It was hard to believe that where there now stood only one gray tree stump, a large forest reserve had once flourished. The myriad of cracks only gave evidence of the ground’s unquenched thirst, which had now lasted for generations. The only thing that did not seem to mind the harsh conditions was the dust, which happily swirled around the figure approaching the tree stump.
He was covered from head to toe in red cloth. The goggles shielding his eyes made him resemble an ancient aviator. His black boots left tiny prints in the sand, which were gobbled up by the dancing dust. In his left hand was a metal staff with a wolf-shaped head. The staff towered over him, which was not a difficult feat. The man was only three feet tall.
In front of the stump, he stopped and inserted the base of the staff in a tiny hole in the middle of the dead wood. At once, his stick gave a bright red glow and the ground to his right opened up, revealing a flight of stairs. He began his descent.
“Halt! Identify yourself!”
Another man, an inch taller than him, appeared from the darkness. He had a staff of his own, and pointed its tip directly at the visitor’s heart. The man in red had expected this.
“It is only me. Tilinde.”
Upon recognizing the speaker, the man relaxed. “We were wondering when you would be back. It’s been weeks.”
“There was much to do, Mowa. But I am here now. Are the Chintali down for the night?”
“All but one,” Mowa replied. “Chuma is waiting for you. He said you are to see him immediately after decontamination.”
Tilinde sighed as he stepped into the large cylindrical tube that was the decontamination chamber. The Chintali, the tall people, were always so impatient.
The fluorescent lights stung his eyes as he and Mowa walked towards the farthest cabin in the bunker. The bunker itself was the size of three football fields. It served its purpose well, providing food and shelter, especially for the Chintali. They never stepped outside.
“See anything interesting up there?” Mowa interrupted Tilinde’s thoughts.
“Do you mean the earth’s surface or on Lunarhide?” Tilinde asked back, smiling.
“On the surface, everything is the same. Not much has changed on Lunarhide, either. Just the usual eating, drinking and barking orders. I could not wait to come back.”
The door to Chuma’s cabin was similar to a bank vault’s. This door, though, only opened from the inside. Tilinde was about to press the intercom button on a small panel when the door opened. Inside, a man, about six feet tall, sat hunched at a table, fiddling with a plastic worksuit. He did not look up.
“You may go, Mowa, thank you.” Only after the door had closed behind the retreating guard did the Chintali leader look at Tilinde. His hair, once completely dark, now had gray tints in it and had a few patches missing. His smooth brown skin had a few ridges. “What’s the word from Lunarhide?”
“They say water will be delivered in a week’s time, great leader. The first consignment is going to North America, then Europe…”
Chuma waved a dismissive hand and Tilinde fell silent. “As usual, Africa will be last. Why the hell do we even have council representatives up there?”
Tilinde said nothing. He knew quite well what Africa’s council representatives were doing on the moon; making merry along with other continents’ representatives and the others who had managed to buy plots on the previously-uninhabitable satellite.
“Did they say anything else? Did you mention the disappearance of your kind?”
Your kind. Tilinde resented that, but he calmed himself. “They said it is our problem, that the nchewe have devoured them. They cannot spare anyone else.”
Lines of frustration grew on Chuma’s forehead. “That is unacceptable. What do they expect us to do then? Go out there and fight those mutant dogs ourselves? We are already short of Akafula as it is. We cannot afford to lose more.”
If Chuma had noticed the look of rage on the other man’s face when making that statement, he did not show it. “Anyway, we will deal with that later. You may go to your quarters. How did you travel back, by the way? Shuttle?”
“They beamed me down, great leader.”
His head had barely hit the pillow when a tiny flashlight shone in his face. “So, what did the old fart say?
Tilinde only sighed. “You are supposed to be asleep, Malinga. Don’t you have maintenance works tomorrow?”
The tiny female figure pulled itself up and sat on Tilinde’s bed. “I can do electrical maintenance in my sleep, and you know it. So, tell me. What did Chuma say? More orders, or did he just rant about his betters on Lunarhide?”
“Keep your voice down. He was the same as always; too preoccupied to want to talk about anything else.”
Malinga’s teeth seemed to glow in the battery-powered light. “So he does not suspect a thing?”
“No, he does not and it will stay that way. Now, go away and leave me in peace. I have missed my bed and would like to get some sleep.”
The next few days were going to be crucial and he needed as much rest as he could get.
“I will leave you to your bed, your majesty,” Malinga snickered, jumping off the bed. “At least you can sleep in private. Some of us worker bees cannot do that, what with other people constantly in the room. Of course, I would not have to worry about my living arrangements if you married me.”
Tilinde was still smiling when Malinga closed the cabin door behind her. That woman is something else, he thought to himself just before he fell asleep.
For years, Earth was the only habitable planet known to man in its solar system. Not only was it abundant in trees and other forms of vegetation, but it was also a major source of fresh water, with its rivers and lakes. That was before The Chilala. Now, five centuries after the disaster, the planet had turned into a skeleton. All the good things that had roamed the earth were now only retold by Chuma and a few others who bothered to remember.
The Chilala happened only two hundred years after the 20th Climate Change Conference. Mother Nature decided she had had enough. There were droughts. Glaciers melted, resulting in rising water levels. Whatever plant was not killed by the intense heat was destroyed by flooding. Then the rains left and the heat came again, this time even more fierce.
Rivers, lakes and finally oceans dried up. Heatwaves came and killed hundreds of thousands. Even people from areas in Africa, known for withstanding high temperatures, did not stand a chance. Along with the heat came skin diseases. Everyone was sure to perish. Everyone, that is, except one group.
The Akafula, as the short ones were called by the Chintali, had lived peacefully in the great Chikangawa desert, surviving in the wild without any need for man’s technology or his politics. All that changed when the Chilala came. The Akafula wandered the barren earth, using their primitive skills to survive. They were unaffected by the immense heat or diseases caused by the sun’s rays. They were free to roam the earth while the Chintali scurried away to live underground. The Chintali noticed their uniqueness and, overnight, a single group of people became valuable. With the help of ships from the Chintali from Lunarhide, the Akafula were rounded up like cattle and forced to live in the bunkers. They became the Chintali’s servants, with a few acting as liaisons between those still on Earth and the elite on Lunarhide. They handled maintenance work under the supervision of the Chintali. They cooked and cleaned. In turn, they lived among their tall masters in their underground bunkers.
In the three hundred years that had passed since The Chilala, the Chintali had become more reclusive. Tilinde still did not understand how the tall people could stay so long without sunshine, without fresh air. Granted, the air outside was full of dust, but it was fresh. It was certainly better than being constantly under fluorescent light, eating, drinking and playing handheld video games all day.
“Something on your pebble-sized brain keeping you from working, little man?”
There was no mistaking the voice that brought Tilinde back. “What do you want, Jere?”
Even by Chintali standards, the bunker’s chief security officer was a mountain. Slightly over six feet tall and with over a hundred kilos on him.
“Heard you were back from your vacation,” Jere started. “I was off duty so I was not there to welcome you. How is your concubine up there, Your Highness?” He made a mock curtsy. Tilinde said nothing.
“Do not worry. I took good care of your little girlfriend here while you were away. Wouldn’t want her pretty little face getting electrocuted, would we?”
Tilinde’s ears were ringing. He knew he could not take on Jere, but his fury tempted him. It took great effort to restrain himself. Alarm replaced anger when he heard something else instead; a dog barking. Then people screaming.
Jere easily overtook Tilinde as they rushed toward the commotion. He arrived just in time to see Mowa’s staff spit a flurry of red electricity in the direction of a furry creature the size of a baby elephant, which was foaming at the mouth and howling. The electricity put an end to both. It stiffened and, with smoke wafting from its fur, dropped to the concrete floor.
Tilinde took charge at once. “Mowa, make sure that thing is really dead. Somebody give me a casualty report!”
Jere, however, was inching towards Mowa. “Forget the bloody report; how the hell did those meat-loving, disease-infested dogs get in here? Who was manning the entrance?”
“I do not know,” whimpered Mowa. “The door was opened from the outside. When I went to check, it bit me and charged down here. Along with two others.”
Everyone immediately shrank back from the guard. A few red glows could be seen once again, along with a few murmurs. “He’s been bitten!”
“They travel in packs! There could be more of them about!”
“Check on the children!”
“That’s enough, all of you.” Chuma had silently joined the crowd. “The other nchewe fled the bunker. This was the last one. Escort the wounded to the clinic. That includes you, Mowa. The rest of you, go back to your duties.” He turned to Tilinde and Jere. “You two come with me. Now.”
As he turned to follow Chuma, Tilinde was stopped by Mowa. “They took three of us.” Tilinde knew what was coming even before the little guard spoke again. “I am sorry, Tilinde. Malinga was one of them.”
“We need to reinforce our defences,” Jere said before the three of them had sat down. “Those oversized mutts have never dared enter the bunker before. We must do something, and whoever let it happen must be punished!”
Tilinde was calm. “I agree that something must be done. We must go after them. These attacks are becoming more frequent. Those things travel in packs, and if they have made this their territory, they are not going to stop.”
The mockery in Jere’s tone was distinctive. “Go after them, eh? And just how do you propose we do that, Mr. Hawking? Some of us cannot walk the earth’s surface anymore, remember?”
Tilinde ignored the jibe. “I’ll go. I still have a few of my people left. We can go out there and fight.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Jere retorted. “Be forever known as the man under whose watch an entire clan disappeared. As if you aren’t mediocre already. You may be able to walk up there, but what the hell do you know about combat?”
“That’s enough from the both of you!” Chuma had sat down and not moved since, but his skin had taken an unhealthy shade of grey.
“You are both right. We must reinforce our defences, but we also have to eliminate the threat. You are also both wrong. Tilinde, those few men you have mentioned are the only Akafula we have left. We cannot risk sending all of you out there. You will take five of them. In addition, you will be accompanied by Jere, two other Chintali guards, and me.”
Chuma had expected the looks of shock on both Tilinde and Jere’s faces. “I have found a solution, something I have been working on for the past year.” Chuma pressed a button on his metal desk and a cabinet behind him opened, revealing a plastic suit that Tilinde had seen before. Only this time, there were two more.
“I suggest you both get some sleep. We start off early tomorrow morning.”
The four Chintali and six Akafula surveyed their surroundings. The vast desert slept peacefully in the dusk, while the wind played with the sand
“This isn’t exactly a lot to pine for, is it? It looks like we haven’t missed much.” Jere said through his protective mask.
“Believe me, Jere, we have,” Chuma said. “Just a few centuries ago, this land was green with grass and tall trees while fresh water ran from brook to river to lake, full of fish. We should curse our ancestors for ruining this planet.” The old man looked like he was about to cry. “I am over sixty years old. I talk about fish, about the famous Chambo that was abundant in Lake Malawi and yet, sadly, I have never seen a fish in my entire life, let alone tasted it. All I know about fish, trees and crops, I learned from the ancient books.”
Tilinde said nothing as he followed their tracker, a bouncy Akafula man who kept sniffing the air. He knew better than to talk to the Chintali leader when he was in such a melancholic mood. Besides, he could not afford to pay much attention to the old man’s musings. Not today.
The tracker stopped, his eyes darted carefully around the vicinity. Tilinde could sense something, but Chuma’s vision turned out to be better in the dark. “There is something up ahead,” he said. “I can hardly believe it, but I see lights.”
“Lights? Around here? That’s impossible,” Jere said to no one in particular. He was about to continue, but the tracker’s screams grabbed his attention. The tracker was lifted off his feet by a set of great big jaws and carried off into the night.
Tilinde’s staff was already firing. Two of the nchewe were down even before Jere had fired a single shot. In spite of their size, the nchewe were surprisingly stealthy. One of the big dogs went for Chuma’s neck, but was down in a nanosecond, a short burst from Tilinde’s staff flinging it onto its side. One of the Chintali guards was not so lucky; his throat was ripped open and he was dead before his face hit the ground.
“Head towards the light!” Tilinde’s voice was barely audible. The others did not need to be told twice. Chuma led the way, with Tilinde and Jere making up the rear. The big man was surprisingly agile, taking out two nchewe with his staff while twisting and turning.
Chuma could see the lights clearer. They belonged to several large concrete buildings which were surrounded by a wire-mesh fence. What was even more disturbing was the giant gate. It slid open with ease, as if it were electric and not being pushed by two men, neither one of whom was more than three feet tall. Behind Chuma, the second Chintali guard fell and was immediately mauled.
Tilinde noticed the slackening steps of the old man as they approached the gate. “Get in!” He shouted, and Chuma obeyed, still dazed by the picture in front of him. So absorbed was he that he did not hear the giant gate slide shut. What he did hear a few seconds later was the pounding, as well as the accompanying voice.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing? Let me in!”
The Chintali leader nearly fell to his knees as he turned around and watched his head of security try to fight of a dozen mutated dogs on his own. The nchewe circled and, like meerkats, nibbled at him. Jere took two down before his legs finally could take no more. His colossal frame crashed to the ground, and like vultures, the nchewe pounced. Inside the compound, Tilinde and the others watched.
“Are you mad? Help him! Let him in!” Chuma shouted amidst the noise of flesh being ripped from what was once a giant of a man. Tilinde shook his head. “It is too late for him now, great leader. You, on the other hand, are safe here. The nchewe will not harm us.”
For the first time, Chuma really opened his eyes. He was in a very sophisticated compound. There were lights. Each building had what appeared to be large air conditioners outside. To Chuma’s bewilderment, some women were carrying clay pots on their heads, full of water. Water, the lifesaver he had believed was no longer available on Earth. Most important of all, everyone inside the compound, with the exception of the Chintali leader, was no more than four feet tall. Chuma was alone with scores of Akafula, most of whom he had presumed dead.
As if understanding Chuma’s confusion, Tilinde spoke again. “Welcome to our home, great leader. I will have to stop calling you that, though, I’m afraid. Around here, I am the leader. I am sorry about Jere’s death but he was one oppressor this community can gladly do without.”
“Tilinde, what is all this? What have you done?”
“What I have done, great leader, is free my people. For years, we have been exploited by your kind, due to a disaster of both our ancestors’ making. They destroyed the earth, ignored all the warnings on climate change and global warming. Our ancestors exploited Mother Nature until she could take it no longer. She struck back.”
“Spare me the history lesson. I know quite well what happened five centuries ago,” the Chintali leader spat, some of the confusion and fear having left him. “It does not justify your betrayal.”
“On the contrary, great leader, The Chilala is what brought us here. When it struck, some of your wealthy friends fled, taking up permanent residence on Lunarhide. The rest of you either died or went underground. You then found out that due to certain genetic disorders, we could still roam the earth’s surface. With the help of the ships from Lunarhide, you immediately rounded us up, under threat of annihilation. We were first turned into your guinea pigs in your search for cures and skin creams in order for you to walk the Earth’s surface once more. When that did not work, you made us your servants. A precious commodity.”
Tilinde paused, his cold stare not leaving the man who towered over him. He spoke again, seemingly oblivious to everyone else but Chuma, even when Malinga came to his side. “We worked for you, we learnt all we could. We acquired your technology and other skills, for three hundred years. Our time on the surface also taught us many things. Like how to tame the nchewe, for example. We have had to kill a few, of course, but we had to maintain the ruse. Every one of us taken from the bunker is alive and well, as you can see. They can only attack us when we let them, but they can freely attack you. It was the perfect way of leaving without any Chintali suspecting anything. We are all happy here.”
Chuma did not speak but his face might as well have been papyrus paper. “I know what you’re thinking,” Tilinde said, smugly. “We will survive. You see, the one thing that finally made me implement this plan was the water. We can and we will grow our own food. And with the skills we learnt from our time in the bunker, we will not need the Chintali. But I needed you, great leader; their most intelligent being. When I saw those suits, I realised it was only a matter of time before you started exploring the surface, a thing that could jeopardize everything. So you can imagine my delight when you volunteered to come along on our hunt.”
Tilinde looked at the old man again, as the gate behind him slid open once more. “I do hope you will enjoy your stay here. Please excuse me while I go back with a few nchewe to free the rest of my people, and to tell the Chintali news of your demise, of course.” The old Chintali was still in shock. He tried one more threat, in desperation.
“You know what our friends on Lunarhide will do. They won’t stand for this! You will have warships all over this place soon!”
Tilinde only smiled. “I am your liaison, remember? As long as I tell them everything is alright down here, they will believe it. And, should they decide to start a war, your own technology will help us build our own weapons. The earth’s surface is ours now, great leader. Change has come, and you will be here to witness it. Just do not take off that suit.”