The next day, in the cramped walk-in closet of Bahati’s bedroom, Imani reads Khalia’s journal. As she processes the information about Experiment G-Three, her hands tremble. She sits up on her cot and flips through every page, reading and rereading every sentence. The words make no sense and perfect sense simultaneously.
Imani’s disbelief turns to indignation, as she reads the words “humans,” “bots,” “slaves” and “servants.” Who are the people of the Universal Justice Consortium to approve an experiment that displaces humans, takes them from their home planet, and drugs them into being slaves? What kind of justice is this?
It is something out of a nightmare, those dreams she has experienced which seem real until she opens her eyes. Now, she is in one of those horrible dreams, except this is no dream. This is as real and brutal as reality can be. She manages to continue reading, regardless of her shaking hands.
She comes to a passage about those who understand the full scope of Experiment G-Three. Those named include everyone on the Consortium and their families, including Ekon and Bahati. Bahati. Her friend. Her only friend. What is a friend who holds back this type of information? Is Bahati even capable of being friends with a bot she knows is not a bot but really a human?
One of the final passages speaks of Imani and where on Earth she comes from. She has a mother, a father and siblings. Ten years ago, Imani was taken for no other reason than the experiment. Her kidnapping was random. It could have been any girl anywhere on Earth, but by sheer chance, it was her.
At the thought of having family and maybe even friends she had been taken from, Imani sobs. She sobs not for herself but for her memories that have been erased by years of updates. She cries for the mother and father who must have died from the grief of waking to a daughter suddenly gone. She cries for the years they must have spent waiting alone on a dark porch for her to arrive. She rages for moments lost, taken without cause.
She is wailing now, drowning in her sobs, unable to catch her breath. It hurts to do anything, think, exist, live. She wants to run, but to where? Out into this alien world not her own? Yabisi has never been her home. She is here chance, unaccepted by its people.
A sharp pain cracks through her skull. She squeezes her eyes shut, clasping her hands over her temples. A girl in rough blue pants — “jeans,” a voice in her head whispers – and an odd blouse dominates her vision. The girl is standing, no, hiding on the side of a house. She giggles and screams when a boy in pursuit finds her. They look the same, but they are different genders. Twins. Imani sees her twin.
The image of her brother is gone, replaced by a man and a woman waving to her from the porch. Their skin is as dark as hers, shiny and healthy. She waves back to them, clumsily hoists the bag about her shoulders and climbs into the bus. She looks back at her mother and father one more time and blows them a kiss.
A flash and Little Imani is in bed. She sees lights outside and a weird aircraft. She starts to call for her father, but earlier in the week, he declared her a big girl. Big girls do not cry. Big girls do not believe in monsters or ghouls. So, Little Imani does not scream for Daddy, as the weird aircraft sinks closer to the ground. She closes her eyes and wills it away, but it does not leave.
Suddenly a lexicon of forgotten words, a tossed-aside language, unfolds itself until it is once again a part of her. It is not the lisp-heavy, hissy speech of reptilians. This language is smoother, more natural. This is her native tongue, never forgotten, just shelved away until she could tap it.
Then she knows things like the warmth of the sun, the weight of clothes, the touch of another human being. She pictures Stella of the UJC who is not human but humanoid. They share an ancestry lost in the development of the cosmos but proof that they are related. Imani yearns to reach out to the woman for the helping hand she will not find on Yabisi.
The headache subsides, leaving behind a dull pounding. Imani ignores it, thinking of Bahati, the first person on this world she’s shared a real moment with. She has questions but does not trust Bahati will tell her the truth, knows not to expect any resemblance of the truth from her. She has done nothing wrong to Bahati, so why has Bahati betrayed her? Maybe betrayal is the way of reptilian people.
Ekon is home for the moment, in his office, Khalia’s former bedroom. Her bed, clothes and pictures have been tossed away, but the sickly stench of death hangs on the air. He has had this room washed and rewashed and repainted several times. The floor has even been pulled and replaced with red clay, but the odor of death clings on as if to taunt him, remind him of his misdeed.
The day before Khalia’s death, he had come to this very room to see her. She had glared at him with those all-knowing eyes, as though she knew he was poisoning her. She could not have. The very notion that she had even an inkling of suspicion is absurd. She could have had him jailed and put to death. Her enforcers would not have thought twice about burning him alive.
Ekon clenches his teeth, as he thinks about something Khalia had said on her deathbed. “Honor is greater than any seat you may take, and so is family.” It is like she knew what he was doing to her, but she had chosen to die in silence than in open protest. The poison had taken root from the first dose. So, even if she had formerly accused Ekon, she would have died long before his trial and execution. She would have died with a tainted bloodline.
Ekon pours himself a glass of aged poison dart frog blood. Its sweet aroma clouds the room. Swirling the cup of liquor inches from his nose, he inhales slowly. Aged exactly the way he likes it. On Congoa, Fateen’s people make the best dart blood. Before sanctions were put on that planet, dart blood was its most profitable export. Ekon promised Fateen it would be once again.
Fateen is an honorable ape, and one of the smartest people Ekon has ever met. Everyone claims primates are intelligent. Ekon would not have said as much before meeting Fateen, but behind Fateen’s ferocity is a calculating mind capable of plotting out the moves of his foes ten steps ahead. Minus the fur and murderous rage bottled inside, he is like Khalia Khalia.
Ekon turns his chair to face the capital, his capital. It is midday, and the moon is at its highest, dousing the city in a bright orange glaze. The red clay buildings blend in to become silhouettes. In the past, the short, bland thing called the UJC Embassy would have been lost and overshadowed from this view. Now, it stands out proudly.
The UJC is dated. The only thing that has changed about it since its creation is the amount of representatives. It has lost a interstellar respect and influence. Instead of waging war on rouge regimes, it acts as a peacekeeper first. Its representatives are no more than weak figureheads afraid to act without first having month of conversation and a vote.
Ekon spits on the floor at the thought of these weaklings. He tosses back the last of his dart blood and slams the glass on the table, imagining squashing Stella. She is a smug one, and he can not wait to put his claws on her. She will regret ever trying him.
A knock on the door breaks him from his thoughts. “Enter,” he says, voice gruff.
Bahati enters, her clothes as disheveled as the kinks of black hair brushing her shoulders. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days. He tries, but Ekon can not recall his last conversation with her. They had not spoken before the funeral or after. Eyeing her dingy clothes, he nods to the chair on the other side of the table.
“Hello, little sister. I see you’re still dressing like the vagabonds in the Low District of Grot,” Ekon says without smiling.
“Thanks. Nice jewelry. See you’ve wasted no time robbing the people.”
Ekon laughs humorlessly while adjusting the gold and tourmaline rings shining on his forefingers. They are gifts from favor seekers who realize it is better to have him on their side than against them. He had robbed no one, only made strong suggestions. His sister is generations shy of his real world wisdom, even if she is only a few years younger than he is.
“Mother always said you had a great sense of humor. Too bad it won’t help you learn the politics of the Milky Way,” Ekon says, shaking his head.
Bahati blurts a laugh. “You think I want to be a part of this?” she says, spreading her arms. “You’re mistaken.”
“You’re no fool, little sister. You get high marks in school. I’ve seen your grades. I think it’s time we secure our bloodline’s position within the galaxy.”
“So, you want me to be one of your minions? How will we secure said position?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Experiment G-Three, although you may not know all details. I plan on occupying Planet Earth and making the experiment permanent. We’ll rent out humans to other planets and collect taxes and fees on their labor,” Ekon explains.
“You’ve probably had too much dart blood. I don’t see any of that happening. Is this why you sent Tau Bot to summon me here?” Bahati asks, standing.
He holds up a hand, as if the motion alone can stop her in her tracks. “I’m looking for a journal Mother may have left behind. Tau said when he and Imani were cleaning the room, they found no journal,” he said, waiting for a response.
“I don’t know anything about a journal. It’s not like Mother gifted it to me.”
“In a little under a month, the UJC will be voting on the merits of expanding Experiment G-Three into law or ending it. The journal could help me in my argument to formalize G-Three. If you come by it, notify me at once.”
Imani threw the brown booklet at Bahati’s head. It fluttered harmlessly toward the reptilian who sidestepped it. The thumping at Imani’s temples does not deter her from confronting Bahati who looks puzzled.
“Have you been drinking poison frog blood as well, or have you lost your mind?” Bahati says, squinting.
The large triangular room seems crowded now. The armoire, bed and the rest of the scarce furniture made this room feel under-furnished in the past. But Imani’s emotions seem to pour out of her until they fill every crevice of the space. There is nowhere to step where her emotions are not, no air to breathe which they have not infected.
“You knew about this, but you hid it from me,” Imani says, gesturing to the journal on the floor.
“Knew about what? I’ve never seen that booklet before in my life.”
“That’s weird, because it was your mother’s.”
Bahati scoops up the journal without taking her eyes off Imani. As she reads it, she intermittently glances between Imani and the booklet. Imani watches Bahati’s expression flicker from confused to interested to understanding. She lowers the book and meets Imani’s gaze. Bahati’s eyes are vacant of the liveliness they usually carry.
“I’m sorry I never told you. I didn’t think it would matter. It was too much to explain,” Bahati says regretfully.
“You didn’t think it would matter?” Imani says through clenched teeth. “I go my whole life, the only life I have memory of, knowing nothing of my home world, my family, myself, but to you it doesn’t matter. I don’t even know my age.”
“You were taken ten years ago. My mother said you were five or six. Does that help?”
“It doesn’t. You know your birthday. I don’t know mine.”
Bahati crosses the room to where Imani stands beside the walk-in closet. She tries to touch Imani’s shoulder, but she leans away, face twisted in fury. Imani’s skin crawls at the thought of the Bahati placing her filthy claws on her body. She does not ever want Bahati to touch her again.
“I said I’m sorry. I should have told you. I would have told you,” Bahati says, tucking hair behind her ear.
“When? Before or after you left Yabisi to travel the universe?”
“We can travel together. You’re the only friend I have.”
“I’m not your friend. You’re not my friend. This is how you treat people who love and trust you? It doesn’t surprise me no one likes you.”
Bahati recoils at the last statement, as if stung by a wasp. She bares teeth and her scales harden and thicken. Taking a step back, she growls.
“Forgive me for not trusting you with classified information, but if it were not for me, you would still be doped up on updates while standing in a corner like a slave,” Bahati says angrily.
Imani scoffs. “Oh, you saved me. You gave me my life back. You let me go outside and sleep in your closet. I should kneel before your kindness.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. You should be grateful, though.”
“Well, I’m not. You have a brother and a comfortable home. You even had a mother, a good one. I don’t have those things. They were taken from me by force. I was made a slave by force and brainwashed. Do you know how any of that feels? To not have an identity?” Imani sobs, tears streaking her dark cheeks.
Bahati shakes her head. “I don’t know how any of that feels. If I could change it, I would, but I can’t. I want to make this right.”
“Unless you can get me back to my family, you can’t make this right.”
“I can do that. I have access to a fleet of interstellar vehicles. Even if I drop you off to Earth, that wouldn’t save you.”
“How not?” Imani says, confused.
“Ekon is petitioning the UJC to formalize Experiment G-Three. He wants it to be law. If he’s successful, the occupation of Earth will start, and billions of humans will be taken and sold. It’s out of our hands.”
Imani presses her fingers to her eyes and flops on the edge of Bahati’s bed. The implications of what Bahati has just told her sinks in, takes root and blooms in her heart. Not only is Imani’s world at risk, but so is her family. She has never had a chance to say goodbye to them. With the sudden onset of remembering them, she is sure that if they are taken from her forever, she will lose her mind.
“So, my family and the rest of Earth will be slaves like I was? Like I am?” Imani says, pacing the floor, braids swinging. “There has to be something you can do. Your mother was against expanding Experiment G-Three. She thought it was immoral and a failure. She said as much in her journal. You have to stop Ekon. We have to stop him.”
“Look,” Bahati says, exasperated. “Whatever happens to Earth, you’re safe here.”
“I don’t care about being safe. I care about my family. Either you help me help them, or I’ll do it on my own regardless of what price I may pay.”
“The UJC meets to vote on Experiment G-Three in a month,” Bahati says, picking up the journal. “If we can stay alive until then and present the Consortium with Mother’s journal, I know they will vote against Ekon. We can’t allow him to find out about this journal.”
There is a noise near Bahati’s doorway. She and Imani go to check it out. Tau Bot startles when they exit the room. He tries smiling, but guilt is all over him. Imani can tell he has been spying on them. She glances at Bahati, but her eyes are locked on Tau.
“What are you doing out here?” Bahati asks, scanning the hall.
“I am cleaning. Ekon’s orders,” Tau says, gingerly taking a leaning from a wall.
“Well, come inside my bedroom. I have something to discuss with you,” the Bahati says, stepping aside to clear the doorway.
Tau feints like he is about to enter the bedroom, but the blow is too quick for Imani to catch. All she sees is Bahati’s head jerk back and blood spray from nose, as Tau runs and disappears into the elevator. He is gone before Bahati recovers.
“He’s a quick one,” Bahati says, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
“Are you ok?” Imani says, helping Bahati to her feet.
“I am, but neither of us will be if we’re not out of here before Tau tells Ekon about the journal.”