Two hours passed before Jabari Asalur acknowledged his dread. His chest felt hollow and a damp stillness was lodged in his gut. If he had any breakfast left in him, he would’ve fallen to his knees, stuck a cold finger down his throat and let the exploding bile jar his senses. Anything was better than the endless waiting.

Two hours, something was definitely wrong. Naleni hadn’t made it. Their rebellion had failed. She was probably dead. He regretted letting her go back instead of himself. Asalur, you stupid, clumsy coward, he chastised himself. If he hadn’t been such an Asalur and messed up the charges, she wouldn’t have had to risk herself cleaning up after him. Naleni and he would’ve already joined the others and been miles away from danger. Instead he lingered here on this blue-tinged cryocrater, their rendezvous point. There was no point in waiting for her, he knew this, but he couldn’t leave. He owed her that much.

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To distract himself, he laid down the four control units flat against the ice. One had gone off okay but the other three still glowed red. He suspected their fuses had come loose. He didn’t account for that earlier. Naleni should’ve fixed the fuses by now. But no, the control units still glowed red, not green. Even if they finally turned green, he wouldn’t detonate them until she was with him. She was his only green light.

“Come on, Naleni. Come on,” he whispered.

He glanced once more at the bio-monitor on his wrist. It blinked a steady amber light. The declining power blurred his vision, turning his mask’s optic visualiser cloudy like into a Harmattan haze. He had maybe forty, fifty minutes of breathable air left. It was already too late, but he couldn’t leave. Not without Naleni. He didn’t want to believe all he had done – all they had done – was in vain. No way.

He crouched beside his Kunguru and waited.

 

An hour later, he checked the control units, two of the three had turned green. All three would be great, but two was   enough. If only there was a way to communicate to her. He would’ve told her to get out of there. Perhaps she already had. He had no way of knowing but he wouldn’t detonate the charges until she had returned to him. He ignored the sense of urgency. Even when his bio-monitor light turned red and the temperature dropped a dozen degrees,

Jabari double-checked his thermskin’s isothermal functions. They were at eighty percent. The wireless receptors between the Kunguru’s backup isothermal reservoir and his thermskin suit still worked. Hypothermia proved a distant threat. Around him, the cryocrater remained silent, save for the frozen ice-shelf cracking underneath the porous bedrock. That and the rumble of distant thunder medleying with the howling winds. As the landscape steadily sluiced into dusk, Jabari’s panic rose. In spite of his thermskin’s capabilities, no amount of training would save him once dusk fell. No amount.

He glanced afresh at his surroundings hoping to see Naleni stumbling down the glacial outcroppings. Hard luck. Only the winds replied his anguish. Theirs was a dialect of misgiving. A language he now knew too well.

The Kunguru’s comms, connected to his mask, implored him to climb aboard and recharge his thermskin.

Jabari ignored the warning. He knew the moment he hopped inside, the Kunguru’s A.I. interface would supervene his manual override and fly him someplace dry and safe. Not that such a place existed. Not for miles in any direction. Fort Kwame was one of a few embers in a growing darkness. The last frontier against the creeping chill.

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“Come on Naleni,” this time his whisper was a prayer.

He knelt, figuring this would conserve power. Perhaps a few fractions of a percent. Perhaps a little more. His movements were the least pilferers of his standby power. He figured the beating of his quailing heart probably consumed enough to excavate a sinkhole by himself. Probably more. He shut his eyes to even his breathing. A vain endeavour.

I could just go back for her, couldn’t I? Nah, Jabari dismissed the idea. It was impossible. From the cryocrater, eighty klicks away, he recognised the slick, oil-spill hue of the intrinsic shield glass-doming Fort Kwame’s orbit.

Everything had gone according to plan. Well, except, for his clumsy mess that had sent Naleni scurrying back.

Despite the intrinsic shield going off, Jabari believed Naleni made it out somehow. She had to.

The gravity of what he had done, helping the water dwelling Jo’Nam destroy Fort Kwame, didn’t undo him. Not yet anyway.

By sunfall every Civic Centre in every Orbital City from Old Cape Town to New Cairo would hear of Fort Kwame’s fate. They’d hear of the meltdown of the nuclear reactors, the cracking gas hydrates, and the sinking tonnes of metal and bedrock. They’d hear it all. Jabari and Naleni would join the rest of Jo’Nam exodus and resettle in the colonies west of Fort Kwame. They’d be closer to their real home. The ancestors weren’t pleased and none of this thawing would cease unless the Jo’Nam returned home – well, what was left of home.

He checked his bio-monitor, then lowered his breathing, and waited. . .

 

The last perfect day Jabari remembered was the day he crashed his Kunguru in the thermokarst lake below the pylons which held Fort Kwame aloft. It was also the last time he saw the clockwork methane-flares storm across the intrinsic shield. The methane-flares burned blue- and fiery, turning the intrinsic shield into an opalescent canopy wherever they hit. He loved the way the shield absorbed the flares, then radiated their fire outwards. It always made him feel tiny perforations press against his thermskin’s polyethylene fibre. They used to call these goosebumps. Back when the language allowed for the acknowledgement of involuntary body functions. Now every inhabitant, from sentry cadets to frontier explorers and the glaciologists and anthropologists, everyone was taught to master their bodily functions. It was the only way they could survive.

Back then, Fort Kwame lay in the trajectory-spray of one of those volcanic hydromethane archipelagos. Now, who knows? Geological faulting constantly shifted their bearing. For now, as of this morning that is, Fort Kwame was anchored to the subglacial mountain ranges entombed beneath Antarctica’s solid ice-sheet. Many other Orbital Cities were likewise anchored to whatever floating land mass not yet completely inundated. What remained of humanity was incredibly lucky to have survived rapid polar amplifications and permafrost thawing which raised water levels to diluvian heights. Subsequent nuclear fallouts in the twenty-second and twenty-fourth centuries disrupted subduction patterns and the evolution of tectonic plates. Chunks of continental bedrock now floated freely on hot asthenosphere, crashing into each other like a bad game of bumper cars.

It’s why no one else marvelled at the methane-flares. Jabari wasn’t everyone else though. He was an Asalur. His ancestors descended from cattle-rustlers; back when East-Africa still had a Rift Valley; he knew a thing or two about living dangerously. Not that that had anything to do with methane flares. He loved reminding himself and others that he was an Asalur. The Asalur were the first Frontier Explorers. They traversed the unstable globe searching out new land masses to anchor Fort Kwame. Jabari’s baba had led the last exploration trip. It was yet to yield reports. He was lost, presumed dead. Jabari wasn’t surprised. The vision of Frontier Explorers like his baba once ensured they had a tomorrow, even at the cost of their own lives. The ice sheet wouldn’t hold them forever. Jabari was poised to step into his baba’s shoes but by his own actions today, he had spurned his Asalur legacy and damned them all. They would say it was cruel fate. The baba builds, the son squanders.

 

Jabari, like a thousand other cadets, had patrolled one of five Fort Kwame sectors, and often assisted the glaciologists in their expeditions beyond the darkening ice-sheet. Sometimes, they’d escort ethnolinguists attempting to recreate ‘ethnic blueprints’ based on the passed-down oral ciphers of the Jo’Nam. Ciphers about dwarf pyramids in ancient Nubia, two-faced, two-sexed gods, myriad orishas, and water dragons named Nyami Nyami, Ninki Nanka, the Mazomba, and Grootslang. It was mildly amusing, but delusional in the face of near-certain extinction.

Jabari’s regiment patrolled Sector Five. Sector five was nothing but a lingering abyss. It was the dark netherworld beneath the Orbital City’s flatform. A site often attacked by Jo’Nam terrorists. Though Jabari was being fast-tracked to become a Frontier Explorer like his baba, he had to prove himself in Sector Five.

On the day he crashed his Kunguru, he had lost a wager to his roommate Bakida Okol and had to pull a double shift. Though exhausted, Jabari’s pride wouldn’t allow him put the Kunguru on autopilot. The crash surprised no one, least of all himself. He would later learn that Bakida led the search party. Like his baba, Jabari too was presumed dead. His return, having spent six months in the company of the Jo’Nam, surprised everyone. They seemed to have all moved on. Bakida even gave away Jabari’s family heirlooms.

The bastard was six inches taller than Jabari. His combat and analysis scores were the highest in their sentry graduating class. Bakida never ever regarded Jabari with the respect his family name deserved. For this, they often duelled. Much to Jabari’s disfavour. Now Jabari had the ultimate ‘leg-up’ on the bastard.

Fort Kwame was made of colonies stacked on lead pylons twenty thousand feet above permafrost. A hodgepodge of largely desert or river-basin cultures -Nilotic, Bantoid, Amhara, Mande, Nuer, even some Nubian -now banked on immense concave flatforms. Polymerised solar panels and pressurised water nuclear reactors powered Fort Kwame’s ever-expanding colonies. The colonies widened in inverse proportion to their population. This, another thorn piercing at the heart of the Jo’Nam, fuelling their dissent. Jabari now agreed with the aspersion that these colonies intended to grow so large their flatforms would lock together in circular mosaics and form a new lithosphere. Ultimately forge a roof over Jo’Nam world.

The Jo’Nam, just because they lived almost entirely in the taliks and meltwater, weren’t mermaids, or men with gills. Evolution, after all, takes millions of years. Their hands and feet were webbed though. Some clans at least.

When the ice sheets first started melting and submerging continents, the coastal towns migrated inland. The then Allied African Union – well, what remained of it – decided that the Orbital Cities were the only way to survive. Much like Noah’s Ark. Only, they wouldn’t take two of each. The migrants who proved useful, those coastal tribes whose parents and ancestors had taught them to make dhows and ships, spear fish underwater on a single breath and work heavy, wet machinery were retained. They became the Jo’Nam. The Cities were small to start with. Those fortunate enough to afford placement up in the City survived. The rest fended for themselves or joined the Jo’Nam working the City’s pylon-anchor mechanisms like symbiotic organisms, in the hope of seeing their children ascend to the Orbital City. Radiation, drownings, accidents were common and the advisors in the Orbital cities estimated that the Jo’Nam would slowly become sterile and die out. But they thrived instead. And Jabari wouldn’t have known better if he hadn’t crashed his Kunguru a year ago.

He never regretted it though, even now, even lying on the ice, anchored by the weight of his betrayal. For if he hadn’t crashed, he wouldn’t have met Naleni.

Naleni, his lithe, dark-skinned goddess. Hair braided and eclipse-black. Eyes bright like a methane flare, her lips full and thick. She looked ageless, despite the ritual scarring on her cheeks. Her skinsuit was an emerald colour that changed shade with each flicker of the waves when they went exploring sinkholes. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

It’s always an accumulation of little things that undoes a man. Not Naleni. She undid Jabari all at once.

The day his Kunguru crashed, Naleni said there were unexpected oscillations. Like the Haboob winds of ancient Sahara, except these oscillations travelled vertically and burnt a cold, fierce fire. Naleni claimed these oscillations were water-djinns mating; an adapted myth from the people of the Libyan Desert who considered siroccos to be desert-djinns mating.

Naleni described how Jabari’s Kunguru rattled with each swelling jetstream and eventually struck the pylon before crashing into the lake and killing four Jo’Nam.

She never ever took credit for pulling Jabari out of the sinking wreckage, but for stopping her kin from gutting him.  They spent many days together trying to repair the comms unit of his Kunguru. She was competent with her hands. Her baba worked on the pylons and always went with her whenever they could manage it.

The six months he spent as her captive passed like a blur. He never would’ve believed he lived through it, if not for the memories on his skin. They say the best affairs leave scars. He bore the marks of her tiny teeth on his neck. That’s from the day he told her the elders who dwelt in the hollow Conch of Enlightenment, had chosen him to betray his own people. She wouldn’t let him do it unless she came along. The Jo’Nam couldn’t defeat Fort Kwame from without so they chose to strike from within. Jabari didn’t mind the taint of treachery. Not for her. Now here they were, he, dejected, failed and she, missing, probably dead.

 

A kick, blunt as entropy’s glacial teeth, woke Jabari.

Wincing, he roused to see a wavery figure solidify in front of him. His vision struggled to adjust to the glare of a hovering Kunguru right above his resting ground. He trained his vision at the figure and recognised him by his musky scent. It was Bakida.

“Bastard,” Jabari cursed.

Bakida drew near and towered over Jabari “I always knew you were spineless,” he said, “But not this spineless.” He threw something which cluttered against Jabari’s mask.

Jabari picked it up and held it to the light. It was one of the fuses for the time-delay control unit. The fuses Naleni had volunteered to replace. The bastard had her. Jabari tried to scramble for the control units but Bakida kicked him again. This time hard enough to snap a rib. The pain blurred Jabari’s already strained vision. His power was too low. Otherwise his thermskin should’ve absorbed the impact of Bakida’s boot. Jabari regretted not having worn the tensile armour-suit. This camouflage suit was good against the cold, but not much for impact resistance.

“Get up, traitor,” Bakida loomed over the floored Jabari.

Jabari glanced at his bio-monitor. Its broken face told him, with or without Naleni, he should’ve left this wet rock hours ago. He should’ve re-joined the Jo’Nam exodus and continued East to the nearest colony. He glanced at the control units and saw that Bakida had stomped on them already. They were broken.

Thaw now blunted the ridges around the cryocrater. Its solid footing now soggy. Gas hydrates from afar, burnt readily. Their pale, luminous flame spotlighting the backdrop. The ice no longer cracked but vibrated. The cryocrater was warming rapidly. Jabari’s Kunguru steadily sunk into the ice-shelf. No wonder Bakida kept his hovering.

Bakida’s presence in their sacred place – his and Naleni’s – undid Jabari.

Jabari wondered how Bakida could’ve tracked him here. He searched around and saw Naleni tethered to Bakida’s Kunguru.

“Naleni?” he cried.

“I have her,” Bakida dropped a pair of cuffs beside Jabari. “Come quietly or I’ll serve you swift justice right here,”

Jabari stared at Naleni a long while.

“I wouldn’t be too hasty,” he turned to Bakida and held up the two fuses Bakida flung at him. “You broke four control units; but only three charges are accounted for.”

Bakida tapped his mask and his visuals cleared. He snarled and came to grab Jabari, but Jabari lunged for his foot. A poor plan. However hard he strained he managed only to make Bakida flail for balance. Bakida settled, stooped down and cracked Jabari’s bloody breathing mask with one blow.

Whooooshhh, Jabari’s mask hissed. The rushing methane displaced what little oxygen Jabari had left. Jabari clawed at the mask clumsily until he unclasped it from his face.

From his disadvantaged point of view, Bakida looked massive. No matter, titans can be toppled, Jabari thought. His body relaxed. He braced himself on his elbows. Rose but his feet slipped a moment, his thermskin running on so little power as to fulfil the basics. No matter, Jabari took a deep breath. Methane wasn’t all that noxious. Besides Naleni’s people had taught him to adapt to its lightness. Anyone else would feel quite heady. Jabari squared his shoulder, appeared larger.

Bakida offered a diabolical grin.

Jabari rammed into Bakida’s gut and wrestled to unsteady him, but the bastard stood firm. His boots wouldn’t slip, but their reinforced traction forced the ice to crack. Both Jabari and Bakida sunk into the freezing water underneath.

In the water, Jabari was no longer prey. Bakida’s thermskin had power enough, but Jabari now knew how to hunt like the Jo’Nam. With his thermskin’s camouflage properties, he moved like he had a hydrostatic skeleton.

So much for calling me spineless, Jabari gloated. He twirled and torpedoed at Bakida’s core with stealth and precision like ancient jengu. Bakida’s tensile armour-suit allowed for little flexibility.

Bakida gasped and floundered like an eel in quicksand. He grappled to hold onto Jabari, but Jabari evaded him. Bakida sank deeper.

Jabari didn’t linger to enjoy the satisfaction of watching Bakida sink. He knew Bakida’s suit would adapt quick enough. He swam for the surface. The ice they’d only a moment ago stood on seemed to melt rapidly. Jabari kicked furiously, pumped on adrenaline. Naleni was in danger.

“Naleni?” he shouted as he swum towards solid ice.

“Jabari,”

Jabari swam towards the direction of her voice. His lungs burned, but he kicked harder and harder. He could see her.

She looked smaller. Fragile. Broken, somehow.

Jabari pulled himself to out of the water, but he was on the wrong end of the solid ice. He had to swim around or dash to her. The latter a risky idea considering the loose traction of his boots.

Bakida crawled out of the water using a grappling hook. He stumbled towards Naleni and grabbed her by the neck. He palmed her mouth so she wouldn’t speak. The Jo’Nam never wore any breathing masks. Not down here at least. Naleni bit Bakida and he pulled his hand away.

“Help me,” Naleni shouted.

Bakida restrained her in a half-nelson. She tried, but couldn’t squirm away from his hold.

“Lover boy,” Bakida said. “Your plan is foiled. Give up now and there’ll be less pain to trade.” Bakida’s tensile-armour suit had a vice-like grip. Naleni would never break free.

“Jabari, don’t let her pay for your treachery.” Bakida’s voice carried a crisp note against the howling wind.

“I’m here. Let her go,” Jabari walked towards the pair. His isothermals were slowly failing. He felt the cold creep in but forced himself to ignore it.

 

The shadow beneath the Flatform didn’t lift. Mist covered the pylon like a grey caftan over some mythical titan’s stump of a leg. It was solid, and dull against the faded light. Jabari’s Kunguru, in autopilot, flew Naleni in front of Bakida’s craft. The bastard had set coordinates for the large hangars in Sector One. ETA, thirty minutes.

A portion of the intrinsic shield split open to allow their Kunguru to pass. Behind it closed all hope of escape.

Their climb proved slow and ponderous, despite Bakida dribbling his fingers against the control panel. Jabari didn’t bother questioning this impatience. Neither did he regret getting himself here. Thoughts of justice and retribution didn’t bother him, but hopelessness clouded his heart. He now doubted the righteousness of his actions.

In any case, Bakida would never understand Jabari’s motives, Jabari wasn’t sure he understood them himself anymore, but what was done was done. It wasn’t enough though. It wouldn’t set things right. His rebellion would never even the scales of Fort Kwame’s injustices. Everyone Naleni knew had lost family members to radiation leaking from the pylons. This was the unfortunate legacy of the scramble to survive in a broken world. Its victims had bloated, rotting skin, and bled from their orifices. Jabari had looked upon this misery feeling like a voyeur of private grief. Their dim and dwindling lives touched him. This was death’s ultimate kingdom. When the Elders approached him, despite his pride and everything he’d been told, he agreed to betray his name.

 

“Three minutes to docking,” Bakida said. He kept his eyes steady on the ring of glowing gas-flares guiding their descent onto the flatform.

Bakida steadied the Kunguru and released the landing gear. Jabari’s Kunguru hovered low as Naleni climbed out. The hangar was a flurry of activity. Cadets scampered here and there in response to the charge which went off earlier. None of them seemed to notice the two Kunguru.

Naleni’s eyes darted around, seemingly afraid and exposed.

Jabari struggled against his restraints. He worried about her. The strangeness of the air, and the regiments assuming battle formations was an otherworldly sight. Their laser canons glistened in the weakening light. It felt like the end of the world, and Jabari and Naleni seemed the only ones caught by surprise. Had they been triple-crossed? This wasn’t how things should’ve gone.

“I’m not surprised, honestly,” Bakida said. “Like your fallen baba, you’re the only one naive enough to think you could save the Jo’Nam.”

Their airlock opened up.

“Just kill me already. Don’t bore me to death with your vindication.”

Bakida stepped out, circled backwards and undid the cuffs on Jabari’s limbs. They walked towards Naleni whose hands were bound behind her back. A hundred paces away, the five Sector Commanders marched towards the three.

“Release her. Please,” Jabari pleaded Naleni’s fate. Her skinsuit had turned translucent as though externalising her fright. To her, the ionised air must’ve felt like complete sensory deprivation.

“It’s not too late to reverse what you’ve done,” Bakida said.

“It’s too late to reverse anything,” Jabari said.

“If that were the case, I wouldn’t have bothered bringing you back,” Bakida said. “You both.” He nudged his chin in Naleni’s direction.

“You touch her and I’ll —”

“I won’t, but they might,” Bakida pointed to the Sector Commanders marching their way; a squadron of hard-jawed sentries following behind. “You’ve a chance to save not only her. But all of them, and us too.” He paused for effect.

Jabari said nothing. His attention drawn towards Naleni.

“Asalur, where’s the remaining charge? I caught her with two fuses, but here we have four control units. Where is it?” Bakida had carried the control units from the cryocrater.

“Let her go.” Jabari answered. He was resolved to his fate.

“There are teams scouring the reactors right now, but you could speed it up by telling us where. If you don’t. We all die. Right now, a legion of her people is marching to bludgeon the pylons,”

“Good, that way they’ll finish what I couldn’t,” Jabari snarled. He knew better than to fall for Bakida’s manipulations. As far as he knew, the Jo’Nam exodus was miles away from the blast radius. He and Naleni should’ve been there with them also.

“If we fall, they fall too, don’t you realise this?” Bakida said.

Jabari sneered. “They’ll rebuild from our ashes. They’ll rebuild a better, fairer society than this one. The Orbital City network will be better for it.”

“You fool! Haven’t you ever wondered why your baba never returned? We lost communications with all the other cities years ago. There’s no refuge anywhere else. This is the last Orbital city. Destroying Fort Kwame condemns us all.” He ambled closer to Jabari. His tone almost plaintive. “You’ve been misled. Help me before it’s too late.”

“I was in awe of you earlier,” Jabari said. “But now I see you didn’t bring me here to face the poetic justice of dying with Fort Kwame. . . I’ll indulge your sadism, just let her go.”

“She’s not worth destroying Fort Kwame for.”

Jabari smiled in self-derision. He couldn’t save himself, but he would see her safe at least. Besides, there was a chance the last charge could still go off. Bakida had secured only two of the three charges. Naleni was clever enough to foil their plans. He’d see the deed done; he just had to find out if she at least fixed its fuse?

“You’d destroy Fort Kwame seven times over if you’d seen the things I’ve seen. This is justice, long-overdue justice.”

“It’s foolishness, that’s what –”

The Sector Commanders arrived right on cue. They formed an arc around Bakida, Jabari and Naleni. The Kungurus hovered in the background.

“Haai,” the burly Afrikaner from Sector One regarded Bakida. “Okol, sit-rep.” His direct, unnerving gaze pierced through Bakida’s stoicism like a laser.

Bakida stood at attention, but before he could speak, Jabari cut in.

“I’m the one you want. If you let her go, I’ll tell you everything.”

Jammer, we know everything,” the Afrikaner said. “Verder, don’t shake the chicken. You’re in no way entitled to assume leverage. If not for your mate’s graces you’d be dead as the cryocrater you sought shelter in.” He turned to Bakida, “Hand the meisie over.”

Bakida did as commanded. The Afrikaner outranked all the other SCs.

The Afrikaner knelt Naleni by his feet and drew his weapon to her brow. “I won’t count to drie. Go on, let the baboon out of your sleeve.”

The SC’s actions froze Jabari.

Naleni didn’t put up much of a fight. Bakida had disabled her mask’s comms. She was mute to everything.

“Jabari, tell him,” Bakida said.

“Let her go,” Jabari stood up to the SC.  “There’s more than one charge left and if you want what I have you’ll let her go.”

The SC turned to Bakida, “How many charges did you recover?”

“All but one,” Bakida answered.

“But you’ll never find it,” Jabari said. “And yes, the Jo’Nam have secondary control units. They must’ve already realised something isn’t right and will blow them any time now. Let her go and I’ll help you.”

The SC chewed on this a moment. He didn’t like the taste, but signalled Jabari to approach.

Jabari obliged him. He braced Naleni to her feet and activated her mask’s comms.

“I’m sorry,” Jabari addressed Naleni. “I shouldn’t have left you alone. I won’t leave you now.”

She clung to him.

“I will get you away.” Jabari spoke low, and in the little Jo’Nam he could speak. “Please tell me you fixed the last charge.”

She shook her head. “I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. The tall one cornered me before I… I dropped the fuse.” She clutched his shoulder tight. “Jabari, we—”

“It’s alright. They don’t know this. “

“They know,” she no longer spoke the Jo’Nam tongue.

“They don’t.” Jabari insisted.

“Tell them where the charge is,” she said.

Jabari pulled back, stunned.

“They lied to us. You have to help your people.”

“You’re my people!”

“Help them or we all die.”

Jabari, baffled, held her at arm’s length. “What have they done to you?”

“Nothing. They speak truth. There is no other city to run to. We were wrong. The Elders don’t know this. They are making a mistake. They will destroy the only hope we have left.”

“You’ve seen the charts. Naleni, there are over a dozen orbital cities. We will re-join the others as planned.”

“Those are old charts,” Naleni said. “Your friend showed me Fort Kwame’s recent charts. The eastern colonies have sunk and our passage to the old continent is gone. This is the last Orbital City. My people want justice but will damn us all with ignorance instead.”

Jabari looked to Bakida for confirmation. He got it. Bakida was many things, a deceiver not one of them.

“If this truly is the only City of Tomorrow, we are already doomed.” His shoulders deflated.

“Asalurs; stubborn as ever. No problem,” the SC said. “I won’t appeal to your sense of duty, but I’ll call on your honour. On the name you used to take so much pride in.”

“Your trust in my honour is grossly misplaced,” Jabari retorted.

“Yah, that might be so. But your heart is what I can finally count on.”

With that, he shot Naleni in the foot.

Well, grazed her skin in fact. But the way she screamed in pain and the way Jabari fell by her side, spoke otherwise.

None of the other commanders encircling them reacted.

Jabari’s eyes filled with rage as he rose, fists balled. But the SC pointed the weapon to his temple. Bakida who had rallied to pull Jabari away, backed off on his own accord. Naleni lay wincing on the ground.

“Hah,” the commander exclaimed. “My aim is worse than I thought. Will you allow me try again?”

Jabari, though still seething, raised his hands in surrender.

“Tell me where the charge is?”

Jabari snarled but he had no leverage. His ruse had failed. And once again he put Naleni in harm’s way. Glancing at her, he sighed.

“The cooling tower. Reactor six.” Jabari said, exhaling the words reluctantly.

Jabari crawled to Naleni’s side.

The commander barked an order to one of his underlings. The collective air of tension dropped.

“Uh-uh, up, up,” the commander urged Jabari up. “Your dues aren’t fully paid up. Hop in your Kunguru and tell the Jo’Nam all you’ve learnt in the few minutes prior. They damn themselves in damning us. We believe many things about the water-folk, but we do not believe them to be suicidal maniacs.”

Jabari wouldn’t leave Naleni.

The Afrikaner motioned to Bakida, “Tend the meisie’s wound.”

Bakida knelt beside Jabari. “Go. I’ll look after Naleni.”

“You’ll pay for this,” Jabari said.

“I don’t doubt that, but you won’t get your vengeance if the Jo’Nam destroy Fort Kwame.”

“The Jo’Nam rally a few klicks from where Okol apprehended you,” the Afrikaner said. “There’s no exodus. We know they intend to attack at the very spot you crashed your Kunguru. If they attack there will be great loss on either side. Them more than us.”

“I won’t do your bidding.” Jabari said.

“A shame. All this will have been for nothing.” He came and raised Jabari to his feet. “It’s not just my bidding you do. But hers and theirs most of all. They still believe in the City of Tomorrow,” the Afrikaner pointed to Naleni.

“You may be a cold bastard, Asalur, but not cold enough to bathe in the blood we will shed if you don’t act.”

Jabari said nothing.

The Commander tilted his head. “Hmm. Yes, I’d be scared too. They might kill you, thinking you a double-crosser –”

“I’m not scared.”

“Of course. You’ve survived their capture once before. Do what you did then.”

Jabari stared at Naleni but couldn’t bring himself to ask her to risk her life again.

The Commander noticed his look and smiled. “Okol, help the meisie to his Kunguru.”

Bakida hesitated a moment but obliged. He had finished dressing Naleni’s wound.

Jabari asked for the charts Bakida had showed Naleni. Bakida fished a copy from the nearby Hangar offices and returned to watch Jabari assist Naleni up into his own Kunguru. No words were shared between Bakida and Jabari, nor between Jabari and Naleni.

Jabari fired up the Kunguru and hovered away as the SCs and the rest of the squadrons readied themselves for the Jo’Nam; should he fail.

Bakida lingered, his expression wary and full of suspicion. Jabari met his gaze and felt reassured somewhat. There Bakida was, yet again, sending Jabari off on a mission they both knew Jabari couldn’t pull off. But unlike the Kunguru crash a year ago. Jabari had a lot more invested in the outcome. Not that that tilted the balance in his favour, but it was a starting point. He was an Asalur, a starting point was more than he deserved. He squeezed Naleni’s hand and keyed in the coordinates for the cryocrater.