Uninhabitable Chapter 2

Previous post is chapter 1. Start there. I’ll post chapter 3 next week.

Chapter 2

Usually a popular place to congregate for coffee breaks, the skybridge was now deserted. It was no place to linger. The air was so hot it almost hurt Samira’s throat to breathe. Sweat poured down her face as she and Naseem strode over the roof of Dubai. She unbuttoned her blouse another notch, revealing the edge of her lacy black bra. From her peripheral, she felt Naseem’s eyes on her. Let the pig look. It’s do or die now.

The private investigator she’d hired in the spring had finally checked back in with her, and the news was bad. Your father is less than skin and bones, the investigator had written. Your mother is as frail as they come, too, but there’s at least life in her eyes. And her feet are in much better condition than your father’s. My guess is she’ll last another three or four months if she doesn’t get seriously injured. Your father’s got a month. Probably less. And of course, neither will survive another Siberian winter, even if their wounds are properly attended to and their rations are doubled. Which they won’t be. Your sister’s health is much better. She’s one of the strongest in their group of 50, though she has an injury to her leg. Chainsaw slipped and got her. As you know, the Russians don’t provide medical care, and gangrene is a common killer up there. Another client is asking me to visit the Putorana region again in November. My fee will be the same as the first if you’d like another report at that time.

Samira had been annoyed that the investigator failed to provide more details, or made it clear to her parents and her sister, Rayaan, that Samira was working on paying for their freedom. The investigator was clearly just trying to profit off Samira’s desperation, mentioning Rayaan’s injury but not telling her how serious it was. Samira wasn’t going to bite. Another report in the fall would be pointless. She had to get them out of Russia now. But seducing Naseem, if she could call her timid attempts seductive, was taking too long. She smiled innocently at him. Naseem was breathing hard in the heat but smiled back at her and glanced, just for a split second, at her breasts before looking away.

There’s got to be a faster way to squeeze that money out of him. A more sinister thought than seduction had been brewing in her mind for the last 20 minutes.

The email. You have to use it against him.

No, that’s too risky, her better judgment argued. 

It’s an option at least. 

Not only would I lose my job in a heartbeat if I even told him I knew about the bribe, but he’d find a way to take away my citizenship, too.

Maybe, maybe not. He’s not the boldest boss you’ve ever had. Or the brightest.

I’d end up in jail. Or maybe in the same work camp alongside the rest of my family.

Possibly. But what other quick options are there?

Samira couldn’t think of any. She thought of her father, battling dementia and now being worked to the bone because of it. The email. She had to use it. A steady stream of sweat dripped from her nose and chin to the glass floor as she walked. Between her feet, 80 stories down, lay the street and an ocean of cars, muffled by four-inch-thick glass and 1,200 feet of air. A traffic jam extended as far as she could see in every direction, which was unusual. Scanning for the cause, she spotted a sedan with a steaming, possibly smoking, engine idling in the middle of an intersection. The passenger side of another car was smashed inward. 

“What the hell happened down there?” Naseem asked, transfixed on the same abnormality. 

“Human driver obviously,” said Samira.

“That’s weird. There’s a second crash over there.” Naseem pointed.

“Look.” Samira squinted against the glare of the cars. “The traffic lights are all out.”

“You’re right. The grid really is struggling today.”

“I don’t remember the lights ever going out like this, at least downtown,” Samira said. “Out east by the State Towers is another story, of course.”

“It used to happen a long time ago before the grid was fortified. Probably not since you’ve been in the country.”

The faint whine of an ambulance droned somewhere far below, reminding Samira of the city’s heat sirens. A thumping beat, deep enough that she could feel it in her chest, made her look up. A helicopter emerged from behind a tall building. Another hovered far below, just a few hundred feet off the ground. The sky seemed to be full of them. Samira wondered if they were coming to film the crashes. But that didn’t make sense. Collisions weren’t newsworthy, and even if it was being covered, the local news would just send a drone or two, not a dozen helicopters. Especially in this heat. The air wasn’t dense enough to fly safely when it was over 120 degrees.

She looked back down at the mess on the street, forgetting the choppers. “Idiot manual drivers,” she huffed. Her legs were beginning to feel like quick-drying cement in the heat of the skybridge.

“They’re good at two things,” Naseem said. “Causing congestion and killing themselves.”

“And pedestrians,” Samira added. 

“God only knows why the UAE doesn’t ban manual vehicles.”

As Samira studied the crash scene, which was now almost directly underneath her, she thought she saw splattered blood coating the inside of the windshield, or maybe it was just her imagination. Could you even see blood from 80 stories up? There would have to be a lot of it. She squinted and imagined a limp body hanging out the window. It was impossible to tell what it was from up here but she looked away quickly. While the demise of a single driver within a city of 45 million was statistically inconsequential, Samira had already seen enough death in her short life.

They wound their way around a massive silver and bronze-tinted building that was best known for its large indoor theme park in the upper levels. A green roller coaster track, suspended half a mile above the ground from supports attached at the top of the building, made wild loops before disappearing into a tunnel beneath the skyscraper’s prominent needle. Below the roller coaster, and despite the power outage, an enormous video billboard the size of a soccer field—presumably powered by the building’s backup battery system—strobed Drink Coke, Drink Coke, Drink Coke in red lettering as the bubbling amber liquid poured into a glass filled with crystal clear ice cubes. The billboard was a sore reminder of losing out on the ad campaign earlier that year to another firm. It was a billboard she and Naseem had been forced to walk by many times for the past month. But damn if it wasn’t working on her. An ice-cold Coke would do her good right about now. 

“It’s a sauna in here,” Naseem complained. His breathing had become ragged, and his dress shirt was fully soaked through. “I know that’s an overused expression,” he said, glancing at the temperature on his skin flex. “But in this case it’s actually true.”

Samira didn’t respond. Below them, on the rooftop of a small 50-story skyscraper, a helicopter lifted slowly—almost heavily Samira thought—from a helipad. “What is up with the air traffic today?” she whispered to herself. 

Finally, they burst through the doors into the relative cool of the building that housed Vandensko’s offices. “That was torture,” Naseem gasped. He buckled forward, hands on knees in the bright, windowed elevator room. Samira gasped for air beside him.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Brutal. We could head down to the street and take a cab for the return trip if the traffic wasn’t fucked. Pardon my language.”

“No pardon necessary. Don’t not swear on my Goddamn account,” Naseem said breathlessly.

Samira looked away from him and rolled her eyes. His jokes were always so obvious. And dumb. Just like him. 

They recovered and made their way through a long hallway, Naseem debating with himself whether they should stop at a restroom so he could make himself presentable for the meeting. “It’s hotter than a fucking State Tower slum in here,” he muttered. He cleared his throat, probably to cover up his embarrassment for forgetting his company. Again. Like he always did.

“What do you think, Samira? Bathroom or no bathroom?”

“I don’t know what we’re even doing here, Naseem. But I think you might look less desperate if you cleaned up a bit.”

“Ah, screw it,” he said. “There are bigger problems to worry about than showing up to a meeting with pit stains.” 

You have no idea, you clueless idiot. That last slur about the State Towers had been the decider for Samira, who had known all along how unrealistic her original plan had been. Naseem would spit in my mother’s face before offering a hand out, even if I became Tier II and married the bastard. To save her family, using that email against Naseem was her only option.

Uninhabitable Chapter 1

As some of you know, I started writing a sci-fi / horror novel back in 2020. The first five chapters are now published here on Wattpad. If you can, please read it on that platform (and comment and rate it if you like it). It’s free, and easier to read long-form content via your phone than on this blog. I will continue to post five chapters at a time on Wattpad each week or so until the halfway point. I will also post one chapter at a time here on my blog. The rest of the novel will be for sale on Amazon by the end of the year.

Quick blurb about Uninhabitable:

Like all low-latitude regions, by 2085 air conditioning is life in Dubai. When the United Arab Emirate’s power grid fails during a heat wave, mass death from heat stroke and dehydration ensue. Refugee Samira and upper class executive Naseem make an unlikely pair as they flee to the mountains in the north. Sleeping in enormous underground heat shelters by day and traveling on foot at night, they fight for their lives against the climate, and those driven mad by thirst. Blackmail ties them together. Samira intends on freeing her indentured parents with Naseem’s money, while Naseem is counting on Samira to delete her scheduled email to the Associated Press-an email that would incriminate him in the very catastrophe that is unfolding around them.

Chapter 1

The haunting wail of an air raid siren jolted Naseem from a mid-morning nap. Goosebumps involuntarily rose on his flesh despite the sticky heat within his office. Naseem’s heart thudded loudly until he was fully awake and remembered where he was. He slumped back in his chair and let out a shaky breath. Even though he’d grown up under the overbearing presence of the air raid sirens, they always seemed to catch him off guard. He yawned, rubbed his eyes, and looked down, across the street, onto the glass-plated rooftop of the newly constructed, 90 story mirrored skyscraper, cast orange from the smog-shrouded sun. The structure, which seemed to have risen from the ground in a matter of weeks, had replaced an outdated, mid-century building that had always struck Naseem as dull. Too basic. Not in line with Dubai’s world-renown aura of futuristic splendor. This new skyscraper improved the view.

Naseem turned his gaze down to the street, 1,300 feet below his office. The sidewalks were already empty as the air raid siren continued blaring its top-of-the hour warning, as if anyone needed to be reminded to stay inside when the heat index (how hot it felt) surpassed 165 degrees—the threshold at which the combined air temperature and humidity made it impossible for even the most physically fit human to survive outside for more than an hour or two, even in the shade. A bus slowed to a stop and a dozen ant-sized passengers scurried from the bus into the nearest building. Naseem’s throat went dry just watching them. He rose stiffly from behind his mahogany desk and walked across his office to the fridge in the corner. On days like today, it was impossible to drink enough. He gulped half a bottle of cold sparkling water, the fiery carbonation burning his throat, before returning to the half-written email at his desk.

He undid the top button of his shirt before sitting down. The air conditioning was already being rationed, he noted, rolling his eyes at the vent on the wall. His skin flex, a flexible transparent screen that was meshed flat against his inner left forearm, popped out as he thought of it, and morphed into a large opaque rectangle. It could be controlled cortically with electro-plasmonic nanoparticles that had been injected into his brain, but old habits died hard, and he usually chose manual scrolling with his opposite hand. He navigated to a weather app, which said it was 126 degrees Fahrenheit. The high air temperature wasn’t a problem by itself. A dry 126 degrees would have been tolerable. But when combined with 30 percent relative humidity, it created a heat index of 166 degrees. And it’s only 10:28 a.m, Naseem thought. The forecast predicted a heat index of almost 190 by the afternoon. Second day of this shit in a row. Unfucking believable. 

He leaned back in his chair, deciding he’d better get to work. Words appeared on Naseem’s larger desktop flex as he thought of them. He deleted a sentence and a new one took its place a moment later. He paused, wondering why the damn sirens were still going, and remembered that the warning cycle had recently been increased from 60 seconds to five minutes. Naseem refocused on the email and deleted what he’d written. He wrote a new sentence. Deleted it, then unleashed a paragraph of incoherent gibberish in frustration. This shouldn’t be hard. Come on, just focus. He looked out the window angrily, as if he could see the distracting sirens. He tapped an icon on his skin flex and he was submerged in blissful deafness—a feature of the skin flex Naseem often used for sleeping. But even with complete silence, no words took the place of those he’d deleted.

He grumbled in frustration and twisted in his chair, cracking his spine once to the left, then once to the right. The only thing he actually needed to accomplish today was inform the office managers that the next round of layoffs was being expedited. Last week, Naseem’s advertising firm, ‘Liqnae, purchased another high-end algorithm, making more than 20 percent of their employees obsolete. He should have been able to pump out the email in a minute or two, but today was just one of those days when it would be impossible to get any work done. Like yesterday. And possibly the day before, though now he was having a hard time remembering what day it was.

Naseem yawned again as he stared into the desktop flex. His eyes were growing heavier with each passing second, the muggy office lulling him to sleep for the second time that morning. He rested his arms and head on his desk but jerked himself back up when his ear touched a small puddle of drool from his earlier nap. He cursed and wiped the saliva from his ear before moving to the left and setting his head down again. No, don’t do it. Don’t you dare do it. Just get another cup of coffee and start the damn day already!

But there was a better way to wake up than with caffeine. In fact, Naseem realized that breaking the vow he’d made to himself in the shower that morning—that he could go a full 24 hours without a simulation—was the only way he’d succeed in ending this mid-morning slump. Besides, there were certain privileges that came with being an executive vice president. Why should he be shy about taking them?

Automatic window shades descended, blocking the view out into the bullpen where 33 obedient employees—soon to be a “lean” 24—stared at their screens. Naseem tapped his skin flex, and in a flash his desk, his office, and the skyline of Dubai in his peripheral vision vanished. Jagged Dolomite peaks replaced dreary reality. Naseem, awestruck as usual, gaped at the endless rows of white mountains in every direction. He looked down at his feet, which were attached to skis that hung off the edge of a 20-foot overhanging cornice. Further down the slope lay a short and terrifyingly steep, narrow, cliff-walled couloir.

He took a breath of frigid air and exhaled a thick cloud of steam. The silence, except for the wind, somehow seemed more absolute than muting his hearing had been back in his office—a memory that was quickly fading. He wore a heavily insulated white one-piece snow suit, helmet, gloves, and goggles, but the cold cut through all of it. He shivered as he contemplated the menacing drop that lay before. It’s not real. I can’t die, he reminded himself, though even as he said this he began to forget. Real Life 50 was dangerously convincing, and Naseem was using a consciousness blocker that almost instantly tricked the brain into forgetting reality. He took one more deep breath and pushed off the cornice with his poles, dropping 20 feet and landing heavily on the nearly vertical ramp. He held a straight line, unable to turn because of the rock walls an arm length away on either side. The opening at the bottom of the couloir approached rapidly as he gained speed. It felt as if he were almost free falling. His skis shook violently beneath him over the ice-encrusted snow. The cliff walls went by in a blur. He shot out of the narrow opening and carved left to scrub speed as soon as he could, a rooster tail rising behind him as he made the turn. While Naseem had never been skiing in actual real life, save for an indoor slope in a mall as a teenager, here in Real Life he possessed the skill of a world-class big mountain skier, not that any existed these days.

He cut right to avoid a familiar 200-foot cliff, which he’d plummeted off of in past attempts of Real Life 20—the old, less real version—and immediately cut again to his left, catching air and landing in thigh-high powder. Gaining confidence, he cut again and again, spending one of every ten seconds airborne as he launched off head-high drops on the 60-degree slope. He avoided a patch of ice, then a scattering of hidden rocks that would have been impossible to know about had he not practiced this very run dozens of times before. A few seconds later he felt elation; he’d never made it this far down the mountain without eating it. He cut left through smooth, fresh powder and new territory. The gradient eased slightly and he relaxed, making slow, wide turns as he came upon a short plateau. From here, he could make out individual pines in the treeline, which he’d never had time to notice before. The easy terrain didn’t last. He picked up speed as the slope steepened, and the burn in his quads became a deeper ache. Shit! There was a large drop—he couldn’t tell how high—and he cut hard to the left to avoid it. 

“Sir?” a female voice called faintly, coming from within his own head. Distracted by the voice, Naseem caught an edge and slammed face-first into the mountain, avoiding the drop off but now cartwheeling down the lower slope, his skis and poles ejecting in different directions. As his body rag-dolled uncontrollably, there was a loud pop and intense pain spread throughout his right shoulder. Even as he tumbled, he knew it was dislocated. He grunted in pain, simulated at just 50 percent, and continued somersaulting down the slope. He felt his knee crunch into a rock and hot agony radiated down his foot. The ground beneath him dropped away and he realized he was falling through air. He opened his eyes and saw only white as the world spun. His back broke through a thick layer of snow and ice and he free-fell another unknown distance into a dark blue glacial crevasse, landing in a crumpled heap, every bone in his body seeming to shatter on impact.

When Naseem was finally able to draw in breath, he let out a scream as pain pulsed from his head to his feet. After a few moments it faded enough for him to register his surroundings. He was perched on a slanted ledge of ice, barely wider than his shoulders. Below was a black void, which his body was slowly sliding toward. Panicking, he tried to grab the wall of ice next to him, but found he couldn’t move his left arm. He looked down and saw a jagged bone sticking through the sleeve of his jacket, which was already sopping wet with bright red blood. He moaned and tried to move his legs but there was no feeling in them. I’m paralyzed. I’m fucking paralyzed! His vision narrowed to a pinpoint and he felt himself drift away, feeling more nauseous than the morning after an all-night bender. He fought to stay awake, knowing that if he blacked out he’d slide off the edge.

A vague notion that he could somehow end this, escape the crevasse and stop the pain, came to him, but it slipped from his mind before it had time to materialize. He was inching over the drop-off. Focus, damn it! He positioned his right arm underneath himself. White pain shot through his lower back. Gritting his teeth, he dug his gloved fingers into the ice in an attempt to bring himself to a halt. “Sir?” He heard the vaguely familiar voice of a woman again, calling for him. I’m losing it. He hadn’t known that hallucinations were part of shock, but there was no other explanation.

The fingers on his one functioning limb lost their purchase on the bump of ice they’d been pinching, and his right foot slipped over the edge, dangling over the bottomless pit. He knew he wouldn’t survive another fall. Shouldn’t have survived the first one. I’m actually going to die. In movies, in the final seconds before death, didn’t people’s lives flash before their eyes? Nothing came to Naseem. There was only dark blankness, as black as the hole he was sliding toward. Had his life really been that empty?

“Naseem!” the voice called again. “Sir, wake up!” His mind finally began to clear. This isn’t real. I can make it stop. He closed his eyes in the darkness of the crevasse and a phrase flashed before his eyes like a billboard—the exit phrase that would end the simulation.

“There are no more Zebras in Zambia,” he said. The crevasse disappeared and he was suddenly back in his office, sitting behind his desk, overlooking downtown Dubai in the middle of the workday. He tried to yell, but only a muffled gasp escaped his lips. He grasped his forearm where a compound fracture had been poking through his jacket a moment ago, but the pain and blood had vaporized once the simulation ended. He wiggled his toes and let out a shaky breath, then ran a hand through his sweaty hair. Finally, he noticed his assistant standing in the open doorway.

“Sorry,” Samira said. “Did I cause another wipe out?”

“No,” Naseem croaked. “I mean, yes you made me fall. But I was skiing, not surfing. So it wasn’t a wipeout.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “I apologize, but I have something you need to see.” Samira closed the door behind her and walked to Naseem’s desk. She wore a white blouse and a black pencil skirt that hugged her subtle curves. Naseem pulled his eyes from her legs back to her face, a bit shocked at how quickly his mind could transition from fear to sex, given how much adrenaline was still pumping through his body—adrenaline that had nowhere to go now that he was uninjured and safely plopped down in a chair trimmed with crocodile leather.

“Are you ready,” Samira asked, “or do you need another minute?” She understood that it took him a moment to emerge from a simulation, and Naseem was grateful for her patience. He felt slightly sick to his stomach, but his frantically beating heart was the real problem. It was pounding so hard it felt like it might crack a rib or two.

He attempted a smile. “It’s taking a little longer than normal to come out of that one.” The trouble with Real Life 50 and the consciousness blocker was how quickly you forgot that it was virtual reality, and how long it took to recover from a simulation, especially if you got hurt. If Naesem had died in the simulation, he knew he might as well just forget about the rest of his day.

He chuckled and slapped both cheeks lightly. “Okay, I think I’m good to go.” 

“Good. Because we’ve got a problem, Sir.”

Naseem forced himself to stand. “What have I told you about calling me Sir?”

“It’s a hard habit to break,” Samira said impatiently.

“Oh come on, you’ve been with me for what, three months now? Anyway, what’ve you got there?” He reached for her lower Tier handheld flex, which Samira kept wrapped around her wrist as a wide, clear forearm bracelet when not in use.

“It’s Bjarke over at Vandensko. He sent a pretty demanding email. He doesn’t sound pleased.”

“Damn it.” Vandensko was Naseem’s biggest client, though he and Bjarke rarely saw eye to eye. “What does he have a problem with this time?”

“Something about a recall.” Samira said. “I skimmed but wasn’t sure what he was referring to. You have any idea?”

Naseem stopped reading and looked up at her. The sick panicky feeling, which had just left, came back. “Recall?” Naseem repeated stupidly. “He emailed you about a recall?”

“Yes. I mean, I was one of a dozen assistants CC’d. What’s he referring to?”

“I don’t know,” Naseem snapped. “Give me a minute to read this.”

Five years ago, Vandensko, the Danish oil giant-turned-industrial-battery-maker, opened offices in Dubai to stake out territory in the Persian Gulf, which was one of the fastest growing markets for industrial-scale battery systems. The population of the United Arab Emirates had quadrupled in the last decade alone, while nearly every other country in the Middle East, northern Africa, and southeast Asia depopulated from rising heat, drought, poverty, disease, violence, military coups, and other inconveniences caused by extreme weather. To get up and running in the Persian Gulf, Vandensko hired ‘Liqnae, Dubai’s largest marketing and advertising firm. Vandensko’s sales had immediately been great. A little too great to be realistic, Naseem had later come to realize. Ibrahim, president of ‘Liqnae and grandfather to Naseem, had been the man to make the introductions between Vandensko’s executives and the right people in the Emirati government’s Supreme Council. Vandensko scored a nine-billion-dollar contract with the Emirate of Dubai to install battery systems, which replaced the old diesel generators, that powered the backup air conditioning and lighting systems in all government-operated buildings. Unsurprisingly, Vandensko’s stock shot through the roof when the other six Emirates hired the company for the same purpose. Everything had been running smoothly for years. Vandensko, now a monopoly on large battery systems in the UAE, was enjoying the type of profits it had been accustomed to back in the good old days when it was an oil company; the handful of lawmakers in on the deal got even richer; and ‘Liqnae was along for the profitable ride. Naseem and his ad team created high-dollar commercial after commercial while Ibrahim and his cronies kept the gears of greed greased. Then, four months ago, shit hit the fan. 

Mandatory recalls of our largest systems seem unavoidable unless we distribute higher ‘incentives for our mutual Council friends. . . Naseem read on Samira’s flex. . . the cost to replace even 10 percent of the systems would cause bankruptcy. . . would be very bad, of course, for ‘Liqnae and everyone involved if our prior arrangement becomes public knowledge. . . Naseem felt a dull ache in his jaw. He’d been grinding his teeth without noticing. He unclinched and continued reading, but the words lost their meaning as his mind took a wrong turn down a dark alley. The simple fact that Samira simply received this email from Bjarke meant he, Naseem, would now be exposed if any of the illegal deal-making became public. But why had Vandensko sent it to her and all of the other exec’s assistants in the first place? This was not supposed to be part of Naseem’s job. He was strictly in charge of ‘Liqnae’s legitimate side of business: the creative, fun part that involved commercials with scantily clad, voluptuous women in slow-mo, repping Grey Goose vodka, erectile dysfunction medication, and Mcdonald’s. In the last half century, capitalism had managed to loosen the conservative stranglehold that had plagued the region for centuries, and Naseem and his ad team were free to create whatever their perverse minds thought up. Tits and ass. That’s why I got into this business.

Naseem snapped out of it and glanced up from the flex. “I need to talk to Ibrahim,” he said, shakily. “Right away.”

“Is there something with our latest ad campaign they don’t like?” Samira asked, innocently.

“No, it’s. . .” Naseem paused. How much had she actually read? She could not find out about any of this. Naseem’s skin flex buzzed. “Just a second Samira, I’m getting a call.” Think of the devil. It was Ibrahim.

Naseem, I need you to fix this. His grandfather’s voice was loud in Naseem’s head. Leadership at Vandensko is about to blow this fucking thing up.

What? Why me? Naseem answered silently (by thought) as Samira watched, not hearing a word that passed between him and his grandfather.

They’re threatening to expose us if they don’t get this shit-eating recall pushed under the rug, Ibrahim said. That’s why Bjarke sent that email out to half of our damn staff. 

But exposing us would require them to rat out Supreme Council members. Of bribery! Vandensko’s got to be nuts to do that!

Bjarke isn’t crazy. He just doesn’t understand the ramifications of exposing government officials.

Ramifications to his personal health.

And to his family. And to the family members of every other executive at Vandensko. Heads would roll. Literally.

Why doesn’t Bjarke just cough up the extra money the Council is asking for?

It’s too much, Naseem.

How much?

Our five friends on Council are asking for one-hundred billion for this to go away. Each.

Vandensko can’t pay that!

Of course they can’t. But people are going to start talking if Council doesn’t receive this payoff. They have a lot of pockets to pad. Building inspectors and quality oversight officials won’t stay quiet forever. 

I don’t get it. How is a recall on a few batteries this big of a problem?

Ibrahim’s voice lowered to a vitriolic whisper. It’s not just a few, Naseem!

I mean, the backup battery system we have in our building does its job every time. It was working fine yesterday.

The eight-hour systems aren’t the problem. The long-life batteries are. The ones in the malls, the Sublevels, that are supposed to last weeks. We always knew Vandensko’s large-scale products were cheap, but apparently the three-year failure rate is one hundred per—

I don’t want to know, Ibrahim! I can’t know if I’m supposed to go on doing my job after this is sorted out.

You won’t have a fucking job if this doesn’t get sorted out! Ibrahim shouted.

Ibrahim. . . Grandfather. I just don’t see why you’re telling me any of this, or why you want me to handle it. Wouldn’t Ahamed or Omar be better, considering their normal involvement in this type of—

Their plates are full right now. As is mine. This is an all-hands-on-ship type of moment, you fucking get it?

Sorry. Yes, I get it. Naseem’s grandfather never swore at him. At other people, sure. All the time. But if Ibrahim was this upset, this situation was, indeed, bad.

Handle it. Just get over there and calm Bjarke down for the moment. His grandfather’s voice was loud and grating again and Naseem winced, even though his eardrums had no part in the conversation. Get him to be quiet, Naseem. Before some motherfucking journalist gets wind of it. Understand?

Yes. Should I let you know what—

But Ibrahim had already hung up. Naseem’s knees were weak. He dropped back in his chair unexpectedly. 

“Naseem, you there? Samira asked. “Or are you still on the phone?”

“No. Call’s over. I’m back.” Naseem was nauseous and shaky, and not from the heat in the office or the death-like skiing simulation.

“What’s going on?” Samira asked worriedly. “I didn’t have time to make it very far in that email so if you want me to help, I need more info.”

“It’s. . . uhh.” Naseem trailed off. “It’s. . . not necessarily ad-related, so it doesn’t concern you.”

“Okay,” Samira said, her brow furled. “But considering they’re a client, and we’re an advertising agency, how is it not ad-related?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Hmm.”

“I have to see Bjarke. Now,” Naseem demanded.

“Okay, okay. I’ll call and set up a meeting. Shall I come?”

“No. No, don’t call. And no, I’ll do it alone.” He considered this for a moment. He might need her. Naseem and Bjarke didn’t get along, but the old man had a soft spot for Samira. More like a hard spot for her, the creepy old bastard. Bringing Samira was worth a shot, and considering Naseem might lose his job—and worse if Ibrahim forced him and the other VPs to take the fall— it wouldn’t really matter if she found out about ‘Liqnae’s dirty deeds. 

“On second thought, yes. I need you with me.” He stood.

“Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

“You’ll find out when we get there.” If he told her now, she might just walk out of the building and never return, if she was smart. And she was. But if she was in the room with Bjarke when he and Naseem discussed the payoffs that Council members had taken, Samira would be complicit in the illegal scheme and stuck with ‘Liqnae to the bitter end. And Naseem didn’t feel like losing Samira in the midst of this mounting fiasco.

As they walked out of his office into the expansive bullpen, Samira trailing a step behind, the overhead lights abruptly went out. A startled gasp swept through the office, followed by cursing as the 30-odd employees grumbled about the disruption.

“Come on, nothing new here. Back to work everyone,” Naseem said as he and Samira made their way through the room. The 12-foot-high wall of windows provided plenty of light to navigate by, and everyone was accustomed to rolling blackouts in the summer when the grid struggled to meet the energy demands of the quarter billion people who lived in the UAE. A moment later, the lights came back on, though dimmer, and the AC vents began rattling weakly again as the building’s backup batteries—supplied by none other than Vandensko—kicked into gear.

“This Goddamn never-ending heat wave,” Naseem grunted. “Second outage this week and it’s only Wednesday. I think.”

“Correct. It’s Wednesday,” Samira said.

“Decrepit city can’t even manage to keep the lights on,” Naseem grumbled. “What the hell is happening to this infested country?” He winced in the silence that followed, and was about to mumble an apology to Samira but kept his mouth shut. Tier I’s weren’t expected to apologize.

As they made their way down a dimly lit hallway, Naseem wiping sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, he continued his griping. “It’s going to be a  miserable, miserable day, Samira. Clients going berserk, a million degrees outside, and it’s already a Greek bathhouse in here.”

He opened the emergency stairwell door and held it open for Samira before unbuttoning the collar of his shirt another notch. The air conditioning, which would alternate between pulling power from the grid and the backup batteries, was regulated to 88 degrees until the rolling blackout ceased, which likely wouldn’t happen until sunset.

“This will work to our advantage,” Samira said as they began descending. “With the lights dimmed, we have a chance of slipping past Rachna, Bjarke’s cranky, half-blind receptionist.”

“Now there’s a real bitch.”

“First time she and I were alone, just the two of us,” Samira said, “she eyed me up and down and whispered, ‘If one dresses like a whore, one can expect to be treated as such.”

Naseem burst out laughing, temporarily forgetting the situation he was in. “She actually said that to you?” he asked. 

“Her exact words. I didn’t know if I should laugh or slap her across the face.”

Naseem sighed. “Sometimes I forget how many fanatics there still are in this country.”

“I thank Allah daily that I’m not religious,” said Samira.

“You know, if we do lose Vandensko as a client because of this. . . uh, problem, never having to deal with Bjarke again, or that old bag Rachna, there’s our silver lining.” 

They reached the 80th story and Samira held the door open for Naseem.

“No, after you,” he said, ushering her through, trying and failing to keep his eyes off her body as she went through ahead of him. Samira was thin, dark skinned, almost as tall as Naseem, and had the type of breathtaking beauty that made it hard not to stare. Naseem, for the thousandth time, commended himself on hiring her, though she was more than just easy on the eyes. With her sharp mind in addition to her striking looks, she had helped seal the deal on a new client last month. She’d be a long-term asset to the company, and the best part was that she didn’t even know her value. Naseem could underpay her, not that had any impact on him, for years to come without her batting an eye. Someone with her background would be thankful for just having any paying job, period. 

After one final hallway, Samira opened the door to the elevator room. Normally, the skyscraper’s vertical and horizontal elevator system made it possible, from ‘Liqnae’s offices, to reach this part of the building in about 30 seconds. Just past the long row of elevators, brilliant sunlight blazed through a 20-foot-high ceiling-to-wall window. A closed glass doorway, cut into the window, led to one of Dubai’s pride and joys. Every building with 40 stories or more in the downtown financial sector had a glass skybridge jutting out from each side, connecting it to adjacent buildings. The tallest skyscrapers, which included ‘Liqnae’s building, had a second skybridge at 80 stories. A few of these massive bridges, equipped with progressive-velocity moving sidewalks, stretched half a mile long, cutting diagonally across the roof of the city, hanging by suspension cables as thick as Naseem’s torso.

Naseem pushed through the heavy, triple-paned glass door that led to the skybridge and stopped in his tracks when a blast of sweltering air hit his face like a punch. “Shit!” he stammered, holding his hand up to block the heat. “It’s a furnace.” He closed the door without stepping through. “The AC must have been off for hours in there. But the power only went out, what, five minutes ago?”

“Can a building switch off the AC in the bridges?” Samira asked.

“I guess so. Never happened before.”

“Maybe it’s some type of bug in the system.”

“Who knows. You think we can make it across?”

Samira shrugged. “Vandensko is like five blocks away. I’d say yes, but only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

Naseem’s career lay through that glass tunnel. More than that. His entire life lay through there. Ibrahim was his closest living relative, but that wouldn’t stop the beefy, gray-bearded bastard from pinning this entire fuck-up on everyone below him. Bribes were part of doing business in the UAE, and a major part of getting business in the case of ‘Liqnae. But when they went sour and you got caught, there were consequences. Especially when dealing with sums in the twelve digits. 

“Fucking hell,” Naseem said. “Let’s make this fast. I don’t do well in the heat.”

“Odd choice of a place to live,” Samira muttered.

Naseem didn’t laugh.