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.