Standing at the bars, Imani likens the jail she and Bahati are being held in to nothing more than a corridor with cages. It is poorly lit and dank with odors of sewage. Being escorted down here took so long because the jail has been built hundreds of feet below ground near the sewage system. That is exactly what it smells like. The odor makes her nauseous.
The cages are small, each made to hold no more than two prisoners. There are no beds, just metal slabs welded against the walls. The sink is attached to the toilet which is small and situated between the two metal slabs. If either Imani or Bahati want to use the toilet, the other has to sit up on the plank or stand by the bars.
The girls have been robbed of their belongings. They wear their underwear and nothing else. They have complained to the guard who brings them meals, but she does not care. She will not bring them blankets or anything else to cover up with. The guard’s indifference agitates Imani. The guard infuriates Bahati so much, she has threatened the lady on several occasions.
They have been trapped in the dungeon beneath the embassy for three, four days? Without the moon, time has no meaning here. Imani estimates the UJC’s vote meeting is fourteen or fifteen days away. They will miss it. Bahati has tried and failed too many times to pick the lock of their cage. They will not make it out in time.
As the days come and go, the two do not talk as much as they did upon their arrival here. At first, they played guessing games or conversed for hours on end about what they would do when free. They imagined the millions of worlds beyond Yabisi and what the people are like who inhabit those worlds. They tried to guess the types of food those people eat. Now, the energy that fueled those conversations is gone.
“Imani, why don’t you have a seat?” Bahati says groggily.
“I don’t feel like sitting,” Imani says, holding onto the bars as if doing so will make them melt.
“Has the guard come with any food yet?”
“She’s late today. She probably didn’t like what you said to her yesterday.”
Bahati waves a hand. “She’ll get over it. I’m so hungry, I could eat a person.”
Imani glances at her frail arm. She has lost a considerable amount of weight since their capture. Figuring how much is hard for her to gauge. It is not something she wants to gauge. The thought of her slow starvation equally angers and troubles her. Had she and Bahati not tried stealing an interstellar pod, they would not be here.
“We should have stayed in the tunnels,” Imani says, wiping grime from her face.
“You said that like three hundred times. We didn’t stay in tunnels, and here we are.”
Imani sits on the slab across from Bahati’s and lets her head droop. Sadness overwhelms her. So much anguish has built up inside her. Flexing her small fingers, Imani understands there is no more fight in her hands. There is no more fight in her. She wants to close her eyes and never open them again. Why would see want to witness this misery anymore? She chews her nails and sighs.
“This is all my fault. I’m the reason we’re caged waiting to be murdered,” Imani says, voice cracking, leg bouncing.
Bahati sits beside her, places a palm on her naked thigh. “Stop shaking your leg. This is not your fault, Imani.”
“Creo is probably dead. We haven’t seen him since we got here. They probably tortured him to death.”
“Creo chose to come with us. He understood the consequences.”
Imani comes to her feet, raising her voice, unable to control her anger. “You are always talking about consequences like that justifies how messed up Yabisi is or how murderous your brother is.”
“I’m not saying that. Well, maybe I am saying that in a way,” Bahati says, pausing. “The world is action and reaction. That’s it.”
“Well, my actions seem to always get innocent people killed. I give up. No more fighting. Ekon wins,” she says, sitting once more.
Kneeling before her, Bahati takes Imani’s hand into her own. Imani calms with the pressure applied to her hand by her friend but keeps her head tilted down. Bahati lifts Imani’s chin with a forefinger. Although the jail cell is dim, Bahati’s irises are fiery gold.
“People have died. We know that. Those people died because they believed in you,” Bahati says sternly.
“So, you agree their belief in me got them killed.”
“You can’t give up now. I know our situation seems hopeless, but we still have the journal. We know where it is. Ekon doesn’t. As long as we keep it that way, we’ll be fine.”
“What happens when he no longer needs the journal?” Imani says.
Bahati pauses, bites her lip. “Let’s not think about that. Let’s think about getting out of here. Those people who died believing in you? You owe them. You can’t give up, or their deaths will mean nothing.”
Imani still feels like giving up. This is the darkest she has ever felt. Being the cause of so many people’s pain does not sit well with her. She thinks of Juju’s friendly face and of Creo’s undying loyalty and feels sick to her stomach. Those men had been her and Bahati’s only true allies, and now they are dead. No innocent person deserves to die.
That unexplainable fear in Imani expands twofold. It warns Bahati could be next. Imani is willing to give her life to protect her friend’s. If Imani dies, at least she will not feel the unbearable pain and heartbreak that will come if ill fortune befalls her friend.
Still, she knows Bahati is right about fighting in their lost friends’ memory. Giving up now means never avenging the deaths of those friends. It means going down without a fight. She exhales and absentmindedly shakes her head. She and Bahati have come too far, lost too much to just give up now.
“I won’t give up, but what can we do? We’re trapped in this cage, and there is no way we can break those bars,” says Imani finally.
“When the guard comes down, I’ll bait her. She really hates when I taunt her. When she gets close enough, I’ll reach through the bars and grab her. You just take her keys off her waist.”
“Sounds simple, but she has a laser gun. She will shoot us.”
“She won’t if you’re quick enough. You should be able to disarm her and take her keys.”
Imani’s reply is cut off by the creaking door. It is the way the guard comes and leaves. Her heart leaps at the suddenness of the guard’s arrival. Bahati nods her head, as if to say they are going through with the plan regardless of not having ample time to discuss the details. Imani nods back reluctantly and swallows the lump in her throat.
When the figure coming toward them materializes, Imani stops breathing. Terror paralyzes every muscle in her body. A nightmare has become reality. This moment is her biggest fear. She is barely able to move away from the bars, but Bahati goes toward them without fear.
Ekon is not as big as Imani remembers. He is roughly the same height, but beneath the dull lights, his cheeks are gaunt. His green skin is darker around the eyes and is peeling around his mouth and forehead. His sickly grin is more menacing. Imani is so shocked, she just about misses the two guards behind him.
“Little sister, I’m glad you could join me here at the all-new embassy. I would give you a tour, but you know how things are,” Ekon says, feigning sadness.
“I don’t know how things are. Tell me,” Bahati replies.
“If you insist. For starters, you’ve been causing a bunch of trouble for the people of Grot. Because of you, the highest point of the High District and the whole Low District have been demolished.”
Bahati laughs. “What are you talking about? The Low District is fine.”
“When was the last time you were there? The Low District tried rebelling, but at least only two or three hundred citizens were killed. Had to do an aerial attack on them.”
“Ekon, what is wrong with you? Do you think this is something Mother would be proud of?”
He shrugs. “I wasn’t much a fan of her politics either. It’s life. What can you do about it?” he says nonchalantly.
Sitting on the slab, Imani pulls her knees to her forehead, attempting to block out Ekon. She pictures hundreds of scared or angry or frightened people wanting nothing more than to protect their families being assaulted by air fire and bombs. Children must have lost their lives as well. Children. The most innocent of them all. Agony clenches her by the soul. She hurts for lost lives.
Those people, those kids died at Ekon’s direction. Their blood is on his hands. Imani will not allow him to place the corpse of blame before her. Wordlessly, she chants inside her own head. “This is Ekon’s fault. This is Ekon’s fault.” It does not bring back the murdered people. It does not make her feel better, but it helps her cope. She peeks over her arms, scared to look Ekon directly in the face.
“I don’t want any harm to come to you, little sister. There are many open positions in my administration. Well, kingdom. Soon, I’ll be King Ekon,” he says, poking out his chest.
“You’re delusional. You won’t be king, and why would I want to work for you? You’re tearing Yabisi apart,” Bahati says angrily.
“Let’s not get into the technicalities of who is doing what to Yabisi. The scum in the Low District were a blot on our world. Now, they’re not.”
“I don’t have any plans on working for or with you.”
“I’m extending a hand. You’re drowning. Your best bet is to get out while you can. The more important issue is, where is my journal?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never had a journal of yours.”
“By ‘my journal,’ I meant Mother’s journal. I know you had it. Tau Bot saw you with it.”
Bahati spreads her hands. “I’m almost naked. Your goons took everything I had. I don’t have anything,” she says.
He smirks, showing his unnaturally sharp teeth. The smirk is sinister as one given by a man on the brink of insanity. His eyebrows pull together, and his eyes travel from Bahati to Imani and back to Bahati. Imani can sense the calculations he is running. Then, he asks his most dreadful question.
“What made you take the bot with you?” he says, jutting his chin in Imani’s direction.
Bahati stumbles over her words, before gaining control. “I took her with me because I needed someone to carry my things.”
“‘Her’? I guess everyone calls bots by gender sometimes, but ‘someone’? That’s a new one. You two must have become great friends while on the run.”
“I can’t be friends with a bot. They’re worthless.”
With the last word, Imani knows Bahati has overplayed her hand. Even to Imani, it feels like Bahati is trying too hard to distance herself from her and deny their relationship. Bahati’s downplay is a glistening stone under the midday moon. It is too obvious.
The silence following Bahati’s last sentence is tense as pulled muscles. Imani heart thumps a marathon, and she is terrified. She can almost hear the gears turning in Ekon’s twisted head. She can smell his animal instincts, as he homes in on his prey. He knows he has them where he wants, and the game is over. Bahati and Imani are mice and Ekon is the cat playing with his meal.
“So, you took a worthless bot with you?” Ekon says slowly, picking his teeth.
“It has its purposes,” Bahati says.
“‘It’ instead of ‘she.’ I appreciate the shift in pronoun. Does it know it’s human? I’m guessing it does.”
“You’re just making things up. That won’t make me have the journal you want. Is that why you’re destroying Grot?”
He shakes his head. “Let’s stay on topic. I can tell your bot hasn’t been updated. It’s been in that corner balled up since I got here, afraid. Updated humans don’t feel fear.”
“She has nothing to do with this, Ekon. This is between me and you,” Bahati says, panic in her voice.
“Guards, open this cell.”
The sound of locks clicking and disengaging echoes through the prison. It is like the guards have unlocked the gate to Imani’s fears. She finds it hard to breathe, watching as Bahati tries to stop Ekon from entering, but he slaps her down. Her head hits the corner of the metal plank, and blood drips from the wound.
“Where is the journal, Bahati?” says Ekon, closing in on Imani.
Seeing her friend’s bloody face incenses Imani. “Don’t tell him anything,” Imani hears herself say. The fear is now rage.
“I love when they fight back,” he says, smirking.
Bahati charges at his back, but the guards restrain her. She kicks wildly, landing blow after blow against Ekon’s back. It does not phase him a bit. Her scream is full of hate. Imani has not ever seen her this angry before.
Ekon reaches his clawed hand toward Imani’s throat. Because he is taller than she is, it gives her the advantage. She ducks his hand and kicks his knee. The blow is torture to her bare foot. She feels like she has broken a toe. The pain is debilitating.
The space is overcrowded with bodies. There is nowhere to run, but Imani must get from between the toilet and the metal slab. She scrambles on all fours between Ekon’s legs, while he doubles over and grasps at her legs. The scene is almost comical. She would have laughed if the boot had not smashed her in the head. Then, she blacks out.
Opening her eyes, Imani is flying and choking. Her legs dangle loosely beneath her. Then, she feels Ekon’s nails in her throat deep enough to draw blood. She can not breathe. He is choking her to death. Her legs do not work the way she wants them to. They just flail against the sink. Panic takes her. She frantically struggles for one breath of air.
“Where is the journal?” Ekon says, squeezing Imani’s neck harder.
“I don’t have it,” Bahati says, on her knees between the two guards.
“What did you do with it?”
“We lost it. Somewhere in the High District. I can’t remember where.”
“Then, there is no sense in keeping her alive,” he says, strangling Imani.
She is losing consciousness. His grip tightens, and her eyes bulge from their sockets. Being this close to death is frightening and hopeless. None what she and Bahati have done is worth dying this way.
“Please stop, Ekon. Don’t do this to her,” Bahati sobs.
“If I gave you some time, could you remember where the journal is?” he asks.
“I can, but I need Imani. She can help me remember the places we went.”
Ekon squeezes one more time, then drops Imani. Her body slams into the toilet and sink. She gasps for air, each breath a ragged. Her watery eyes itch and burn. She crawls into the corner between the toilet and plank, scared to look in Ekon’s direction.
“Let me down, little sister, and I will strip every inch of weak human flesh from this slave’s body,” Ekon says, pointing at Imani.