In a society, where a royal family of seers determine a country’s future, a runaway princess and a fugitive pilot struggle to cross the border while trying to evade capture by a savage general
The third day after toxin-dispersal, Adam had watched Nadi stamp around his flat, a sweaty sheen on her face, while she hunted for her belt. He stayed exactly where he was, reclining on the bed with his fingers laced behind his head. He hated the way she kicked against the partitions, cursing and searching. He wasn’t going to beg her to stay. If she wanted to go, she should go.
Eventually, Nadi stumbled into her clothes and had stabbed the lockpad beside the door with her finger. When the door hadn’t moved, she pounded it with her fist, her lips drawn back in a snarl. He got up, pretending he didn’t notice how she flinched when he got too close to her. He tapped the buttons and she brushed past him into the diesel-fumed corridor.
“You need to rest,” he’d called after her staggering frame, but she didn’t turn back. Even though she’d been puking her guts out for the past two days, stinking up his flat. But he had ignored that, and instead spent the whole time sponging her face with a hot towel, gagging on the toxins breathing out of her skin while he spoon-fed her gelatinous mass that would keep her alive. Now she snapped at him, like this was all his fault, like he’d invited her there in the first place.
He should have told her he didn’t have a filtering system.
Adam sighed, lay back down on his bed and closed his eyes.
Looking back on that moment days later, he realized the exact time he came to his decision. In the period of half-sleep, half-dream when he still imagined Nadi lying next to him, two of his pillows under her chest while she swiped a finger across her hand-held viewer.
This Friday was National Celebration day, when Miss Halima Ousman and the other Udoka Mining executives were going for their annual trip to some unknown destination for a few days. The only time of the year when security was at its most lax in the sprawling complex.
He’d picked up his earpiece and made a call.
A few hours later, he’d flung on a black shirt with jeans that were ripped at the knees. Then he’d scooped stamps into his pockets and left his flat.
It took him ten minutes to escape from the elevators with its screeching, unpredictable doors into the lobby of his building. A rectangular space of mammoth proportions crammed from pockmarked wall to pockmarked wall with people, the same cadaverous horde staring out at him through haggard eyes. All he had to do was minimize contact, push through the stream of people; pretend he didn’t notice the stench of urine or the increasing blur of voices.
Adam made his way toward the exit, a wide rectangular opening that descended steeply toward the street on a cemented slope. No handrails. No grooves to aid friction. You just slid down into the street, into the traffic, into the fog.
New Garki wailed its welcome.
Thick mist covered the streets, the narrow piece of sidewalk that separated his building from the main hub of the street. He could feel the buses laboring past, the vibrations thundering under him. He could feel the movements of people all around him, surging forward. But Adam waited till he got used to the grainy sunlight struggling through the fog.
Soon he could make out the outline of the buses, their shadows hurtling through the fog. Some of them had flipped on their headlights and the silvery-white glow fanned out , exposing in wide sweeps the rutted asphalt, iron-grilled storefronts running the length of his neighborhood and the occasional homeless man sitting in vomit puddles. Adam looked up at the sky and heard the wheezing sounds of the airpods in the air.
It only took a few minutes for Adam to get to the next bus-stop, just as the bus chugged to a stop beside the fan-shaped structure. He jogged up the steps, squeezed through the open doors. The bus driver nodded at him while Adam slipped a gold card into the slit space on the dashboard beside the steering wheel. There was a beeping sound and the doors shut behind him.
The bus jerked forward while Adam scanned the empty seats. He then scanned the space above the windows for hidden cameras he knew were there and walked to the back and sat down. Months from now when security forces look back on this footage, he wanted them to be confused, wonder at how normal he looked, how calm, like someone taking a ride home. What went wrong?
He was supposed to be one of our own.
He opened his eyes and peered through the window. The fog had lifted a little and he could more of the landscape. The streets were wider and smoother and the homeless non-existent. In this part of New Garki traffic didn’t snarl its way down the roads, it crawled at a leisurely pace. The scenery was made up of low bungalows with low-pitched, corrugated roofs and shuttered windows. Nothing like the clump of hi-rise superstructures he called home. The people here moved at a slower, more measure pace, groups of twos and threes. All of them wore gas-masks.
The bus lurched to a stop and Adam got up slowly and made his way out of the bus. He took a deep breath and tasted the dryness in the air. He tasted the toxins too.
Adam looked around him. He stared at the quiet street, at the groups of people walking down the streets, the hideous sound of their breathing through their huge metallic snouts.
He cleared his throat and slowed his pace to theirs. He looked to his left, to the mud-brown bungalows sitting in a stiff line, separated from each other by chain-link fences. It ensured its neighbors a form of privacy, about ten yards of space all around only broken in front by a waist-high gate with scrolling metalwork.
Adam stopped at the fourth house , the one with green shuttered windows, walked up to the gate and pushed it back with a screech. He hesitated and looked back at the street. The streets looked brighter, the clouds shifting across the sky. The fog was lifting.
He stood in front of the door and pressed the chipped metallic button. Nothing happened. He wiped the beads of sweat off his face and pressed again.
He heard the faint sounds of shuffling footsteps and pulled back, sliding his hands into his pockets as the door swung open.
Raymond Mukaila squinted back at him.
The last time he’d seen Ray, he’d been hacking his way through several clumps of bushes with a huge machete, sweat trickling down his pinched features. Bare-chested, a pair of ripped khaki shorts and army boots that he’d taken off the burnt remains of a soldier. Back then they’d all survived on what they could find, whether it grew out of the ground or wriggled on top of it. So of course they all had lean torsos, and muscular calves and faces so lean as if sharpened to a point. But over the years Adam expected Ray’s angular features to have softened, but instead he looked exactly the same as he did fifteen years ago. Only the shorts and boots exchanged for a white-tee and jeans. The same shaved head. The same anger in his eyes.
Adam shrugged and forced a smile of his own. “Hello Ray,” he said slowly.
Ray leaned against the doorway and folded his arms tight across his chest. “It’s been a long time. A really long time.”
His voice sounded the same. Croaky, like he had a sore throat. Adam shrugged, looked around him. Bright lights. The fog had lifted.
“It’s good to see you,” the other man said suddenly and Adam turned back to him. “How long has it been?”
Adam shrugged, but avoided the other man’s eyes. Focused on the lintel above his head instead. He didn’t want to reminisce. Not ever.
“ How’s the wife? The kids?”
Adam stopped looking at the scratched, grooved piece of wood above his head. Looked back at the man. No, he couldn’t read anything in those eyes. It was time to play the game.
Ray nodded and then turned round, walking back into the house. Adam swallowed hard and followed him, pushed the door open and closed the door behind him with a click.
It was sharp contrast from the outside, it was dark and he squinted, waiting for the light slipping through the slit behind him. It took him a few seconds, but he soon got accustomed to it. There was a corridor extending straight ahead of him, the roughened, pocked walls on either side curved upward to a low ceiling of sagging plaster. Awkward oblong shapes had been cut into the stretch of wall, two on the left, two on the right with beaded curtains shielding the interior from view. Adam turned back to the silhouetted man in front of him and felt immediately uncomfortable with his easy swagger and the iron-grilled door at the end of the corridor. That meant in case of an emergency, the only exit would have to be the way they came.
“Here we are.”
Adam stopped suddenly. Ray had stopped at the second door on the right and was in the process of parting the beaded curtain. But Adam didn’t follow him immediately, instead let the beads clack back in place. Maybe he should go back. Maybe he should forget the whole thing.
Taking a deep breath, he followed him in.
This room was probably the same as all the others, the broken floor, a sofa pushed to the side, a two-seater slapped with clothes. The ceiling was covered with broken plaster and walls coated with a chalky crust. A table sat in the middle, scratched with chairs on either side of it, a single-spiral bound note-book on its surface. The only light in the room was a single-bulb lodged in the ceiling, casting a dull-yellow light over everything. Nothing like the bright, sputtering lights of his own flat.
Ray gave him a crooked smile and pulled up a chair, indicating to his guest to do the same. Adam pulled in a breath and planted himself in the chair. He leaned back against the slats, heard a creak and leaned forward again.
Ray had already sat down, the notebook flipped open in his hands. “And the job?” he asked, his voice very matter-of –fact.
Adam forced another smile. “I’m a firefighter now. It’s good lucrative work.” He blinked at the other man who was scribbling something across the ruled lines of the notebook. Then he stopped and slid it carefully across the table.Adam glanced at the black inked scrawl.
So pretty boy came back. I knew you would.
The game had begun.
Adam took the pen the other man had rolled in his direction and wrote across the ruled lines. We don’t have time to gloat. I need a location.
He slid it back, and Ray caught it with both hands. A smirk spread across his face. “Firefighting. That’s noble work.” He scribbled something. Slid it back. How many loads of black silver do you have to trade?
“Dangerous too,” Adam said. None
Ray caught the pad. “Of course it is.” Scribbled. Tossed it across the table. This time it was Adam who caught with both hands. I don’t understand.
Adam looked up at Ray. “I like it. Makes me feel like I have purpose.” Scribbled quickly. No black silver.
“Purpose is good.” I thought you were back in the game.
“Purpose is everything.” I’m not.
Ray pulled the notebook back toward him, stared at the paper. Laughed, then hunched over and wrote something. Pushed it back. What are you doing here?
Adam sighed. “What can I say? I love fighting fires.” I’m crossing the border.
Ray blinked up at him. “Fires get you killed.” Nobody crosses the border.
“I’m not dead yet.” I will
“Not yet.” And how do you intend to do that?
“Not ever.” I have something your friends need.
“You’re an arrogant son-of-a-bitch.” Like what, pretty boy?
“Just a confident one.” A fully functioning WT-43 .
Ray blinked at him from across the table. Adam swallowed hard. Ray didn’t believe him.
WT-43s were hard to get, hard to hide. Two hundred feet by a hundred feet wide. A smooth, mercury metal whale with the fighting arsenal of five fighter jets. Enough to take out two cities. Its secret was being able to flit in between the skies, camouflaging itself, blending in with the landscape. It was the fastest jet in the sky and the most destructive. Gold to the resistance. Three sat in the pyramidal tower-like structure with winding terraces of Udoka mining. Their silvery skin glistened under the fluorescent lights in the midst of all the other ships with the smell of greasy machinery thick in the air.
The other man leaned back in his chair, the all-too-cheery countenance gone. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. Instead he tossed back the pad. Adam looked at it. How?
Adam grabbed the pen. That’s the wrong question.
Alright, pretty boy. When?
In three days.
National celebration day.
Adam nodded and watched while the other man’s gaze hardened. He knew why. This wasn’t smuggling a couple of barrels of black silver across state lines, though that was bad enough. But this…this was helping the resistance. This was treason. This got you executed.
“You’ll never make it.”
Adam looked at him in surprise. The other man had said it loud, breaking his golden rule. But before he had a chance to answer, Ray had grabbed the pad, scribbled something furiously across its surface and slid it back. Adam turned it over, staring at the jagged lines. Tomorrow. 5.p.m.
Before Adam could do anything, suddenly Ray tugged the pad out of his reach. He tore off pages they had written on and ripped them further into lengthwise strips. He then crumpled them into a ball and fumbled for something in his pocket. He then looked up at Adam. “Lighter?”
Adam shook his head, watching as Ray dug his hand deeper in his other pocket, his face lighting up as he extracted a box of matches. He lit one and the ball of paper turned into a flaming pile of black smoke and ash. “Nice seeing you,” Ray said, not looking up in his direction.
It was time to go.
Adam took a deep breath and pushed himself out of the chair. He parted the beaded curtains, the sounds of them clacking behind him as he hurried back through the short corridor, out the door, into the New Garki.
Adam wheeled back, his mouth dry, his heart pumping in his chest. Ray stood in the doorway of his house, arms folded, his familiar smirk back. What happened? Had he changed his mind?
“Good luck,” the other man said, raising a hand in farewell.
Adam exhaled a sharp relieving breath and walked away quickly, his whole weight on a forward tilt. Now for the hard part.
He felt a familiar tingling sensation in his pocket. He stopped in his tracks and picked his communicator from his jeans pocket. The flat rectangular screen pulsed red, then green. He pressed a thumb into its center. A message icon slid down the screen.
He froze even as the four corners of the message icon flicked open without his permission. A fail-safe ensuring Udoka Mining employees always received their messages, whether they wanted to or not.
You are the designated driver for Miss Halima Ousman on National Celebrations day. As usual, inebriation would not be tolerated. Take off time is 0400hours. Lateness will result in your termination and possible incarceration.
Adam stared at the message, hoping for the words would disappear, hoping this was all a bad dream. But nothing happened.
His father’s laughter echoed through his skull.