See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Previous Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3| Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8
LOCATION: PERSEUS ARM OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY
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YEAR: 4097 HIJRI – 565 UNITED ARMY CALENDAR
United Army Squad 3690 of the UA Starburst, in order of rank:
- Yasin “Cutter” Rahman – Captain. Combat strategy master.
- Weili Menco Zhang – Corporal. Xeno-geographer. Calm and cool in battle. Carries a lasgun and a tekpi (trident).
- Ammar Abuzaid – Master Sergeant. Botanist and combat trainer. Oldest member of the squad. Quran hafedh.
- Bilal Mustafa – Fleet Officer. Xenobiologist, married to Rowaida.
- Rowaida Ali – Fleet Officer. Ship’s pilot, mechanic and fabricator, married to Bilal.
- Samir “Smasher” Sufyan – Specialist. Drone tech and explosives expert. Carries an axe. Multiple awards for valor, but also repeated misconduct violations.
- Ami Abdulghaffar – Specialist. Medic and psychotherapist.
- Amina Quraishi – Private First Class. Computer tech and AI diagnostics. Hijabi. Silat expert. Fearless.
- Hisham – Private. Grenadier, plus supplies & requisitions.
- Summer – Private. Riflecarrier and food services.
- Tarek – Private. Riflecarrier and janitorial. 18 years old.
* * *
[Author’s Note: I’m planning to go back to the battle on the queenship and make a few changes. One is that Maryam Munir was not killed, but was badly wounded and survived]
Excerpt from The Life and Death of Yasin Rahman, By Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
It’s well known that Ammar Abuzaid taught Rahman the art of combat. That represented only a sliver of their relationship. He taught him spirituality, ethics, and simple common sense. He taught him to question orders and to think for himself. Anyone who believes that these are not desirable qualities in a soldier should study the histories of the countless genocides that humanity has perpetrated.
Abuzaid was Rahman’s mentor, teacher, and friend. The truth is that in the ways that count, Abuzaid was Rahman’s second father.
This takes nothing away from Engineer Abdussamad Rahman. He was a hero. The fact that the official record does not reflect this is a travesty.
So who influenced Yasin Rahman more, Abuzaid or Abdussamad?
Why not his mother? Abida Ansar was a pious and kind woman who never missed a salat, and never prepared a family meal without making an extra pot for the refugees that crowded the roads in Selangor. She even adopted an orphan and raised him as her own.
These are the people who shaped Yasin Rahman.
* * *
Rahman came awake from a nightmare in which he was back on the queenship. The water on the floor of the ship was bloody, ripe, and metallic, staining everything. His teeth hurt, and he was cold. Dead crabs were piled in pyramids that reached the sky. Rahman trudged between two columns of UA soldiers who stood saluting him. Some were missing arms, others balanced on one leg. Others were dead, their faces fish belly white, their bodies hacked or punctured, yet they stood, eyeing him as he passed. His father rode by, mounted on the back of a massive queen crab. He wore his best Eid outfit, a shimmering white suit that was spotted with blood, and as he passed he turned to regard Rahman and shook his head sadly. Rahman wanted to argue and say, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know about all these civilians.” But when he tried to speak, a mouthful of blood poured from his mouth.
“Wake up boss,” a mellifluous female voice said. “You’re having a bad dream. Wake up. You’re safe.”
He opened his eyes. His heart was hammering. He was still in the autodoc chamber, but the machine was at rest. The procedures were finished. A pleasant aroma reached him. Something floral. He could not see out of his left eye. He reached up and touched it, and felt smooth metal beneath his fingers.
“You are awake,” the autodoc observed. “Your new eye will come online within a few hours. Your brain needs time to adapt to the new neural connections. I have been instructed to tell you that command wishes to debrief you ASAP.”
Rahman sat up, ran a hand over his smooth cheeks and then over his shaved scalp. His body was stiff and sore, but serviceable. “You cut off my hair.”
“This is a command highliner. They do not take well to the sloppy habits of you deep space mavericks. I shaved and bathed you too. There is a fresh uniform on the table beside the operating bed.”
Rahman’s stomach rumbled. The autodoc must have heard it, because it said, “I fed you intravenously, but you will need real food soon. A lot of it.”
The curved walls of the concave bed retracted. Rahman wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead, threw his legs over the side, and stood. A wave of dizziness hit him and he swayed, his vision spotted with black. The autodoc whirred and reached out a padded arm, gripping his upper arm to steady him. Rahman waved it off. “I’m okay.”
He wasn’t at all sure that this was true. He’d been through many battles. But something had shifted inside him, he could feel it.
The crabs had come boiling out of the Ophiuchus constellation three hundred years ago, attacking human worlds all across settled space. Since then, generations of youth -especially those who were idealistic, naive, foolish, or poor- had sacrificed themselves on the altar of war. Rahman’s own childhood seemed so far away. Memories of battle and killing consumed his waking hours and his dreams, and he was tired of it. He would never admit that, but yes, he was exhausted to the marrow. Tired of killing, tired of intemperate and toxic worlds, vacuum-dried food, and watching young men and women die.
And when he was done with military service, then what? Rahman could kill anything that moved, but what would he do after service?
He was tired even of killing crabs. They way the wounded sometimes looked at you with pleading eyes. The guttural, groaning sound they made, and their staccato, teeth-clacking language that no one could understand. The dying cries that, he could almost imagine, were calls for their mamas, or to go home, or expressions of fear. The universal language of war.
Every recruit must serve twenty five years. That meant he faced thirteen more years of this nightmare. Rahman was twenty seven, and though he seemed fit and healthy, more and more of his body was artificial. Was he still human? Twelve warping years in this war. Seriously wounded twenty three times. Correction – twenty four now. Artificial spleen and right knee, and now the liver and left eye as well. Left arm and left calf were regens -naturally regenerated with a stemwash- though you’d never know. His spine had been severed and repaired. Artificial nervous system too, nano-built, since his own had been fried by a wave gun way back when he was nineteen.
He was desolation walking. Twelve years of killing crabs all across the systems and worlds of the Perseus arm had left him as bleak inside as a world burned by a wave fusion device. Twelve years of blasting armor and shells, and gutting soft insides with a nanoknife. Twelve years of alien screams and sobs, twelve years of blood.
“Captain Rahman,” the autodoc inquired. “Are you functioning normally?”
Rahman waved a hand. “Fine. Alhamdulillah.”
The World in Mono
The new uniform was the same as his old one: black pants and green long-sleeved top, with rank buttons on one shoulder. Along with the uniform, he wore a skinsuit collar, a utility belt, a nano-knife strapped to one leg and a sonic pistol rigged to one shoulder. Smart goggles were folded into a pocket, though if this new artificial eye was all the autodoc claimed, he might never need the smart goggles again. Folding laser rifles were also part of the soldier’s standard kit, but were not normally carried while on board large ships like this.
The uniform was form fitting and bullet resistant, yet felt cool and soft against his skin. It was made, Rahman knew, of smart fabric embedded with carbon nanotubes. The cloth let air and moisture pass, but blocked harmful chemical agents and even viruses.
When Rahman exited the autodoc chamber, he found Zhang, Ami, Amina, and Abuzaid in the waiting room immediately outside the chamber. It was a large but purely functional room with molded aerogel benches against the walls, and a mini kitchen stocked with a coffee maker and a stack of vacuum sealed Ready Meals.
Viewing the world with only one eye, Rahman saw everything in mono, with no depth perception. It was disconcerting, and he stood motionless in the recessed doorway, adjusting to this new way of seeing.
Zhang was asleep on the floor against the wall, beneath one of the benches, her medium-length black hair fanned out over the boots she used as a pillow. Her deadly trident was tucked into the crook of her arm like a baby. As if she needed it to fight the battles in her dreams. Or as if she were ready to open her eyes and go to war in an instant. It was a wonder she didn’t stab her own eye out. But Rahman knew that she was familiar with that trident as with her own hands.
Abuzaid, who had somehow evaded the barber and sported a shaggy crewcut and his usual goatee, sat cross legged near Zhang, protectively. He rocked gently back and forth as he recited semi-audibly from a small printed copy of the Quran. Rahman knew that Abuzaid owned several printed books -made of actual paper- yet he still found it remarkable. Out in the deepity deeps, paper books were a virtual unknown. Why bother, when you could just as easily read from your skinpad? The skinpad was no brain drive, but it could still hold ten thousand books with ease.
She Crashed My Hovercar
Amina stood in the center of the room with Ami, dancing sinuously as she taught the blue eyed medic a Silat combat dance.
They all wore new uniforms, and Rahman saw at a glance that Zhang had been promoted to corporal as she’d said, and Ami to specialist. Abuzaid, however, remained a master sergeant, and Amina was still a private first class.
Rahman frowned. After that last battle, Abuzaid had earned a bump up. Rahman would have a word with someone about that. As for Amina Quraishi, he was not sure yet what he wanted to do with her. He had not forgotten her shocking act of disobedience on the queenship.
“Like this,” Amina said, instructing Ami. “Rotate on the balls of your feet. All power in martial arts comes from body rotation, body weight or footwork.”
One of Abuzaid’s axioms. Rahman too had heard it a thousand times.
Hijabis had the option to wear a thigh-length black and green tunic over the uniform for modesty, and Amina, a small woman who stood 1.58 meters tall, was the only one to avail herself of this. She was playing a song on her skinpad. She must have logged into the ship’s music library through her i-link. A Tellian instrument that sounded like air howling through a hull breach was accompanied by hand clapping, while the singer crooned a cheerful chant.
It was a bizarre, self-contradictory style of music, and it set Rahman’s nerves on edge.
The ladies sang in unison:
She stole my soul, and won’t give it back.
She crashed my hovercar on 62 Track.
She dumped my holoscreen in Andamar Lake.
I should forget her but it keeps me awake.
I know it’s sad, she was a maniac.
She stole my soul, and won’t give it back.
Ami was keeping up gamely, her short blonde hair bobbing as she moved, but Amina began to accelerate. She drew her kerambit – that wicked little curved blade – and leaped into the air, kicking and slashing in complex patterns. She came down in a lunging stomp, spun in a low circle, rolled and stood smoothly, pulling one foot up into a sweeping motion.
Ami gave up and stood, arms akimbo, breathing hard. Abuzaid did not even look up. He was the one who’d taught Amina these Silat dances and the art of Silat itself, just as he’d taught Rahman. But Amina had taken the art and run with it, developing her own techniques and turning her skills into a weapon deadlier than a laser rifle. It was why, after so many battles, she was still alive, in spite of her diminutive size.
As Amina leaped and spun, Rahman focused on her, trying to track her movements. The doorway to the autodoc chamber was recessed, and none of his four crew members had seen him yet.
Suddenly his left eye came online in infrared mode, layering the image data over his regular vision so that he saw both at once. Amina was a fiery ball of motion, literally just the outline of a human, glowing red like a bonfire. Ami was a bright orange shape, while Abuzaid and Zhang were pale yellow. Abuzaid’s cup of coffee was a burning coal, while the floors and walls of the room were blue or purple.
In addition, the eye displayed statistics next to various objects. Body temperatures, weapons detection, clothing fabric… Whatever Rahman focused on, the data popped up in his field of vision. Behind this was another, more normal layer of imagery. It was a dizzying information overload, and he put out a hand, reaching for the wall. He misjudged the distance to the wall, however, and stumbled out of the recessed doorway.
“Captain!” Ami cried out, and they all rushed to him, even Zhang, though her sleepy pale yellow form moved more slowly.
The song still emanated from Amina’s skinpad:
She hit me with a cocoa flapjack.
She almost shot me when she had a flashback.
I swear I tried all I could think to do.
I called her sweetie and she threw her shoe.
I wrote a love poem, she called me a hack.
She stole my soul, and she won’t give it back.
That second stanza wasn’t nearly as funny as the first. The song had taken a tragic turn. The woman sounded like a war vet. Rahman breathed hard, staring at the hazy purple floor. His eye superimposed the floor’s data in a scrolling stream:
PLASTEEL AEROGEL ALLOY. THICKNESS 0.5 METERS. MELTING POINT 2,204° CELSIUS. BLAST RESISTANCE FACTOR –
He closed his eyelids, shutting out the cacophonous visual stream. Even then, the golden eye continued to feed data. Apparently it could see the world even through his eyelid. Starry sky, this was intolerable. He had to return to the autodoc and demand that it regrow his own natural eye. Forget the million e-creds. He had to be able to function, for sky’s sake.
His crewmates were all talking, asking what was wrong. He held up a hand. “Give me a minute. I’m having trouble adjusting to the new eye. What is that horrible music?”
The music shut off. “Sorry,” Amina mumbled. “It’s Tellian blues. All the rage now. We missed a lot when we were out in the deeps.”
I Know Machines
“Boss,” said a pleasant female voice inside his head. “I can help you. The new eye is a machine, and I know machines. I was one, after all.”
“SAI?” SubhanAllah, he’d thought she was just his imagination, or a figment of his dreams. Yes, he remembered downloading her into his brain drive, but she hadn’t talked to him like this lately, except in that weird fever dream he’d had in the autodoc.
“I told you, it’s Sayana now. Listen boss, the eye is built on the principle of two way communication, just like your regular eye. You simply will your normal eye to open or close, or to look left or right, and it does so, right? This artificial eye is tied into your nervous system and brain. Try to operate it the same way. Send it a thought command.”
Rahman did so, telling the eye to shut off infrared mode. Instantly the glowing colors vanished, replaced by the normal spectral range. The streaming data was still there, and again Rahman sent a command. The data vanished. Now he saw everything in normal stereo vision, though it seemed that the lines were sharper, the colors more vivid. This must be how a falcon or octopus saw the world. Brighter and clearer, like the stars in the deepity deeps. Even this was a bit strange, but he could get used to it.
Just to test it out, he turned the data back on. His crew was clustered around him. Abuzaid had a hold of his arm, while Ami was scanning his eyes with a handheld tool. The data field provided continuous information about whatever person he focused on, focusing on tactical capability estimates. He turned it off again, then let out a long breath. Alhamduillah.
He owed Sayana thanks, but now was not the time. A conversation was in order. She could not stay in his head indefinitely. Options must be considered, and a plan made.
“I’m okay,” he said. Abuzaid gave him a reassuring squeeze, while Zhang smiled shyly and looked away. She was barefoot, and one side of her face bore the imprint of her boot’s mag strap.
“You look,” Ami said, “like a crab shot you with one of those big bullets of theirs and it stuck in your face. Can you actually see anything through that metal ball?”
“Thanks a lot. Yes, I see fine. How’s the squad?”
“Maryam Munir is still in the autodoc,” Zhang replied. When it came to squad business the shyness disappeared. “It’s still growing her new arm and leg. But she’s in a coma. Captain… The autodoc says she’s brain dead. The doctors want to pull the plug.”
Rahman looked at each of his squad members in turn. Abuzaid stood as a professional fighter stands, balanced on his feet, shoulders slightly flexed, arms hanging at his sides. As always, he looked placid. Rahman wondered how that was possible. Abuzaid had been in this war longer than Rahman. How was he not half dead inside from all they had seen and done? How was he not red-eyed, anemic, and sour, which was how Rahman felt. Was it because of his faith? That little paper Quran he carried with him?
Zhang wore a purple violet in her hair, as she often did when off duty. Back on the Starburst, Abuzaid had grown them in the greenhouse – the one non-essential, non-food item he’d nurtured. Rahman guessed that he’d grown them just for Zhang. The two of them had always been close, like an uncle and niece. But where had she gotten this one?
Ami was watching Rahman appraisingly, while Amina stood hard at attention as usual. She was a warrior down to the marrow.
What Were You Thinking?
“You all fought well on the queenship,” he told them. “You were like battle angels. Abuzaid, Zhang, I expected nothing less from you. You fought with tremendous courage. Abdulghaffar, I know you haven’t been with us that long, but so far I’m impressed.”
“Thank you sir,” Ami murmured. “That means a lot.”
Rahman turned his gaze to Amina. “As for you, PFC Quraishi.” His voice was granite, and the small woman immediately came to even stiffer attention, if that was possible.
“What did you think you were doing back there on the queenship? Tell me why I shouldn’t report you for insubordination and rebellion. I sincerely want to know. ”
“Captain,” Ami started to say, “I’m sure she -”
Rahman held up a finger for silence, not taking his eyes off Quraishi. The small hijabi turned to look at him, and her gaze was impenetrable. Her eyes were as black as her uniform, and her skin was deep mahogany. She’d served with Rahman a long time, and he knew a bit about her. Her family was old NewMalaysian nobility, but her grandfather had lost it all in a series of bad investments. Bit by bit her family sold off everything they owned, including their home, until in the end they were reduced to crowding into a squalid apartment in the desperate ghettos of South Selangor. That was where Amina had been raised, fighting and stealing to survive amid the predators and gangs. She might look like a little woman, but her body was muscled underneath that tunic, Rahman was sure, and her heart was solid plasteel.
“Sir, what do you mean?” Amina replied flatly.
“You know exactly what I mean.” Rahman felt a cold anger growing. “We were surrounded. I made a deal with the crabs. No harm to the queen, in exchange for safe passage to the troop carrier.” He repeated himself, emphasizing the words: “I, your commander, made a deal in good faith, to save us all. The crabs opened a way for us. We were as good as out. Yet you charged up that pyramid after Smasher like a dog after its master. What the warp were you thinking? Did you not understand the situation?”
It Was A Queen
Amina stood rigidly, saying nothing.
“Sir,” she whispered. “It was a queen.”
“I made a deal!” Rahman barked. “You acted against the interests of all the humans on that ship. How many more soldiers died because of the queen’s death? Who will carry the burden of those deaths? I ask again, what were you thinking?”
Amina trembled silently.
“I want an answer!”
Amina’s self-control broke. “IT WAS A QUEEN!” she shrieked. “I was thinking, kill that damned queen and end this war. I was thinking that I’m sick to my soul of killing, sick of seeing their sad eyes when I cut them open, sick of the emptiness of the deepity deeps, sick of the crap food, sick of knowing that for every day we spend in FTL, weeks are passing back home.” She gazed at Rahman and tears began to stream. In all the years he’d known her, Rahman had never seen her cry.
“I was thinking,” Amina went on, “that I want to go home. I want to see my parents, if they’re still alive, and my brothers and sisters. Kill the queen, end the war. That’s all.”
Rahman looked at her sadly. “You’re a fool. They have hundreds of princesses, on hundreds of worlds and ships. When a queen is killed, they simply choose another.”
Amina wiped her tears with a sleeve. “I’m sorry, sir.” Her voice shook. “I never meant to betray you. When you said stop, I stopped.”
“Speaking of which,” Rahman said, “where’s Smasher?”
“We haven’t seen much of him,” Zhang replied. “He spends his time in the combat training room, or in the mess.”
Rahman nodded. “Let’s go see Maryam.” He hadn’t forgotten that he’d been ordered to report to command for debrief, but warp it. Maryam was more important.
“Sir?” Amina’s voice was pleading. “Can you forgive me?”
Rahman noted that she had not said, Will you report me?
“Never disobey me in battle again,” he said mildly.
Amina covered her face with her hands and wept. Ami pulled the smaller woman into an embrace and glared at Rahman with those icy blue eyes of hers.
A Ringed City
The carrier was literally the size of a small city. Artificial gravity was energy intensive, and to maintain it on a ship this size would be prohibitively expensive. So the carrier consisted of a gravity-free central cylinder, surrounded by a massive hollow tube that rotated around the central cylinder, producing gravity by means of centrifugal motion. The tube contained fifty two interlocking segments, of which only three on each end did not rotate, as they were attached by huge struts to the central core. All human operations and habitations existed on this rotating tube.
The central cylinder, which was practically uninhabited by humans, housed the engine and all other machinery, along with storage depots and AI-run manufacturing facilities. This cylinder, which had no gravity, was run entirely by AIs and simple robots.
A carrier this size, Rahman knew, probably carried a complement of five hundred fox fighters, which was what the UA Starburst had been. Silly name, but someone in the distant past had gotten the idea that the little fighters looked like flying foxes, and the name had stuck. The ship would also be studded with all manner of AI-operated guns and missile systems.
Zhang informed Rahman that Maryam Munir was being kept in a lower class of autodoc used to treat non-officers and non-commissioned officers. “It’s where we were treated,” Zhang said. “The autodocs are capable. Just no extras.”
“We didn’t get the whole shave, haircut, and fancy cologne treatment,” Ami added.
Rahman rolled his eyes. “I didn’t get any cologne. I just naturally smell good.” Though actually he thought the autodoc had perfumed him a bit.
Hero of Braneer 2
“We’re on segment five, section C,” Zhang went on. “Maryam is on 25H. Each segment is five hundred meters wide.”
“It’s ten kilometers away? Well, forget about walking.” They had taken a narrow corridor that now fed into a central avenue, which was bustling with traffic. There were soldiers and officers on foot, others buzzing by on hovercars, and drones flying by overhead. The men and women were of all races and colors, though Asian and African faces tended to predominate. Some were Muslim -Rahman saw hijabs, kufis, and men and women with prayer marks on their foreheads- but most were not. Many of them appeared soft to Rahman. Their hands looked smooth, and their eyes lacked the million mile stare that space warriors acquired. A few even had a bit of belly fat.
A flat, open-topped hovercar -some kind of small cargo carrier- came toward them, piloted by a thin, young white man who wore a blue jumpsuit instead of a soldier’s uniform. Rahman stepped in front and held up a hand. The craft spun sideways and tipped away as the driver braked. The attitude jets blasted Rahman with hot air and he fell back a step.
“Are you crazy?” the driver demanded as he righted the craft. He looked them over and noted Rahman’s rank. “Oh… sorry sir. What do you need?”
“A ride to 25H.” Rahman hopped up onto the car, and saw that it actually had eight low-slung seats built in. Perfect. He nodded to the others, who jumped up as well.
“Whoa,” the pilot objected. “You can’t just grab any passing car. Use your skinpad and requisition one. I could even do it for you, Captain…”
“Rahman. And no, we’re not waiting. This one will do.”
The pilot turned in his seat and peered at them. “Rahman? Not Yasin Rahman?”
The pilot’s mouth fell open. “Crap on a crab. You’re famous, sir. You’re the hero of Breena Five. Is it true you destroyed a crab queenship with nothing but a fox fighter?”
Breena Five was the star system closest to where the battle with the queenship had taken place. Rahman gazed flatly at the man. He wanted to laugh bitterly and say, I’m no kind of hero. But what the young man said was technically true, no matter what one might think of it. So he merely said, “Yes.”
The pilot whistled long and low. “I heard you were on board. It’s an honor -”
“25H,” Rahman broke in. “Post-haste.”
“Oh. Sure.” The pilot typed rapidly on his skinpad, and they sped off.
“The hero of Breena Five,” Ami said, and Rahman gave her a glare that shut down the inevitable joke.
Alive Not Because of a Pledge, Dead Not Because of a Curse
Only a moment later Rahman’s i-linked chimed, and an AI chewed him out and informed him that he had an urgent debrief with General Aurangzeb. “The general said to tell you,” the AI reported, “that if you’re not there in fifteen minutes he’ll have you hogtied and laser cooked.” The machine snickered and cut the connection.
There were times when you could break rules and ignore orders, and times when you couldn’t. Rahman told the pilot to stop the car, then turned to his squad mates. “You’ll have to get yourselves another car. I’m supposed to meet with General Aurangzeb in fifteen minutes. Zhang, do not let them disconnect Munir’s life support. Do whatever you have to do. That’s an order.”
“General Aurangzeb!” the pilot enthused. “Wow!”
Zhang nodded. “Consider it done. Hey, Captain?” She looked at him and held his gaze, which was rare for her. Her skin was pale, but her eyes were wide and black. Rahman looked into those eyes and felt frozen in place, as if her eyes had captured him through some magic spell. He saw courage in those dark eyes, and sympathy, and love. Or was that his imagination?
“There’s an ancient Malay proverb,” Zhang said. “Alive not because of a pledge, dead not because of a curse.” She nodded briskly, and hopped off the car, followed by Ami.
Before disembarking, Abuzaid leaned in close and whispered to Rahman. “Two things. One, be very careful with Aurangzeb. He’s a dangerous and ruthless man. A man who ends careers with a word, and more. They say that men who oppose him have a way of disappearing.”
Rahman nodded. “Okay. And?”
“Zhang never left the autodoc the entire three days you were in there. The rest of us went to quarters, cleaned up, ate in the mess. She never left you.” Abuzaid hopped off.
“New orders,” Rahman told the pilot. “Take me to General Aurangzeb in 4A.”
Sitting on the speeding hovercar, watching the people and corridors flash by, Rahman considered Zhang’s words. Alive not because of a pledge. Dead not because of a curse… Zhang loved to quote Malay proverbs, and seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them, which Rahman found strange, since she was not Malay at all, but half Chinese and half Colombian. He’d sometimes wondered if, growing up on a Malay dominated world, she’d memorized all these proverbs as a way of proving her loyalty, or trying to fit in.
Alive not because of a pledge. Dead not because of a curse. Rahman rubbed his cheeks. Of course he was not alive because of a pledge, he was alive because… what? Because Allah created him, and his mother birthed him. And because he’d fought well, or as Abuzaid would say, it was his Qadar. As for dead not because of a curse… Rahman shrugged. It was too much of a puzzle. He was tired and hungry, and couldn’t work out the answer. Just as he thought this, his stomach rumbled again, and a shudder ran through him.
Built to Endure
“Do you have anything to eat?”
The pilot tossed a granola bar back to him, and Rahman tore the wrapper open. He ate it greedily, thinking it was the most delicious thing he’d had in years. Life was so strange. You could be full of shame, anger and confusion, but the body kept on going, kept on living. That was what Allah had made it to do. Man was built to endure, built to survive. But while the body healed, the spirit was another matter.
Rahman rolled the pilot’s words over in his mind. The hero of Breena Five. The words were stones in his mouth. What about Mamdooh, Jamaluddin, Rasool, AbdulAzeez, Khabib, Jamshad, and Suhaib? Seven dead out of a squad of eleven. He doubted he was a hero to them. He thought of Suhaib, badly burned and ejected in a lifeboat. What had happened to him? Had he awakened in the boat, alone and in terrible pain? Out in the deepity deeps, all alone, no one coming for him, ever. The thought made Rahman wince.
Not knowing what else to do, he cast up a silent dua. “O Allah, show me the way. I’m not sure I know who I am anymore. I’m not sure I can do this. Show me the way forward, Ya Allah. You’ve always been by my side, you’ve saved my life a hundred times. I need you to save my heart now, Ya Allah. I’m dying here. I need your help.”
What could General Aurengzeb possibly want with him? Aurangzeb was commander of the entire Persean first fleet. Everyone in the 300 knew his name. Normally after a mission or a battle Rahman would be debriefed by a major. Occasionally a colonel. Never a general. And one of Aurengzeb’s rank? A dangerous man, Abuzaid had said. Men who oppose him have a way of disappearing…
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 10: Home
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.