I proposed this consultation.
“Ìyá Ajimobi, are you … in there?”
I have always wondered if she could distinguish herself from the supercitizen, even briefly, if she could float to the surface of this churning ocean of data and memories and instincts and thoughts and feelings. Her research notes indicated that she thought it was possible, that one or more memrionic records could sometimes “take over” the digital supercitizen for brief moments.
“I am all.”
I’m disappointed. If any mind could do it with any measure of control, surely it would be hers.
“Ìyá Ajimobi, can I talk to you? Just you?”
“I am all.”
I have never been the type to give up easily and I am not about to start now. Not when I have been waiting for so long. Not when I am so close. Not when there is even a sliver of hope.
“Ìyá Ajimobi, please. If you can hear me. I need to talk to you,” I say, not willing to lose this chance to get answers and say goodbye the way I should have. “It’s your great-grandniece, Brigadier-General Dolapo Balogun. Please. I need your help.” And then I break into rapid Yoruba, using her oríkì, her traditional praise greeting, which I have been practicing, to remind her of who she is and who I am.
Olusola Ajimobi, daughter of the great warrior clan
The one who gathered the threads of her people’s minds
And wove a new Òrìṣà of them
Olusola Ajimobi, daughter of the moon and the sun
The one whose eyes deciphered the secrets of Ifá theory
And wrote the name of her family in the heavens
“Please, answer me,” I plead.
There is a deep, overwhelming silence. Then, “I am…”
The cycles of color seem to speed up.
White. Blue. Green. Red.
White. Blue. Green. Red.
White. Blue. Green. Red.
And then …
I can sense an abstract pressure on my consciousness like something is struggling to manifest itself in my mind but can’t. The pressure grows and grows until it becomes something like pain. It is overwhelming, like I’m diving deep underwater without equalizing. I begin to see the symbols from the wall of the server room scroll past my vision like falling rain, but I still don’t remember what they mean. A rattling sound like an opele being thrown accompanies the falling symbols, and the cycling colors seem to be coming closer, approaching me somehow. I am trying not to panic but it’s hard to keep my composure without my body, without being able to apply all the techniques they taught me in the Army Corps—closed eyes, steady breaths, stillness, mental focus. Here my mind is skinless and exposed, with all of these sensations and stimulations flowing in unrestrained. It all becomes too much and I am about to let out something like a scream when finally, it stops. All of it. The cycling colors, the lights, the sound of the opele. All of it stops. Thoughtspace is white again and there is now a giant head in front of me, projected vividly like it has been sculpted from solid blue light. I recognize the wrinkled oval face: sharp-chinned, wide-nosed and wise-eyed, with a crown of plaited grey hair.
“My daughter,” the head says to me in a voice that is not a chorus but is hers. Just hers.
“Ìyá Ajimobi!” I cannot contain my excitement.
“Brigadier-General Dolapo Abimbola Titilope Balogun. I have heard you. You are one of my brothers’ great-grandchildren. I have tracked you in the datastream. Your ori has guided you well. You have done the family proud.”
I feel myself fill up with emotion and I am still struggling for words to use in response when she continues, “Child. We must either be all or none. There is now a steep memrionic gradient. I cannot maintain this unstable state of the digital emulsion for long. How can I help you?”
It is strange not being able to exhale and relieve what I still sense as pressure in my chest. There are so many questions I want to ask, so many things I want to know, but I know I don’t have much time, so I tell her the true reason I have come. “My mother, I need to talk to her. I just … I need to ask her why. And maybe say goodbye.”
Her face seems to flicker, like the light it is projected from just experienced a power surge. “My daughter, even if I can do what you assume I can, surely you must know that it is not truly your mother here with us? None of her essence, her ori, is here, only her memories and her knowledge and a record of the neurochemical pathways that primarily drove her emotions.”
It’s even stranger, the sense that I am holding back tears when I am disembodied. “I know, ma, but you came to me. You came.” I am pleading again. “If there is enough of you here to answer the call of your kin then I believe there is enough of her. I know she had her last memrionic scan appointment three weeks before she moved back to Ijebu-ode. Please. This is the only way I can speak to her now. I have to hope it is enough.”
She flickers once more, this face that I have studied so much since I was a little girl, at first solely because I wanted to be like her: brilliant, full of life, independent, strong. And later, because I wanted to find something in her notes, something that maybe would lead me to this—my last chance to speak to my mother.
“I know you designed the architecture of thoughtspace. I know you can help me,” I add.
Please help me.
The light flickers again and her face fades.
“I will attempt to retrieve her records and establish a direct connection only to you, but I don’t know what form her isolated memrionic packet will take or how long it will remain stable.”
“Thank you!” I think I am shouting, but I am not sure.
“Thank you for thanking me,” she says with a smile. And with that, she is gone. Thoughtspace suddenly seems to gain dimensions, directions, a sense of solidity. It’s only when I notice that I am falling that I realize that I have also gained a body. What seems like a vast wall of nothingness sweeps past me. I am falling, falling. Falling into an endless void. I can see my legs tumbling around and I try stabilizing myself by spreading my arms and puffing out my chest, facing the oncoming emptiness. It is just starting to work when I see it appear—a square of green and red in the middle of the nothing ocean. I close my eyes and brace myself.
My landing is hard, but silent and painless even though it throws up a mass of compact red soil and displaced elephant grass. I stand up quickly, brushing the dust off my body, and see a small redbrick hut with a thatch roof ahead of me. I can smell efirin-and-honey tea, her favorite, and I know where I am.
I am standing outside the hut that sits at the center of our village villa, the one that my great-great-great-grandfather, Oluseyi Balogun, had built with his own hands when he first migrated to Ijebu-ode at the end of the Second Akebu-lan War. The hut that had spawned what would become the family compound. The hut where I used to play games with my cousins every year during the Olojo Festival. The hut where she had finally gone to die.
I cannot linger. I don’t have time.
I sprint to the thick wood door and knock, remembering that she hated it whenever my father or I came in without knocking. The door swings open on its rusty hinges before I finish knocking and so I enter. The hut is mustier than I remember but everything is where I expect it to be. Except … The sight of her sitting in my father’s favorite chair and staring at me with a steady smile stuns me to sessility.
“Mummy” is all I can manage to say. Her large brown mahogany eyes, lustrous hair and full cheeks are the same as they were when I saw her last: two weeks after my father’s funeral, the day I went back to base.
She rises and I step forward to engulf her in an embrace. Her warmth suffuses me, and I allow myself to steep in it. The smell of her hair, the softness of her neck, the thinness of her arms.
“Dolly Dolapo. My darling. How are you?” she asks, when she finally pulls away.
She walks to a table made of iroko wood where a pot of efirin-and-honey tea is brewing, turns over an old mug and starts to pour. It doesn’t feel like this is thoughtspace or even a dream anymore. This feels … real.
“I’m fine,” I say out of habit before catching myself. “Actually … I’m not fine.”
She hands me the mug with a querying look, and I take a sip. Sweet and bitter dance on my tongue. I realize that my sense of urgency is gone. I’ve almost forgotten that this place is unstable, that Ìyá Ajimobi is giving me every precious second with my mother and I can’t waste any of it.
“I … I need to know why. Why did you leave me?” I feel the tears that have escaped my eyes roll down my cheeks as the emotions start to overwhelm me. It feels good to be able to feel things in this place. “I know you were heartbroken when Daddy died but why didn’t you stay … for me?”
“Leave you? I didn’t … it is hard to explain, Dolly,” she says mildly, picking up the mug. “Your father and I, we’d known each other since we were children, we went to the same school, the same university, we planned our lives together and we planned for you, together. When we lost him, like that…” She pauses and looks up at me. “I knew what the right thing to do was. I knew that I should have focused on you, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine a world without him because I never had. I was overwhelmed with grief. With a sense of hopelessness. That filled me with fear. It clouded everything.”
I turn away from her and take a long sip of the tea. “It clouded your love for me?”
“No! I never stopped loving you, but I knew that you were okay,” she responds, dropping her mug and taking my hand. “We’d raised you to be self-sufficient. To be able to take on the world by yourself. You were our strong Dolly,” she says, her voice soft. “I knew you were strong enough even if I wasn’t.”
“I was strong because I had you and Daddy! Without you I have been…”
My voice catches as a memory rushes to mind: my father walking me up to the neighbor’s dog, a fearsome-looking Azawakh named Rover, when I was no older than six. My mother stood back, framed in the doorway of our Ibadan house. She kept calling out words of encouragement. Don’t be afraid. The dog won’t bite. Not every animal that has sharp teeth is dangerous.
“I wanted to be there for you, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to burden you. I know you would have thrown away your entire career just to come and try to care for me, and if that happened, I would have only hated myself.”
I remember wondering why she wasn’t coming with us to play with the neighbor’s dog, why she was trembling, shaking visibly. I’d put my hand on the dog’s neck and he barked. But my father held my hand in place, telling me to be gentle but firm. Don’t act out of fear. Not every animal that has sharp teeth is dangerous. So, I held, and Rover eventually warmed to me. When I turned around to show my mother my new animal friend, she’d shut the door and continued to watch from the kitchen window. In my entire life I never saw my mother around any dogs or any animals, definitely none that had teeth.
“I just couldn’t go on, Dolapo. But I knew you could. Please understand.”
I think I am starting to understand. She’d raised me to be the woman she’d always wished she was. The image she idolized but never became. Strong, fearless, confident, independent. She was none of those things. Not like the great Olusola Ajimobi. On some level, I think I understand now, the depth and complexity of the emotions that drove her to do what she did. In the end she couldn’t fight her own emotions.
“Mummy, I just miss you so much.”
“I love you, Dolapo. I have since the moment I first felt you inside me. You are a better woman than I was. I hope you know that. Because it’s all I ever wanted for you.”
I let the tears fall as we fall into each other again and hold on tightly. I don’t care about the border with Dahomey. I don’t care about the cabinet meetings. I don’t care if this is thoughtspace or a dream or an illusion or whatever. This is all I have left of my mother, imperfections, complexities and all, and I want to hold on to her with every fiber of my being.
My head still nestled in her shoulder, I open my eyes and notice that the chair, the mug and the assorted items of furniture around us are starting to elevate off the ground, floating like we are entering a low-gravity environment.
The warmth of her body suddenly turns cold.
I disengage and look into her eyes. She is perfectly still. There is an emotion frozen in place like sadness set in amber. Her lips start to move but it’s Ìyá Ajimobi’s voice that comes to me now. It’s straining, stretching like it’s being pulled.
“We have reached a critical memrionic gradient. I can no longer maintain this unstable state.” I know this is the end. “I hope you heard what you needed to hear.”
This is as much as I am going to get and for it, I am grateful. “Yes. Thank you. For everything.”
“Thank you for thanking me.” My mother’s lips move with the voice of Ìyá Ajimobi and somehow it seems … right. “You know, that dog, Rover, it bit your mother when it was still a puppy.”
I’m taken aback by the fact that she could sense my thoughts but then I realize I should not be; my mind is completely porous and open to her here in thoughtspace. Still, I wonder, “But … Then why did she lie?”
“She didn’t want you to be afraid just because she was.”
Of course. “I think I understand.”
“Good. Don’t hide from your fears or doubts. Embrace them. I hope you heard exactly what you needed to hear.”
Before I can reply, the digital version of my family hut is gone, like it has been painted out of my vision in one broad brushstroke. I am plunged back into the absolute, directionless whiteness of empty thoughtspace. Disembodied and alone. The rattling sound like an opele returns and gets louder and louder until I feel something yank on my consciousness violently.
The last thing I hear in thoughtspace is her voice, once again accompanied by the chorus of memrionics, exploding into my consciousness like a bomb.
Exactly what you needed to hear.
I shoot out of thoughtspace like a mind missile, and my eyes fly open in realspace. I immediately collapse to the floor, vomiting all the moin-moin I ate for breakfast and retching violently, until I am so weak and empty that I feel separate from my body. I am not sure if the feeling is real, an illusion carried over from memory or just an electronic echo. I can feel Baba Yemi’s hands on my neck, trying to hold up my head, to get me some air, and close my lifedock, but I cannot see his face. I remember that nausea and dizziness are uncommon but documented side effects of the dream-counsel consultation, but I didn’t expect to feel this way. The edges of my vision are dark and wooly, and I know I am probably going to pass out.
When I come to, I am sitting, staring up at the white ceiling of a conference room. I almost panic, thinking I have somehow been reconnected to thoughtspace, but then I see the corners, the edges, and I look down to see my fellow ministers seated around a long table with lightscreen voting panels in front of us, Baba Yemi at the head.
They are all staring at me, a few of them furrowing their brows, chattering to each other or shaking their heads.
“Welcome back,” Jibola says, when our eyes meet.
I smile. It is good to see a friendly face after all that.
“It seems Minister Balogun has recovered and is with us again,” Baba Yemi says, staring at me. “How are you feeling?”
I tell him, “Great actually,” because it’s true.
“Good. You worried us for a bit, but all your neural scan readings are normal. Let’s call it first-time thoughtspace-sickness.” He smiles. “We can begin the debrief session now. It should not take long.”
He rises and speaks to the group of us as a hologram of yellow light appears at the center of the table and begins to display information about the consultation. “Total consultation time was six minutes and three seconds. Stability of the digital memrionic emulsion was maintained throughout the session.”
I start to raise my finger but hold it up to my lips instead, hesitant. Surely, there must be some kind of record of what I did. Some kind of anomaly in the readings?
“No local discontinuities or neural interface breakdowns were observed. Minister Balogun may have had a rough exit but nothing some of you haven’t seen or experienced before.” Baba Yemi waits for these facts to sink in as the information displays in front of us. “I believe you should all have received the same answers to your queries. Accordingly, I open the floor for a motion, after which you may vote.”
I look around and that is when I notice it. They are all hesitant too. They must have all gotten the same advice—go to war. No one wants to disbelieve the advice of our electric mother, but given the consequences of such dire action, and the resistance from the Alaafin that would be sure to follow, no one wants to admit what they must know we all know.
The silence grows sharp and piercing. I think of my mother, sitting in our ancient family hut, unchanged after hundreds of years, contemplating a life without my father, a life she couldn’t even imagine. Can I imagine a world where we don’t honor the dream-counsel of our electric mother?
Exactly what you needed to hear.
The voice in my head is clear as a talking drum. An electric echo? Or my own memories of that encounter just being replayed? What difference does it make? Perhaps Jibola was right all along. I look to him and he meets my gaze.
As a flood of emotions begin to blanket my mind, I think of my mother standing in the doorway of our Ibadan house. She told me Rover wouldn’t bite even though he’d bit her in the past. I start to wonder what it means to help someone you love, to give them good advice, to help them become the best version of themselves that they could be, perhaps even better than you. Perhaps sometimes a useful lie is the best way to point someone in the direction they need to go.
My finger goes up, confidently this time.
“I propose that we put this consultation on hold and reconvene our original cabinet session. We can continue our deliberations until we reach a consensus.”
I can almost feel the eyes of the ministers on me, focused like lasers, but I keep my focus on Jibola, whose face breaks out into a broad smile now. I think he understands, just as I did, why the electric mother told us to go to war. I expect an uproar, objections, voices raised in protest for wasting our time, but there is nothing. The silence reestablishes itself.
I scan the room quickly and take in an assortment of expressions, but the only one I cannot read is Baba Yemi’s. The only thing I am sure of is that he does not seem surprised at all even though I don’t remember reading any other consultation reports which were frozen at the debrief stage. When he finally speaks and breaks the silence again, his words are clear and deliberate. “The motion is moved. I put it to you now, ministers of the Ọyọ Mesi, do you wish to put this consultation on hold? Your voting panels are before you. Yes or no.”
I watch as the votes are entered, a lightstream of encrypted data beamed into the central hologram, and as I do, I start to wonder if I ever actually reached Ìyá Ajimobi and my mother at all, or if the digital supercitizen, our collective electric ancestor, simply showed me and told me exactly what I needed to hear.
The lights continue to weave themselves together. I enter my vote and when the weaving stops, the light in the center displays a unanimous Yes in bright yellow ajami calligraphy.
Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction is available now in hardcover and e-Book.
“A Dream of Electric Mothers” copyright © 2022 by Wole Talabi
Reprinted from Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction ed. Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight © 2022 by Tordotcom Publishing