Even in her disguise that makes her look like a male bot, Imani feels exposed. Creo has been an excellent guide, but he does not know the capital section of the tunnels so well. This is how they end up in the center of the capital, less than five hundred feet from where Ekon sits in the embassy. They know he is responsible for whatever the noise was they heard earlier coming from Grot.
“Just keep your heads low and don’t act weird,” Creo says, leading the way.
“That’s easy to say, but weird is the new normal,” Bahati says.
They are above ground, and Imani is awed by the new embassy. She has never placed eyes on something so ravishing. Even in the diminishing light of the setting moon, it glows as if from the inside. The tinted glass is spotless. She wonders what it looks like on the inside. How can someone as evil as Ekon be responsible for something so magnificent?
Bahati pulls Imani along. There are still hundreds of people lining the sidewalk or hailing striped black and green taxi pods. Imani thinks none of the people cares about them or know who they are, but Bahati says standing around puts them in danger. Imani waves goodbye to the embassy.
The Fleet command base is dubbed “the Ear” because from the sky, it looks like an ear attached to a funny-shaped head floating in a purple ocean. It is technically part of the capital, but it is gated off from the rest of the city. Creo says its security is solid and has never been breached.
“With security that good, our plan may fail,” Bahati says, as they walk the streets heading northeast.
“I still have my security clearance. They won’t think twice when the doors open after I scan my palm on the pad.”
“What if that doesn’t work?” Imani says nervously.
He shrugs. “Then you better know how to swim. I know a couple places we may be able to enter the back of the base from by ocean.”
Imani bites her lip and nods. She is an excellent swimmer. The water will not be a challenge for her. What will be is her inability to stay calm. Panic and fear have been creeping upon her suddenly lately. She has been able to douse it, but it takes longer and more effort with time.
Bahati is looking to her left and almost collides with a pole. Creo is serious as ever, but she and Imani giggle. The incident comforts Imani in a strange way. It lets her know she is still alive, that she still has feelings other than fear. She has been bottled up so long in hiding and disguises, it is sometimes hard to imagine herself as anything other than a prisoner of her own misery.
It is unbelievable that she may be seeing her family within the next few hours. She may be able to hug her father, to actually touch her relatives. That depends on everything going right from this point forward. Imani sees no reason why things would go wrong, but she has become accustomed to unwanted surprises and let downs.
The street they are traveling on is interrupted by a large, squat building made equally of red clay and glass. In the center above its doorway is a circular window reflecting the last light of the moon so brightly Imani has to shield her eyes with her hand. The light from the window encapsulates them in a spotlight. Imani feels more vulnerable than ever, but Bahati keeps moving without stopping.
“Excuse me,” Imani says, accidently smashing into Creo.
“Daydreaming? Don’t worry about it,” he says, stopping.
“Shouldn’t we pick up the pace? The moon is just about fully set,” Bahati says, aiming a thumb in the direction of the moon.
“You’re in a bigger rush than I thought you would be,” he says.
“I’m trying not to end up on the wrong side of a laser gun.”
Far less people roam the streets now, though a good number of pods are in the sky. Bahati glances up, gasping. She jerks her head down stiffly. Imani is about to look up, but Bahati warns her not to because there is a orange and black police enforcer pod directly overhead. Creo does not react, and Imani is not sure if he has even heard the news. As he cuts abruptly into an alley between two homes, he puts a finger over his lips.
“What if they land? We’ll have nowhere to go,” Bahati says, pointing at the end of the alley where it had been gated off.
“If they do, I’ll distract them, and you two can climb over the fence. It’s high but doable.”
Imani had nothing to add to the exchange but listens as though her life depends on it. She searches with her eyes for somewhere to hide. The alley is clean and free of anything she can conceal herself in or behind. She gives the fence at the back of the alley the onceover, not confidant she can scale it. It is made of long, vertical wood planks that have nothing she can grasp onto.
Creo steps from the alley and onto the street, leaving Bahati and Imani behind. He does not come back immediately, and Imani worries something bad may have happened to him. Just as Bahati is planning their next move, Creo comes back. He nods once, and Imani knows it is safe.
The moon is fully set, leaving behind floating globe lights to brighten the way. Although they are bright, Imani has never felt they were good for lighting streets. The globes float just below the space where pods and other vehicles fly, but they are an inadequate source of light for anyone without night vision.
Creo still leads the way, and Bahati keeps up. The trio is wearing dark clothes, and Imani can not see in the dark like they can. She finds herself breathing hard and sometimes skipping to keep with their pace. She wants to complain but does not. They have to move fast.
There is a faint swooshing on the wind. Waves. The Ear is not that far away. Only now does the irony settle upon Imani. They are essentially heading into the belly of the creature that wants them dead. Creo had tried explaining the separation of powers between the high speaker and the Interstellar War Fleet. Yabisi’s Fleet answers to its commander. Its commander takes orders from Yabisi’s speaker, Ekon, but if the commander chooses not to take orders because the commander feels the orders are wrong, the commander can refuse. This muddies the waters of Imani’s understanding more.
Imani can not be sure, but she believes she sees the outlines of metal gates in the far distance. The scent and sound of salty, wavy water is unmistakable. They have reached the edge of residential and commercial buildings and entered a miles-long empty plain. East, the black gates loom. To Imani’s left and right, she sees nothing but darkness.
“We’re almost there,” Creo says.
“Finally. My legs are aching, and my back isn’t doing much better,” Bahati says.
“It’s taken longer than I thought it would. I’m hungry,” Imani says, spitting out a chewed fingernail.
Bahati pulls a package of jerky from her sack and hands it to Imani. The meat is tough and salty but sweet and tasty as well. Imani chews mouthfuls while trying to keep up with the others. She does not know what type of meat it is, and she does not care. The grumbling in her stomach keeps her from worrying over such a petty issue.
A shadow moves in front of Imani, and she yells. No. She tries to yell, but her mouth is full. The salty meat fills her mouth, and her words are gibberish. Bahati grunts and stumbles, yet she does not falls. Whatever hit her does not take her out. She screams like an animal, all rage and survival instinct.
One of the attackers flashes a light at them, and Imani sees there are two enforcers and Tau Bot. The fear pumping through her is replaced by fury. She and Tau have experienced the same struggles and oppression. They should be on the same side, fighting for the freedom. Tau is fighting to keep her enslaved by these alien people and bound to this alien planet.
One of the enforcers places Creo in a chokehold as he is attempting to help Bahati. Creo should be able to free himself from the grasp of the enforcer, but the hold is too quick and unexpected. Creo wiggles a few times but meets the ground head first as he falls into unconsciousness.
“Don’t move, or I will take you down hard,” the enforcer who has just choked Creo says to Imani. His flashlight is blinding her.
“You can kill her if you want. We only need Bahati,” Tau Bot says.
Imani steps back, hands up, as if prepared to fight. “Leave me alone.”
Bahati is tussling with the other enforcer. She catches the arm of her attacker between her elbow and armpit. Bending her body in a backward arch, she stretches without relenting. The enforcer screams when his armor fails and his bones are twisted at an unnatural angle. The snap of broken bones is unmistakable. When Bahati lets him go, he falls to the ground, cradling his arm.
The enforcer with the flashlight turns his attention to Bahati. As he charges her, he drops the flashlight. The two engage one another, hands and feet moving so quickly, they become a blur. Bahati screams when the enforcer body slams her. Imani hears the sickening thump and gasp, as Bahati loses air.
“Let her go,” Imani says, running into the enforcer. His body is protected by the standard black and orange enforcer armor. He does not move an inch. The impact sends her to the ground.
“I really hate enforcers,” Bahati says, coming to her feet. She is dirty and bleeding but in good shape.
Imani does not get the chance to get herself up. Tau takes her by the hair and yanks her to her feet. She can feel her braids being torn from her scalp at the root. The burning that comes with it is unbearable. She twists to get free, but he has her in the air. It feels like her scalp is being torn from her skull. She sees glimpses of Tau’s maniacal expressionless face.
With all the force she can muster, Imani kicks Tau in the belly. He drops her and doubles over. Her head snaps to the ground, and she scrambles away. The flashlight is aimed indirectly in Bahati’s direction. Imani glimpses movement that way, but her vision is blurred with tears, and she can not distinguish who is who amongst the tangled bodies.
“Run. Get out of here,” she hears Bahati say.
Imani’s body goes into autopilot. She takes off even before she knows it. Her braids whip in the wind, lashing about her. She pays them no mind. The distance between her and the tall buildings ahead is closing drastically. She has to remind herself to breathe, as she pumps her legs to no end. Never before has she been this afraid.
The foot tangled between her own comes from nowhere. Before she knows it, she is sprawling forward like she has been launched from a cannon. Her hands are too slow, so her face meets the dirt with unforgivable impact. She tastes dirt and blood. A moan seeps from between her lips. She tries to stand and can not. Her whole body wilts in agony.
“You should have made it easy on yourself, Imani Bot,” Tau says, squatting above her and pulling her head back to whisper in her ear.
“Why are you doing this? Let us go. Please, let us go,” Imani says weakly.
Tau hoists her over his shoulder. The next moments are a blur of stops and starts. Faintly, she is aware Bahati is near, but she also knows her friend is not doing well. Imani hears the faint hum of an engine and feels herself moving inside of another moving object. They are flying. Pod. They are in a pod.
During the ride, Imani is in and out. She and Bahati are in the backseat of the pod. Beyond the tinted glass top of the pod, Imani can see nothing but darkness. The darkness feels greater than night, nearly suffocating. It is as if someone threw a heavy black coat over the world, a coat that does not warm the chill in her bones as she notices Creo is not here.
Imani catches parts of the conversation between the enforcer and Tau Bot. The way he gives directions, it seems Tau is in control. She can tell from the conversation that he knows more than the enforcer does. He directs the enforcer on where to go and what to do once there. When the enforcer asks certain questions, Tau either does not answer or says he can not answer.
“Where are you taking us?” Imani says, sitting up in the backseat. Her throat is dry, and the words come out in a croak. She goes to scratch her nose and sees her hands are bound by steel manacles.
“Shut your face or I will do it for you,” Tau says. He leans between the two front seats and punches Imani in the abdomen.
She grits her teeth from the pain, falling into the space between her seat and the enforcer’s. She swallows back the sob threatening to escape her. Taking her seat, heat flows through her. She hates Tau. Not once has she ever wanted to kill another person, yet she would not hesitate to take his life. She makes a silent vow to do so.
The pod lands outside the embassy. It is the beautiful building Imani had passed not too long ago. She had not considered she would enter the place this way, bound and shackled. Anger and resentment for all of it, this whole world, boils her. She wants to scream or run or disappear or be unborn.
“We’re going to be fine,” Bahati says, coming to.
Imani rubs her hair. “Are you ok?”
Besides the bloody nose and bruises on her green face, Bahati says she is good. She points to the scrapes on Imani’s body and face, telling her she does not look good either. They are alive but it is no cause to celebrate.
The top of the pod lifts back and the enforcer climbs out. He points his laser weapon at his prisoners. “Get out, and don’t make this difficult. Ekon said we should bring you back alive, not that we had to.”