“It’s like a warzone out there. Ekon’s had the whole Low District leveled,” Creo says from the jail cell directly across from Imani and Bahati’s. It is two days after Ekon’s assault on Imani.
The girls listen to his breathtaking tale of the blood, gore and destruction Tau Bot and the enforcers walked him through while urging him to reveal where the journal is. He recounts the smell of rotting flesh and waste. The dim lights flicker, and Imani can see the terror in his eyes. She is astounded by the dried cuts on his face and wonders how many times the enforcers had beaten him.
“I told them I didn’t know where the journal was,” he says, choking back a sob. “I told them, but they made me look at all the dead people. Some of the corpses belonged to people I knew.”
Imani is cramped beside Bahati on the metal plank. She can feel her friend’s heartrate pick up. Bahati is deathly silent. Imani can tell her friend is seething. She watches Bahati stand and pace the cell as best she can. She can manage only four steps from the toilet before coming to the bars.
There is something wrong on Yabisi. It is deeper than Ekon. It is a supreme indifference laced into the foundation of life on this world. People die here. Innocent people. No real justice is served. Within a matter of months, this planet has gone from tolerable to toxic. The very existence of life seems to be decided by one man.
“Humanity.” It is a human word that has no equivalent on Yabisi. The realization rocks Imani like an old secret she had promised to hold onto, forgot and suddenly remembers. Humanity does not depend on the existence of humans. Humanity is a standard, something human civilizations or otherwise should strive to uphold. Ekon is devoid of humanity not because he is not human but because he is brutally indifferent to life itself. His senselessness suddenly makes sense to her.
The closest word to “humanity” reptilians use is “mercy.” Mercy is something people give to a person after bringing harm or destruction or something troubling that person’s way. It is a word that says, “I have the power to decide your fate.” Imani guesses this gap in understanding highlights a fundamental emotional disconnect between reptilians and the rest of the universe.
Imani sighs, bites her fingernails. She nips her skin while promising herself to do whatever she can to stop Ekon, whether or not it means dying. In the wake of the ruin he has caused, her life is small, insignificant. She is willing to sacrifice it all.
“It’s so cold down here. Why didn’t they give us something to cover up with?” Creo says, jarring Imani to the present.
“They’re petty that way,” says Bahati. “Get used to it.”
It must be freezing if the two reptilians are cold. Their skin is iron compared to Imani’s, but she feels nothing, even though she has moved away from Bahati and no longer shares her body heat. The ember of anger burning within her deflects the chill. Tracing her fingers along her arm, she feels goosebumps. They seem to increase in number by the second.
“At least you’re alive. I thought the worst had happened,” Imani says, pulling herself into a sitting position on the metal slab across from Bahati.
“She really did think the worst. She’s emotional like that,” Bahati says jokingly.
It is a light joke, but they laugh heartily. The jail is packed with darkness and gloom, so they welcome any moment drawing them from their despair. Imani feels the muscles in her shoulders loosen a fraction. The load of tension she carries in them has been persistent. She rolls her shoulders and hears her joints pop.
“What do you do down here all day?” Creo says. His hands are wrapped around the bars of his cell.
“Mostly, we grocery shop and debate politics,” Bahati says, grinning.
“Do the guards ever let you out?”
“Of course, they don’t.”
“Sitting around all day in these cramped boxes is bad for your body. It causes your muscles to tighten and eventually waste away.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Imani says, biting her nails.
He shakes his head. “Wrong. There is a lot you can do about it. Get up. We’re about to exercise.”
It is next to impossible for the two girls to stand up straight. Their muscles pop, pull and resist. Bahati complains about her aching lower back. Imani has issues with every part of her body. She gets over it, ignores the pain like a person she does not like.
Creo has enough room to use the floor of his cell, but Imani and Bahati do not. They shiver with effort while trying to climb on the metal slabs. Stretching out their arms, their fingers touch, and they see they do not have ample space. Imani steps forward and Bahati backward. Now, they will not hit one another while working out.
They start off stretching to loosen their muscles. Imani and Bahati have not had much movement the past few days. The warm-up is a strenuous task for them. Bahati has better control over her body, doing as Creo directs without resistance. Imani sweats and groans with every twist or turn.
“You look like a worm,” Bahati says, teasing Imani who is twisting downward.
“You look like you eat worms,” Imani says, chuckling.
“You do have a sense of humor. I haven’t heard a joke from you since when? I can’t recall.”
“All right. Now, do your hands like this,” Creo says, throwing his arms above his head and wiggling his fingers. Parts of his long nails are broken off like he had been in a recent struggle.
The break does not come fast enough and does not last long enough for Imani. Her hair had been a disheveled puff before beginning. Now, it is a matted, damp sponge. The burning in her joints stings, and they thump in protest. Eventually, the aches go from excruciating to mildly uncomfortable. It is a step forward.
“Step back toward the wall on your metal slabs,” Creo says, climbing atop a slab in his room. “Now walk forward. Stop. Kick.”
“This isn’t that bad,” Imani says. Five minutes into it, she says the kicking is going to kill her.
“I thought,” says Bahati, mid-kick, “you said it wasn’t so bad.”
“That was before I knew my limits.”
Imani’s legs and abdomen strain with the kicks. Each kick is less energetic than the last until her feet barely leave the slab. Creo tells her to keep going, and she tries. It is too much to handle. She collapses a few repetitions prior to the others. Bahati pokes fun, but Imani is too tired to care.
They jog in place for ten minutes during the next exercise. After a breather, Imani is determined not to give up. Bahati blows a kiss at her, then picks up the pace. Imani accepts the challenge, pumping her legs furiously. Bahati goes even faster. It is a pace Imani can not match. Even so, Bahati burns out, dropping to the slab. Imani finishes the jog, unlike her friend.
“How was that?” Creo says, flopping to the floor.
Imani squats on the slab, head between her legs, breathing raggedly. “It could have been worse,” she says.
“I think that’s as bad as it gets for two girls who haven’t walked five feet in as many days,” Bahati says, drinking water from the sink above the toilet.
“It’s the one way to keep in shape. You don’t want your muscles locking up on you,” Creo says.
“How do you know this kind of stuff?” asks Imani.
“I was a prisoner once on another world. I lost a lot of weight while in captivity, but I did not lose my mind or my strength. That’s how I escaped.”
“That must have been something to see.”
“Let me tell you, you have no idea. This,” he says, spreading his arms, “is nothing. There are jails ten times worse than this.”
“I’m hoping not to see any of them,” Bahati says, tossing her loose hair to the side. She sits on the slab opposite Imani.
“We probably will. Ekon will make sure of that,” says Imani. It is meant as a joke, but the humor is lost. Worry taints her words, something she can not hide.
“He’ll probably kill us first,” Bahati says, as if it is pure fact.
“In that case, count yourself lucky. There are things worse than being a rotting corpse,” Creo says, voice a whisper. “There are things. I hope you can get that journal to the UJC.”
“We don’t have it. We left it with Juju’s son Akil,” Imani says. Bahati’s dirty look confuses Imani.
“I know Akil. He doesn’t like me.”
“We heard,” Bahati says.
“Hopefully, it can help him help us, or the whole Yabisi may be dead,” he says solemnly.
The concern in Creo’s voice pushes Imani beyond her emotional boundaries into a darker sadness. The workout loosened her muscles and distracted her momentarily from the direness of their situation. Gradually, the invisible weight is there again, crushing her. What if the fate of not just Yabisi and Earth but dozens of worlds depends on her and Bahati? What if they are humanity’s last hope? It is frightening to consider those possibilities.
Imani will not let fear control her, she assures herself. It is natural to be afraid. That does not mean she must let it consume her. Sometimes, she can sense Bahati’s fear. It is not direct. It comes infrequently in the form a remark or action. Bahati’s fear does not stay for long. Imani wishes to master her fear the way her friend has.
“Dinnertime,” Imani hears someone say. It is the guard, Dalla.
Going to the bars, Imani peeps down the corridor. Not a lot is visible from this angle. She hears metal latches and locks clicking. Then, Dalla’s boots slam against the hard floor, the wheels of her food cart screeching. She stops at their cell.
“Still alive?” Dalla says to Bahati.
“Barely, but yes,” Bahati says, turning over her hands in mock surrender.
The woman looks between Imani and Bahati, sighing. She is shorter than most reptilians, about Imani’s height. Her muscular, scarred forearms pour out from the sleeves of her uniform shirt. Imani guesses Dalla’s life has been a hard one.
“If Ekon didn’t want you alive, I would have poisoned you a long time ago,” Dalla says, forcing two trays through an opening in the bars. The trays hit the floor, and she laughs.
Bahati and Imani stoop to pick up the scraps of dried meat and bread. The food is hard and burned, but it is all they have. Imani complains under her breath, sure if Dalla hears her complaining, the guard will take the food.
Imani thinks she notices something pass between the bars from Creo’s hand to Dalla’s. The corridor does not have good lighting, and the movement is too unpronounced for her to be sure. Did it really happen or is she just imagining things? Imani’s body and mind are both weak from lack of food and sleep deprivation. If she is down here long enough, she will be seeing ghosts. Maybe it is all in her head.
Dalla leaves, the wheels of her cart squeaking. She gives Bahati a dirty look on her way by. Imani has to pinch Bahati’s arm too keep her from making a rude comment.
“This is delicious,” Bahati says, tearing apart a stiff piece of meat.
“It literally reminds me of trash. I’d never serve this in my restaurant,” says Creo.
“We’ve had worse. Once, Dalla gave us a blended mix of meat and mud. I gulped it down and got sick.”
“Sounds like we’re eating fine cuisine compared to that.”
The food is bland and tough to chew, but Imani is satisfied to have anything to eat. She and Bahati’s first few days down here had been the worst. They had been fed small meals once a day. Imani eats as much as she can now, knowing the next meal could be inedible.
“Is there no way out of here?” Creo asks around a mouthful of food.
“These cages are breakout proof. The locks can’t be picked, and we can’t dig our way out,” Bahati says conclusively.
“There is always a way out.”
“We thought about trying to take the keys from Dalla. That could work, but I don’t think we have the strength.”
“She’d probably shoot us dead before we made a move,” says Imani, forcing herself to swallow a chunk of bread.
“This is a bad predicament you’re in,” Creo says, shaking his head.
“You’re in it as much as we are,” says Bahati, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Imani crawls onto the slab beside Bahati. They stretch out, and Imani finds her place in her friend’s arms. The room has become cooler, but their combined body heat produces the warmth Imani seeks. She could go to sleep this way every night, listening to the soft drum of her friend’s heart. The sound is a therapy all its own.
Soon, they are all silent, and Imani hears Creo’s soft snores. She calls his name to check if he is asleep. When he does not reply, she kisses Bahati and sucks in the reptilian’s split tongue. Closing their eyes, they drink in each other’s essence. Their hands are all over each other. Imani is glad to have someone else there with them, but she misses the privacy they had. She finds herself occasionally peeping into Creo’s cell to make sure he has not awakened.
“Why do you keep stopping?” Bahati says, sitting up on an elbow.
“Creo is right there. What if he wakes up?”
“Then, we’ll give him a show.”
“I don’t want to give out any shows. That’s creepy.”
“I’m joking. Look,” says Bahati, snapping her fingers loudly. “He’s sleep.”
Creo does not stir at the noise Bahati makes. Satisfied, Imani goes back to kissing Bahati. Soon, they wear nothing, but Imani is sweating, warmer than before. Her adrenaline peaks, and she does not care who else is in the jail. She cuts her inhibitions loose, allowing herself to run wild without limitations.
Bahati matches Imani’s passion. Their movements are perfect, as if choreographed. When Bahati reaches, Imani meets her. When Imani pulls back, Bahati leans forward. They anticipate one another’s every move, reading each other’s mind and body language. Their dance continues until, together, they reach the highest point of ecstasy and float down.
Imani breathes rapidly. “That,” Imani says, wiping sweat from her face, “was the best.”
The door to the jail clicks and screeches open. Imani and Bahati both come to their feet, rushing to put on their underwear. It is late, and after dinner the guard usually does not come back until breakfast, if they have breakfast. This is unusual, and Imani is nervous with thoughts of brutality. This fades when she sees the woman tossed over Dalla’s shoulder.
“I have a guest for you all,” Dalla says, unlocking Creo’s cell and tossing the woman’s body onto the empty slab. “Have fun, but not too much,” she says to them before leaving.
Imani squints to get a good look. The dark-skinned woman is battered and bruised. Her clothes amount to bloody rags. Even in this state, her identity is undeniable. The long black and blue dreadlocks give her away.