The plan to escape Stella comes up with is identical to Bahati’s. Imani and her friend are to attack Dalla through the bars, disarm her, free themselves and then Stella. Coming from Stella’s mouth, the plan seems more realistic and less flimsy. Stella’s boldness is heightened by her strong, raspy voice. She speaks with the reverence of a commander who has seen it all but lost not a single battle.
Overall, the plan is perfect, foolproof. Its one variable outside of the planners’ hands is Dalla. What she does is up to them. They have waited two or three days for her to come or for anyone to come and feed them. No one does. The trio is let down. Without someone to attack who has keys to let them out, their plan is nothing more than words. Still, the three wait patiently in the wee hours of the morning today hoping someone will show.
Imani is crouched at the bars while Bahati sits on the edge of the metal slab. Sleep creeps up on Imani, causing her to nod, and she shakes herself into awareness. Her back and legs have begun to cramp due to lack of use. Looking at her frail hand, she can count each bone. Though she thought it was not possible, she has lost even more weight. She and the rest have subsisted on nothing more than water since Ekon’s last visit.
“No one’s coming, don’t you see. All of you are as screwed as I am,” Creo says, coughing.
“Shut up, Creo,” says Bahati weakly.
“We’re all going to die. At least I tried to get out.”
“Look where trying has gotten you,” Stella mutters, her accent thick and stilted. She is crouched by the bars of her cell, back to Creo.
“When I was Fleet commander, I came real close to death. I saw dozens of my own people die in wars on other planers. I could have died then,” Creo says.
“What’s your point?” Bahati says.
“I could have died a warrior. Now, I am going to die a prisoner.”
“Don’t forget, you’re a traitor and coward as well.”
“That’s easy for a girl with no loyalty or experience.”
“You’re going to die. We’re not,” Imani says, surprised at the cracks in her voice. She chews what is left of her nails.
“We probably will die, but we won’t die the same death he does,” Stella says quietly. “Where I am from, it is better to die on the right side than the other.”
“Dying is dying. It doesn’t matter how or why. The maggots don’t ask, ‘Did this person die on the right side?’ They just eat your rotting flesh,” Creo says.
“A man who thinks as you do has no worth. I’m glad you showed your true self,” Stella says.
Imani is too weak to add more than she already has. The hunger aches in her belly blaze with the ferocity of fire. They dig a deep agony in her. She bites her lips and tastes the iron of blood. Nothing is safe from her hunger. She would eat anything she could kill.
The air is unusually dank and warm. It has taken on an offensive odor that is a cocktail of body odor and mold. Imani coughs. Filling her lungs with the polluted air has become a chore. Sitting here on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees, she knows it is a matter of time before her body shuts down.
Creo continues to proclaim they all will die here. Why wouldn’t he be right? Imani tries but can find no reason why his conclusion would be false. Maybe starving to death is better than the agony Ekon likely has waiting for them. This death, in a way, is less brutal, borderline merciful. This is probably as bad as it will get. Hopefully.
“Hey, we’ll be all right. Everything will be fine,” Bahati says, as though reading Imani’s mind.
“I know,” Imani says, lifting her head from her knees. She has been cramped in the space between the end of the metal slabs and bars for hours. Her body is stiff. Any move she makes is painful.
“We had no way of getting the journal to the Universal Justice Consortium anyway.”
“We could have. There were a bunch of ways.”
Bahati sighs. “There weren’t, Imani. You have to stop telling yourself that. Truth is, we were powerless from the beginning.”
“I don’t believe that,” Imani says, shaking her head. “I made some bad calls.”
“So did I. My bad calls are the reason we hid in Creo’s tunnel apartment and why you trusted him so much.”
“And I got people killed.”
“It’s bad people died. You wanted to stop more people from dying. You should be proud you even took risks.”
Imani nods in agreement. Though some were foolish, she took risks for the right reason. She does not recall much of what Earth is like, but from the bits and pieces she can remember, she thinks the people there would be proud of her. They would thank her for her bravery in attempting to save them. But she has failed, and they will not ever get the opportunity to do that.
Bahati moves over, as Imani climbs onto the slab. Resting her head on Bahati’s shoulder, Imani closes her eyes. It has been too long. She has fought her sleep for days, and nothing has changed. If Dalla does come, Imani would be too weak to help. Her body aches for sleep, but she is afraid if she goes, she may never wake up.
Imani dreams of standing on a dark beach somewhere familiar. The cool, salty air brushes past her naked body, whispering in her ear. Her body tingles, but she feels good. As the tide rolls in and out, it teases her toes and beckons her to dive in.
While contemplating swimming, a red globe lights the horizon. Moon. No. Star. The sun. She remembers the sun. It warms the air, turning it into an invisible blanket. The sun will keep her alive, just as it keeps the rest of this world alive. It is the salvation of her people.
“Come,” the sun says, pulling her forward. “We have to go.”
Each pull by the sun’s invisible arms takes her closer the water. Imani can swim, so why is she fighting this? Why is she afraid of drowning? The water is too deep. It does not have a bottom. Once it engulfs her, it will swallow her. She will be gone forever without a trace. No one will remember her. She tries to get away, but the final yank is too strong.
“We have to go now,” Bahati says, wild-eyed.
Imani barely has time to wake and process the scene, before she realizes the door to their cage is open. Bahati hits her in the face with a jumpsuit, and Imani wiggles into it. Even for her thin frame, the jumpsuit is too small. It grabs her too tightly in all the wrong places.
“Thank you, Beebe,” Imani hears Stella say to a reptilian man ushering her out of her cell. He his average size and does not look as frightening as many other men of his species do. Still, he is imposing in his orange and black enforcer armor.
“Don’t thank me yet. We still have to get you all out of here,” Beebe says.
“Please don’t leave me here,” Creo says, standing at the threshold of his cell but not daring to cross.
“We can’t trust him,” Stella says roughly.
“I can’t leave him here. He knows what I did. If he doesn’t go with you, I’ll have to execute him,” Beebe says, drawing his weapon.
No one, not even Creo, comes to his defense. Beebe looks around, as though searching for objections. Imani moves to say something, but Bahati grips her wrist. Bahati shakes her head once, and Imani gets the hint. Many people have died but not the ones who should. Knowing Creo may die still hurts Imani.
“I can not leave you alive to turn on me like you did them,” Beebe says to Creo.
“I didn’t ask you to. I asked you not to leave me down here. Ekon has devious plans, and I don’t want to be his experiment.”
“Go the way you came,” Beebe says, tossing Stella the keys. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Stella jerks her head and jogs away, Bahati and Imani behind her. When they get to the exit, Imani startles at a series of sounds in quick succession, like spitballs being fired from a straw. Stella commands her to keep moving, and she does.
They climb several flights of red clay stairs and come to a wide metal door. Stella tries five of the giant keys before finding the one that fits. She puts up a hand and tells them to be ready. She slides the door aside, and they look down the long hall leading to the lobby of the embassy.
“I don’t see anyone,” Stella says quietly.
“You won’t see anyone,” someone says from behind.
Imani yelps. Then, a dark figure fully emerges. It is Beebe.
“No one is here yet. Out front, there is a pod. Use it to get as far away from the capital as possible,” Beebe says, stepping into the hallway way and walking to the lobby. They follow.
Through the glass doors, Imani sees the moon has not risen yet. Other than a few spots of light offered by lighting globes, the capital is dark. She and the others are the only signs of life. The emptiness outside comforts her. She is safe.
“What about you?” Stella asks.
“I’ll be all right. My main concern was getting you,” says Beebe.
“The warnings about my assassination. Did they come from you?” When Beebe nods, Stella asks, “Why?”
“I’ve always kept an eye on you whenever you come to Yabisi. You’re so beautiful. I think I fell in love the first time I saw you. When I heard about the assassination, I sent a warning.”
“But you never said who was behind the attempt on my life.”
“I couldn’t jeopardize being caught. All that matters is you’re alive.”
“What took you so long to come for me?” says Stella.
“I had to do it right. If Ekon even suspected something like this, he would have killed you out of spite.” He hands her a sheet of paper.
Stella steps close to Beebe, her eyes level with his. She takes his hands, smiling. “Thank you,” she says, kissing him.
“See you later,” Beebe says.
Imani heart warms, and she suddenly wants to cry for them. They are as beautiful together as she and Bahati. She hopes they will but knows Beebe and Stella may never see one another again. It is a fate she and Bahati may too experience.
“I think this is the place,” Stella says, looking around.
The orange moon has risen, but it is not at its highest point in the sky yet. Imani’s gaze darts in all directions, but she sees nothing but sand. They are in the Desert Region, hundreds of miles away from the capital. Imani does not feel as safe anymore. The pod brought them here on autopilot, and she wonders if the vehicle had the wrong directions.
“There is nothing here,” Bahati says, kicking up sand.
“Deserts usually have more than sand. There is not one sign of life,” Stella says, shielding her eyes from the moon.
“What are we supposed to do? Are you sure Beebe programmed the right directions into the pod?”
Stella purses her lips, scans the horizon turning in circles as she does. The muscles in her jaw have set, tightening more every moment. Then, she reads and rereads the note from Beebe. She inhales and exhales, nostrils flaring. Imani senses the woman’s frustration.
“What are we looking for?” Bahati asks, leaning over Stella’s shoulder to get a view of the note.
“What does it say?” Imani asks.
“‘Go into the brown door.’?” says Bahati, dumbfounded. “Is that it? What does that even mean?”
“I have no idea,” Stella admits.
Bahati spreads her arms. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there isn’t a door for miles. We are in Nowhere, Yabisi, right now. Desert Region.”
“Bahati, calm down. I’m sure this is just a mix up. Maybe we’re not looking hard enough,” Imani says unsurely. “What do we do now?”
“We walk until we find a door. It will work better if we split up,” Stella says. She looks fierce in the light, her dreadlocks twisted into French braids.
“That’s the worst idea possible. We don’t know exactly where we are, and we might have every enforcer on the planet looking for us. We can’t split up,” Bahati says.
The older woman waves a dismissive hand. “Do what you want. I’m walking. I’ll go six hundred feet in that direction,” she says, pointing. “If I see nothing, I’ll come back here. If I see something, I’ll come back here.”
“Fine. We’ll do the same. Separately.”
Imani does not want to split from the other two, especially Bahati, but she does, knowing their survival depends on it. With every step away from them, she is more afraid. Imani stops every few feet to glance around. The vacantness feels deliberate, as though someone intentionally wiped away all life by covering it with sand. She has walked less than fifty feet and wants to stop but forces herself onward.
It has been over a week since she has been allowed to walk freely. The full pressure of her body on her feet is uncomfortable. She is hungry and weak, so it takes effort to ignore the pangs in her belly. Her legs strain in protest, threatening to give out.
Imani screams when a small animal scurries over her foot. It is no longer than her finger, and it buries itself in the soft sand, preventing her from making out what it is. Things live out here. It is a comforting thought. Where there is life, there is food and water. She and the others have a pod, but they are wanted. If it comes down to it, maybe they could live out here.
“Six hundred,” says Imani aloud.
There is still nothing to see. She is careful not to turn too much and lose her sense of direction. After assuring herself there is no brown door in sight, she pivots and heads back, shrugging off her disappointment. She finds contentment knowing finding a brown door in this desolate area is a longshot.
As she heads back, Imani trips over her own feet. The fall is more painful than it should be. Sand is supposed to be soft, but this is not. She groans and rolls over, gaining her composure. On her hands and knees, she brushes away the sand. She gasps when she sees the brown door. It comes open, tossing her aside. She scatters on all fours to get away from her attacker. Her emaciated body does not make it far before a boot pins her.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Imani hears a male voice say.
She turns over, hands up. The gun in her face does not stop her from speaking, as she looks at the man with the patch over his left eye. “Akil?”