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LOCATION: PERSEUS ARM OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY
YEAR: 4097 HIJRI – 565 UNITED ARMY CALENDAR
United Army Squad 3690, in order of seniority:
- 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. Carries an axe. Multiple awards for valor, but also repeated misconduct violations.
- Amina Quraishi – Specialist. Computer tech and AI diagnostics. Hijabi. Silat expert. Fearless.
- Ami Abdulghaffar – Private first class. Medic and psychotherapist, plus botanist.
- Hisham – Private. Grenadier, plus supplies & requisitions.
- Summer – Private. Riflecarrier and food services.
- Tarek – Private. Riflecarrier and janitorial. 18 years old.
*Author’s Note: We were supposed to be done with the battle on the queenship, but I didn’t feel that I did justice to it in the last chapter. There were things I wanted to add. So I cut the end of chapter 3 and moved it here to chapter 4, and I added quite a bit. I apologize that this chapter does not move the story forward, but I think it adds some important details and character development. Sorry for the inconvenience, but this is the price you pay when reading a serialized novel, haha. – Wael.
Excerpt from The Life and Death of Yasin Rahman, By Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
Captain Rahman’s encounter with the Felis Somni – the Dreamcat – is sometimes narrated as an amusing interlude.
I was there. There was nothing amusing about it. The Felis Somni are not cute, cuddly or funny. They are murderous assassins, responsible for the deaths of thousands. Physically, they are fast, three times stronger than a man, and extraordinarily lithe. Their claws are like blades. They see in the dark and hear a whisper a hundred meters away. Emotionally, their baseline is rage and bitterness. Those who are militarily trained are cold, sociopathic. They kill as you and I would butter a piece of roti. Add to that their telepathic abilities, and it is almost unheard of for a dreamcat not to succeed in killing its target.
I had the opportunity, years later, to visit Felicidad, the dreamcat homeworld. You cannot imagine the unrelenting pressure of that world, both physically and emotionally. A massive world with a gravity that is twice Earth standard. Two hundred billion dreamcats piled atop each other in dilapidated cities that stretch into the sky and burrow underground. Most Felis Somni are black, while others are blue, purple and forest green, so their movement through the streets, tunnels and staircases of the city resembles the cascading of dark rivers. Violence is constant. Firearms are banned upon penalty of death, but attacks involving knives, clubs and claws are seen at any time. Their ability to project artificial waking dreams is used as a weapon, to deceive, kidnap and kill. Sometimes you’ll be walking down the street or even in the privacy of your hotel room, and the backwash or fallout of some powerful dream passes over you in waves. To call it disorienting is an understatement.
The wealthy on Felicidad travel with dozens of bodyguards. I myself traveled with a contingent of twenty guards. On every street corner there is a mercenary recruitment office. Every major galactic power, from the Tellians to the Perseans, has military training centers there.
Among the cats, being hired as an offworld mercenary or assassin is a great achievement, because it means an escape from crushing poverty and overpopulation. If you ever come face to face with a dreamcat assassin, say your prayers, because you do not have long to live.
By all rights, the dreamcat that boarded our ship – Tessi Red Tooth – should have killed Captain Rahman. I had training in recognizing altered states of mind, and as such I knew there was something wrong, something artificial, in the dream state that Tessi imposed upon me. Forcing myself to wake up, I stumbled to the docking bay, which I sensed was the origin point of the dream. The dream was still superimposed on my mind, but I was awake as well, existing in both realities. I saw everything that happened. Rahman was not trapped in the dream at all. He was fully aware, and as he fought the dreamcat he moved faster than I have ever seen a human being move.
Rahman did not keep many secrets from me, at least not in the end, but even I don’t know how he defeated Tessi’s dreamcast. I suppose we can call it Providence.
* * *
Rahman stood at the point of a wedge formed by a group of twenty surviving UA fighters, with Zhang on his right and Smasher on his left. He did not intend to let these men and women die on this ship of hell. Nor was he himself ready to die. He had not seen his homeworld since he was fifteen years old, and he wanted to see his mother again, at least.
More importantly, the men and women who stood beside him now, fighting like Tioman lions, were not only his crew but his family. They had entrusted their lives to his leadership. Most were young. They’d fought battles all over the galaxy but had never truly lived. They’d never had families and children, never experienced lives of peace, never had a chance to explore who they were as individual beings, outside the constant grind of war.
His eyes shot to Weili Menco Zhang. Rahman himself had never… His face flushed as he let this thought go. His eyes lingered on Zhang. Most of the humans had picked up alien weapons as the battle went on. Zhang still carried her tekpi – the razor-sharp trident – but she’d also acquired an alien projectile pistol. Outside of combat Zhang was often shy and self-effacing, but in battle she exuded confidence. Rahman watched as she chose her shots carefully, aiming and firing one bullet at a time. She was hyper-aware and utterly confident. Every shot that she fired killed, and crabs tumbled before her like the wooden targets at the annual Sultani Fair. Sometimes the big males crashed to the ground and rolled, so that the human soldiers had to part before them like space dust before an asteroid.
Zhang had also picked up the spears thrown by the spear-chucker. She wore them on her back, and every now and then drew one and pitched it at an enemy.
Rahman could not see her eyes, as her goggles were intact. But although her steps were firm and her shots flew true, he saw that her legs and arms trembled, either with exhaustion or cold. She saw him looking, and gave him a quick nod. They were all on the verge of collapse. Ramming the queenship had been an insane idea. But there had been no alternative. Better to die fighting.
Rahman remembered Zhang saying, “I have to tell you something. I have hope for this universe because you exist.” Had she really said that? Or had he imagined it? It had the quality of a fever dream, or a child’s fervent wishing on the blown seeds of a dandelion. She’d never said anything remotely like that to him before. But then, he’d never rammed a spaceship into an alien queenship before, so maybe she’d tossed out a mashaAllah and obeyed a crazy heart-borne whim. Could it be true?
If it was, how beautiful, how incredibly energizing and eye opening, yet how sad.
He felt a deep sadness for the thousands of civilians – women and children – packed into the water room. Why was this ship carrying so many noncombatants? It made no sense. Why not leave them back on one of the crab worlds where they would be safe, far from the front line? He was a killer, yes, but he was not an instrument of massacre. He was not a religious man, but he was a Muslim! That meant something. What was about to happen was wrong. But he could not stop it.
No time for pity now, neither for the crabs nor himself. The battle had reached its end stage. All the men and women under his command were flagging. Some were stumbling. The smell of the queenship was becoming overpowering. The crabs always smelled vaguely of rotten fish, and especially so in battle, when they moved vigorously and gave off the equivalent of crab sweat. The freezing water that covered the floors of crab ships stank of salt, seaweed and ammonia. And the air reeked of gunpowder, ozone from the laser rifles, and the copper tang of blood, both human and crab. It was nearly overwhelming at times. Many soldiers vomited when fighting on crab ships.
For about the thousandth time, Rahman wished that the skinsuit had been designed to block such odors. But he knew that odors were important sensory clues in battle. The skinsuit would not block them unless they were dangerous, like the particulate matter that blew off metallic surfaces hit by wave cannons.
His face was beginning to ache. The energy drug was wearing off, and it was possible that his skinsuit was compromised as well, because he should not feel cold, yet he did.
“Almost there!” Rahman bellowed as loudly as he could. “Keep going! Satria Malay!”
“Die fighting!” the soldiers chorused, and Abuzaid called, “Allahu Akbar!”
As Cool As Iced Cincau
Rahman gave a quick nod to his mentor, and Abuzaid grinned. Unbelievable. Even as weary as he must be, drenched in crab blood and wading through freezing water on a ship that was minutes from exploding, the old man was smiling. He was always like this in battle. The sergeant danced among the enemy fighters, as steady as a highliner, and as cool as the iced cincau that all Malay kids drank in summer. Abuzaid still had some charge left in his laser rifle and he used it carefully, ducking and weaving, hitting the crabs with quick bursts at close range, and following up with thrusts from a crab sword he’d picked up. Those things were heavy. The sergeant was strong, no doubt about that.
Rahman never worried about Abuzaid in battle. The sergeant was a supreme tactician, and had in fact trained Rahman himself in combat tactics, as he trained all the new recruits.
As for Rahman, he needed nothing but the shield he carried in one hand, and the nano-scalpel in the other. Unlike the rifles and pistols, the scalpel would never run out of charge. Block a strike, sidestep, cut the crab open, and repeat. This was why they called him Cutter.
He lost himself, letting his gaze become diffuse, focusing on nothing, using the extremity of his peripheral vision as an early warning system. Press forward, block out the pain, cold and stench. Nothing but the constant progression of death. No fear. No heroism or cowardice, for such things were labels applied later by bureaucrats and generals who reviewed the statistics of war and assigned praise or blame. On the battlefield there was only survival. You did your best, and you lived or died.
No thought as well of the thousands of innocent crab females and children that would die when this ship blew. Definitely must not think about that, because there was nothing he could do. They were all as good as dead.
Ami Abdulghaffar’s voice came over the i-link broadcast channel, addressing everyone. “Join the United Army, they said! Have a career, see the galaxy.”
“All expenses paid!” Aminah Quraishi added. “Eat delicious alien cuisines, see beautiful landscapes.”
Even Zhang, not a woman known for telling jokes, chimed in: “Wade through crystalline waters on exotic queenships!”
That got a laugh. Rahman appreciated what Ami had done. His feet felt lighter, and his burdens not so terrible.
“Meet exotic aliens,” added a male soldier that Rahman did not know, “and kill them.”
That was a downer, and brought them all back to their current nightmarish reality. They moved on.
The soldiers pressed like a cosmic steamroller. They were almost at the pyramid. It loomed above them, a dark structure with a single wide staircase, a series of platforms that spiraled around it, and a dark door near the top.
From somewhere behind them came a tremendous whooshing noise, followed by the strange keening sound that was the crab equivalent of screaming. Rahman had no idea what the noise was, but if it caused the crabs pain, it was good.
The UA fighters were surrounded. The creatures were actually climbing over the mounded dead bodies of their compatriots to attack. Although, were the crabs flagging as well? Their attacks had slowed, and they were not pressing as closely as before.
He called out to no one in particular. “Is it my imagination, or are they holding back?’
“They’re afraid!” Ami called back. “We’ve killed so many. They don’t want to die.”
“It’s not that,” Zhang said. “Look!” She pointed up the pyramid.
A third of the way up the pyramid, about thirty meters from the floor, a single massive crab and a dozen smaller crabs stood upon a platform. They were guarded by six robed warriors carrying old fashioned clubs and engraved bucklers. Rahman recognized the gigantic crab. Not personally, but he knew what she was. Every officer was trained to recognize the various species and classifications of crabs, including such a one as this. She was instantly identifiable by her black carapace and large rear wattle, used to carry hundreds of thousands of eggs.The huge crab was a queen.
She wore no armor but was draped in some sort of metallic black headdress that covered her head and neck and hung to the ground. Aside from that, she was naked. Her great black bulk glistened by the light of the many fires burning now in the queenship and reflecting red off the standing water.
Though crab battleships were called queenships, in reality not every queenship carried a queen. Queens were in fact rare among crabs, and were treated like gods. And the clutch of smaller crabs behind the female were princesses, for only female crabs could be royalty.
Frozen In Fear
Rahman understood now why the crab warriors were holding back. They were afraid that one of their own shots might ricochet and strike the queen. It was unlikely, but the crabs would take no chances. Second, they feared that the humans might attack the queen.
Rahman knew better. If the queen were killed the warriors would literally go insane. They would cast aside all thought of survival and fight in a frothing frenzy to the last one, no matter the cost. He knew this from painful experience.
“Move forward to the base of the pyramid!” Rahman commanded. “Don’t mount the steps. Stop at the base.”
The UA soldiers did so, and when they reached the pyramid’s base, the mass of crab warriors around them stopped as if they’d been flash-frozen. No crab warriors approached, no guns were fired, no weapons clashed. A deathly silence fell upon the queenship, broken only by the sounds of crackling fires and sloshing water.
The distant whooshing sound tore through the silence. Forty human eyes and a thousand crab eyes turned in its direction, but Rahman saw nothing.
“What’s going on?” Smasher demanded. He stood breathing hard, his ax on his shoulder, dripping blood onto his skinsuit. “Why aren’t they attacking?”
Rahman did not reply. He looked up at the queen, who stood regally on the platform, surveying the scene below her. She was unafraid. Of course. The idea that any creature might attack her was unthinkable. And she was right. Rahman needed to use her safety as leverage to reach the troop carrier. The crabs did not know that the humans had planted explosives. They might be willing to let the crazy invaders go. Rahman set down the shield, tapped his skinpad to bring up the timer. It read three minutes and fifteen seconds.
Three minutes. Maybe there was a chance. Just maybe. But there was not a second to spare.
“Hey!” he called out, addressing not the humans but the amassed crabs. He sheathed his nanoknife and opened his arms wide. “Hey! We’ll make you a deal.” He didn’t know if the crabs understood, but he had to make them understand. He pointed up at the queen. “The queen, no harm. Safe!” He made a smooth, slow gesture with his hands, to indicate peace and safety. “We – “ he pointed to himself and the other soldiers – “that way!” Pointing to the troop carrier.
No response. The crabs that surrounded them on all sides stood like statues. Another distant whoosh. He ignored it and went through the whole talking and miming routine again.
They understood! The encircling army parted, leaving a path to the queenship. They were letting the humans go! It was going to work. There was just enough time to get off this terrible time bomb.
“Queen?” Smasher muttered. “That’s a queen?”
The troop carrier was only one hundred meters away. A fast run, a quick ignition sequence and they would be away from here before the bombs blew.
“They’re letting us go!” Rahman called to his fellow UA soldiers. “Get to the troop carrier, triple time!”
Before the humans could move, however, the crabs suddenly closed the gap and pressed closer with a sound like a collective sigh of weariness or fear.
“What happened?” Ami asked.
Rahman’s attention was seized by a bellow of rage, and he turned to see Smasher charging up the steps of the pyramid with Aminah Quraishi on his heels. Was she trying to stop him, or was she caught up in Sufyan’s madness?
“Stop!” Rahman hollered. “That’s an order! Do not harm the queen.”
Hearing his command, Quraishi held back, but Smasher was again lost in battle frenzy, and did not hear the command or chose not to. He dashed up the steps and attacked the ceremonial warriors who guarded the queen and princesses. With their traditional clubs and ceremonial robes, they were no match for Smasher’s ultra-sharp ax. In less than ten seconds he slaughtered them and advanced on the queen.
The great black queen scuttled as far back on the platform as she could. The little princesses huddled behind her in terror.
Rahman gathered his strength to leap up the steps. It was time to put a stop to Smasher for once and all. He’d had enough of the man’s evil, his refusal to obey orders, his bloodthirsty savagery. If Smasher killed the queen, none of them would make it out of here alive. Besides, what was an enemy if not someone who hated life and relished death? Did it matter what race he belonged to, what species? And what was a friend if not someone who protected life, no matter what that life looked like?
Grizzled old Abuzaid liked to talk about ikhlas. He said it was something you maintained, not attained. Sincerity of worship, sincerity of existence. But ikhlas literally meant detachment, separation, and liberation. You gave up your attachment to all but God, gave up your desire for material things or the acclaim of men, and in doing so you became a mukhlis, pure in deed and intention.
What was the meaning of this war if they themselves – the so-called defenders of humanity – had become the evil ones? If you had the power to look upon the face of Shaytan, and you found that he looked just like you – then where was the ikhlas? Where was the sincerity of action before Allah, the sincerity of intention, the sincerity of truth? What use was it to accept the reality of your own death if you then met Allah as a wicked killer?
He must kill Smasher, not because the man would doom them all, but because he was evil.
Rahman turned to Abuzaid. “Shoot him.”
Without a pause, Abuzaid lifted his laser rifle, aimed at Sufyan and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The weapon was out of charge.
“Does anyone have a working rifle or pistol?” Rahman called out. Negative mutters came in reply.
Rahman had an idea, and turned to Zhang, but she’d already beaten him to it.
“On it,” she said as she hoisted a spear to her shoulder. “Wound or kill?”
“Center mass. Take him down.”
Death of a Queen
The queen had prostrated herself before Smasher, splaying her legs in a gesture of total helplessness. She spoke in the crab language, and even though Rahman understood nothing, the pleading tone was unmistakable.
She was surrendering. Rahman was stunned. If the humans accepted her surrender, all the crab warriors would lay down their weapons. If only there were a way to disable the TONC explosives, the UA could take this entire ship as a prize. But the bombs could not be stopped. With the queen’s surrender, however, the humans could escape unimpeded.
Rahman tapped his i-link and spoke directly to Smasher. “She’s surrendering. Do you hear me Sufyan, the queen is surrendering. This is our salvation. Do not harm her!”
His words fell on deaf ears. To Rahman’s horror, the big man lifted his ax, blood dripping from its razored edge.
Zhang let the spear fly. Her exhaustion must have affected her aim, or maybe some part of herself could not stomach the idea of killing a brother in arms, because instead of center mass, the spear drove through Smasher’s left leg above the knee, entering the hamstring and projecting out through the quadriceps. The big drone tech cried out in pain, then turned and shot Rahman a murderous, wounded look. With his ax he sliced the ends of the spear cleanly off, leaving only the section embedded in his leg, then turned back to the queen.
“Another spear,” Rahman commanded. “Through the heart this time.”
It was too late. Smasher brought the ax down squarely between the eyes of the queen. It sliced through the metallic stole as if it were paper, and drove deeply into her head, killing her instantly.
A terrible keening sound began among all the assembled crabs. It grew louder, piercing Rahman’s hearing like an ice pick, rising in pitch until it was almost out of the range of his hearing, yet still made his teeth grind in pain. He had never heard anything like it. As if on cue, the thousands of massed crabs raised their weapons.
Smasher wrenched the ax free, and lifted it above one of the children.
Zhang let her second spear fly, but at that moment Smasher bent forward to murder the princess, and the spear missed.
The crabs went berserk. They attacked en masse, as if in accord with a silent command, and they roared as they barrelled forward.
The whooshing sound came again, closer still.
“The pyramid!” Rahman cried out. “Climb the pyramid! We’ll fight from high ground!”
The humans dashed up the steps, with the two in the rear – two men from another squad – fighting off the pursuing crabs. But dozens of crabs ignored the steps and scurried directly up the sides of the great construct, digging their eight clawed feet into its sides. The pyramid’s surface was smooth, and many of the crabs slipped and fell, tumbling into their companions and creating chaos. Some managed to hold on, however, and soon the humans were besieged from all sides as they climbed.
When they reached the first platform, they found the queen and all the princesses dead. Smasher stood there breathing hard, blood dripping from his ax. “Hold here!” Rahman commanded the survivors. “Pull into a tight knot, back to back!”
It was as if they were Musa and his followers standing in the parted sea, with the waters towering on all sides. But the waters were alive, and they did not only stand, but crashed over them. The crabs came like mad creatures, not even trying to protect themselves, but only trying to kill the humans. A soldier that Rahman did not know – one the two men who’d brought up the rear – went down screaming as a crab tore him apart with its pincers. Quraishi fell to her knees with a sword through her shoulder. Smasher swung his ax like an avenging angel. Zhang was a blur, her tekpi whipping one way and another. Abuzaid, Rahman, Abdulghaffar, all fought the battle of their lives. Blood covered everyone.
It wasn’t enough. The crabs kept coming. Rahman could not pause to check his skinpad, but there couldn’t be more than two minutes left until the TONC detonation. There was no way out.
Rahman was not a religious man, but at moments like this prayers came unbidden. He still knew a handful of Quranic surahs that his grandmother had taught him in his youth, and even as he fought he recited Al-Ikhlas, mouthing the words quickly, remembering the meanings that had been drilled into his head. “Say: He is Allah, who is One.”
He thought about the female crab that had died trying to protect Ami. Could it be true that humanity had more in common with these crabs then they realized? “All that is in the Heavens and all that is in the Earth praises Allah, for He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.”
Maybe. Who knew? They’d always known the crabs were sentient. The creatures must, therefore, believe in something. They must worship something. Why not Allah the Almighty?
Ikhlas. Sincerity. He was a dead man, they were all dead. There was nothing left but to be his best self, to be sincere, to meet Allah without fear. Perhaps Abuzaid would find this interpretation sacrilegious, but Rahman surrendered all desire for life itself. They were all walking corpses, only they didn’t know it yet, because time did not tell you its secrets before it smudged you out of existence.
He would meet Allah as a mukhlis. Not as an innocent, nor even as a righteous man, but as someone who strived in his final moments to be true to what he believed in. Finally, that was all he had.
The whooshing noise came again, very close now, and from this vantage Rahman saw what it was. Two UA soldiers, a man and a woman, were pushing through the crabs, walking back to back, firing shoulder mounted flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were not UA weapons, so they must have improvised them somehow, and whatever flammable agent they’d used was as powerful as a volcanic explosion. Each time they fired, a thirty meter gout of fire exploded outward, engulfing scores of crabs, roasting them where they stood.
Crabs hated heat in general – their worlds were all watery and cold – and were terrified of fire. Even in their grief-maddened state they fled before these two fire spitting beasts.
“LOOK OUT, BOSS,” SAI said inside his head.
He brought his attention back to the battle, but it was too late. Something struck him from behind. He felt a sword penetrate deeply into his side, while a crab’s pincer seized his face. The pain was shocking and terrifying.
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE,” SAI said inside his head.
So it wasn’t his imagination. She was in there, talking to him. But he could not reply. His last thought before the world went black was, All that is in the heavens. All that is in the heavens…
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 5: Autodoc
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