Twelve years, and still nothing. At forty, Adiana remains as beautiful as ever, despite food shortages over the last two years leaving her thinner. She sits across from me, picking at her food, the translucent golden dust powdered over her high cheekbones glittering in the candlelight, granting her a regal bearing, like an Ancient Egyptian queen. She looks up at me, catching me watching her, her eyes saying what my heart cannot: We will never be granted permission to be together.
It's my forty-second birthday, I have torn a hole into my savings the size of a house to afford our dinner at Alpha VI's finest restaurant, Le Cercle. She picks at her elegantly plated food, toying with the thin slices of cultured filet mignon arrayed over a bed of caramelised beets, tears glistening in her eyes, her pain palpable, boring into me, stripping me of the last of my hope. She's going to end it between us tonight. I can feel it in my bones.
'Amadi,' she begins, soft, her eyes on mine, mournful, resigned. 'We can't go on like this. We are out of time. You know as well as I the cut-off for me to have a child is forty-one.'
I don't want to hear it. Not yet. I lift my glass. 'Just give me a little longer,' I say, low, glancing away from her at the half-empty racks within the glass-walled wine cellar. 'The situation along the barrier is . . . difficult. But in a month or two, when things are under control, I will have time to push our case again. . .' From the corner of my eye, I watch her take her glass by its stem and sip. Her lips are trembling. She sets her wine back down and looks away, in the opposite direction from me, towards the exit. The tension thickens between us as she fiddles with her napkin. I realise she is considering walking out. My thoughts race, desperate, seeking for something, anything to offer, to stop her from doing what I know she is going to do.
She sets her napkin on the table. 'It's been almost eight months since we last met. The time before, I waited half a year to be able to see you for three hours. I can't go on like this, the not knowing, the waiting, the years dwindling away. It's agony.' A tear slips free. I reach out and brush it away with my thumb, gentle. She quavers against my touch. Her eyes close. 'I love you. So much,' she whispers. A heartbeat passes. I hold my breath, willing her to change her mind. She pulls away from me and slides her chair back. A moment later she is standing before me, quaking, clutching her handbag against her torso, defensive. I rise.
'Please. Sit down,' I murmur, my heart clenching so tight, it aches. With both hands I reach out to her, imploring her to stay. She steps back, eluding me, shaking her head, slow, her dark eyes brilliant in the candlelight. Le Cercle's wealthy clientele eye us, surreptitious, one of the men looks away, uncomfortable, his wife's gaze on Adiana laden with empathy. Wedding bands glint on their fingers. I realise, far too late, my awful blunder. Apart from several tables populated solely by high-ranking government officials, we are surrounded by married couples. Bringing Adiana here has only rubbed salt into a raw, bleeding wound. I glare at the other couples, fierce, daring them to leave their comfort zone, to face how the rest of us are being forced to live.
She shakes her head, ragged, broken. 'When you told me you'd booked a table here I thought the wait was over.' Her stricken look slams into me. 'I thought you were going to propose.' She blinks, hard, her lashes spiky with unshed tears. She shakes her head again. 'I can't live like this anymore. I've thought about it a long time. It's better for both of us if we move on. Alone.'
She sobs, and it cuts me in half. With a last, long, shattering look, she turns and stumbles to the door, her devastation so potent it shears through the dining room in total silence, like a nuclear detonation. I stagger, and look around me, numb, disbelieving, a sense of unreality shrouding me. Muffled weeping seeps from the next table. The man shoots me an unreadable look as he murmurs reassurances to his wife, telling her not to feel guilty. Stunned, helpless, I let the woman I love go knowing there is nothing I can say. Knowing I failed her.
I drain both glasses of wine, pay the bill, and emerge onto the city's empty, lonely streets, blinded by anguish, emptiness, hopelessness. Without her, I have become purposeless. I am no one. Nothing.
Two days later I'm in the war room of the barrier's headquarters, listening, grim, to the emerging crisis developing along the stretch of wall north of the dried-out basin of Baker Lake.
'The time has come to take action,' Major Akron says, glaring at me, hard, his eyes cold, steely. The eyes of a man comfortable with killing. 'At last drone count,' he continues, relentless, 'the number of exclusion zoners massing at the boundary have swelled to almost a half million.' He picks up his coffee from the table, and takes a sip as he comes towards me, where I am seated at the end of the long conference table. 'And they aren't alone. More are coming. A hundred clicks south of Baker Lake, another four hundred thousand are on their way.' Against the opposite wall, a screen scrolls images of the vast heave and swell of the wretched mass of humanity clustering along the base of the barrier. Akron leans his hip against the table, and nods at one of his men, a fit, hardened soldier, a few years younger than me, dressed in smart Delta Force fatigues. He waits by the closed door, his hands clasped behind his back. 'Captain Ryan Maddox's team is ready to use lethal force to push them back. You are in good hands. Captain Maddox and his men represent the best of Global Command's Delta Force. Just give us the word.'
I catch the blue-eyed glance of Captain Maddox as he nods at me from under his beret. 'Sir.'
I ignore him. My gaze strays back to the wall screen. The image of Adiana's stricken look just before she left Le Cercle fleets through my mind, unbidden, damning me afresh. I clench my fists, willing it to stop haunting me, hating myself for trying to contact her late last night on the sat phone. She let it ring for a full minute before I gave up. Guilt bubbles up, hot and oppressive. I would have made her suffer all over again, forcing her to avoid me. I vow never to call her again.
On the screen, a fight breaks out near the wall. Someone lifts an AK-47 into the air and begins firing at the barrier, sweeping the gun back and forth at arms' length over their head. The bullets ricochet off the barrier's shield back into the crowd. Further back, bodies crumple. Pandemonium breaks out.
Akron sips his coffee again. He sets the mug down on the table with a quiet thud. 'Major Ezenwa,' he says, pulling my attention back to him. 'Let my men do their job. I would rather not have to escalate the matter. We have our orders to contain this.' He lifts an eyebrow and adjusts the position of his coffee mug, so the handle sits at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the table's edge. 'We both know meeting you is just a formality.'
'Just do what you need to do to push them back,' I snap, bridling at his condescension. 'It's hot as hell out there. With the lakes and rivers dried up, they won't last long.'
'Don't be so sure.' Akron mutters, dry, his eyes going back to the screen. 'There's a UFF convoy bringing drilling equipment from Yellowknife. Looks like they plan to settle in, right on our doorstep.' He glances at the closed folder under my hands, meaningful, the one I was supposed to have read this morning.
I say nothing. Instead I get to my feet. First Adiana. Now this. Everything is falling apart, my life mirroring the chaos of the world. I pick up the folder and go to the door. Captain Maddox steps back and opens it for me, deferential, polite, his eyes avoiding mine. I decide I hate him.
'Push them back but do not use excessive force,' I say. 'There are women and children out there.' I pause before continuing, sickened by what I am about to order. 'And take out the convoy. If they don't have water, they will have no choice but to leave.'
Akron suppresses a smile. Satisfaction oozes from him. He salutes me, sharp. 'Sir.'
I walk away, my grip on the folder tight. I'm an engineer, not a soldier. I'm not cut out for this. In my office, I close the door and pour two fingers of whisky. I swallow it all in one go. It helps to smooth the jagged edges inside me, but not much.
Out on the helipad, the steady beat of chopper blades cut through the broiling air. I pour another finger of whisky and knock it back, the amber liquid burning my throat. I will its heated fire to cleanse me of my crime, even as I watch Maddox load up his men, armoured and bristling with weapons—killing machines prepared to mow down thousands of innocents with my permission.
The private line of my sat phone rings. I glance at it. It's Adiana's number. My heart judders to a halt. I nearly answer it as the choppers lift off. I pull back. I'm dirty now, just like Akron. My father would be so disappointed in me if he were still here. For the first time in my life, I'm glad he's not. I punch the decline button. The panel's backlight dims.
In the distance, the thrum of the choppers fade, melding with the hum of the air conditioning system. I open the file and start to read.