2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years
The room was white; so were the chair, the table, even the door. They’d left Naema waiting long enough that she’d had time to contemplate that. Why white? Earlier, they’d kept her in a holding cell with other prisoners, and their dusty skin and faded clothes had seemed out of place compared to the white and chrome interior of the citadel—or what she assumed was the citadel. The shuttle hadn’t had windows, and the holding cells they’d crammed her into along with hundreds of detainees might as well have been underground, but it had still been white.
It was as if the Lakirans came from a different world—one far in the future—to help barbaric tribes suffering in the wake of a catastrophe. Did they color their army white to convince the natives that they were the good guys? Or were the Lakiran cities just as bright? The few photos Naema had seen of them were glittery enough, but surely those had been handpicked photos.
A repulser wall divided this room down the middle. It intersected a central table such that two people could sit at it without either being able to reach the other. The side wall was a large mirror—an interrogation room classic. Behind it, detectives would scrutinize her.
Naema had taken to pacing by the time someone came. An exemplar entered from the door on the other side of the barrier. His white coat seemed like camouflage here. He sat, favored her with a smile, then arranged his possessions on the table: a folder of papers, a small chrome device that could be a phone or transponder, and his plaque. If Naema didn’t know, she’d have guessed it was an older model tablet computer. Along its top were old-fashioned LED indicator bulbs as though it were made of garage parts. One light glowed green.
He tapped a button on the phone-like device, then gestured for her to sit. “Do you speak English adequately for the purpose of this interview?”
“You must speak for the record.”
“Okay. Yea, I speak English.”
“Very good. I’m going to ask you some questions. Answer as honestly and accurately as possible. As we talk, look me in the eyes, and follow any directions I give you. Understand?”
“Can I go home after?”
“Do you understand?” he asked again.
“Then look me in the eyes.”
She did so.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Are you a registered Lakiran citizen or expatriate?”
“Have you ever registered with the Lakiran Foreign Aid or a Humanitarian Labor Project?”
Frowning, he glanced at his plaque’s screen. Naema thought about the exemplars from earlier that day, bopping their broken plaques.
“I did go to the hospital in Port Harcourt. Does that count?”
Nodding, he tapped through his plaque’s menus. “Three days ago?”
“Is this information all correct?” He pressed the plaque against the repulse barrier. It bobbed as though he were trying to push two repulsive magnets together.
“Yea. It is.”
Again, this puzzled him. He turned his plaque over and glanced at the glowing green LED. More puzzlement. He navigated its menus, tapping and reading and swiping. No more satisfied, he glanced up. “Look me in the eye again.”
After a moment of sustained eye contact, he gave up. “Pardon me.” He gathered his things and left.
Naema was convinced now. She’d broken his plaque. Once or twice with Josephine could be explained away, but not this. Would it help her get out of here? Or would it only bring her more attention?
The waiting now was all the more intolerable with those questions hanging in the air. It felt like twice as long passed.
When someone else came in, they were dressed in a dark blue military uniform, not exemplar white. He was an officer; she could tell that much from the pips on his chest, but she hadn’t seen soldiers like him on the ground.
“Ah, good evening.” He took a seat. He laid out the same items the exemplar had, though his tablet was a transparent clipboard instead of a plaque, thinner and more sleek. “I’ll be conducting your interview. Do you speak english?”
“Good,” and he proceeded to ask her the same questions the exemplar had, though his questions lacked formality, nor did he demand eye contact. Once the basic information was covered, he got onto the main topic.
“So as you know, you were at the scene of a rebel attack earlier today. We’ve brought you here as a safety procedure. This shouldn’t take long. Do you have any questions before we begin?”
She considered asking about the exemplar, but thought better. “No.”
“Okay then. Briefly explain what were you doing at the construction site today.”
“I was shopping at the market with my friends.”
“Did you know anything about the attack?”
“No. Not until it started. I do not know what it was about.”
“Did you participate in the fighting in any way?”
“No. I ran away. I just didn’t want to get hurt.” She wasn’t sure whether this man knew that the soldiers caught her trying to hide, or whether they even cared.
“Do you have any friends or family in the area?”
“Yes. My mama, Zauna Madaki. And my brother, Oni.”
“They live at this address? Okogbar Road?”
“Yea. We live on the street though. Not one of the houses.”
“That’s fine. Have you and your family been living in the region for a long time?”
“All my life. Mostly. Before the Collapse we lived in Abakaliki, but we had to move here to get closer to food.”
He nodded. Most Nigerians had similar stories.
The questions he followed up with were more conversational than she expected. He asked about her family, what they did, how she broke her hand, what she did on a day to day basis, and so on. His questions seemed off the cuff, even if they sometimes pierced into specific details. The only questions that worried her were the direct ones at the end.
“Are you involved with any other known rebel, terrorist, or outlaw groups,” he asked.
“No.” She tried not to wonder whether Josephine and Tan counted.
“Have you, or are you planning to undermine the Lakiran empire in any way?”
“Do you harbor ill will toward Lakira?”
Kind of, yes. They might pretend to help Nigeria; they might even believe that, but she didn’t. In the last two weeks alone, the Lakirans had dragged people she knew away in the night, reasons unknown. It was harder to believe now after watching those soldiers fire into the crowd regardless of who was hostile.
“No. No ill will”
This satisfied him. “All right. I’m going to send you down to processing. As soon as they’re done with you, a shuttle will take you to the refugee camp in Old Aba. You’re free to return home from there, provided you can make it in time for curfew. You are not cleared yet though. On Monday, you need to return to Old Aba before noon for questioning?”
“‘Fraid so. Only an exemplar can clear you, and there are none available today. Shouldn’t take you long. The guard will give you a form which you’ll need to bring with you. Any questions?”
“Then proceed through the door behind you, and have a good day.”
The wait for processing wasn’t as bad as waiting for questioning. Naema was anxious to leave as soon as possible, but at least she would leave. On top of that, the wait was in a more pleasant room with cushioned seats and no bars. When they finally called her in, a woman took her picture and fingerprints. She asked Naema several rote questions such as her name and address, things she’d already told her interrogator. Apparently, “under a tarp next to the Quik Mart on Okogbar Road” was not a valid address. So Naema was officially deemed homeless.
Eventually they led her to a shuttle bay. Down the launch tubes, she got an aperture view of evening sky and part of Port Harcourt far below. So she was in the citadel after all.
They herded her onto a shuttle packed with other civilians. Like before, the shuttle had no windows, and she’d have to stand with no room to even stick out her elbows. Soldiers guarded the hatch while it slowly closed. To the Lakiran’s, they were cattle, but Naema didn’t care.
In twenty minutes, she’d be back on the ground. She didn’t care if it was past curfew. She was getting home tonight. Mama was probably frantic with worry, maybe more so for Josephine. Naema hadn’t spared a thought toward her, but now she wondered if Josephine and Tan had gotten away.
Probably. They had powers to do so, while Naema just irritated exemplars. Hopefully Josephine would come by her home, but maybe not. Maybe Naema would have to go to her. Then they’d figure out something to do about this interview scheduled for Monday, something Naema obviously couldn’t attend. She’d just break the exemplar’s power again. It seemed this whole incident had forced Naema’s hand into going with Josephine. Naema would think more about that tomorrow. Right now, she just wanted to go home.
And then the shuttle doors yawned open.
They were still in the bay.
The guards were standing right where they were before, only there were others now too. They had weapons drawn.
One of them spoke. “Naema Madaki?”
With that one call, it was over. She didn’t answer the call, but it didn’t matter.
“Naema Madaki. Step out of the shuttle.”
One more minute. That’s all she’d needed. One more minute and the shuttle would have left. She’d be gone. At the refugee camp, she could have ran home. The Lakirans would never see her again. Or maybe they would have had a security force waiting for her down there. Or maybe they could have turned the shuttle around. Maybe she had never been close to escaping at all.
“Naema Madaki. We know you’re in this shuttle. If you do not step forward, we will unload this shuttle to find you. Do not make this any harder than it has to be.”
Her body felt numb. She placed one foot before the other as she shouldered through the crowd. As calm as she moved, her heart hammered in her ears.
On the entry ramp, soldiers cuffed her marched her out of the bay. Behind her, the shuttle door closed again. Everyone else got to go home.
They led her past the detainment ward. The cells were emptier now; most detainees were processed. The next ward was different. The cells were smaller, and these ones had facilities. The prisoners here didn’t pace or yell for answers. They huddled in corners or sat on cots if they were lucky enough to have them. These people weren’t detainees. They were prisoners.
She looked toward the voice. Mama and Oni were sitting at the back of a cell. They were dirty and ruffled. Their arrests hadn’t been gentle.
Mama fought to the front of the cage and pressed against the bars. “Naema?”
“Mama, what are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. They are not talking to us. What happened, girl? Have they hurt you?” She reached through the bars for Naema. The guards escorting her veered around it.
“Where you go take her?” Mama yelled.
The last glimpse Naema had of them was of her mother yelling and Oni’s silent expression of fear. Naema didn’t know why the Lakirans had targeted them, but now they would suffer. They’d disappear like all the other malcontents dragged away in the night, and it would all be her fault.
This entire time she’d felt a lump in her throat threatening to break free, but this thought was too much. As the soldiers escorted her by her arms, she cried. She couldn’t even wipe her eyes with her arms restrained behind her back, but she was beyond caring. She’d lost.
They put her back in an interrogation room. Within a minute, someone entered the other partition—a military officer in blue, higher in rank and age than the man who’d questioned her before, and not at all as amicable. At the table, he dug through a pack and produced several food boxes and wrappers. Two stood out: a wrapper for sausage, and a box which used to contain red candies—the gifts she’d given her neighbor in return for silence.
The officer leaned close to the repulse divider and looked her in the eye.
“You want to tell us where the fuck you got these?”