See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
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.
* * *
[Author’s Note: I wanted to make some changes to the scene with Tessi Thundercloud in chapter 6, so I moved the last part of that scene to this chapter and reprised it. Thanks for your patience]
E For Empath
Sitting in the passenger seat of the expensive black hovercraft, Tarek Othman watched the countryside roll by. Ramshackle villages, refugees in stained clothing trudging along the side of the road, litter, skin-and-bone animals, beggars. He didn’t know what he was doing out here.
He’d checked the duty roster in the morning as he was required to do, and had seen that he was to report to the major. To his tremendous surprise, she’d checked him out of the UA empath academy and taken him on this road trip, with no explanation.
The major drove in silence, and Tarek was not inclined to attempt conversation. He shot her a furtive glance. Fiftyish. A hard woman, all flat planes, like the angles of a laser rifle. A neatly pressed dark blue uniform, and a laser pistol holstered at the hip. Dark skin like his own, short black hair, strong hands with no nail polish. He would not be surprised if she had killed enemies with those hands. Her forehead bore a large tattoo of a letter E, just as his own did. E for empath. An empath and a major. Incredible that one of their despised kind could rise so high.
His own silence rose not only from feeling intimidated by this vastly superior officer, but because his inner world was filled with darkness. He’d seen too much ugliness in his young life. That alone might not have pushed him into despair, but he was a part of the ugliness. He was a critical cog in the machinery of death, and he didn’t know how much more he could take.
Nothing to Believe In
Not that death was a new thing. He’d grown up in a squalid slum of south Selangor, one of fifteen brothers and sisters from two women. Fighting over chicken gizzards and potato skins. Picking grains of rice out of the mud near the market. Fighting in the street. Nothing to believe in, nothing to look forward to. His little sisters Anisa and Ghanima, dead of Xerxian plague. His older brother Nidal, shot to death by a rival gang. And so on.
And the one exception, his eldest brother Shayban, who had tested positive as a telepath, and had been taken away by the UA. The pride of the family. He’d never written to them or sent any money home, and Tarek sometimes wondered if Shayban had been killed in action, maybe fighting the crabs in some far-off, exotic star system.
But now it was different. Instead of bad things happening to him and his family, now he was responsible, he was the killer, or at least a participant in the gruesome parade of executions that defined his purpose in life.
“Rein it in,” the major said. “You’re sending.”
Tarek’s mouth fell open. No way! One of the first skills he’d learned when he came to the empath academy six years ago, at the age of twelve, was how to close himself off so that his emotions could not be read. The major certainly possessed the same skill. He could not read her – nor would he have tried – and she should not have been able to read him.
“But,” he said finally. “My walls are up.”
“I’m sensitive. And your despair is strong. You know what? Let’s get some food in your belly. You’re as thin as a laser beam.”
The major stopped at a roadside stand with a laser diode sign that read, “NewMa Rambly! Best Rambly burger in the 300!” Right, Tarek thought. In all the 300 settled human worlds, this little stand had the best burger. Probably the best fries in the Milky Way too.
His mouth gushed saliva as the heady aroma of roasting meat hit him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten red meat. In fact he wasn’t sure he’d ever tasted red meat.
Fascinated, he watched the cook prepare the burgers. As the meat patty sizzled on the grill, the woman cracked an egg over it. The egg sealed in the meat’s juices, the woman explained. This was placed onto an onion bread bun and topped with Tellian salt, maggi sauce, tomato, lettuce, and cheese.
Rahman thought it was the most delicious food he’d ever eaten. And not just because he’d spent the last six years eating rice, rotten bananas, and fish heads.
“You’ve never had one before,” the major said. “It’s Tellian buffalo meat.” It was a statement, not a question, but Tarek replied anyway. “My family was too poor for that.”
“You’re a Southie.”
“Yes sir.” How did she know that he’d grown up in the crowded ghetto of south Selangor? Had she studied his file? And if so, why? In fact, what was he even doing here?
The Hand of Death
Tarek knew that he was nothing, no one, just a piece-of-bone empath training for a bloody job in the UA, monitoring prisoner interrogations and telling the interrogators if the prisoner was lying or not. He’d attended many of these already. Sometimes the prisoners were telling the truth, sometimes lying. Tarek could not read their minds – he was not a telepath, sadly – but could only perceive their emotions. One could do a lot with emotions, though, and Tarek could always differentiate truth from lies. Either way, he would inform the interrogator, and the prisoner would be taken away.
He did not see what happened to the prisoners, but he was pretty sure the guilty ones were shot. He heard the laser discharges sometimes, and occasionally he saw bagged bodies being loaded into transport trucks.
Not my problem, he told himself. My duty is to do my job. But he didn’t believe his own words. He felt the edges of his soul browning, curling up and blowing away, so that it shrunk a bit more every day. His body was skinny but strong, due to the daily physical training required at the academy, but his heart was a wasteland, like the former city of Bornaya, which had been blasted into baked glass by the crabs.
He was only eighteen years old, but he was a walking corpse, unable to look at himself in the mirror. He was the hand of death, fingering the men before him. Was that how he wanted to spend his life? He would never survive doing this as a career. It would destroy him from the inside out, and then he would kill himself.
He’d been considering this option for a long time, actually. Empaths were not given live weapons training, but the forks and knives they used at mealtimes were moderately sharp. He could drive one of these into his throat with all his strength. That would probably do the trick, and then he’d be free to drift off into pleasant nothingness.
So Many Trees
Back in the car, the major adjusted the air jets as the road began to climb. Villages and scraggly farms gave way to trees, which grew thicker until the sides of the road were solid walls of brown and green.
He remembered how excited he’d been when he’d been chosen to attend the academy. All his life he’d been tested annually for a variety of aptitudes, just like all NewMalaysian kids. He hit puberty at twelve, and shortly afterward tested positive for empathic ability. When the UA officer came to pick him up, he thought he’d won the lottery. A real career. He was special. He’d get to travel to other planets, meet alien civilizations. Or maybe they’d use him in the war effort.
What a fool he’d been.
“Roll the window down,” the major said.
“We were taught that open windows are security risks.”
The major gave him a hard glance, and Tarek hurriedly opened the window. The woodsy scent of the cool mountain air washed through the car. It was incredible. He’d never been in a forest before, never seen so many trees. The only time he’d even been in a car was when he’d been taken to the academy.
With every passing kilometer he felt his mood lightening. It was incremental at first, but there came a moment when he realized that he felt good. The feeling was so foreign, he hardly knew what to do with it, and had to remind himself to maintain his emotional controls.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” the major said.
“I do, sir.”
Never Tell Anyone
Of course he remembered her. She’d called him to her office on his fourth week of training, when he was twelve years old. His head was newly shaved, and he kept rubbing it. By then he’d learned that empaths were piece-of-bone subhumans. Tools to be used, with no rights or protections under the law.
She was a captain back then. He remembered staring at the E on her forehead, feeling impressed and even proud that an empath could be a captain. He hadn’t known that empaths could be officers.
“What is said here is between you and me,” she told him, and her gaze was intense. Never repeat it to anyone, no matter their rank.”
He nodded earnestly, wanting to please.
She pressed a finger into his E tattoo, only recently healed. “If you ever begin to manifest telepathic abilities, don’t give it away in testing. Hide it. Come to me only. Tell no one else, no matter what. Do you understand?”
Then she’d sent him back to the barracks. In the six years since then, she’d never spoken to him. He saw her watching his training occasionally, or more likely she monitored everyone’s training.
We Kill Them
The major had bought him a mango juice at the burger stand, and he finished the last of it, depositing the paper cup in the hovercar’s recycle port. “You were looking for a telepath back then. I’m sorry I let you down.”
The major shot him a quizzical look. “Is that what you thought?”
“Well… yes. I thought you needed a telepath for a special mission.”
She snorted and shook her head. “Tutu, the UA doesn’t send telepaths on special missions. We kill them.”
Tarek gaped at the woman, doubly shocked. One, because she’d called him by a nickname that only his late mother had used. And two, because, was she saying that his brother Shayban, the pride of the family, had been killed by the UA itself? That he wasn’t a war hero? He’d been executed?
The hovercar had turned off the main road and now glided up a dirt path, winding deeper into the forest. Trees towered all around them, their trunks larger than the hovercar, their crowns lost in the gloom above.
“How…” he stammered. “Who…” He took a few deep breaths, centering his mind as he’d been taught to do in training. Breathe into the belly. Let internal and external disturbances rise to the shoulders, travel down the arms and fall from the fingertips. “How do you know that name?” he finally managed.
The hovercar slid into a wide, grassy clearing in the heart of the forest and stopped.
“Get out,” the major said.
A Good Place to Die
Tareek stood in the sun-dappled clearing, reveling in the late spring warmth. The ground was uneven beneath his feet. Such an unfamiliar feeling. He looked up to where a circular patch of open sky showed high above. One of Besar’s purple edges could be seen in the sky.
The major turned to him. “Do you remember how to pray?”
“Pray?” He couldn’t understand this woman at all. What was she talking about?”
The major clucked her tongue, annoyed. “Pray. Salat. Quran. Didn’t you learn in grammar school?”
“I… uhhh. I might remember Al-Fatihah. My family was not religious. Are you…did you bring me here to kill me?”
The major threw her head back and laughed. The sound startled a flock of birds, which burst out of the trees high above, calling out in sweet tones. The forest smelled of earth, grass and deep scents that Tarek could not identify, but which stirred something inside him. Some longing for life, some reverence for the earth and all that was sacred. He had not known that such feelings still existed inside him, or indeed that anything could still be considered sacred on this ugly, war-torn, poverty-mired planet.
If the major had brought him here to kill him, in this lovely meadow between these majestic trees, amid all this life, he was glad. It was a good place to die.
* * *
Excerpt from Prayers, Chants and Hymns of Felicidad, by Tarek Othman:
Ninety percent of dreamcats are polytheists. On Felicidad there are thousands of gods. Most are nature gods, such as the god of Longtooth Falls, worshiped by millions. The falls are breathtaking, by the way. Three rivers merge into a kilometer high waterfall that shines like a silver sword, and roars like the engine of a launching highliner.
There are national gods, city gods, tribal gods and family gods.
Then there is One Clan. They are badly persecuted, so it’s hard to acquire accurate information about them, but here is what I was told.
One Clanners are strict monotheists. They believe in a formless God, the Creator of all, who they name One Light. A thousand years ago One Clan ruled Felicidad, but a core element of their philosophy was the uniqueness of dreamcats as the only sentient species in the universe. The first contact with another sentient race, which occurred when a Tellian ship visited Felicidad, destroyed One Clan’s credibility. The felis somni slaughtered the Tellians, but the damage was done. One Clan fell from power.
Today, few dreamcats admit to being One Clanners, though it’s estimated that they represent five percent of the population. Among themselves they use the last name One Clan, but with outsiders they assume false names. They refer to polytheists as “blasted gods-servers.” No One Clanner will marry a gods-server. Though they come from all nations and races they are fiercely loyal to each other, and see themselves as preservers of the pure traditions of the ancient world. Dreamcats are an ultra-violent race, but it is said that no One Clanner will kill another. If this is true, it is remarkable.
I chose in this book to focus on the prayers and chants of One Clan. Here is one I learned from Tessi Thundercloud:
In the primordial forests of Felicidad,
beneath the canopy and the rain, awed
by the majesty of the One God.
We were and are One Clan.
One faith, one people, one blood.
In the high grass of the plain we stood
knowing the One God.
One Clan in valley low
and mountain high,
knowing each other
by our signs.
* * *
Bruises and Sprains
The combat chamber was empty. Tessi Thundercloud looked up at Roland, the facility owner on the observation deck above.
“Am I to have a trainer?”
Normally when she attended these sessions, a felis trainer worked with her. They fought hard and trained realistically, and Tessi always came away with bruises and sprains, and sometimes cuts, depending on the weapons used. But no one died. It didn’t pay to kill paying customers, after all.
The exception had been one time, two years ago, when she’d fought a combat bot. A recruiter for a Tellian underlord had stood in on her session and requested it. It was explained to her that bots carried real weapons, and that danger levels five and up could result in serious injury. She’d fought on level six. That had been hard. She’d taken a laser burn to her shoulder and near the end of the session had been physically struck in the stomach hard enough to make her retch. It had been embarrassing, and needless to say she hadn’t gotten the job.
But she was far more experienced now, and today there were not just one, but two observers, not counting Roland. If she impressed them it could mean a job, which she desperately needed.
A Thousand Gold Slivers
Roland’s long gray tail twitched. He tapped on his teeth with one claw, then said, “The Andach’ major has requested that you fight three human combat bots. Danger level five, minimum. He will pay you a thousand gold slivers to make the attempt. Whether you live or die, your family gets paid. If you don’t wish to, no harm done, I will refund your payment for this session and you can return another day.”
Tessi’s ears half-flattened with shock. A thousand gold slivers just to try! That money would fix all her family’s problems. She could buy medicine for her mother, pay for her sister’s university education, and feed her siblings. It was a gift from One Light, an answer to prayers.
On the other hand, three human combat bots. Not one or two, but three! It was insane. She’d be lucky to escape alive.
“And if I survive?”
A Higher Purpose
Roland conferred with the Andach’, then said, “No guarantees. But the job, if you are hired, pays one hundred thousand gold slivers. And if the Andach’ doesn’t want you, Iyala with Galactic Security might have something.” He indicated the heavily scarred ginger molly with the funny glasses.
One hundred thousand gold slivers! Her mind went blank. Then she thought, my family. My family will never be hungry again. There was no question that she would make this attempt.
If she died, no matter. She was One Clan. She served a higher purpose, a noble calling. To serve her family and clan, to serve One Light in whatever light-stitched destiny He chose for her, or whatever dark and bloody path for that matter. She was a tool, and tools were meant to be used.
“I’ll do it.”
Roland pursed his lips. “Very well. Danger level five?”
Was that disappointment she saw on his face? Regret? Pity for her?
Danger Level Nine
Tessi’s jaw hardened. She needed no one’s pity. When she’d fought the bot last time, on level six, she’d learned from the experience. Combat bots were fast and deadly, but they moved in certain predictable ways. If she could be completely unpredictable, she could crush these bots.
Besides, if this wasn’t the day she’d been praying for, then what was? Momentous opportunities came rarely. No one trained harder than her, no one was more dedicated. If she believed in One Light then she must believe in herself, for He had created her and given her these gifts.
“What’s the highest anyone else has ever done against three bots and won?”
“Amaw River Server. Ten years ago. He fought three bots on level eight and won, though he suffered injuries.”
She’d heard River Server’s name. He was a legendary assassin. “In that case, set the bots to level nine.”
The ginger molly gasped audibly. Roland’s tail whipped. Even the Andach’ office gave a quick chatter of his teeth.
“Thundercloud,” Roland said in a placating tone. “Be reasonable. Level nine is nine times human actual speed, which means three times your speed. The bots are armed with functioning laser pistols. What you’re suggesting is suicide.”
“It’s my light to give,” she retorted, and immediately knew she’d made a mistake. Only One Clan spoke of life as light.
Roland blinked both sets of eyelids and tipped his head, as if hearing a far-off call. “Tessi Thundercloud… Are you One Clan?”
“Of course not,” she snapped. “I am a thundercloud server, for the mighty clouds bring rain and life. My family has worshiped the clouds for generations.” It was a practiced lie, but she could see that Roland was unconvinced.
“If you are One Clan,” Roland said in a voice like granite, “I am obligated to report you.”
“Enough,” the Andach’ officer broke in. His voice was soft but rich, and he spoke in Felisi with little accent. “I do not care about your local politics and feuds. I want to see this felis fight.”
No Time Out
Without another word, Roland reached to the panel of switches on the wall behind him, and flicked several. To Tessi’s right and left, and directly ahead, doors opened, and from each door a human-shaped combat bot strolled into the room.
Strolled was the right word. The bots were made of silver plasteel but were lithe and lean. They were naked, with the articulation of their joints plain to see, and possessed smooth oval heads with no hair, faces or ears. They were entirely featureless, except that each had a red button on each side of its neck. Each carried a laser pistol in one hand.
“Level nine is a fatal setting,” Roland stated, “You must strike either of the red buttons on the robots’ necks to shut them down. Once the session begins, there is no time out, no changing your mind. The session will end when you shut them all down, or they kill you. Do you understand, Tessi Thundercloud?”
“Yes.” Tessi bent her knees, unsheathed her claws, and held her tail straight out behind her, alert but loose. She twirled the steel baton she held in her right hand. “Let’s quit jawing and start clawing.”
Roland shrugged. “It’s your cremation.” He touched a switch on a console on the wall behind him. “Attack will commence in three seconds.”’
Three… two… one.
The robots lifted their pistols and fired.
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 9: Home
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
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Source: Muslim Matters