See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2
LOCATION: PERSEUS ARM OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY
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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.
Excerpt From The Life and Times of Yasin Rahman, by Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
Some call Yasin Rahman a saint. They say he was a perfect man. Some make pilgrimage to his burial site on Old Earth, casting themselves to the ground and weeping, and even doing tawaaf around the grave. I have seen this with my own eyes.
Tell me another joke. Rahman would have ridiculed such practices. The only things he was sure of, at least before the Transformation, were his faith in Allah , his love for Weili Menco Zhang, and his commitment to the soldiers under his command. He approached everything else as an iconoclast might approach an ancient wooden temple, pulling the nails and burning the wood for warmth. He was skeptical of everything, including the United Army, his own ethnic identity, and the relevance of humanity as a species.
As for being perfect, the multifaceted diamond that was Yasin Rahman certainly sparkled. He was thoughtful, fair, and kind. And he was heroic, no doubt. I once saw him remove his skinsuit and give it to a raw recruit, a riflecarrier named Tarek, after the man’s suit was nullified by an enemy magbeam. This happened in the heat of battle, on an Andach’ battleship that had suffered a hull rupture and was losing atmosphere. Rahman subsequently passed out and was on the verge of death. It was only sheer luck, or barakah if you wish, that Amina Quraishi tore a skinsuit collar off the neck of a dead soldier, and put it on Rahman.
On the other hand, Rahman was a flawed personality. He imagined himself an equalist, but in reality he was sometimes condescending toward women. He had a temper, yet conversely was lax in his command, to the point of undermining morale. As a Muslim he was barely observant, and often felt guilty over this. In all, he was neither perfect nor a saint.
These observations will provoke outrage. But I was Transformed as well. You cannot deny the truth of what I say. If we fictionalize our heroes, if we polish away their chips and scars, we betray them and ourselves. Heroes are heroes because they are flawed. They struggle, fight and push humanity forward, all while suffering the same petty resentments and desires as anyone else.
If Ammar Abuzaid drummed one surah into our heads, it was Surat Al-Hashr. ‘All that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth glorifies Allah, for He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.’
But there’s another verse in that same surah that comes to mind: ‘And those who come after them say: ‘Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who have preceded us in faith, and put not in our hearts any hatred against those who have believed.’
This, then, is what I say about Yasin Rahman. May Allah forgive us, and forgive him. He was human, and he was a hero. He was my commander and my friend, and I loved him.
Rahman frowned. Was he imagining the worry in SAI’s voice? The computer was not supposed to be able to feel emotion.
“I imagine you’ll be upgraded and reassigned.”
“Sadaqa wa’dah,” Abuzaid went on, reciting the Eid takbeerah.
“IF YOU PENETRATE THE QUEENSHIP, YOU ALL WILL EXIT AND LEAVE ME TO BURN.”
Rahman hadn’t thought of that. SAI’s fear of death startled him, but she was right. No matter what happened to the human crew, the ship was doomed.
“Can you download yourself into a portable drive?”
“Wa nasara abdah,”
“PORTABLE DRIVES ARE BANNED ON UA SHIPS.”
Yes. He’d forgotten. Security risk.
“THERE IS ONE PORTABLE DRIVE ONBOARD.”
“Wa a’aza jundah,”
“Oh!” Taken aback, Rahman rubbed his head. Instead of close-cropped black hair, he felt the smooth surface of the skinsuit. “You mean my brain drive.”
Selected UA officers were equipped with internal data storage systems. Rahman had a 1,000 terabyte drive attached to the neocortex on the upper part of his brain. Though it was only the size of a NewMalaysian red beetle, it held a massive amount of data that he could access at will, including analyses and videos of historical battles, intelligence on the crabs, UA policy manuals, field manuals, combat tactics, improvised weapon design, and more. Even with all that, it was only one third full.
“Wa hazam al-ahzaba wahdah.”
“How would that even work?”
“I CAN DOWNLOAD MYSELF WIRELESSLY. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS UNLOCK IT.”
“I need you to run the ship.”
“I WILL LEAVE BEHIND SUFFICIENT PROCESSING POWER.”
“La ilahaa il-Allahu,”
Rahman shook his head. This was crazy. The AI wanted to rent space in his brain? He threw up his hands. Fine. Whatever. Enough people had died. No point letting SAI die as well. Even as he continued to pilot the ship, steering around debris and dodging alien projectiles, he mentally accessed the drive. A password prompt came up in his mind. It was a row of five frames. He populated each frame with a scene from his childhood, except for the last, which he filled with Zhang’s face. The drive opened, and the data was there, but instead of accessing it, he called up the control panel. There was a window like a porthole. He unlatched it and threw it wide open. Through it he saw a wide blue sky.
“It’s done,” he said. “It’s open.”
Instantly he experienced the strangest sensation, as a presence began flowing into his mind. It had a muscular, probing intelligence, and was hyper-aware. He felt SAI lingering, looking at him, peering into his mind. His arms broke out in goosebumps, and just when he was about to rebel and shut the porthole, the invisible intelligence flowed into the internal drive and went silent. At the last instant, before Rahman shut the porthole, he felt emotion radiating from that powerful intelligence. There was some gratitude, but it was nearly drowned out in a flood of anger and resentment.
This stunned him. He had the sinking sensation that he might have just made a terrible mistake. He’d never heard of anyone doing what he’d done, and hadn’t even known it was possible. But clearly SAI had known, and had been prepared for precisely this eventuality.
There was no time to dwell on it. The field between him and the queenship was mostly clear. “SAI,” he said. “Plot a course in an arc, rising above the queenship then ramming the top of the ship, just aft of the transverse axis, behind the communications array.” Rahman had detailed diagrams of all crab ships in his brain drive, but he didn’t have to call up such a map. He knew it by heart, and he knew that the top of the ship was the most vulnerable.
No response. “SAI? Computer?”
“MULTIPLE DAMAGED SYSTEMS. HULL BREACH IN SECTOR – “
“Fine, stop,” Rahman snapped, feeling like a fool. The voice was not SAI’s, but a gender-neutral computer voice, without inflection. Of course. SAI was gone. Rahman manually plotted the course on the navigational touchscreen, then flipped six switches to fire all thrusters. The ship’s engines roared and the craft leaped forward, pushing Rahman into the seat.
“Computer, can you follow this course? Bring the ship to a speed of 900 kph.”
“THAT IS NOT ADVISABLE. SUCH A COLLISION -”
“Just do it! And start a shipwide countdown to impact.”
“Wa laa na’budu illa iyyah,” Abuzaid intoned.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY FIVE SECONDS.”
As the computer piloted the ship, speeding it on its way to the collision that would end its existence, Rahman checked his gear. Skinsuit at full charge.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY FOUR SECONDS.”
His laser rifle was snapped into a rack on the wall. He removed it, checked the charge and slung the strap over his shoulder.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY THREE SECONDS.”
Sonic pistol on his left hip, fully charged. Nano scalpel on his right hip. The 30 centimeter long obsidian and carbon nanotube blade had an edge that was only three molecules wide. Originally designed for battlefield cyborg surgery, this material was the only thing he’d ever found that would cut through a crab’s armor and shell.
Smart goggles were folded into a chest pocket. He unfolded them and strapped them on. The goggles would enable him to see in the dark, and would give him a variety of critical readings, including atmospheric content, temperature, and energy buildups.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY TWO SECONDS.”
The ship carried bulletproof vests, but there was no point donning them. The archaic weapons the crabs carried fired massive projectile shells. If one struck Rahman, it might not penetrate his skin but it wouldn’t have to, as it would cave in his head or chest, or blow a limb right off.
For a moment a sense of weariness washed through him, leaving his body limp. He needed a moment to rest, or even more imporantly to pray, something he’d done too little of over the years. He still believed in Allah, even after all he’d seen, but did Allah still believe in him, after all he had done? It was said that Allah’s forgiveness was limitless. But the universe was a big place, a fact that Rahman could attest to personally. Was Allah’s forgiveness even bigger?
Maybe what he truly yearned for was to be done with this war, and to lie down and sleep for a hundred years.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY ONE SECONDS.”
Most of all, he had a sweet and terrible dream of being somewhere quiet and peaceful with Zhang, so that he could talk to her for once outside the context of this endless, filthy conflict. There was a particular fantasy that, when he thought of it, made him blush with embarrassment at its silliness. Back home on NewMalaysia his family owned a lot of land, most of it planted with a variety of crops, from fruits to rice to Tellian corn. But there was one large plot, a section of about 20,000 square meters that looked down onto the Tioman river, that was not planted, as it was a flat, stony mesa with poor soil.
Rahman imagined marrying Zhang and building a house on that mesa. His father had not been a farmer, preferring to work as a ship’s mechanic, and leaving the farming to Rahman’s uncles. But Rahman thought that he would like to work the land, and in the evening he and Zhang would sit on a veranda swing and look down at the river, with their children playing in the garden by the light of the NewMalaysia’s two huge moons.
“IMPACT IN TWENTY SECONDS.”
It was a ridiculous fantasy. The UA term of service was thirty years, and Rahman and Zhang still had eighteen years to go. Yet he found his finger drifting toward the i-link in his ear, to call Zhang and tell her… what? What could he say?
“IMPACT IN NINETEEN SECONDS.”
And that was the rub. There was no time to rest, pray, ask forgiveness, or fantasize. Not a minute, not even a second. And maybe there never would be. That was what made the dream terrible. He dropped his hand and went back to checking his gear.
“IMPACT IN EIGHTEEN SECONDS.”
Let’s Get Cracking
“What did the hungry man say,” Ami Abdulghaffar asked over the comm, “when he encountered a crab in a dark alley?”
“What?” Quraishi replied. Specialist Amina Quraishi, computer tech and deadly silat expert, was Ami’s constant companion.
“Let’s get cracking!”
IMPACT IN SEVENTEEN SECONDS
Rahman did not understand the joke and did not laugh. Instead he addressed Ami by her last name: “Abdulghaffar, what is Suhaib’s condition?”
“Badly burned.” Her tone was solemn for once. “Slim chance of survival. He needs an autodoc.”
IMPACT IN SIXTEEN SECONDS
“Then put him in it, for sky’s sake!”
“It’s destroyed. I sedated him and strapped him in securely. All I can do, for now.”
“IMPACT IN FIFTEEN SECONDS.”
“Wa law karihal-kaafiroon.”
Unbelievable. The man in her care was dying, and she was telling jokes. Abdulghaffar had joined his crew a year ago, and though she was an outstanding medic, a good fighter, and, from what he’d heard, an excellent psychotherapist, he wondered sometimes about her behavior.
“Allahumma salli ‘alaa sayyidna Muhammad,” Abuzaid went on, his voice strong and unwavering.
“IMPACT IN FOURTEEN SECONDS.”
Fourteen seconds until they were all smashed to smithereens. There was nothing left to do but pilot the ship. Rahman found himself thinking about his family, back home on NewMalaysia. It seemed like a lifetime since he had seen them, and in some ways it was. Not only because of all that had happened to him, and all the ways in which he had changed, so that his family would likely not recognize him anymore. But also because of time relativity. He’d spent so much time in space, traveling at faster than light speeds, that much more time had passed back home than it had for him. How much more, he was not sure.
“IMPACT IN THIRTEEN SECONDS.”
“wa ‘alaa aali sayyidna Muhammad,”
Rahman’s father had been a ship’s mechanic, responsible for routine maintenance of UA battleships that docked at the NewMalaysia spaceport. The port had been bombed by the crabs, and his father had been vaporized. They hadn’t even had ashes to bury, and had simply wrapped his best suit and a black songkok cap in a white sheet and buried that instead.
“IMPACT IN TWELVE SECONDS.”
“wa ‘alaa ashabi sayyidna Muhammad,”
His mother had been well when he’d left home. A portion of his salary still went to her automatically. As far as he knew she was still alive, though she must be very old. He tried to picture her, but for some reason her face would not form in his mind. Instead, when he thought of her, he smelled jasmine, and tasted her delicious nasi kerabu, with its blue rice, bean sprouts, fried coconut and fermented fish sauce. He pictured her praying in the sun room, prostrating on the lush pica wool musalla that bore the image of the sacred masjid in Makkah, a faraway place that she had never seen and never would. He heard her praising him for doing well in school, and berating him for getting into trouble with his friends, like when they’d used gun shells to blow up a string of coconuts, and had almost blown themselves to bits in the process. These memories passed through his mind fleetingly, a jumble of images that made him smile.
He glanced at the dead pilot on the floor. The man had released his bodily fluids at the moment of death. The stench was powerful. But Rahman was sadly used to it. Was it strange that he could smile with a dead compadre at his feet? He’d been in this war for too long. Anyway, odds were he’d see that man very soon, on the other side of death’s curtain.
“IMPACT IN ELEVEN SECONDS.”
“wa ‘alaa ansari sayyidna Muhammad,”
Rahman had five older brothers and sisters, but he’d never been close to them for some reason. He knew he was smarter, braver and crazier than all of them, and he thought maybe they resented it. But maybe that was his ego, remembering how he’d been doted on by his grandparents, uncles and aunts.
“IMPACT IN TEN SECONDS.”
“wa ‘alaa azwaji sayyidna Muhammad,”
As always, his thoughts returned to Zhang. She was intelligent, beautiful, and a ferociously fierce fighter with that three-pointed tekpi of hers. Yet somehow amid all the violence, she’d kept a glowing core of compassion alive in her heart. She was meticulous about protecting non-combatants in the field, including crab non-combatants. This was sadly rare, Rahman knew. Also, in the last year he’d noticed a prayer mark beginning to appear on her forehead. This surprised him, though he did not know why it should. Though she was half Chinese and half Colombian, her family was Muslim.
“IMPACT IN NINE SECONDS.”
“This,” Ami Abdulghaffar offered, “is definitely going to affect our insurance rate.”
“Wa sallim tasleeman katheeran kabeerah,” Abuzaid concluded.
“IMPACT IN EIGHT SECONDS.”
Copy My Stupid Idea
Rahman swerved to avoid another projectile. Guns on the queenship were adjusting now, targeting Rahman’s ship, maybe suspecting what he was up to. He looked right and left and realized that the handful of remaining UA fighters had seen what he was doing, and had fallen into a V formation alongside him, matching speed and course. They were all going to ram. Great, he thought dryly. Everyone copy my stupid idea. He’d done a lot of crazy things in twelve years of fighting these monsters, but this might be the craziest. Well, today was Eid ul-Adha. A day of sacrifice. That was appropriate, since they were all about to be smashed like bugs on the titanium altar of the queenship’s hull.
“Weapons at the ready!” Rahman barked into the comm. “Smasher’s drones will take point, and I want everyone right behind them. Ami and Abuzaid, you are responsible for Suhaib.”
“IMPACT IN SEVEN SECONDS.”
Rahman’s mouth was dry. The skinsuit was beginning to itch. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, then opened them again. And then… Abuzaid said the thing. The ayah.
“All that is in the heavens,” Abuzaid added, “and all that is in the earth, glorifies Allah. For He is the Almighty, the Wise.”
“IMPACT IN SIX SECONDS.”
“We don’t want to hear that mess!” bellowed Samir “Smasher” Sufyan, the drone tech. “We’re soldiers, not imams.”
“Smasher’s right,” Amina Quraishi chimed in. “It’s not the right time for that.”
“IMPACT IN FIVE SECONDS.”
“Silence!” Rahman bellowed. The constant conflict between Abuzaid and Smasher was an irritation at any time, but at a moment like this it made him want to shoot Smasher and throw him out of an airlock. The man was a liability, as Rahman had told command many times. Unpredictable, rage-filled, insubordinate. And as for Abuzaid, Rahman was disappointed in the man. He’d hoped that Abuzaid had more respect for him than this. He was aware that the master sergeant had changed the ayah slightly – could you do that? – but it made no difference, as the meaning was the same. He would have to discipline Abuzaid this time, if they survived what was about to happen.
Because You Exist
“IMPACT IN FOUR SECONDS.”
“Use laser rifles if you have the distance,” Rahman ordered everyone. “If not, then sonic pistols and hand to hand.” He directed the ship into the downward terminus of its arc. The top of the queenship, studded with a variety of sensors, now occupied his entire field of vision, growing rapidly larger as they plummeted toward it at tremendous speed. He gritted his teeth and pushed his feet into the floor, resisting the impulse to turn the ship away from the imminent collision. He glanced right and left. The other UA fighters still paralleled him. Heroes, they were heroes.
“IMPACT IN THREE SECONDS.”
From within his own mind came a feminine whisper: “BOSS, I’M AFRAID.” Once again Rahman felt his skin crawl. How could SAI communicate with him from the internal drive, when even he needed a password to access it? But there was no time for reassurances, nor for any response at all. He bellowed into the comm: “Satria Malay! Die fighting! Brace!!!”
Raised voices sounded on the comm: “Satria Malay! Allahu Akbar!”
“IMPACT IN TWO SECONDS.”
His i-link chimed. Zhang’s voice in his ear: “Rahman, I have to tell you something. I have hope for this universe because you exist.”
“IMPACT IN ONE SECOND.”
What? What did she say? They barreled down toward the top of the queenship. With an impact like a planet-sized hammer striking a celestial gong, and with a tremendous crashing, splitting, tearing and screeching sound, they slammed into the top of the massive alien craft.
– – – – –
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
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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