“I wish I could have let you two stay in my place above the restaurant, but that probably wouldn’t have been a great idea,” Creo says, leading the way.
“Who else knows about this place?” Imani asks, keeping pace with Bahati and Creo.
“A few of the locals, not all. Just the people who need to know really,” the restauranteur replies.
Imani pictures the city of Grot, dotted with residential and commercial mounds or “humps,” as the locals refer to them. Because they are arranged in no observable pattern, they are either cluttered too closely together or spread awkwardly apart. The streets are less a design and more a consequence of locals continuously walking certain paths. And though many of the humps are large, they are nowhere near as impressive as the structures in the capital. Grot is lackluster, yet the tunnels beneath are anything but.
The tunnels do not feel as old as the city above. The humps are made of clay and the same reddish dirt of the ground, but the tunnels are made of solid metal. Imani bangs the wall with her hand and is answered without a sound. She hits the wall more fiercely this time and gets a red bruise atop her ebony skin.
“That’s pure alloy. You’ll break your hand before it makes a sound,” Creo says, wagging a clawed forefinger at Imani.
“This place doesn’t remind me of anything I’d expect to see in Grot,” Bahati says curiously, dragging her nails over the curved walls.
Creo coughs. “These tunnels are not as old as the city. They were built just a few years ago. If I get caught with you two down here, I’ll be in bug trouble.”
“These tunnels are Grot’s most precious secrets. Even the capital doesn’t know about these tunnels,” he says, then pauses. “Your mother did, though.”
Bahati stops short, and Imani bumps her. They are in a circle with four tunnels in either direction. Creo glances over his shoulder, sees they have stopped and throws his hands in the air, eyebrows lifted.
“If Mother knew of this place, why wouldn’t she tell anyone, not even me?” Bahati says, pushing her long, dark hair aside.
“You’re just a girl who should be focusing on her education. Why would she have mentioned the tunnels to you?” Creo asked dubiously.
“Because I’m her daughter. At the very least, she should have told officials in the capital about this place.”
“You know the relationship between Grot and the capital is at best strained. The tension between the two cities outdate even the oldest of us. Khalia was a loyal woman to the capital, but she was more loyal to her friends.”
The man walks ahead, the fire in his voice dying like the last embers of singed wood. Imani feels his mood change from upbeat to something more resigned. She follows behind him, seeing his wide shoulders slump beneath his shirt.
They come to two tunnels, the globe’s light so bright, it bounces off the alloy walls and nearly blinds Imani. She shields her eyes and looks down the tunnel to her right. It bends sharply, making it impossible to see where it leads. The other tunnel holds a flight of stairs that lead even further down. She goes down behind the other two, making sure to keep a hand on the cold handrails.
At the very bottom of the stairs is a door that blends in with the wall. It is unnoticeable, until Creo points it out. Sensing their body heat, a keypad appears at waist level on the door. Creo presses in a long sequence of numbers too quickly for Imani to catch them, but he promises to give the code to Bahati. The pad beeps three times, before the door slides aside.
It opens to a modestly furnished room. Imani steps in last, surveying the space. It has nothing more than the basics, a kitchen, sitting room and a bathroom at the back. Although there is not a lot here, the space is elegant and well-lit. Every surface is clean to a shine. The air smells like fruit and something she is unable to place.
“It is not much, but it’s something. You should be safe here for the time being,” Creo says. He points to a button on the couch. “This lets the couch out into a bed. I hope you two don’t mind sleeping together.”
Imani blushes with embarrassment, and turns her head to avoid his eyes. “This looks better than your apartment. Why don’t you stay here?” Imani says, remembering the dingy two-bedroom space of his they had stayed in the first day of their arrival.
“I like my apartment. It has sentimental value. Plus, it’s above the restaurant, so I’m closer to my business. Getting there from here everyday...” he trails off, and throws his hand as if flicking a worrisome fly.
“It’s a tight space, but it will do,” says Bahati, squeezing into the kitchen. The stove and sink leave hardly enough space for her to turn between them.
Imani sees the whole layout of the kitchen from the couch she sits on. She and Bahati will not be able to fit in the kitchen together. Everything on Yabisi is designed for the wide, tough bodies of reptilians. Even the couch is huge for Imani’s frame and coarse. Still, this apartment is tiny, even for a reptilian on the smaller side such as Bahati.
“Why were you and Mother such good friends?” Bahati asks, seating herself next to Imani on the couch.
“I haven’t always been a chef. I used to be commander of the Interstellar War Fleet,” Creo says, sitting on a stool beside the kitchen.
Tears come from Bahati’s eyes from laughter. “Stop it, Creo. I’m serious.”
The man does not laugh. “A restaurateur can’t be a commander?”
“I don’t know a bunch about politics or the government, though I should considering I’m one reptilian away from being high speaker,” she says thoughtfully. “I do know most soldiers in the Fleet are capital-born, and no person born outside the capital can be commander of the Fleet.”
“I see. You eat at my restaurant and think you know my life just from eating a bowl of my stew? I am no Grot local. I was born in the capital.”
“Why did you come here then?” Imani asks, bouncing her leg.
Bahati clamps a hand on Imani’s knee. “Stop that.”
Creo clears his throat and tilts his head, eyeing Imani. “I never served the Fleet under Khalia, though we’d been good friends while I served under her mother, Ada. That woman was harder than red clay.”
“That doesn’t answer the question. Why did you come here?” Bahati says, voice hard.
“The relationship between Grot and the capital has never been great. Well, not from what I remember. But we’re all reptilian, one people. Ada put so much pressure on the families here, she just about tore this city apart. I couldn’t stand for it,” Creo says.
“Looks like Grot is doing just fine to me,” says Bahati flatly. She tucks her hair behind her ears.
“It is, only because I refused to take Ada’s orders. There have been no commanders as dedicated as I was. Without me, all she had was enforcers. They couldn’t enforce Ada’s ideals without a competent Fleet leader.”
“I thought the Fleet and police enforcers were separate? The Fleet handles interstellar threats. Enforcers enforce the laws of Yabisi on Yabisi,” Imani says. The two reptilians stare at her. “I’ve stood for hours saying nothing while Khalia and the rest of the UJC debated.”
“Well, you’re right,” Creo says, nodding. “But to impose laws like the ones Ada thought up, she would have needed the Fleet and the enforcers.”
“Good you didn’t listen, I guess. You’ve saved Grot,” Bahati says sarcastically.
“Funny you should say that, because I don’t think I did. I think I just prolonged the inevitable. Ekon is Ada’s mindset incarnate. He won’t just destroy Grot. He will destroy Yabisi.”
“I told you. He plans on occupying Earth and harvesting its inhabitants. He doesn’t have plans on destroying Yabisi.”
“That may not be his direct plan, but his actions could lead to that result,” Creo says. He juts his chin at Imani. “You may not have a planet to return to soon.”
“Earth will be there. Ekon is not going to get a chance to hurt those people, my people,” Imani says, teeth clenched.
“You sound so sure of yourself.”
“We have Khalia’s journal. Once the other UJC members read it, they will strike down the motion to expand Experiment G-Three.”
Creo looks between Bahati and Imani. He shakes his large head back and forth, as he sighs. A chill comes over Imani, because she senses something in him. Defeat? Resignation? She is by definition human, a bundle of emotion. Even though she has been in full control of emotions since weaning off updates, sometimes the feelings are unbearable, especially when they are someone else’s. Creo’s reaction makes her nervous.
“You don’t think we can do it, do you?” Imani says accusatorily, her leg bouncing uncontrollably now.
“I’ve known Ekon since he was a hatchling. Something as simple as a journal won’t deter him. Right now, my bet is he has enforcers and others looking for you both,” Creo says, turning over his hands.
“Maybe so. If we stay down here, we will be fine,” Bahati says, looking at Imani. Her gaze is not reassuring.
He nods. “You said you would present that journal to the UJC members the day they vote on Experiment G-Three. You not only have to get into the capital but into the embassy as well.”
“We can fight our way in.”
“You’ll be dead before you draw a weapon.”
Bahati stands up, frustrated. “Whose side are you on, anyway? All I hear from you is naysaying.”
“If you can’t see I’m with you,” he says, spreading his arms as if to hug the entire room, “then you are blind as the day you hatched.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“As part of the Noku bloodline, you have the right to challenge Ekon’s rule as high speaker of the UJC.”
“Challenge Ekon?” says Bahati, unable to control her laughter. “Ekon has enforcers, War Fleet soldiers and the UJC behind him. All I have is my wits and a human slash bot.”
Creo taps a finger to the side of his head. “You have to think bigger than that. Your brother is a dislikable character. Not everyone you think is on his side actually is.”
“Show me who isn’t and maybe we can talk.”
“You will be high speaker, Bahati. I believe in you.”
Imani smiles, and she is all too aware that it has been a lifetime since the last time she felt this way. That day on the beach with Bahati was the last time happiness had visited her. Bahati’s previous deception continues to grate Imani’s mood, but she is getting over it. She is content knowing her friend can become high speaker and help save Earth.
“You’re going to be high speaker,” Imani says, giving her friend a small hug.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Bahati says, not returning the hug. She directs her attention to Creo. “As you said, I am just girl. Why would anyone want me to be high speaker? I don’t know anything about the galaxy, politics or war.”
“You’re sixteen, and Ekon isn’t that much older. None of the knowledge you mentioned is a requirement. Khalia knew some of those things when her reign began, but she also learned along the way. You’re the same as her. You have the fire,” Creo says.
“I don’t feel like I have,” she says, making air quotes, “‘the fire.’”
“Well, you do. Ekon is evil. You’re not,” Imani says, biting her nails.
“I don’t want any of what Ekon has,” Bahati says, pacing the floor. “Power corrupts people. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get Imani home, but I do not plan on being high speaker.”
Creo shrugs. “I have learned that it isn’t what we plan on that makes the difference. It’s what we plan for.”
Imani sees the hesitation in Bahati’s eyes. Though they are the same age, Bahati seems older. Even as a child, she was indifferent to the things that stimulated children her age. When Imani first arrived, she would watch Bahati’s every move, intrigued by her guardedness.
Now, Bahati lacks the confidence she usually has in her indifference, as though she is incapable of dealing with important things. Maybe the Bahati’s characteristic nonchalance is not borne of self-assurance but of self-doubt. Imani finds herself questioning Bahati’s resolve.
Imani pictures Ekon and shivers. In her mind’s eyes, she sees a large reptilian with teeth sharpened to a point beyond what is natural. His scales, thick over thicker muscle, strain from the smallest movements. Any self-doubt Ekon may have had was long ago swallowed whole by his arrogance. Is he what Bahati fears?
Imani recalls a time when Ekon and Bahati were kids. He had made a drawing and showed it to anyone who would look. It was of him ripping off Bahati’s head. Bahati had cried so hard, Khalia had called off a UJC meeting to be home with her. Chills trickle through Imani, and she understands.
Creo stands to leave. As he opens the door, he warns them not to venture out. It is safer inside. If they do decide to go out, they should do it at night when the orange moon has set. If they must go out in the day, please wear a disguise, he begs. He has clothes in the closet they may be able to fit.
When he is gone, the two struggle to turn the bed into a couch. The automatic button is jammed. It takes twenty minutes to figure it out. In the process, Bahati chips a claw, and Imani skins her knee. They are satisfied with their work though, because the bed can fit them both. So, they lay and watch the holographic display screen.
“I hate the news. Let’s watch something else,” Bahati says, telling the screen to change channels. It does and lands on an action movie that pleases her. There is not a moment in the movie that is not packed with sheer chaos. By the end, only one person survives. Imani vows not to watch anything like it ever again.
When the movie goes off, they let silence wash through the apartment like warm water over an aching body. The events over the last couple days have been a cloak of darkness. To be in a warm, safe place is nothing short of soothing.
As Imani settles into Bahati’s arms in the dim room, she fears the safeness of this place. It is too comfortable. It is nothing like the storm to come. Maybe there will be no violence. Even if there will not, they should be preparing for just in case. Imani knows these things but pushes them aside, throws them away like trash.
“Are you afraid?” Bahati asks in a whisper.
Imani spits the nail from her mouth. “I have always been afraid, even when I was full of updates. Back then, I didn’t know it was fear I was feeling.”
“Creo knows people. We can get the journal to Ekon, and he’ll leave us alone. We can be happy.”
Imani lifts up on an elbow, barely able to see anything but the other girl’s golden irises and diamond pupils. “Why are you so suddenly afraid?”
“I’m not afraid. I’m not interested in warring with Ekon. I just want to finish my primary education and travel the galaxy.”
There is a longing in Bahati’s voice unfamiliar to Imani. Her friend has not ever spoken this softly or passionately about anything. And so she realizes the reptilian girl, the free spirit, is now as displaced as she is. Bahati has taken Imani’s troubles and made them her own.
She kisses Bahati’s mouth. “We can travel the galaxy one day. First, we must stop Ekon’s reign of terror. I’m sorry I’ve pulled you into this,” Imani says.
“You haven’t pulled me into anything. I could have walked away, but I didn’t because I care.”
“Good. We will stay here until right before the vote on Experiment G-Three.”
“Look, you’re my friend, and I care about you, but I refuse to be cooped up in this place for the next nearly four weeks. We will stay here, but we have to go above ground for some fresh air.”
Imani smiles. “Deal.”