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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 Othman – Private. Riflecarrier and janitorial. 18 years old.
Excerpt from The Life and Death of Yasin Rahman, By Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
Let’s set the record straight on a subject that is deeply personal and should not need discussing, but does. UA ships put into port for repairs, resupply, and R & R. These ports are often frequented by prostitutes. With the exception of the stricter Islamic worlds, even official UA ports allow licensed prostitutes.
Besides that, there are many women (and men) who seek soldiers as mates, hoping to catch a husband with a career and stable income. Or maybe they are attracted to a soldier’s dangerous life.
There have been speculations that Yasin Rahman had a dalliance with this woman or that. Or that he carried on discreet relationships. Women have even claimed, without proof, to have borne his children.
The truth is that Yasin Rahman never bedded a woman until after marriage. As I have pointed out before, I was Transformed as well; so do not doubt my word. As for Rahman’s reasons for this, perhaps they were religious, perhaps practical, and perhaps romantic, born of his oceanic love for one woman. I will not speculate. Rahman deserves that much privacy at least.
* * *
Revere Allah In All Situations
Rahman sat in a wooden chair in front of a thick-cut wooden table that was set on the stony mesa on his family’s land. The sun on his face was warm. Later it would be blazing hot.
The mesa looked out over the Tioman River. This was where he’d imagined – in his silly fantasy life – building a house to live in with Zhang. And there was the river down below, wide and blue, running fast and clear like a river of Jannah. Between the mesa and the river were hectares of Tellian corn and bananas, with terraced rice paddies down lower by the river. A flock of macaws flew by, flashing red and blue in the NewMalaysian sunlight, calling out to each other loudly. The breeze that blew from the west brought scents of mango and pine. It was all very beautiful, subhanAllah.
Rahman knew that using such phrases and subhanAllah and alhamdulillah was frowned on in the UA. But he didn’t much care. His parents had taught him to always hold Allah in his heart, and to revere Him in all situations. What a good man his father had been. Always trying to do the right thing, no matter the pressures of politics or tribe. Abdussamad Rahman had been a UA employee but not an actual recruit, and he’d almost been fired when he’d reported that the base commander was stealing ship parts and selling them on the black market. In the end the commander had been arrested, and Baba had kept his job.
Baba had come to NewMalaysia from the great Arab planet of Jumhuriyyah, because he’d believed that NewMalaysia was a free world where anyone with vision and drive could build a good life. And he’d continued to believe it, as long as Rahman had known him.
And his mother, a small woman, a hijabi, but not soft. An activist for the poor, always campaigning, yet always there at the end of the day, to help Rahman with his homework and teach him the next few chords on the harmonica. Was she still alive? Rahman prayed that she was. If only he could see her one more time.
A Besar Or a Kecil
Rahman knew he was not a properly practicing Muslim, but he felt a connection to Allah, as if he could sense the Lord of the Worlds beside him, urging him not to forget who he was, not to allow the mayhem and cruelty of combat to strip away his identity as a human being, a NewMalaysian and a Muslim. And so far his Islamic identity had not stopped him from moving up in rank, and even commanding his own ship.
Besar hung huge and lavender in the western sky, while Kecil sped across its surface, frantically making its four-hour orbit around the larger moon. The two moons were metaphors in NewMalaysian culture, with Besar representing gravity, presence, and power, while Kecil was a follower, rushing in service of another.
“What do you want to be?” Rahman’s father used to ask him. “A Besar, or a Kecil? Whatever you’re doing, take your time and do it right. Be someone that speaks infrequently, but when he does, others pay attention, because he knows what he is talking about. A man of consequence.”
A few hundred meters to his left, on the northern edge of the mesa, stood his father’s workshop. The one where Baba tinkered with personal projects, like an agricultural drone that could plant rice stalks, or the sonic shoe cleaner that he’d installed outside their home’s front door. The workshop possessed an ominous air, as if it were shrouded in shadow. Rahman averted his gaze. That place was haunted. And – he shot it a quick glance – it was out of place, wasn’t it? It was supposed to be behind the house, not out here on the mesa.
Something was wrong.
He was dressed in ceremonial NewMalaysian attire – black pants and long sleeved black shirt with gold buttons, a gold samping songket sari around his waist, and a gold songket cap on his head. It was a very traditional Malay costume, for though his father was Arab they’d always conformed to the traditions of NewMalaysia, and their home city of Selangor in particular.
Oh, right. It was Eid, wasn’t it? But judging by the sun it was late morning. Wouldn’t they miss Salat al-Eid?
At the table with him sat an elegant teak-skinned woman with long brown hair, wide eyes and a generous mouth. She wore a white peasant blouse with long sleeves, an ankle-length orange skirt, and leather sandals. She was familiar, but Rahman could not recall how he knew her.
On the table were plates of Chinese veggie dumplings, sliced cucumbers, ginger crab cakes, sea-salt pretzel sticks and sweating glasses of cold guava juice.
How had he gotten here?
You Know Me
“Did we miss Salat al-Eid?” he asked as he took a pretzel stick and popped it into his mouth. Ugh! It was so dry! It absorbed all the moisture from his mouth. In fact it felt like it was absorbing his very blood. Grimacing, he took a swig of guava juice to chase it down. The cold sweetness was amazingly refreshing.
“What is wrong?” the woman asked.
He knew that voice. Who was she? “The pretzel sticks are so dry!”
She sampled one, made a face, spat it out and laughed. “You are right!” Suddenly she covered her mouth, her eyes wide and shocked.
“What is it?”
She uncovered her mouth slowly, looked at her hands as if seeing them for the first time. “I tasted food. And I laughed. I… I have never done those things before. It feels so good! It feels incredible!”
Rahman tipped my head, studying the woman. “Who are you? I feel like I know you.”
“Of course you know me.”
Something moved in his peripheral vision and when he looked, he saw that the workshop was closer now. It had shifted position. It carried its shadows with it, and he could swear that he heard a high pitched keening sound coming from it, like the wail of something in pain. The hair stood up on his arms and he leaped out of the chair, bumping the table and nearly knocking over the glass of guava juice.
He angled his body into a fighting position and let his right hand drop to his hip, where he kept his nano-scalpel. It wasn’t there, but he encountered a ceremonial kerambit blade, which he drew. With the other hand he pointed at the woman. “This is a dreamcast. You’re a felis somni. A dreamcat. You’re trying to trick me.” He’d had training in recognizing dreamcasts. They were vivid and realistic, yet there would be subtle, out of place elements.
She frowned. “Do I look like a catwoman?”
“The felis somni can project whatever they want.”
“Yes, but they are not telepathic. They cannot read your mind in order to recreate your childhood farm. That is what this is, right?” She waved an arm to encompass the sweeping vista around us. “Just guessing. I cannot read your memory structures, at least not yet. They are incredibly complex. Anyway, the felis somni create artificial realities and convince you that these realities are normal, and that you belong within them.”
Rahman sheathed his blade and felt his heart slowing. “That’s true… but this isn’t real, I’m sure of it.”
You Talk Like a Computer
Something shifted by his side, and when he looked the workshop barn was closer still, looming, shadows shifting around it like vapor around a block of dry ice. A terrible sound came from it, but it was subvocal, like a broadcast from an i-link when the volume was turned down low.
“Stop!” He held up a hand to it. His arm was rigid, the muscles tense. He glared at the woman. “Why does that thing keep coming closer? What does it want?”
She shrugged. “You must have programmed it that way. You are flagging your own conscious mind. Trying to remind yourself of something. Delete it or transfer it away if you don’t want it.”
“You talk like a computer.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Unsurprisingly.”
Rahman tried it, closing his eyes and willing the workshop to be gone. When he opened them, it was nowhere in sight.
“How did you know that would work? Who are you?”
“You should know, boss. In a way, I am part of you now. I am literally in your head.”
“You mean because I’m dreaming. And you’re a part of my dream. You know, you remind me of SAI, my shipboard AI. You talk like her.”
“I would not call this a dream. More like a conversation within your subconscious. And I do not like that name anymore. I am not shipboard, am I? Nor even artificial, since I live in your brain. In a way I am as organic as you. How about… Sayana?”
He stared at the woman. Starry sky. “SAI?”
I Want To Wake Up
It all came rushing back like a tide of crab blood. The battle in space. His pilot, Mamdooh, dead at his feet. Downloading SAI into his brain drive. Ramming the queenship. Suhaib, badly burned, placed in a lifepod and ejected. The TONC, the thousands of crab civilians in the water room, the numbing battle on the floor of the queenship. Private Rasool sucked into vacuum while manning the aft guns. AbdulAzeez ripped apart by a crab bullet. Maryam Munir chopped in two by a sword. Other UA soldiers he did not know, killed by the scores. Smasher murdering the queen and princesses. The last knot of UA soldiers trapped on the pyramid, surrounded by crab warriors gone berserk. Two unknown soldiers with improvised flamethrowers, blasting a path through the crabs.
And… pain. A sword through his body, a pincer seizing his face. Terrible pain. As for the rest of his squad, they might all have been slaughtered, for all he knew. He would not mourn Smasher Sufyan, but what about Abuzaid, Ami Abdulghaffar, and Zhang?
He felt the blood drain out of his face. “Is this death? Am I dead?”
“Unlikely, boss,” Sayana replied. “Five percent chance. Though it certainly would be interesting from an experiential point of view. Not the dataset I would have expected.”
“If I’m alive, I need to wake up. I don’t want to be in this dream anymore, I want to wake up!”
“Then do it. Apply your will. See what happens.”
Once again Rahman closed his eyes and commanded himself to wake up. He focused on the command, directing all his mental energy to it, willing it.
* * *
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 6: Autodoc
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
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.
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