As Ekon is led through Ebeulo’s capital by Cimicidae’s representatives, Ekon decides this city is better designed than all of Yabisi. In his own capital, although the high-rise structures are well made and even beautiful, a number of them are made of red clay, a tribute to Yabisi’s early construction traditions. When the new buildings were designed, the lead architects thought it would be best to make them in the image of their smaller predecessors. Ekon feels the buildings made of red clay should be replaced by steel and glass.
As Ekon follows the two representatives through the capital’s crowded streets, he can’t help the envy he feels. These roaches or bugs, whatever these people are, are grotesque to look at. They are all plump and ugly. Their beady eyes and stubby antennae strikes him as a cross between crustaceans and roaches. Yet they live in arguably the grandest city in the Milky Way.
Every building is a tower of crystal and glowing metal. They loom so far up that even if he cranes his head up, he can not see their tops which disappear into fuchsia clouds. It must have taken decades to design these structures and bring them to life. Alongside these giants, Ekon feels small, insignificant.
The weather is average, but Ekon sweats under his armor. Beebe had wanted to come, but he is of better use on Yabisi. Ekon had let Beebe talk him into to wearing full-body armor. Beebe argued it would make Ekon more intimidating. Wiping sweat from his brow, Ekon curses Beebe.
Ekon follows the representatives into a tower made entirely of glass save for its steel support beams. The doors are there, and then they are gone, disappeared into thin air. When the trio passes the threshold, the doors materialize behind them. Ekon punches at them, fully expecting them to vanish again. Instead, he slams his fist against the glass. Aches pinch through his knuckles and wrist.
“They vanish only when one of these is moving toward them,” the woman representative says, exposing a keycard that had been tucked in her blouse.
“That’s great to know ten seconds ago,” Ekon says, trying to shake the throb from his hand.
They cross the lobby, zigging around throngs of people rushing this way and that. Ekon bares his teeth at a woman who stares too long at him. The woman’s face jiggles, as she puts space between herself and Ekon.
The elevator they board moves at lightening speed, turning every level they pass into a blur. The ride is still too long for Ekon’s liking. He sticks his fingers in his ears and swallows to pop them. The pressure in his ear builds until he is dizzy. He does not recall what he ate for breakfast but is willing to bet he will be able to when it empties onto the elevator’s glass bottom.
The elevator finally hisses to a stop, and Ekon is elated. He stumbles off as soon as the door opens. He is in the center of a circular space lined with glass offices. Trailing the representatives, he rounds the elevator and heads to an office where Cimicidae is waiting.
“I hope you enjoyed your walk here and having on all that armor didn’t slow you down too much,” Cimicidae says, as Ekon passes the empty space where the doors to the office were.
“It was glamorous,” Ekon says, only half serious.
“Thank you for escorting my guest here. You may leave,” Cimicidae says, making a fluttering motion with his pincers.
Looking around, Ekon notices there is nothing here except a table, chairs, dishes and food. Otherwise, the officer is a glass box. To his left and right, he can see other occupied rooms where people are meeting, working and using phones. One man seems to be yelling, but the glass blocks out all sound.
When the representatives leave, Cimicidae gestures to the circular wooden table covered in platters of food. The food is nothing like what Ekon is used to seeing. It is colorless, without shape or texture. The selections vary in between black, less black and white. The mounds of food remind Ekon of sand or mush chewed by a bird for its chicks.
“What is this stuff,” Ekon says, sitting when Cimicidae does.
“These are the signature dishes of Ebeulo,” Cimicidae says, smiling modestly.
“I’d rather be eating bananas on Congoa with Fateen. At least I can recognize them as food.” He sniffs the food and makes a face.
“These dishes are renowned. My people have no teeth, so our food must be ground or blended. I assure you it is wonderful.”
“This planet has a booming economy and some of the universe’s most advanced technology, yet you have not figured out how to make dentures?”
“Dentures are a shame. We enjoy what we eat. It’s what keeps us healthy,” Cimicidae says, jiggling his belly through his tight shirt. “Please, serve yourself.”
After Cimicidae piles his plate with mush, Ekon does the same, awkwardly maneuvering in his armor. The selections smell like rot and bad breath. It smells worse than it looks. Even if any of it tastes ok, he does not think he can choke it down. His chair shakes, as he adjusts his position.
“Maybe don’t wear armor next time?” Cimicidae says, fumbling with his shirt and tie, his pinkish jowls wobbling.
“I don’t think I’ll be taking advice from a roach in a suit.”
“I’m not a roach, though they do share some history with me.”
“What are you exactly? I’ve tried to guess, but nothing. You have pinchers and a bunch of other body parts that don’t go well together,” Ekon says, squinting suspiciously.
“My people and I are what we are, no explanation needed,” Cimicidae says simply.
Ekon shrugs and sticks a spoon into the black mush. It is squishy as a wet sponge. It makes the sound of wet boots in mud when he stirs it. He breathes through his mouth to avoid the stench. The food is sticky and warm on his palate. He waits for the terrible taste to kick it, but it does not. Its spicy but salty flavor is as delicious as Cimicidae claimed.
“I told you, these are our signature dishes. They are not pleasing to the eye, but they make up for that in flavor three-fold,” Cimicidae says, lifting his chin.
“What’s the food made of? What are the spices used in them?”
“Those are dearly held secrets of my people, though none of it is meat.”
“Come on. You can tell me,” Ekon says, licking his lips, his split tongue going in opposite directions.
“One day,” he says, snapping his pincers. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Do you have any dart frog blood?”
A bottle and a half later, Ekon has removed most of his armor, leaving his upper body in an undershirt. He looks out the window at the world below. The intoxicating blood gives it a brighter glow. The people are ants from this distance, but Ekon imagines he can see their faces. They are all kneeling to him, waiting for his blessings, while he look down on them.
Cimicidae stands beside him, his hands behind his back. Ekon measures the fat man, can smell the treason on him. His tiny beady eyes are in a constant state of unrest. They watch everything at once, calculating every move.
“Tell me something, Cimicidae. You seem like a wise man. Where does your loyalty lie?”
“Loyalty is a tricky thing. It’s like a bomb with good intentions.”
“Bombs kill people and they have no intentions,” Ekon says, angling his body toward the other man.
Cimicidae grins, nodding. “You’re young, but you’re smart. You have ambition. That’s just as deadly as a bomb. I don’t believe in loyalty or right and wrong. I think things just are.”
Ekon considers this, as the dart blood settles more deeply in him. He believes in right and wrong, but he simply does not care. Anything standing in his way must be eliminated at all costs. Cimicidae’s reasoning makes sense, but it makes Ekon trust him even less.
Fateen is an honorable man, even if he is an ape. His people live in squalor, and his goal is to better them. He has linked with Ekon for that purpose alone. Fateen wants to see his people prosper once again. He stands for something. Cimicidae is more dangerous, although less ferocious. The roach’s indifference to loyalty is troubling and intriguing.
“I want to make Experiment G-Three official. This means occupying Earth, taking the humans and selling them into servitude throughout the galaxy,” Ekon says, still looking out the window. He can feel Cimicidae staring at him.
“You’re even more ambitious than I had thought. ‘Servitude.’ I like that word, but I’m not one for euphemisms. You mean, make the humans slaves,” says Cimicidae.
“You say ‘frog.’ I say ‘toad.’”
“Those are two different animals, but I won’t get into semantics. There are people, powerful people, in the Consortium who probably won’t agree to enslaving humans.”
“We can turn them,” Ekon says, shrugging.
“Most likely not,” Cimicidae says, jowls wobbling. “Stella is not human, but she’s one of three humanoids who sits on the UJC. They initially voted against Experiment G-Three.”
“How did it get a temporary pass?”
“The humanoids were outvoted. That was years ago. The mindsets of many of the members have changed. You’ll be hard-pressed trying to get them to see it differently.”
Ekon has been in talks with Fateen about taking Stella down. She is the mouthpiece of the humanoids in and outside of the UJC. Without her, the rest are spineless bags of flesh who can be scared into doing anything. Erase the Stella problem, and Experiment G-Three is as good as passed.
“I’m high speaker, but I don’t have as much influence as you do on some of the other members in the UJC. How many of them would vote your way?” Ekon asks. He picks food from his teeth and flicks it away.
Cimicidae pauses thoughtfully. “Maybe two or three. I have good relationships with the two primates on the Consortium. Maoka is not friends with the other aquila Dege, so I think I can get her on our side. It’s no guarantee.”
“That’s six against six when we vote. In a deadlock, I would decide.”
Ekon sits and the other man follows. They stare at each other for a moment, each seeming to read the other’s mind. The frog blood has numbed Ekon to the core. He feels as though he is flying. He flexes his hand only to assure himself it is still attached to his wrist.
“I have another issue I wanted to raise,” Ekon says, cracking open a bottle of dart blood and drinking from it. “I need someone to motion that the UJC be dismantled and I be declared king of the Milky Way Galaxy.”
Cimicidae’s mouth drops. “Why would anyone do that? If that’s what you want, motion for it yourself.”
“I would, but it won’t be right coming from me. They’ll laugh me down.”
“They’ll laugh down anyone who makes such a preposterous motion.”
Ekon slams his fist onto the wooden table, sending a crack down its center. Cimicidae flinches but remains seated. Ekon pulls his lips back in a grimace that reveals every one of his sharpened teeth. He glances into the other office spaces. The people are looking but turn their heads when Ekon’s eyes meet theirs.
“You will make the motion that I be king, after you make the motion that Experiment G-Three be expanded,” Ekon says snarling.
“What will I get out of this?”
“I’m a fair man. There are millions of worlds out there we can occupy. You can have second pick of the worlds you want to colonize after my pick.”
So far during this meeting, Cimicidae had not wavered. Now, doubt casts its ugly shadow across his face. His shrewdness has dwindled to fear. It disgusts Ekon, be he waits patiently for the other Cimicidae’s response.
“I’ll do it, but I won’t do two motions. I’ll do one, and someone else can do the other. Do you have another person on the Consortium who can?” Cimicidae asks.
Ekon tilts the bottle of dart blood and sucks it empty. He belches loudly and licks his lips. “Rattus,” he says.
“I don’t like Rattus. He’s sneaky, and I don’t trust him.”
“You had trouble with him before?”
“I’ve lost a lot of motions because of him. It’s like he votes opposite of me on everything,” says Cimicidae, glowering.
Ekon shrugs. “Before the vote, we will all get together. I also have a surprise ally for you to meet.”
“As long as you keep that vermin Rattus in check, it should work out.”
Ekon nods, realizing his plan is falling into place. He has learned that every person has a price, some more or less than others. Not every person wants the power or the struggle that comes with it, but everyone wants prosperity. He imagines himself on his newfound throne with a galaxy of subjects bowing to him.
Then, that sickeningly sweet smell of perfume and death is on the air. Ekon tries to ignore it, tries to focus on Cimicidae’s rambling, but the odor is too thick. It sucks away the air and replaces it with an invisible gunk his lungs can not process. He inhales rapidly, begging for the air that is not there.
Cimicidae is leaning over the table, saying something. His mouth is moving, but Ekon hears none of it. The bug man is on his feet and trying unsuccessfully to wrap his short arms around Ekon’s midsection. Ekon’s vision is fading, fading, fading. He hears himself gasping.
Ekon laughs at the irony of the memory that so rudely interrupts his suffocating. It is of a time when he, Bahati and Khalia are swimming at the swamp. Mother takes a break, sits motionless while watching her children play. It has been a good day for the family.
When the orange sun begins to set, Mother says it is time to go, but Ekon swims away from her. She is demanding he come back, but he continues on. Then, something takes him by the leg, yanks him to the bottom of the green water. Where is Mother? He is drowning.
He wakes up on a muddy bank, Mother kneeling beside him. Bahati claps when he coughs up the brackish water and opens his eyes. Mother kisses him, warns him of the dangers of the world. She tells him he must never overstep his limitations. In order not to do that, he must learn his limitations the easy way on his own or the world will teach him the hard way. Then, she is gone.
“Are you ok?” Cimicidae asks, helping Ekon up from the floor.
Ekon takes the man by his shirt and lifts him from the floor. “I’m better than ok. I’m great. I’m a king in the making.”