Kiel Iram sat in the main mess hall at Swala Force’s compound. He chose a table in the middle of the room that could sit two. His black uniform with five chevrons on his shoulders had the young cadets giving him a wide berth. The mess hall was relatively quiet. It gave Kiel the convenience he needed to log in to the main network and report his findings on the previous night’s attack with command.
When he finished his report, Kiel pulled up the map of the Empire of Afrotheria. He sifted the information on the map to show the Theria Guild zone boundaries and their assigned Guardian forces.
Since the attack on Gathu Village in Teru Province, Commander Demus had been studying the movement of the Theria Guild teams in the surrounding zones. Teru Province had a weakness. The Swala Force stationed in this Oasis was largely made up of cadets and officers fresh out of training. The seasoned Sokwe Recon trainers were not enough to run a serious team. However, they managed to utilize the cadets to a satisfactory result. In any case, Swala Force should have been able to respond to a distressed village like Gathu in time to avoid casualties.
Kiel tapped his finger on the number of casualties in Gathu Village and let out a sigh. It was over fifty, which is quite a number for a village not near the barrier. Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication. Swala Force’s General was hard to handle but he would have taken a call to arms from Simba Force in Zone 7 without protest.
Kiel picked up a slice of ugali from the bowl next to him and chewed on it in deep thought. A message beeped and the notification appeared on the corner of his screen. It was from Commander Demus.
‘Instructor Kitonyi wants to recommend a trio of cadets to our side. Check them out. He’s a good friend with a good eye. He won’t ask for a favor without cause.’
Kiel replied with an affirmative answer, promising to talk to the three cadets. Demus Kiima rarely asked for favors. When he did, they were very important.
‘Thank you. They’ll find you in the mess hall.’
Kiel closed his glass tablet, folding it back into the size of a small cell phone. He slid it into his pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses instead. Pulling his tray of food closer, he concentrated on eating while he waited for his three guests.
Zev breathed out his anxiety as they reached the mess hall. It was a little past seven o’clock. Most of his fellow cadets had already eaten and rushed off to complete duties. The place was relatively quiet and empty. It was easy to spot the general sitting at a table for two in the middle of the dining hall. He sat with his back straight. His hair was cut very short and neat. He wore a black blazer with the gold chevrons of his rank. Five on each shoulder. Zev wondered when he would ever get there.
A gentle touch on his right shoulder had Zev turning to find Instructor Kitonyi watching him.
“General Iram will conduct an interview. Answer his questions without hesitation. The rest is up to how fast you get our twentieth battle,” Instructor Kitonyi said.
“Thank you, Sir,” Zev said, saluting the taller man. He then glanced at Saul and Noah. Then he nodded as he led the way to the General’s table.
Kiel was watching a surveillance video of the Gathu Village attack when three cadets reached his table. They saluted in a neat movement and greeted him.
“Good morning, General.”
“Mm. Good morning,” Kiel said, reaching up to touch the side of his glasses. The video paused and started a recording of the three cadets. Kiel cleared his throat and folded his arms against his chest, giving all his attention to the trio.
They looked young, barely twenty. Fresh-faced, eager, Kiel mused. They made him keenly aware of his own age. He was turning thirty-three soon. He had already stopped adding chevrons to his arms to mark his successful battles. They were too many now, and the gold chevrons on his shoulders were enough to mark his current rank. Still, he kept his qualifying twenty on his arms because they were a reminder of his days in training.
“At ease,” he said now to the three cadets. “Name, rank, left to right.”
“Staff Sergeant Zev Mablevi, Squad Leader.”
“Sergeant Saul Nkoba, team member.”
“Sergeant Noah Bala, team member.”
“How old are you?” Kiel asked.
“Twenty-two this year,” Mablevi said.
“Twenty-three,” Saul answered.
Twenty-four,” Noah said.
‘Interesting,’ Kiel thought, his gaze resting on Mablevi. The two young men didn’t mind following orders from a younger Squad Leader. Kiel studied them too for a second longer.
Mablevi stood in a standard military stance. His hands clasped behind his back, his back straight, his shoulders straight. He stood stock still, assured in his qualifications, unlike the other two who shifted slightly with nerves. Their gazes moved to Mablevi occasionally.
It looked like Mablevi had built a small pack. They probably worked quite well in a team setting.
“How many battles have you completed?” Kiel asked. “Staff Sergeant Mablevi, answer for your team.”
“Nineteen battles, Sir.”
“One more and you can qualify out of Swala Force. You can join Simba Force in Thuka Province or Tiger in Yole. If you qualify high enough, you can even join Sokwe in Kirit Capital. Why do you need to meet me?”
Mablevi glanced at his teammates before he answered.
“We’re hoping to join the Strike Force Team.”
Kiel hid a smile at the clear ambition in Mablevi’s tone.
“What if you can’t?” Kiel asked.
“Then, we’ll join Sokwe Recon, Sir.”
“You want to relocate to the capital, Kirit?” Kiel asked.
“We hope that once we join Sokwe Recon, we can find a way to enter the Strike Force, Sir,” Mablevi answered.
The Strike Force was a grand dream for any Guardian in the Theria Guild. To join it would mean working directly under Commander Demus Kiima and himself. Recruitment did not include joining Sokwe Recon. Instead, it was based heavily on unique ability.
Kiel did not divulge the truth of entry into the Strike Force to Zev Mablevi. Instead, he decided he wanted to see this little team in action.
“What you like to hear from me?” Kiel asked, wanting to catch a glimpse of Mablevi’s thoughts.
“Sir, we are one battle away from twenty chevrons. Once we return, whole and hale, please consider recommending us to Sokwe Reckon,” Mablevi said.
“What if the transfer separates you?” Kiel asked, narrowing his gaze. Mablevi looked qualified for Strike Force, but the other two did not seem ready.
Zev swallowed hard this time, but then answered. “As long as we are able to work up the ranks. It will be to our benefit.”
Kiel scoffed because he could see Mablevi’s unwillingness to separate from his team. Still, he admired Mablevi’s determination to move out of Swala Force.
“Alright, I’ll consider your transfers when you achieve your qualifying battle. I’m not promising anything. Your ability determines where you end up,” Kiel said.
Zev’s smile was fast. A quick curve of his lips quickly disappeared. He brought his right hand up in a formal salute, prompting the others to follow suit.
“Thank you for meeting us, Sir!” Zev said.
“Thank you, Sir!” Noah and Saul echoed.
“Alright, leave me to my work. You’re dismissed, Cadets,” Kiel said.
“Yes, Sir,” Zev and his team released their salute and hurried away, making their way to the buffet line.
Kiel chuckled at their obvious excitement once again wondering if he was ever that young. He pulled out his phone and called Demus.
“How do you feel about recruiting a gifted team leader?” Kiel asked.
“How old?” Demus asked.
“Twenty-two,” Kiel said. “He’s a natural adhesive holding together a team of two for now.”
Kiel studied Mablevi receiving a tray filled with food from Saul and grinned. “They seem to eat, sleep and fight together. He’s older than his teammates, which means they are following him after careful thought. It would be interesting to play with their dynamic and see how it fairs in the Wildlands.”
“He must be interesting to have you talk about him,” Demus said. “Forward their stats to the Strike Force recruitment council. Use their qualifying fight as a test.”
“I’ll find Instructor Kitonyi to set it up,” Kiel said.
“What about the Gathu Village roundup?” Demus asked, shifting to the reason why Kiel had needed to visit Swala Force.
“I have five men following the ghost wraith routes,” Kiel said. “The routes seem planned though I cannot explain how that is possible. Ghost wraiths should not be able to make a decision.”
“Unless there is interference,” Demus said, his tone thoughtful. “I’ll reach out to Nico Riithi at Strato. He will know what KISTech is working on. Keep at it. I want a clearer picture.”
“Yes, Sir!” Kiel said.
He waited for Demus to end the call before he focused on his food. After his meal, he went in search of Instructor Kitonyi to learn more about Mablevi.
Zubari Jelani wiped the sweat off his forehead with a pristine handkerchief. He took in a breath, and as he breathed out, an urgent need to take another deep one filled him. It felt like there was a finite amount of air in the backseat of his car. Breathing in deep, he frowned, as he wiped more sweat off his forehead.
The car slowed down.
Zubari glanced out at the heavy traffic near Sarit Center along Lower Kabete Road. They were heading to his Nairobi home in Peponi.
Zubari hoped a hot bath, a good meal, and a stretch on his bed would ease his discomfort. He rubbed his chest with his right hand and shifted on his seat, his gaze moving to the man in the front passenger seat.
Franco Mureu was his right-hand man, and the only person he trusted with his life. They were coming from a late meeting with a stakeholder in the flour mill Jelani Industries owned. A meeting Zubari asked for because it involved the renewal of a long-term supply contract. He was happy with their agreed terms. He was looking forward to signing agreements in the morning because it would mean money was coming into ease cash flow.
Zubari took in another deep breath, hoping to ease the tightness in his chest.
“Franco,” Zubari said when the uncomfortable feeling did not disappear. “Let’s go to Aga Khan Hospital.”
“Boss?” Franco turned to face him.
Seeing Zubari taking in fast breaths, sweat coating his forehead, Franco tapped the driver’s left shoulder.
“Twende Aga Khan,” Franco said, his tone urgent. (Let’s go to)
The driver increased speed, driving up a soft hill, reaching the small roundabout near the Somali Embassy. He turned right heading back to the Westgate Mall. Driving like a maniac, he tore through Mwanzi Road, overtaking where he could until they were on Ring Road. It was nine-thirty in the evening. Traffic was manageable; still, the driver overtook where he could.
Zubari took in deep breaths, aware of Franco’s concerned gaze on him. He must have looked like he was dying because Franco undid his seatbelt, and maneuvered his way into the backseat.
Franco undid Zubari’s tie, removing it, and then unbuttoned the top three buttons of Zubari’s tailored shirt. He opened the windows on both sides. Zubari took in deep breaths appreciating the cool April air filling the backseat. He felt better, but the discomfort in his chest remained. Franco reached for his phone and dialed Zubari’s family doctor, explaining Zubari’s symptoms.
The driver got creative, overtaking a few more times. It took him six minutes to get to the emergency room at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
Six minutes saved Zubari’s life. The doctors and nurses in the emergency room prevented a fatal heart attack.
Forty-eight hours later, Zubari’s main doctor entered his private hospital room armed with questions and a batch of test results.
“Zuba,” Dr. Oloo said, as she perched on the visitor’s chair on the right side of his bed.
Christine Oloo was in her late forties. Mother to two, and a talented doctor. She had taken care of Zubari for ten years now.
“This is the last place I expected to see you,” Christine said. “We had an appointment next week.”
Zubari gave her a small smile. He felt too tired to offer more.
Christine patted his right arm and got up to check his charts.
“You have luck, arriving here any later, and this would have killed you, Zuba,” Christine said, never one to sugarcoat circumstances.
“I’ll have to thank my driver. He drove like a man possessed,” Zubari said, his words coming slow.
“You should thank him,” Christine said. “Your blood pressure was too high on arrival. The doctor on call managed to lower it, avoiding a crisis. I’ve been checking the tests ordered. Your blood work shows a massive amount of anti-depressants. They increased your blood pressure to riotous levels. Have you started taking anti-depressants without talking to me?”
“No.” Zubari shook his head. “I’ve been in good health. Exercising, eating healthy, and following your guidelines. I’ve been going home early, not stressing over work. I only take the meds you prescribed. The day I came here, I had a case of heartburn at around ten in the morning . I asked the secretary to bring me a pack of Eno. I felt better for a time. Lunch was with an investor at a restaurant, and then I returned to the office. I felt fine until our drive home.”
“Hm,” Christine studied the reports in her hand. “This is very odd, Zuba. If you have not taken anything else other than what we prescribe, then when could you have taken in these amounts of antidepressants?”
Christine met Zubari’s puzzled gaze.
“Anti-depressants?” Zubari asked, confused. “You know I’m not depressed, Christie.”
“Yes, but your blood work shows you have ingested a large number of tricyclic antidepressants. These pills have components that can trigger your blood pressure. A small amount would not harm you, but at this level, high blood pressure is expected. The increased heart rate would strain your heart thanks to your existing heart problems, Zuba. A severe episode would lead to a fatal heart attack,” Christine said, shaking her head. “So, if you have not taken these pills of your own accord, then…”
“Someone tried to kill me,” Zubari said, his voice coming out rough on the edges, a bitter taste filling his mouth at the thought.
“Who should I call for you?” Christine asked. “You should talk to your wife—”
“Call no one,” Zubari said, shaking his head. “Christie, this should stay between us. At some point, I will need a clearer explanation of your diagnosis. For now, I’m at your mercy. Please get me back to good health.”
Christine studied Zubari for a full minute before she nodded.
“We’ll need a full battery of tests, and a legal guardian who can sign off on procedures as needed.”
“Agreed,” Zubari said, a deep frown creasing his forehead. “If you ask Franco to come in, he’ll bring you, someone, to sign off on the procedures.”
“Alright,” Christine said.
“I will recover from this, right?” Zubari asked, his gaze hopeful when he met Christine’s gaze.
“Yes,” Christine said. “You have been keeping a healthy lifestyle up to now. You need to be extra careful with your diet, stress levels, and meds. Before that, we need to observe you for another forty-eight-hour period before I can let you out. Just in case.”
“Okay,” Zubari sighed. “Thank you.”
Christine nodded and hurried out of the hospital room to get Franco.
Alone, Zubari stared up at the hospital ceiling, his thoughts filled with the reality of someone wanting to kill him.
“Boss,” Franco said, hurrying into the hospital room.
Zubari narrowed his gaze on his right-hand man.
“Find Ram,” Zubari said, biting back a chuckle when Franco shuddered. “Tell him to stop what he is doing, I need him here in Nairobi.”
“He will not come easily,” Franco said.
“Tell him I want to discuss the Mugumo Coffee Plantation,” Zubari said with a smirk.
Ram would commit murder to protect the plantation his mother called home. It also meant that he would protect Zubari with all his might if it meant gaining full ownership of the coffee farm.
“Tell him I want to settle the title deeds,” Zubari added when Franco started to leave. “That should bring him here at top speed.”
Strong hands gripped his jacket at the shoulders, lifted him up, and dropped him on the grass. Zev found himself lying flat on his stomach, his mouth filling with the taste of grass and dirt. He turned his head to the right as strong hands held him down.
“Stay put,” a gruff order came from above him. “Alpha team, we have five targets surrounding the compound, unknown casualties in the cottage, one alive and in our custody. We need a suppression team.”
“My brothers,” Zev said, struggling against the strong hands holding him down on the grass. “My brothers are behind the house!”
“Possible survivors at the back of the house,” the gruff voice continued. “How old are they?”
“Seven and five,” Zev said, trying not to eat more grass. “They are with their best friend who is six.”
“The survivors are very young,” the gruff voice said.
“Let me go and I’ll help find them,” Zev insisted, struggling against the hands holding him down.
“We let you go, and you’ll go running into danger,” the gruff man said. “Your ax will accomplish nothing.”
“How do you know?” Zev asked, annoyed by the cold voice talking at him.
Zev was lifted up in much the same way they dropped him down. He found himself kneeling, his gaze on the house as he watched five men in green armor take on the ghost wraiths.
Theria Guild Guardians, he thought. Their suits were hard to miss.
Eyes wide, Zev watched one of the guardians jump on a ghost wraith’s back, the silver sword the guardian held crackled with lightning. The guardian sunk his sword deep into the ghost wraith’s neck. The attack was swift, faster than Zev could imagine. The ghost wraith dropped to the ground unmoving when it was over.
Ghost Wraith’s Fight
“Do you think your ax can manage that?” the gruff man asked, and Zev sank back on his haunches, trembling.
The death of one of their own had all the ghost wraiths in the compound screaming their anger. Lightning danced across the sky, thunder rolled and the theria guild guardians fought a pile of angry ghost wraiths.
Zev found himself with a first-class ticket to a gory play. Green blood flooded the compound from wounded and dying ghost wraiths. The thunderous cries of ghost wraiths were accompanied by screams from unlucky guardians who got their limbs crushed between powerful jaws. Five minutes of absolute violence ensued until abrupt silence reigned.
The hands holding him in place disappeared. Zev had no strength to get up. He stayed kneeling on the grass. Afraid to move closer to the house the guardians were now investigating. He refused to imagine what Gen looked like. He worried they would find his brothers.
“Kijana,” the gruff man called from Gen’s front door. “We need identification. Kuja hapa.”
The man calling him had his helmet in his hands. There was dark war paint around his eyes, and the red cloak clasped to hooks on his shoulders and falling on his back over his armor had ripped edges.
Zev swallowed down his fear and pushed himself to his feet. Anxiety had him breaking into a run. He reached Gen’s front door faster than he wanted.
The gruff man placed a strong hand on Zev’s left shoulder. Zev’s first instinct was to shake it off. But then, the guardian pushed him deeper into the house not giving him a chance. Zev stopped in the small hall that flowed into the living room. Gen’s living room was painted a sunny yellow, which made it look bright in the daytime. This afternoon, all Zev could see was rubble on the furniture and wood floor. The curtains were ripped. Glass shattered, and bloodstains were everywhere including on the damaged ceiling.
“W-where is Gen?” Zev asked, his voice shaky even to his ears.
“I’m sorry,” the gruff man said but did not elaborate more.
Zev still did not understand why the gruff man would be sorry.
“Why—?” Zev started to ask.
“Ghost wraiths leave nothing to claim for a funeral. Today is an exception,” a second guardian said, pointing to the small hallway leading to the kitchen.
The second guardian wore his helmet. All Zev saw was the black body armor stained with green ghost wraith blood. Zev followed the pointing finger and a shout wrenched out of him. He saw small sneakers, bright green: Silas’s favorite color.
Zev forgot the guardians and jumped over broken dining room chairs, his boots crunching glass as he entered the kitchen. He fell to his knees when he saw Grey lying still over Silas and Gen’s son by the open kitchen door. His brothers…there was blood…
Zev picked up the bright green sneaker, as a keening cry escaped his lips.
He didn’t hear anything else the guardians said, too lost to grief.
His family did not survive the reckoning meted out by the ghost wraiths in their Gathu Village. Zev forgot the voting exercise happening in the village hall, too lost in their family’s loss. Gen’s son and his two brothers were gone, just gone. The ghost wraiths took his brothers’ lives. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he watched the guardians manage the scene.
They moved Zev outside as they called in the policing department and the medical officers. Zev could not bring himself to explain the loss of his brothers to his parents when they arrived at Gen’s house. The Theria Guild officer in charge had to do the talking.
After Elina Mablevi screamed for hours as she held her two dead children, not even her husband could make her stop. Worried for Amare, Luca asked one of the policing officers to take Zev home.
Zev moved in a daze as he entered the Theria Guild utility vehicle. He had no strength left to show surprise when the officers stopped him in front of his house without direction from him. The only thing he managed was panic at the discovery of the broken front door of their home. He remembered locking the door and warning Amare not to come out.
“Amare!” Zev said, fear coloring his voice. He forgot to remove his shoes and ran deeper into the house. “Ama!”
“What’s wrong?” One of the guardians asked, standing at the front door.
“My sister is not here,” Zev said, shaking as he dashed into her room. He switched on the overhead light and panicked when he didn’t see Amare in her bed. “She’s not here. Amare is not here!”
The guardian behind him alerted his fellow teammates, and a search began.
Amare was gone.
Zev rushed outside into the darkening evening, heartbeat speeding with fear. His gaze returned to the damaged front door. The roof of their house was intact. The front door was broken…no, hacked to pieces. It was clearly damaged by a human…someone had taken Amare. Amare’s bag was still on the floor where Zev left it.
A long search began.
A search for Amare Mablevi who disappeared after a great reckoning visited Gathu Village. There were no signs of a ghost wraith attack in the Mablevi compound. Amare’s disappearance was suspect, but not critical, so the Theria Guild Guardians handed the case to the Gathu Village Police Station for investigation.
Profound loss seeped into the Mablevi home.
Despair took over Elina, Luca, and Zev. Each one of them felt devastated by the loss of Silas and Grey. The family buried the two boys three days after Amare’s disappearance. Many families held funeral services that day. The ghost wraiths left tragedy in their wake, and the Gathu Villagers were steeped in grief.
A New Elderon
In the Mablevi home, the added weight of Amare’s disappearance filled the house.
Unable to be at home with his parents, Zev camped at the police station in the village center, hoping the investigators in charge would find a breakthrough that would lead them to find Amare.
Two weeks after the election, Zev sat in the lobby at the police station waiting for the officer in charge. He stared at the large glass screen mounted on the wall opposite. The screen was lit up with a live coverage coming from the National Stadium in the capital city, Kirit.
All local media stations were running the swearing-in ceremony of the new Elderon and his Chancellor: Izra Taj and Kakura Jafar. Izra Taj had made a special tribute to the victims of Gathu Village after the reckoning. He had pledged to increase Theria Guild Guardians in the Swala Oasis. Zev wondered how that would help them now. His family was down to him and his parents. The thought made him feel sick to the stomach.
Zev watched as Izra climbed up to the podium. Izra placed his right hand on the oldest charter book the empire owned. He looked at the Head of Justice standing before him.
“I, Izra Taj, do swear with honor that I shall guard the founding charter of the Empire of Afrotheria…”
Standing behind him was a woman Zev assumed was Izra’s wife, and a young lady about his age. She had to be Izra’s daughter. Her long dark braids were in a tight ponytail. She was dressed in black as though mourning her lot in life.
Zev wondered what the Elderon’s daughter would have to be sad about. Her gaze was not on her father, but on the crowd of people watching the ceremony.
The electronic doors to the inner offices of the police station opened.
Zev forgot the new Elderon and his daughter. He focused on the officer in charge of Amare’s case.
“Have you found anything?” Zev asked, standing to meet him.
“Not yet, Zev. It’s been two weeks since your sister’s disappearance,” the officer in charge said, shaking his head. “We’ll keep looking, but the trail has gotten cold. We don’t have the resources the Theria Guild has to handle this case.”
“Why would you say that to me, Officer Kwaro?” Zev asked.
“I’m being honest with you. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but…,”
Officer Kwaro looked around the open hall in the police station. Zev was not the only one waiting for information. There was a family sitting on benches a few feet away, and an old woman in the corner. Their gazes were on the screen, even though one of the men in the family was watching Officer Kwaro with expectation.
Officer Kwaro took Zev’s right arm and led him outside to the parking lot. He did not speak until they were a safe distance away from the main hall.
“Zev, I know you love your sister. You showing up here every day, almost sleeping in the police station is a testament to that love. I understand your pain. I really do. So, I want to be honest with you,” Officer Kwaro said, his gaze filling with pity. Officer Kwaro’s pity filled the pits of Zev’s stomach with fear and a tight knot.
“Four girls have disappeared in our village, same as your sister, this year,” Officer Kwaro said. “They were home alone. The front door was hacked open, and there was no clue left to help us find them. We do not know how the culprit discovers they are alone…”
Join the Theria Guild
Officer Kwaro trailed off, and let out a soft sigh.
“Zev, we have not found them.”
“Are you saying Amare is one of those girls now?” Zev asked, his heart dropping to the endless pit of fear in his stomach. “Why is the Village Head not doing more? Why has Malachi said nothing?”
“It’s not my place to judge what Malachi is doing or not,” Officer Kwaro said. “I’m only telling you there is an open case in this station of four missing girls. Your sister makes the fifth. We have found none of them to date.”
Zev closed his eyes and shook his head, fighting panic.
“If you can’t find her, who should I turn to? I—where else can I go to ask for help with this if not the policing force?”
“The Theria Guild,” Officer Kwaro said his gaze hardening. “The policing force only has what we need to manage a small village. The guardians in the Theria Guild are different. They have access to resources that can help you track down your sister. I—”
“Zev, I’m not trying to scare you,” Officer Kwaro said, after a moment. “I promise I won’t stop looking for Amare, but—”
“You think I should join the Theria Guild,” Zev said in horror.
He was supposed to report to his Santi Corp Apprenticeship in a few days. He was a Tech Class student.
Zev thought of Grey. Grey wanted nothing more than to join the Theria Guild. It didn’t make sense that he was gone now. There was Silas who had not gotten a chance to decide. He closed his eyes and fought down the cry of pain filling him. Fates, his siblings ripped away from him, one by one.
“The Theria Guild is the only way for us to find Amare and the missing girls,” Officer Kwaro said, placing a hand on Zev’s shoulder. “I’ve tried to reach out to them with no luck. Our village has had no volunteers for the Theria Guild. We have no allies in their ranks. You know how wary everyone in the village is with Guardians. The Guardians are not comfortable working with us, or us with them. We’ll gain an advantage if you join. It will be different with you, Zev. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry this is the best our station can do. You think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on the case. I will keep you informed if anything comes up.”
Zev thought about Officer Kwaro’s advice on his walk home. Everyone he met stopped to pat his shoulder, saying words of comfort to soothe him for his family’s loss and hoping for Amare’s swift return. Zev could see in his fellow villagers’ eyes that they did not think Amare would be back.
Most of them thought she was lost to the ghost wraiths that wrecked their village. Lost in the wild reckoning the ghost wraiths meted out on their people. He refused to think of Amare gone like Silas and Grey.
His little sister was alive. She had just disappeared. They would find her.
Back at home, Zev sat in the kitchen listening to his mother cry. She was in Grey and Silas’s room. His father sat on Amare’s bed in her room, not moving at all. His parents’ grief was so tangible that it filled the house. Zev could barely breathe at the pressure of it.
His grandmother, from his mother’s side, had moved into their house after the funeral. She moved around the house in silence too, tidying up and cooking.
Zev had no energy to find her and ask how his parents were doing. He drank a mug of warm milk in the kitchen and then decided to hide in his room for a while.
He logged into the Pink Piggy in the Luna VR.
Weru was waiting for him in their workroom.
“I’m sorry about your brothers, Zev,” Weru said, pulling him into a hug. “And Amare missing sounds unreal. How are you guys doing?”
“Not good,” Zev said, pulling away from Weru. He sat down at the work table and stared at his best friend. “How is school?”
“We are all doing final checks and balances,” Weru said with a shrug. “Miss Leya is waiting for you to show up to finalize the paperwork for your apprenticeship.”
Zev let out a shaky breath.
“What?” Weru asked, studying him.
“I don’t know,” Zev said, staring at the worktable he had developed over three years as he built the Pink Piggy. “I might need to find a different course for the future.”
“Zev—,” Weru said, his eyes wide.
“I can’t talk about it right now,” Zev said, not about to voice the decision dancing on the fringes of his mind. “When do you leave for KISTech?”
“Next week,” Weru said.
Weru grinned and let out a soft sigh.
“You should have let me visit your house instead of meeting like this,” Weru said.
“My house is…,” Zev trailed off, thinking about his parents and their varying degrees of grief.
It was hard to describe the level of pain in the Mablevi home. All he knew was that he needed to find Amare to ease the burden.
“I have to do something,” Zev said, wiping a hand down his face. “Look, I have to go. It was nice to see you. I will not be online for a while. I’ll call you.”
Zev waved at his friend and logged out of their shared space. Removing his Luna VR glasses, he found Dahlian’s UserID and sent her a message.
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: Are you free to talk?’
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Now you show up. I’ve sent you several messages and you’ve refused to respond. WTH?’
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: I’m sorry. I had…personal stuff going on. Do you have time?’
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Sure. Should I meet you at the pink piggy?
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: No.
Zev glanced at the finished code on his tablet. He completed it the night before the elections. He had wanted to do more with the code, but the decision he needed to make now would mean he would not get the chance to develop it further.
The only person he thought might have use for it was Dahlian.
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: Invite me into a private room. I have something to give you.
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Ok. I’ll send an invite.
Dahlian sent him a link to a private room right away.
Zev wore his Luna VR glasses and entered the private room. It surprised him to find the room modeled like a small café, complete with tables and chairs. Dahlian sat at a table by the windows showing off the busy streets of Kirit.
“Fancy,” Zev said, slipping into the chair across her, as he took in the café.
Dahlian glanced at him and chuckled.
“I wondered if you would keep the pink piggy mask. I’m glad you didn’t disappoint me. It’s nice to see you again.”
“You’re not wearing a mask,” Zev said, staring at the beautiful young woman sitting across him.
Her brown skin was warm in the artificial light. Her eyes were light brown and her braids fell down to her shoulders. She smiled at him, and he remembered the punch in his gut at her beauty clearly.
“This is my private space,” Dahlian said. “No one to discover what I look like and use it against me.”
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” Zev asked.
“No. If you were the type to sell gossip, your true face would have already been discovered.”
Zev chuckled and sat back staring out the windows to the artificial depiction of the capital city, Kirit.
“It must be so crowded,” Zev said
He stared at the number of people walking the streets and the MobiGaris clogging up traffic.
“It’s home to me. I would probably miss the vehicles and noise if I went somewhere quiet,” Dhalian said. “Are you not in Kirit?”
“No,” Zev said, returning his gaze to Dahlian. “I live in the countryside.”
“I would never have guessed it,” Dhalian said. “What did you want to tell me?”
Zev held out the digital card with the code.
“I’m sorry. I’m late giving you an answer,” Zev said, placing the card on the table when Dahlian stared at it in surprise. “I updated the code you want. I’ve added more to the original code in the database. I told you it was a work in progress. I’m giving you permission to use it in your research.”
“Oh,” Dahlian’s eyes widened and she picked up the card with visible excitement. She kept the card away and studied him. “This feels like a goodbye, Pink Piggy. Why?”
Zev shrugged, his gaze going back to the busy street. He would have wanted to be able to visit Weru at KISTech. That would have been a sight to see.
“I’m going away,” Zev said, letting go of a lifelong dream. He let out a soft sigh and faced Dahlian. “I’m closing the Pink Piggy.”
“What? No!” Dahlian gaped. “Why?”
“I can’t avoid it,” Zev said with a shrug. “My family is dealing with some stuff. I won’t be able to maintain the shop.”
“What if I hold it for you?” Dahlian asked. “You’ve given me your code, taking care of the Pink Piggy is the least I can do. We’ll just maintain your code products, update them if necessary, don’t close it.”
Zev broke off, wishing he could give over the care of the Pink Piggy to Dahlian. She seemed like a good person.
Still, the Pink Piggy reminded him of Amare too much. She had wanted to see the shop turn into a physical shop, and the thought left him breathless with pain.
“I can’t,” Zev said in a whisper. “The Pink Piggy needs to stay dormant for now. I have a task I need to complete. If I’m successful, I’ll bring the shop back. Maybe even turn it into a physical shop.”
Dahlian studied him for a while, and then she nodded.
“If that’s what you want,” Dahlian said.
“It is,” Zev said. “I wanted you to have the code I’ve been working on. In case it helps you find a breakthrough in the fight against ghost wraiths. Promise to work on it.”
“I promise,” Dahlian said.
Zev pushed his chair back and got up.
“Then, I’ll see you around, Dahlian.”
“Wait,” Dahlian said, getting up too. She hurried to his side and touched his right arm. “Something bad has happened to you, hasn’t it?”
Zev swallowed hard, unable to keep the tears from falling in the real world. He could not explain the absolute tragedy ravaging his family.
“I’m sorry it’s hard for you,” Dahlian continued when he didn’t respond to her comment. “This room is open to you whenever you want to escape. I won’t change the link code I sent you. You don’t have to tell me when you log in. Deal?”
Zev smiled and looked to the glass windows and the virtual view of Kirit Capital beyond.
“I suppose staring at the MobiGaris packing up the street is soothing in a way,” Zev said.
“I’ll update the street view to match the actual street often,” Dahlian said with a grin.
“Okay, it’s a deal,” Zev said. “See you, Dahlian. Good luck with your research.”
“You too, good luck,” Dahlian said.
Zev logged out soon after. He spent the rest of his night shutting down the Pink Piggy’s virtual store.
In the morning, he woke up first, not bothering to find his parents. He left the house and made his way to school.
Miss Leya was in eternal shock the moment Zev turned in his Change of Class form.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Miss Leya asked, her eyes filled with tears. “Zev.”
“This is what I need to do,” Zev said, smiling at her. “My mother calls it the change of tide. Please help me make this change, Miss Leya.”
“But moving from the Tech Class to the Protector Class is hard, Zev. Your peers in the Protector Class will have had years of training on you—”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Zev said, hating the tears stinging the backs of his eyes. “My brothers would still be alive, and my sister would be with us if I was stronger.”
“You don’t know that,” Miss Leya said, shaking her head.
“I do,” Zev said. “The guardians held me down as they fought off ghost wraiths. I need to be stronger.”
Miss Leya sighed and stared at the form on her desk.
“What about the apprenticeship with Santi Corp?” Miss Leya asked. “You’re a rare talent, Zev. I hate to see you throw it away like this.”
“I’m not throwing it away,” Zev said. “I’m repurposing my talent to the Theria Guild. I will be the best Guardian ever known in the protector class.”
Miss Leya could not help her heavy sigh as she picked up her stamp and authorized Zev’s migration to the Protector Class. He was effectively becoming a cadet in the Theria Guild.
“Zev Mablevi,” Miss Leya said, getting up. She held out her hand to him, meeting his gaze. “This is the last time you and I will meet as civilians. You will be in the guild, I’ll have to defer to your full authority.”
Zev took her hand with a nod.
“May the almighty creator guard your steps,” Miss Leya said.
“And yours,” Zev said.
Miss Leya nodded, let go of his hand, and handed him the authorized Change of Class Form.
In the Luna VR, the he-goat Dalia met removed his mask and pointed to the closed door.
“Who was she?” Waweru asked.
Zev toggled his avatar, removing the Pink Piggy mask. The room changed into an industrious workroom where Zev created code for his customers. There were two large tables loaded with tools and digital cards, some of them complete, others in various levels of completeness. Zev spent most of his free time here. Waweru sometimes helped finish some of the coding projects.
“Her userID says her name is Dahlian. She wants permission to use the code I uploaded to the KISTech database,” Zev said. “I’ve been upgrading it for weeks. I’m not sure if I should give her permission to use the original upload, or hand her what I’ve been working on.”
“The difference between you and me is that you won’t put your code up for a bid in the Lunar Marketplace,” Waweru said, sinking into the couch opposite Zev’s worktable. “What did you want to show me?”
Zev stopped fiddling with the greenhouse model he was making for his sister. He reached for a digital card on the desk and passed it on to Waweru.
“What is this?” Waweru asked, downloading the code in the virtual card into his own console. He took a few minutes to study the string of code Zev shared with him. Waweru grinned. “It’s a framework to map and calculate the gradient.”
“I saw the device you created to test the types of soil in an area. If you add this code to the analysis on the device it will be useful to architects,” Zev said. “If you can’t fight your father on going to KISTech, you could focus on refining building applications.”
“Are you giving this to me for free?” Waweru asked, narrowing his gaze on Zev.
“I’m not enrolling into KISTech,” Zev said. He sat back in his chair and faced Waweru. “I’ve accepted the apprenticeship at Santi Corp. The academy counselor sent me a message that they had accepted my application. I won’t have to go to Kirit.”
Waweru let out a soft impressed whistle.
“You’ll end more valuable than us who enroll at KISTech,” Waweru said. “Santi Corp apprenticeship means you can rise up their ranks, Zev. Congrats. I will miss you.”
“Did you talk to your parents about changing classes?” Zev asked.
“Miss Leya helped me fill out the forms and she even wrote a recommendation to Jenga Construction Technical University. I went home to start a conversation. Baba did not give me a chance. He handed me an envelope with a KISTech ID tag, an enrollment package, and the keys to the dorm I’ll share with one of his friend’s kids. He has paid for the first year.”
“Damn,” Zev sighed. “I’m sorry, Waweru.”
Waweru shrugged and lifted the digital card from Zev.
“Thank you for this. I’ll make use of it.”
“It won’t be easy,” Zev said. “KISTech’s only agenda is research on ghost wraiths and how to end them or fight them off. Every student has to do research on ghost wraiths. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“I’ll manage,” Waweru said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I have a choice.”
“I’ll miss you, Zev. It won’t be the same not having you as a deskmate,” Waweru said.
“We can always meet here,” Zev said, indicating his workshop. “We’ll call each other and message.”
“Yeah,” Waweru said, with a quick grin. “So, did the hot Dahlian really pay five hundred credits to enter this workshop?”
“Yep,” Zev grinned. “She’s helped pay for three months of our shop’s membership with Lunar VR. I worried the pink piggy would have to turn it into a private room soon.”
“Can I message her?” Weru asked. “She looked like she would talk to me—”
A long beep sounded in the earpiece Zev wore in his left ear.
“I have to go,” Zev said, saving his work on his sister’s greenhouse. He got up, stretched his arms over his head, and grinned at Weru. “See you kesho at the village center.”
“Yeah, man,” Weru said. “I’ll go stalk Dahlian’s account and see if she will message me.”
Zev grinned and logged out. He removed his Luna VR glasses and stared at the screen in front of him. The Luna VR site had a prompt blinking his logout confirmation. Touching the screen to confirm, Zev noted the green light blinking on the wall behind his monitor. His sister was buzzing him.
It meant his parents were home and looking for him. Pushing back his comfortable office chair, Zev stretched his arms over his head and got up, adjusting his dark t-shirt over the grey sweat pants he wore. He hurried out of his room eager to get some food.
The Mablevi home was not extravagant. It was also not a simple house. It was built as a ranch-style house on a one-acre piece of land. Over the years, Zev’s parents added rooms and space as the family grew. When Zev turned four, and his sister was a baby, the house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a common bathroom, and a living area.
Now, the old living room had turned into a second bedroom for his sister. His parents added two more bedrooms to accommodate their youngest children and a larger sitting area with a dining room.
Zev walked from his room taking the long corridor to the kitchen. He stopped at the kitchen entrance when he found his father giving his siblings an impromptu history lesson.
“It is not known why Mount Njaro rumbled to life, spewing tons of molten lava out into the peaceful forests. After the volcano stopped filling the sky with dark ash, lightning and thunder filled the sky. Our empire’s ancients only know that after the thunder came, instead of rain, Ghost Wraiths arrived.”
Zev crossed his arms against his chest thinking about Dahlian who wanted to find a way to end the ghost wraith menace. The Ghost Wraiths were dark, large phantom-like creatures. Resembling massive wolves with slick, oily black skin in place of their fur, their mouths were filled with teeth sharper than razors. They could crush a human’s body with one bite.
They all learned about ghost wraiths in their first years of school. The creatures varied in sizes and preferred traveling in packs. They wreaked havoc in the villages, injuring defenseless souls, tearing up families and homes, leaving devastation behind. The Ghost Wraiths disappeared when the thunder and lightning ended.
“When the Ghost Wraiths arrived, Afrotheria became a realm under siege,” Luca Mablevi said, his voice engaging. His two youngest sons watched him with wide eyes, drawn into the story.
Amare sat on a chair at the kitchen table next to Luca Mablevi. She was helping their father peel potatoes. Zev’s two little brothers were perched on a bench they used at the kitchen table. Their mother was at the kitchen counter kneading dough.
Amare glanced up from the potatoes she was peeling and saw Zev standing by the kitchen door.
She smiled and waved him closer, pulling out the chair next to hers. Zev grinned and moved to sit next to her as Luca continued his story, winking in acknowledgment of Zev’s arrival.
“The empire’s ruling class began an earnest quest to rid Afrotheria of the specter-like creatures. Despite their best efforts, no solution has proved useful in the one hundred and sixty years following the first invasion. The Sable Council, which has always been the highest authority of the realm, has focused all its attention and efforts on creating better defenses for the affected provinces, the capital, and smaller villages.”
“They bolstered the Protection Class, made them grow in power. The Protection Class now runs the formidable Theria Guild. They are responsible for every citizen’s safety in this empire.”
The Theria Guild consisted of powerful men and women who trained in the art of destroying Ghost Wraiths. The citizens of Afrotheria called these men and women Guardians. Zev frowned, thinking of the members of the Protection Class.
It was both a curse and a blessing to survive and prosper in the Theria Guild. Afrotherians revered and feared guardians in equal measure. As a result, guardians preferred to live in a large compound called Oasis. Each Oasis was named after the team stationed in the compound.
“The members of the Theria Guild are our treasure. It is said that the more battles a guardian survives, the higher he or she climbs the ranks,” Luca said, his voice filled with mystery and wonder. “The most dangerous and skilled guardians are found in the Strike Force. The weakest and the trainees are found in the Swala Force.”
“I want to be in the toughest oasis,” Silas said, making their mother gasp.
Silas was Luca and Elina’s youngest son. Zev’s youngest brother. He loved listening to stories about the guardians most, so Luca tried to make them as exciting as he could.
Zev hid a smile and shook his head, stealing a glance at Elina at the counter. He wondered what she would do if one of her children became a Theria Guild Guardian.
“Has our village ever faced a reckoning?” Grey asked.
He was the third born of Luca’s children.
A reckoning was a village’s encounter with a pack of ghost wraiths.
Luca glanced at his wife, Elina, before he nodded, his gaze filling with remorse. He shifted on his chair and continued peeling the potatoes his wife had placed in front of him.
Amare was almost done with her share.
It was not a surprise to find Luca helping his wife with household chores. He often helped with cooking tasks because he loved how Elina smiled at him when he was done.
Luca looked up from a peeled potato to find his four children watching him with wide expectant eyes.
Grey and Silas’s gazes held innocent interest, while Amare, his second-born and only daughter had empathy in her eyes. However, the one who made him pause was his eldest son, Zev.
Zev looked at him with jaded expectation. He had heard Luca’s stories too often. Either that or Zev remembered his grandparents and knew there was no mystery or wonder in a reckoning.
Luca took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He finished peeling the potato he held before he met Grey’s expectant gaze.
“You were not born when our village endured a reckoning,” Luca said. “Your mom and I only had Zev and Amare. They were home with your grandparents when the thunder and lightning came. The Strike Force Guardians saved us. They were running exercise maneuvers close by and came to fight off the ghost wraiths. They saved us.”
“Not all of us,” Zev said in a quiet voice, reminding Luca of their family’s tragedy.
“You’re right,” Luca said, acknowledging their family’s saddest memories. “Your grandparents were caught in the fight and ended up leaving us.”
Zev was five years old when the reckoning came. Amare was three years old.
Zev remembered their grandparents.
Luca knew his oldest son missed them and hated that the ghost wraiths had taken their lives. He often wished he knew how to heal Zev’s broken heart over the loss of their grandparents. He wished he could wave his hand, and Zev would forget the horrifying day, but that was just wishful. Luca finished peeling the last potato on his tray and washed his hands in the water in the bowl.
Luca wiped his hands on a clean cloth on the table and reached out to squeeze Zev’s slender shoulder.
“We lost your grandparents to a reckoning,” Luca told his other children. “We’re not the only ones who lost loved ones, but we are grateful that our home survived the attack. After the ghost wraiths attacked, the Theria Guild built a training Oasis for the guardians in our Teru Province.”
Grey nodded, his gaze turning serious. He was only seven, but he was the most inquisitive. Silas who was five had already lost interest and was now staring at the open pit fire in the corner. He stood up from the bench and went to sit on the low stools by the fire. He picked up a stick to poke at the firewood. Amare allowed it for a few minutes, and then she got up and went to swipe the stick away from Silas earning a protest.
Luca looked around their comfortable kitchen. The pit fire was built into the wall of the kitchen, meant to warm the room. Their kids liked sitting around the fire in the evening. Elina had insisted on making the kitchen the warmest part of the house.
She was busy at the kitchen counters on the opposite end, where a pot simmered on the cooking range next to the counter she was using.
Luca’s gaze shifted up to the steel grate installed under the roofing sheets. It was as high as the main house’s roof. Specialized steel netting covered the grate. It was designed to keep them relatively safe if the Ghost Wraiths attacked.
Luca did not know if it worked. He had only read the paperwork that came with the steel grate from Santi Corp. He prayed and hoped daily that they would never have to test grates.
“Baba, what is the name of the Oasis in Teru Province?” Grey asked.
“Swala Force. It is a training institution where members of Sokwe Recon train new recruits in the Swala force,” Luca said. “They are not the strongest, but they are quite useful. They have managed to give us ten years of peace in this province.”
Grey sighed in relief.
“I’ll join their team when I’m old enough. I want to protect our town too.”
Luca blinked, staring at his son. He could never have imagined any of his children wanting to join the Theria Guild. Luca glanced at Elina and found a similar concerned look on her face. He gave her a slight smile and hoped that Grey would outgrow this childhood dream. It was too frightening.
“What about you Zev?” Luca asked. Zev was seventeen and on the brink of joining a training institute to determine his lifelong career. He was a gifted Technical Class student. “Where do you want to enroll after you graduate from the academy?”
“The academy counselor helped me apply for a tech apprenticeship with Santi Corp,” Zev said.
Luca got up and took the bowl of peeled potatoes to the sink. She was busy rolling pieces of dough into round mounds, ready to make chapati. Luca passed his hands under the kitchen tap. It came on and his gaze lingered on the label on the tap’s knob.
Santi, it read.
Santi Corp was a large corporation in Afrotheria with a group of hidden owners. They were creators and manufacturers of most of the advanced technology used in Afrotheria. Their biggest competition was KISTech in the capital city, Kirit.
“Why does your advisor think you will fit in at Santi Corp?” Luca asked, wiping his hands with a disposable paper towel.
When Luca finished with the paper towel, he turned to throw it into a trashcan that opened just because he was standing close to it. Once again, the name Santi was engraved on the lid.
“She says I have a gift of imagination that Santi Corp will appreciate,” Zev said, with a small, pleased grin.
Luca watched Zev take the tray of peels, his and Amare’s, and take the potato peels to the biodegradable bin made by his wife.
“I’m glad they accepted me,” Zev said, bringing the now empty trays to the sink. He rinsed the trays and started washing the peeled potatoes in the basin. “Baba, I want to do this. I don’t want to move to Kirit for four years at KISTech. I want to stay here in Teru close to you guys. Santi Corp is always looking for gifted tech scholars. It will be a good opportunity for me.”
“I really wish you would join the Conservation Class like your father and me,” Elina said, looking at their eldest son with a frown. “I’ve heard the Tech Class working for Santi has labs in the Deserted Lands of Afrotheria.”
They called the four provinces near the forests closest to Njaro Mountain Deserted Lands. The Ghost Wraiths had rule over these lands. Regular folk could not survive in the Deserted Lands.
“My boss confirmed that Santi Corp is said to have a station close to Njaro Mountain. Their scientists are studying the fracture in the vents that allows the wraiths to invade our lands,” Elina said. “I don’t think I could handle you being so close to danger, Zev.”
“Mom, I will be a trainee. I doubt they would send me out to their most exclusive research center when I know nothing,” Zev said, shaking his head. “Besides, my apprenticeship is in the compound where Swala Force Oasis runs. That’s where we will have our classes. Mama, I have already been accepted into the program. I confirmed with my counselor last week. You don’t have to pay for anything because it is a scholarship.”
“Oh,” Elina said, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter.
Elina studied Zev, apprehension clear in her eyes. Luca could not blame her. This evening was full of hits. Their third-youngest wanted to join the guild. Their oldest son wanted to join the most debated company in the empire.
Santi Corp had dangerous grey areas. He dared not imagine what kind of experiments they carried out at the facility near Njaro Mountains. It scared him to have Zev working with Santi Corp.
Parenting was not easy, Luca decided.
“Alright, enough talk about the future,” Luca said, clapping his hands. “Come on, Zev, let’s help your mother finish making our supper. Amare, take Grey and Silas to the living room. First, they finish homework, then you make sure they don’t watch grown-up shows on the screen. I renewed our subscription for toons yesterday.”
Amare got up, gave Zev a knowing glance before she urged Grey and Silas up and led them to the living room. Zev continued washing the potatoes at the sink.
Luca moved closer to Elina, wrapping an arm around her waist. She leaned into him and let out a sigh. When she met his gaze, he read fear and worry.
“What would we do with a guardian in the family?” Elina asked, keeping her voice too low for Zev to hear. “Grey would have to leave our home and only visit late in the evening. People are so wary of Guardians.”
Luca shook his head and pressed a kiss on her cheek.
“He’s seven, it’s just a dream,” Luca soothed. “You have plenty of time to show him the wonders of conservation science.”
Elina let out a small chuckle. Even after all these years, Luca felt lucky that she had chosen to marry him and given him four children. Outside their cozy home, she was a talented scientist who worked in a small laboratory on strengthening agriculture in Teru Province. She was beautiful, amazing, and brilliant.
“Maybe Amare will follow in your footsteps. She is the only one who loves plants the same way you do,” Luca said, letting Elina go so that they could get started on making the evening meal.
“Maybe,” Elina said, continuing her work with the dough.
“Amare does like plants, but she wants to teach little kids,” Zev said, bursting their bubble with a quick grin. He found a flat round iron pan his mother used to cook the flatbread.
Luca watched Zev turn on the cooker with a fast swipe of his finger over the console. Zev placed the pan over the fire. When he looked up and saw Luca and Elina staring at him, he laughed.
“You still have Silas,” Zev said, his tone soothing. “He might like conservation science and agriculture.”
“Cheeky boy,” Elina said, shaking her head.
Luca grinned and the memory sunk into Zev’s conscious. So did the kiss Elina brushed on Zev’s cheek as she helped him add oil to the flat iron pan. Elina placed the first flatbread on the pan.
“Turn it around, let it feel the heat, Zev. Add a little oil…”
Luca instructed Zev on how to cook the flatbread making sure it didn’t get burnt. Elina watched them with a smile, as she rolled out the next flatbread.
It was a moment in time Zev would never forget.
Genre: African Science Fiction, Novels set in Dystopian Africa
Commander Demus oversees the fight against Ghost Wraiths
Glass screens mounted on the walls lit up with the flash of blue fire lasers. Commands rang through the large command dome. Officers manned support stations, responding to order requests and responses, combing through footage on the screens for information needed in the fight.
“What’s the count?” Demus Kiima asked, his tough tone rang in every corner of the command dome.
“One hundred and fifty,” the answer came from an officer sitting at a console in the middle of the room. “One hundred and forty-nine, forty-eight…”
“How far is support?” Demus asked.
“Ten minutes, Commander,” a second officer said, voice calm, simply delivering orders.
Demus cursed under his breath and studied the movements of the Simba Recon Team on the overhead screens. The ghost wraiths were on a direct path to the villages of Thuka Province. Demus had all available guardians on site. Sokwe Recon was taking its time getting to the designated coordinates. He could not blame them too much. They were flying in from a training exercise in Palan Town.
“We cannot lose the barricades we have built in the forest in Thuka Province,” Kiel Iram, Demus’s second in command said. “The Thuka barricades are the only protection we have for the outer lands. Yole Province and Teru are vulnerable. The ghost wraiths move too fast.”
Demus hissed because three men in the Simba Recon Team reported injuries. Their vital signs triggered critical signals on the screens.
“We should have increased surveillance in Thuka. Who else do we have close to Thuka?”
“Teru Province has trainees in the auxiliary training camp,” Kiel said. “Yole Province relies on the Simba Recon for protection.”
Two more men fell in the team.
“Report,” Demus said.
“Fifteen active officers, five injured,” an officer said. “Ghost Wraiths are at one hundred and twenty. They are moving faster than we anticipated.”
“Air support?” Demus asked.
“Sokwe is two minutes out,” an officer called. “We have deployed twenty-five lightning drones from Simba Recon’s Base.”
Demus folded his arms against his chest and watched the drones fly to the open clearing in the forests of Thuka. The Simba team was retreating to the stone barricade and the steel door allowing entrance into their military base. The men in the team carried their fallen teammates. Two snipers worked hard to keep the ghost wraiths at bay, managing to hold off the hundred ghost wraiths in an uneven line along the tree line.
The large beasts snarled as blue laser flames touched greasy dark skin, spilling green blood on the forest floor. The snipers worked to keep their attacks consistent. Still, their retreating formation had the ghost wraiths gaining ground. Five of the men carrying the injured went through the steel gates into the base, followed by three more, who paused at the steel gates to cover the snipers’ retreat.
Demus breathed in relief. He was glad when the team made it through the weathered stone barricade. The team took precious time to close the steel gates. The drones took over the snipers’ work. Directing continuous blue laser fire on a hundred ghost wraiths that descended on the concrete wall. The ghost wraiths clawed at the weathered stone barricade built to separate the forest from the rest of Thuka Province. Demus’s relief was short-lived as three ghost wraiths managed to claw thick ridges in the steel gates. The ghost wraiths concentrated on the weak point in the steel grate. They clawed at the large holes to make them larger working to break into the compound.
“Activate the most qualified in the training center,” Demus said. “Authorize Sokwe Recon to take over command of Thuka Base Ops. General Kinya has permission to use the weapons received from Santi Corp. Kiel, make sure you’ve given him the codes.”
“Yes, Commander,” Kiel said, hurrying to the console to submit the codes to General Kinya of Sokwe Recon.
Demus pressed two fingers into his eyes when he remembered the empire was voting in the morning, then dropped his hands to his side.
“Send out a red alert to all branches of the Theria Guild, including the Black Ops Protection Force. We cannot have a ghost wraith attack on villages on a day everyone is out there voting…”
Dalia Taj meets the Pink Piggy about Code
Dalia Taj logged into her Luna VR account and navigated her avatar to the market center. She needed to find a cute piggy about a proprietary app. She needed permission to implement it in her latest project. KISTech was strict about illegal use. The institute worked on making sure every bit of code developed was documented and attributed to the original developer.
Dalia was working on a scientific experiment focused on analyzing the DNA makeup of a ghost wraith. She wanted to find out if she could develop a biotechnology weapon lethal enough to stop ghost wraiths from reproducing.
She was not the first to have come up with this type of research. There were several such studies, many of those studies far ahead of her own. She was sixteen, and still in school. Her research only counted toward her class grade. Still…a girl could hope for a breakthrough. She would not mind winning research fame by changing Afrotheria’s future. Stopping ghost wraiths once and for all would be revolutionary.
Smirking at the thought, Dalia found the stall set up in the virtual market. It was the weirdest stall in the market. All other stalls in the virtual market were built with glass, wood, and even stone. However, the owner of the pink piggy had built his stall with black tarp. The only decoration on the stall was a pink pig head logo over the open entrance. It looked shady. Yet, Dalia did not hesitate as she entered the stall.
The place was always busy. The inside lighted with flashing lights, clients leaning on a wood counter as they called out orders to two men standing behind the counter. The pink piggy sold Luna VR accessories and plugins. The stall was busy. The pink piggy’s coding was efficient and easy to use.
Dalia waved at the two shop assistants and hurried to the closed door in the back of the main shop. It was pink like the logo on the door. She touched the door handle and the lock beeped. Letting out a sigh, she reached for her virtual card and pressed it on the door handle. It opened after divesting her of five hundred credits.
Dalia pocketed her card and entered the room.
“I should expect a grand welcome with the amount you charge to enter your private shop,” Dalia said, glaring at the pink piggy working at a desk, building a greenhouse with a virtual builder on the desk. “Does it have to cost five hundred credits to see you?”
“You’re the one in need,” the pink piggy said, not looking up from the assembly on his desk. “Do you think girls like white?”
“Depends on the occasion,” Dalia said, crossing the room to sit on the chair opposite the pink piggy. “Why? Are you building the greenhouse for a girl?”
“Maybe,” the pink piggy said, shrugging his shoulders.
She knew he was male. The only part he kept hidden about himself was his face. The pink piggy’s style was weird like him. He liked wearing black slacks, a white t-shirt, and a black vest. He wore black combat boots as though ready to run at a moment’s notice. Mostly, Dalia was envious of his talent with code.
“So,” the Pink Piggy changed the color of the greenhouse paper to a sickening shade of pink and she winced.
He looked up and seemed to take a moment to take her in.
“You look stunning,” the Pink Piggy said, smiling at her. Strange how she knew the piggy was smiling at her. She bit back a laugh and he sat back in his chair, studying her. “Do you keep your original looks? I mean, you must be so dangerous to meet in the real world.”
Dalia chuckled, pleased that he thought her avatar pretty. She did not use her true features. Her identity was sensitive to flaunt in the form of an avatar in Luna VR. She could just imagine her father’s reaction were he to discover.
She did try to stick to her real figure. Her avatar had her curvy shape intact. She wore a tight stylish coat belted at her waist with a thick red leather belt. Under her coat, she wore a pinstriped skirt that stopped above her knees. Her feet were in knee-length black boots with a four-inch heel. Her braids were long down her back. She wore a gold masquerade mask to cover her face. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulled out the card with the code details.
The Pink Piggy is Unwilling
“I need your permission to use this, Pink Piggy,” Dalia said, holding out the card over the table.
The Pink Piggy stared at her long red nails, a sharp contrast from her dark skin, and grinned.
“I would love to see what you look like in real life,” he said, taking the card from her.
“Same goes for you,” Dalia said, making the Pink Piggy shudder.
“Don’t joke, if I show my face, anyone who knows me will come to my house for cheap plugins,” he shuddered, as he read the card.
“Isn’t it money coming to you?” Dalia asked.
“Yeah. I guess. But it is in the how it comes to me,” the Pink Piggy said, frowning as he studied the card he held. “Why do you want permissions for this code?”
“I have a science project that needs the basics,” Dalia said. “I’m willing to pay.”
“This is not about money,” the Pink Piggy said, sitting up in his chair. “I registered this code in the KISTech Registry on a whim. I thought I had created something that could support the ghost wraith fight—”
“It can support it,” Dalia said. “I can’t tell you what I’m working on, but I feel your logic will add to mine. We could create something worth forwarding to the Theria Guild. I’ll keep the source code intact. I promise to include all your rights when I submit my project—”
“It’s incomplete,” the Pink Piggy said, shaking his head. “I work on it on and off because it feels like something is missing. I’m guessing I don’t have enough information to get the results I’m looking for.”
“I don’t mind using it in its incomplete form,” Dalia said. “Please—”
“What happens when you need to compensate for errors I’ve not accounted for?” the Pink Piggy asked, shaking his head. “I don’t sell incomplete work, even to beautiful women.”
“You’re insulting me,” Dalia said, getting up. “You assume I’m not as talented as you. I’m not here to beg to use your source code. I was in search of code that would support a foundation theory I’m developing. Don’t you submit your ideas to the registry because you are looking for someone who thinks the same as you? Or is it that you don’t want to work with me? I can always find another approach.”
“You have a temper,” the Pink Piggy said, folding his arms against his chest.
Dalia huffed and crossed her arms too, staring at the pink piggy head he preferred. She wondered who he was and why he clung to the ridiculous getup. Was he a student at KISTech? She was one of the top students, and she was quite sure she knew everything about the five students at KISTech she considered competition. Could he be one of them?
“You have access to the KISTech’s Registry, so you must be in the Tech Class,” the Pink Piggy said. “Your ability to pay the entry fee into this room means you’re well-off. High enough in the chain to unlock information on my registration information.”
“I have nothing on you, Pink Piggy,” Dalia said, dropping her hands to her sides. “You don’t give away much other than one can find you here at this stall in the Luna VR.”
“Does it frustrate you?” the Pink Piggy asked.
“Yes,” Dalia said, shaking her head.
The Pink Piggy chuckled and pointed to the greenhouse, with the super pink color.
“You never told me what color girls like?”
“Not that shade of pink,” Dalia said, shaking her head. “A light green or earth green works for greenhouses. It doesn’t have to be so pink.”
“Hm,” the Pink Piggy said, leaning forward to fiddle with the controls on the table. The greenhouse turned into a respectable pale green color.
“I’ll think on the code,” he said after a moment. “I have to review what I uploaded to the Registry and what I have in my database. I’ll let you know.”
“How do I reach you?” Dalia asked.
“Your credits left me your user ID. I’ll message you.”
“Don’t stay too long,” Dalia said, with a sigh. She had hoped he would agree tonight. Her project needed to move forward in three days. The empire’s voting aside, she was meeting her class mentor in four days.
“How long is too long?” the Pink Piggy asked.
“Tomorrow?” Dalia asked.
“I’m busy tomorrow,” the Pink Piggy said with a sigh. “Maybe the next day. I’ll have free time to get back to you.”
Dalia meets a He-Goat that greeted her ‘Meh!’
“I’ll look forward to it,” Dalia said, and turned to leave. The door opened just as she reached it, and she had to bite back a laugh when a cute he-goat walked in. The man hidden behind the he-goat head greeted her with a ridiculous meh!
Dalia burst out laughing.
“Stop scaring our delicate flower client,” the Pink Piggy said.
“She was expecting it,” the He-Goat said.
“I see a theme starting here,” Dalia said, shaking her head, finally getting a hold of her laugh. “The Animal Farm?”
“Is it?” the Pink Piggy asked.
The He-Goat chuckled and Dalia wondered what it would be like to meet these two in person.
“See you two, little piggy and the cute he-goat. I better not run into a cute chicken out there,” Dalia said.
The he-goat laughed and she left the room, logging out right away.
She removed her Luna VR glasses and placed them on her desk.
Stretching her arms over her head, she got up from her comfortable computer chair and glanced at the muted television screen across the room. The news was running. Her father’s face appeared on the screen. He was waving to excited citizens in an amphitheater.
“Unmute,” Dalia said, sinking her fingers into her braids. She massaged her head for a moment.
‘…Izra Taj and his running mate thank their supporters on the eve of the vote. He will know, by this time tomorrow, how well his campaign run has served him. Mr. Taj has held the office of Commander of Tech Class for six years. Winning the office three times. We’re expecting to see his family by his side as the voting day starts in a few hours…’
“Mute,” Dalia said, as a knock came on her door and her mother peeked in with a small wave. “Mama.”
“Baba is expecting us soon,” Amelia Taj said. “It will be easier if we’re all at the hotel where the campaign team is working.”
“Okay,” Dalia said.
She gave her bed a longing look, but then she knew she was not going to be using it until the voting process was over. Her father’s political ambitions left them all living such strange lives.
“It will be over soon,” Amelia said, as though reading her thoughts.
Dalia nodded and gave her mother a tentative smile. The door closed and she let out a heavy sigh. If her father won and became Elderon, their lives would not return to normal. They would only get harder to handle. She hoped she would be able to continue her research…she hoped the Pink Piggy would give his consent.
Dalia sniffed the wrinkled white shirt of her KISTech uniform and headed straight to the shower.
Genre: African Science Fiction, Novels set in Dystopian Africa