Captain Yasin Rahman is hauled in front of a panel of officers for a debriefing, and is given a shocking mission.
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LOCATION: PERSEUS ARM OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY
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 ax. 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.
* * *
Excerpt from The Life and Death of Yasin Rahman, By Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
What was I, the author, to Yasin Rahman? So often we can only guess what feelings and thoughts others harbor in the silent halls of their hearts. We hope, suppose, and conjecture. We rely on intuition, clues, words, and body language. But we never truly know.
This was not true in the case of myself and Rahman. Like Rahman, I was Transformed. I knew what Rahman thought and felt. So I speak with ‘ilm al-yaqeen, the knowledge of certainty. To be more accurate, if I do not know the actual, underlying reality of things – that is Allah’s realm – I do know what Rahman believed, as surely as I know that angels surround us from the earth to the heavens.
I say this because people sometimes lie to themselves. Even an empath can only tell you whether or not a person believes his own words.
We humans have begun to solve the mysteries of spacetime, and have settled hundreds of worlds. But the secrets of love have yet to unfold, no matter how we philosophize and wax poetic.
I believe that a man can love more than one woman, and vice versa. It’s a matter of degree, or a matter of different flavors and the intensity of flavor, and even of simple timing. A seed of love that may have flourished at one time, under a certain sun, might never sprout in other circumstances, or might emerge pale and stunted. A man meets a woman when he is nineteen years old, falls in love, and marries her. But let the same man meet the same woman when he is thirty, and maybe the spark never catches. Timing might not be everything, but it’s as big as Besar.
Also, not all love is the same. If I say that Yasin Rahman loved me, many will accuse me of aggrandizing my role in his life for the sake of celebrity. I could say that he and I sometimes argued, or that he occasionally seemed to disapprove of my essential personality, or that we were friends in the way that the ocean and the beach are friends, coming together and moving apart. All these things are true. Make of this what you will, dear reader.
I mean no disrespect to Weili Menco Zhang, who was my true friend. Love is a broad and imprecise word, and encompasses many things.
Rahman used to say that the key to his extraordinary success in combat was that he applied tactics according to how things actually were, rather than how he wished them to be. When the situation on the ground – or in the heavens – changed, his plan changed accordingly. He never tried to force events to follow a predetermined path.
The same is true for love. It is what it actually is, not what we wish it to be. We can’t force it to conform to our desires. We can only adapt ourselves to reality. As they say in doubleball, you have to carry the ball you’re given. That is all I have to say about that.
* * *
Rahman dismounted the big transport hovercar, thanking the driver for the ride and the granola bar. He stood in front of a set of hardwood doors that were wider than doubleball goalposts. The doors were carved with heroic and garish scenes of human soldiers killing crabs. One scene in particular pictured a bare chested man holding two laser pistols, surrounded by a sea of crabs. It reminded Rahman of Lamya Jamshad, She was a real-life hero who’d done the exact same thing back on the queenship, holding off an army of crabs long enough for her squadmates to escape. She’d given up her life in the process. Would her image be carved on a set of doors somewhere?
He couldn’t imagine the cost of these doors. So much wood – a scarce commodity already – and on a highliner, no less. Furthermore, spaceships normally went to extremes to minimize weight. The extravagant ponderousness of these doors spoke to the power of the men behind them.
Rahman reached for the heavy brass handle – and his arm froze. It wasn’t that he chose to stop moving. His arm simply would not move. It hung in the air like a mannequin’s arm. He tried pulling it back. Nothing. Was he having a heart attack or stroke? But there was no pain or numbness. He just could not move his arm.
His heart thudded in his chest, and sweat broke out on his forehead as he strained. He took two steps back from the door, thinking that maybe something on the door was causing… The thought was left unfinished, as it made no sense. He reached out with his left arm, which worked well enough, and tried to pull the right arm back, but the right arm was as rigid as plasteel.
The doors swung open smoothly. Two hulking Caucasian soldiers in blue dress uniforms with brass buttons stood just inside. Both saluted him. The uniforms were pressed and spotless, and smelled of lemon-scented laundry detergent. Rahman’s eyes were wide. What would he do?
Just like that, the paralysis was gone. Shaking slightly, he saluted the men with the formerly frozen hand, and strode into the chamber. Whatever had happened with his arm must be related to the recent surgery. A lingering side effect of the anesthesia, maybe.
The room was huge, and featured wooden floors – more wood! His footsteps seemed to echo in the silence of the room. To his left, a massive window that should have looked out onto space, based on the location of this chamber, instead displayed the very real-looking nightscape of what Rahman recognized as UA Alpha. He’d never been there, but as the headquarters of the UA, its skyline was often featured in military brochures and propaganda.
It was a holocast, of course. The real UA Alpha was hundreds of light years from here.
UA Alpha, Rahman knew, was a large moon that orbited an agricultural planet on the outer edge of the Orion arm. Like Besar, it had gravity, atmosphere and water, and was entirely built up, consisting of a single unbroken and heavily fortified city that covered every inch of the moon’s surface. The image gave the impression that he was looking down upon the city from a penthouse apartment. He saw the streaming lights of hover traffic and air ships, and a million lit windows. But everything seemed to be moving far too fast.
“It’s in real time,” a voice said, drawling the word “time” so that it came out, tahhm. “Or delayed real-tahhm, anyway.”
Two Colonels and a General
In the center of the room, at a fairly plain looking table, sat three high ranking officers. In the center was a man that Rahman instantly recognized as General Aurangzeb. He had to be in his 70’s by now. He was tall, and as thick-chested as a papaya, and in spite of his Persian name he was white, with pale skin and a freckled complexion, meaty arms and hands, and white hair cut close to the scalp. His teeth were white, and his eyes blue. It was a face Rahman had seen in a thousand holocasts, delivering “state of the war” talks, awarding medals to soldiers, and shaking hands with heads of planets.
On Aurangzeb’s right sat a slender female colonel with black skin, short natural hair, and thin, sculpted limbs. She might have been fifty years old. She had a wan, bored look to her, but Rahman recognized something in her posture that spoke of combat experience. A lot of it, he thought. Her eyes flicked to study him, then looked away, at nothing in particular.
To the left of Aurangzeb was a muscular young Malay colonel. No more than forty five years old, perhaps. Rahman did not know him, but his features were classic Malay. He could have passed for one of Rahman’s own uncles on his mother’s side, if not for the burn scar that disfigured one entire side of his face. How strange. Thirty minutes in an autodoc could repair that scar.
Two colonels and a general. SubhanAllah. You’d think he was a head of planet, for sky’s sake. Rahman assumed center position, about two meters in front of Aurangzeb, and snapped a sharp salute.
“At ease,” Aurangzeb said. His accent was rolling and slow, like a rancher’s. “I’m General Aurangzeb. With me are Colonel Bakri” – he indicated the Malay officer – and Colonel Sani.”
Rahman nodded. “Sirs.”
Aurangzeb nodded to the viewscreen. “Like ah was sayin’, It’s not a holoscreen. It’s a lahve feed from UA Alpha. Because we’re movin’ at FTL, tahm passes much faster there. That’s why ever’thang looks accelerated. It’s a reminder that we can’t waste a moment. Ever’ second that we spend out heah, our families grow older and our worlds change. Our mission is to end this heah war as quick as possible, by any means necessary. You helped to do that.”
“Sir?” Rahman stood with his feet at shoulder width and hands clasped behind his back.
“Don’t be modest. You’re the hee-ro of Breena Fahv. Crap on a crab, son, you destroyed a queenship with a fox fighter! That’s nevah been done.”
Something must have showed on Rahman’s face, some aspect of apathy or bitterness, because the general said, “What is it? Speak your mind, son. We heah are in your debt.”
Hero Is a Word
Rahman studied the three faces before him. He should be in awe. He should be nervous or subdued. But he was only tired. The three before him weren’t gods. They were two men and a woman. He doubted that any of them had seen as much death as he had.
“Hero is just a word,” he said finally. “It means nothing. On the battlefield you make decisions in the moment. You try to keep your people alive, that’s the main thing, and if that means destroying the enemy then that’s what you do. No thought about anything but what’s before you. You do your best. If you analyze my actions by that standard, then I failed. More than half my squad are dead. I failed to control one of my own men, resulting in more needless death. If a hero is supposed to be fearless then again I failed, because I was terrified at times, as I often am in battle. If there’s anything to be said for me it’s that I don’t surrender and I don’t stop fighting, no matter what. Like any good soldier. My mother once told me to be the man Allah intended me to be. I don’t know who or what that is, but the process of trying to find out – the act of walking the path, even when the path is in the stinking hold of a crab queenship – is what matters. That, and the survival of my crew. I don’t care about your statistics or labels, I don’t even care about the war. I’m sick of it all. Throw me out of the UA if you want, court martial me, put me in the brig.”
When he was done, he stood stock still in astonishment at his own words. He hadn’t meant to say all that. But it was true. He didn’t care anymore.
The panel watched him in silence. The Malay officer was frowning, the African colonel had a slight smile on her face, and Aurangzeb studied Rahman from under lowered brows, tapping a finger on the table.
When Aurangzeb looked up, there was a change in his demeanor. “Are you done?” There was a sharp edge to his voice. Rahman remembered Abuzaid’s words. A dangerous man. Those who oppose him have a way of disappearing...
“Well… Yes, sir.”
“You might be the most honest man ah’ve eveh met. I don’t know if that’s a good thang or a bad one, but I’ll tell you this. I’d promote you to colonel if I could. From now on, though, show some respect. We three heah have a hunnet and fifty yeahs of collective war experience. Nothing you have said is new to us.”
The African woman, Colonel Sani, spoke for the first time. “Tell us in your own words what happened in the battle. Take us through from your decision to ram the queenship.”
This was what Rahman had expected. Back on familiar ground, he spoke quickly but clearly, detailing his thought processes and the actions he’d taken, leaving out only the fact that he’d downloaded SAI into his own brain drive. He genuinely feared the consequences of revealing that.
He described the ramming of the queenship, the battle that ensued, and the push to the pyramid, including Smasher Sufyan’s repeated disobedience of orders. It might not make Rahman look good that he could not control his own man, but he didn’t care. He needed the guy gone.
When he was done, Aurangzeb nodded. “A li’l question for ya. I understand that one of your men sometimes says a certain thang before going into battle. Sergeant…” He turned to Colonel Sani. “What was his name?”
“Rahht, that one. Tell me about that.”
Rahman sensed the hidden landmine. He had warned Abuzaid that his constant use of that ayah would annoy command, but he’d never thought it would come to the attention of someone as powerful as General Aurangzeb. Abuzaid was like family to him. He could no more betray him than he could cut out his own heart.
“He says Satria Malay.”
Aurangzeb looked to Colonel Bakri, who translated. “Malay heroes. A common war cry.”
Aurangzeb studied Rahman with a face as flat and unreadable as a plasteel wall. “What else does he say?”
“He says Satria Malay,” Rahman repeated. “That’s what he says. Period.”
“Watch yourself Captain,” Colonel Sani advised. Her stare was intense. Rahman met it, and did not flinch. Just the opposite. He felt a rebellious spirit rising inside him. Starry sky. He did not care what they did to him. He didn’t know if it was the physical hunger he was experiencing – he was ravenous – or the anger at losing so many of his crew, or simple post-battle stress, but he was fed up.
“I will not watch myself.” He felt his heart in his throat. “And I have requests.”
Colonel Sani rose to her feet. Behind him, Rahman sensed the two big guards at the door walking toward him. This situation was going to the crabs. He tensed, preparing himself for whatever came, then forced himself to relax. If they were going to arrest him, he would cooperate, for the sake of his crew.
Aurangzeb waved off the two men and gestured to Sani to sit. “What are your requests?”
Rahman exhaled deeply. “One. I want Samir Sufyan court martialed for insubordination. He disobeyed me repeatedly, and lives were lost. Two. I want reassurance that Maryam Munir will not be disconnected from life support. She’s a warrior. Give her a chance to fight. Three. Promote Ammar Abuzaid to Master Sergeant. He’s a phenomenal fighter and a loyal soldier. Four. My people need time off. At least a couple of weeks. Five. All my people deserve medals for bravery, but especially Layla Jamshad, who saved our lives on the queenship.”
Aurangzeb made a slight finger gesture to Sani. She spoke: “Your request regarding Samir Sufyan is denied. He killed a crab queen. You see this as a violation of the rules of war. We do not. In fact, it is a major boost to morale among the troops. Furthermore, he has more crab kills to his name than anyone in the division, except for you.”
Rahman had not known that fact, that he himself had more kills than anyone. At one time he would have been proud of such a distinction. Now it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Then assign him to someone else.”
“Again denied. You and he make a good team. How is he as a drone technician?”
Rahman pursed his lips. “Highly competent.”
Sami made a small gesture with her hand, as if to say, There you go. “Whatever the source of friction between you, work it out. As for your other requests, they are all granted. Maryam Munir will be kept alive, Abuzaid will be promoted, your people will be granted shore leave, and you will all receive medals. In fact, the medal ceremony is scheduled for twelve hundred hours tomorrow.”
Rahman opened his mouth, closed it. He had not expected his requests to be granted. If the price was the continued burden of Smasher Sufyan, he would bear it.
“Thank you,” he said finally. “I wasn’t asking for a medal for myself.”
“Nevertheless, you will receive one.”
Rahman’s breath caught. The Jabal system was home to NewMalaysia, as well as two other inhabited worlds and several orbital colonies. They were going to his homeworld. That could not be a coincidence. Were they picking up new recruits? Or were some of his crew being medically discharged? Maybe Rahman himself was being discharged. The thought flooded him with hope. To finally go home, to be free of war and death. The thought was like a dream.
Aurangzeb saw the look on his face. “That’s rahht. You and your crew will be given a week o’ shore leave on NewMalaysia. Y’all earned it. While you’re there, we’ll have a little mission for ya. And when that’s done, we’re givin’ you a new ship for a long range mission that is crucial to the success o’ this heah war. I’ll let Colonel Bakri fill you in. Good luck, son.”
With that, the general and Colonel Sani stood and left the room. A moment later, Colonel Bakri gestured to the two guards at the door to leave the room. They did so, closing the door behind them. Rahman found himself alone in the great room with the Malay colonel.
Get Yourself Together
“The general,” Bakri said softly but clearly, “has made men disappear for less than the disrespect you showed here today.”
The colonel’s demeanor was mild, which had the effect of bringing Rahman to attention. Even though half of the man’s face was twisted by a burn scar, Rahman paid it no mind. He’d been a soldier for a long time. Scars did not trouble him.
“You destroyed a queenship,” Bakri went on, “and with that you bought yourself some leeway. Get yourself together, Captain Rahman.”
Rahman nodded. “Yes sir.” The gift of shore leave on his homeworld excited him. He’d finally get to see his family again. At the same time, however, he was disappointed that it wasn’t longer, or that he wasn’t being discharged altogether. Of course you’re not being discharged, you night-drunk idiot, he told himself. You have twelve years left to serve.
“As the general said, we have a mission for you.” The colonel picked up a brown leather satchel that had been sitting on the ground beside him, placed it on the table, and drew forth a small metallic device with a flat base and a conical body. He touched a button on the device, and a burst of pain shot through Rahman’s artificial eye. Rahman covered the eye with a hand, but the pain faded, and he saw a shimmering field of silver light emitting from the tip of the device. Overlaid on his vision in the top left corner were the words, “COMMUNICATIONS SUPPRESSION FIELD.”
He understood that this machine was designed to suppress any type of eavesdropping or recording device. The field it emitted would not be visible to a human eye, but his artificial eye could somehow see it. Whatever Bakri was about to say, there would be no record of it anywhere, ever.
“Pardon,” Bakri said. “I did not consider the effect on your eye. I myself have no artificial implants. Not even a skinpad.”
“I’m okay.” Rahman knew of such people. They were called naturals. They wouldn’t even get i-links or artificial joints. The naturals had their own province on New Sarawak, the northern island continent on NewMalaysia. But he’d never heard of a natural achieving an officer’s rank.
Top Secret Alef
Bakri nodded. “The following mission is classified Top Secret Alef. If you reveal any portion of it to anyone at all, you will be executed for treason. Not only that, your family members and crew will be tainted by association.”
“That’s crazy,” Rahman replied. “My family has nothing to do with anything.”
“Then I reject the mission. Give it to someone else.”
“Aurangzeb has chosen you. Your experience and physical abilities are unparalleled.” Bakri lowered his voice. “You must carry out this mission, Captain. I tell you as a fellow NewMalaysian that everything depends on it. Far more than you imagine. The survival of NewMalaysia itself is at stake.”
Rahman’s jaw was tense, his teeth clenched together. “What is the mission?”
Bakri’s face was grim. “We want you,” he said quietly but firmly, “to assassinate the president of NewMalaysia.”
* * *
Next: All That Is In The Heavens, Part 13 – Truth and Lies
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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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