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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 Death of Yasin Rahman, by Dr. Ami Abdulghaffar:
Biographers tend to slide past the subject of Yasin Rahman’s family, giving it a few pages at best. He soared out of the family nest when he was fifteen years old, was out of contact for years, and never saw his parents alive again. As for his siblings, by the time he saw them again they were all doddering seniors, while – due to the effects of relativity – Rahman was still in the blush of youth. They were strangers to each other, and some of them did not even believe that Rahman was who he said he was.
All true. But what historians don’t realize is that there were three family members by Rahman’s side all through his military career: his father, his wife and his sister.
No, not Abdussamad Rahman, his biological father. Not Tahany Rahman, his sister. I refer instead to Ammar Abuzaid, Weili Menco Zhang, and myself. Though we were not blood relatives, we were closer to him than anyone alive.
* * *
“WAKE UP,” a voice said in his ear. A feminine voice, familiar.
“WAKE UP, BOSS,” the voice said again. “WAKE UP AND BREATHE.”
The voice was not in his ear, but in his head. How could that be?
“WAKE UP!” SAI shouted.
He woke up, his hands grasping at empty air. He couldn’t breathe. His chest was seized up tight, as if he no longer had lungs. As if, while he passed through some period of unconscious darkness, his lungs had been stolen from his body to be inflated and used as kites by alien children. His face was wet. Pain in his left eye. The hot taste of blood in his mouth. A high pitched whining in his ears. His entire body ached, as if he’d fallen from a tree.
Had he fallen from a tree? Yes, yes, of course he had. He and his cousin Zeeshan had climbed the big yellowwood pine that grew behind his house. They had a clubhouse there, built by Yasin’s father. Sitting in the clubhouse one day, eating a banana and brown sugar pie that they had stolen from Auntie Amani’s oven and hauled up to the treehouse in a rope and basket, Yasin spotted a tiktiki nest higher up in the tree. The royal blue eggs were prized for their color. People in the market would pay good money for tiktiki eggs. With his hands still covered in banana cream and sugar, Yasin climbed toward the nest, but slipped and fell.
He fell a long, long way, and landed flat on his back, driving all the air out of his lungs, so that they were as flat as roti. His arm was broken, though he did not know it at the time. He rose desperately to his feet and stumbled toward home, trying to breathe, panicking, feeling like he was dying, as Zeeshan ran helplessly alongside him, a small boy with curly hair and thick glasses, waving his arms and calling for help. I have to get to Bapa, Rahman thought. He’s an engineer, he can fix anything. Then his legs gave out, and he fell into a rain puddle, gasping and flopping like a fish, until finally – after what seemed like an eternity – his lungs opened again and sweet air rushed in.
But that had been a long time ago, hadn’t it?
Rain In Reverse
Now it was the same. He clutched his own throat. Weren’t his eyes open? Why couldn’t he see? He put a hand to his face, but the contours were wrong. His face did not feel like his face, but like the face of Mount Iskandar, that craggy and iconic peak that soared above the island of Petaling Jadida back on NewMalaysia. His smart goggles were gone, and there was something sharp embedded in his cheek.
Then the vision in one eye clarified as the skinsuit absorbed the blood that coated his face. He was still in the pilot’s seat in the shattered wreckage of his ship, which hung half in and half out of the roof of the queenship, about ten meters from the floor of a massive engineering room. The alien ship, like all crab ships, had a meter of water on the floor, but it was swirling up into the air now, streaming toward the punctures in the hull created by Rahman’s ship and the other UA fighters. Rain in reverse. Upside down waterfalls.
Crabs were coming by the hundreds, converging on the UA ships. Huge males with red carapaces, and wearing black body armor. Each one was five times the size of a man, with ten limbs: six legs, two arms that ended in razor-sharp pincers, and two additional upper arms, located on the anterior thorax just below the head. The upper arms ended in long, chitinous fingers, and the crabs carried weapons in those dexterous hands.
In the old days the crabs had carried bludgeoning weapons, perhaps a relic from their pre-space period when male crabs engaged in ritual dominance displays. But they had learned, and each crab now carried a sonic shield in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other. When they ran out of ammo, they would draw short, heavy swords. Alien gladiators, for sky’s sake.
And there went Smasher’s drones, and additional drones from the other ships, spinning into the air in pairs, spiraling around each other, firing relentlessly into the crab warriors, demolishing them. Another pair of drones sped to starboard, presumably to plant the TONC explosives that would tear this entire ship in two.
Rahman saw all this in a flash, even as he struggled to breathe. His eyes bulged and he spasmed, rocking back and forth. Someone was calling his name. Not SAI, what was he thinking? Of course it wasn’t SAI. It was Ami Abdulghaffar, ship’s medic and psychotherapist. She was there, standing right beside him. Her hands probed him quickly, expertly. “You don’t have a chest wound.” She studied his face, saw the way his chest spasmed. “You got the wind knocked out of you.” She planted her mouth on his and blew.
That won’t work, Rahman thought. The skinsuit would block the passage of air through its membrane. But even as he thought this, it did work. Maybe the nanobots recognized his predicament and made an allowance. Air rushed down his windpipe and into his lungs, inflating them. He took huge, gasping breaths.
Abdulghaffar pushed him back into the seat. She was very strong. “Lieu, your face. Your left eye is gone and there’s a piece of trans-steel in your cheek. I think it’s a piece of your goggles.
“Doesn’t matter,” Rahman replied, still breathing heavily. “I told you to take care of Suhaib.”
She flashed a grin. Her eyes were hidden behind reflective smart goggles. The skinsuit covered her blond hair as well, so that it bulged in a lump behind her head, as if she wore a hijab. Her body was slightly heavyset – she’d always been on the chunky side – but muscular. “I thought saving your life might be worth a detour. You’re welcome.” As she talked she opened her med kit and went to work. Moving rapidly, she removed the shard of trans-steel, disinfected the wound – the skinsuit was designed to allow the application of medications – and painted it with a regeneration cream that would accelerate healing. Then she gave him an injection, and suddenly the pain in his face disappeared, and his mind cleared. He felt fully awake, alert and powerful.
“Abuzaid put Suhaib in a lifepod and launched it. He said if we survive we can pick him up later, and if not it won’t matter.”
He grunted. It was a smart move. They would need all hands for the fight, not hauling around a wounded man.
“Your orbital bone is shattered,” Abdulghaffar said. “Nothing I can do here. It needs surgery.”
“Never mind that. Let’s get off this ship before it blows.” His ship, the UA Starburst, had flown its last flight. It had been a good ship. He would miss it.
“That rush you’re feeling will last a half hour, then you’ll crash.”
“A half hour is all we need. By then we’ll be off the queenship, or we’ll be dead.”
Twenty Minutes to Detonation
Someone had strung several powered zip lines out of the cargo bay, and Rahman joined the members of his crew as they dropped down into the massive alien ship. Shots from projectile weapons whined past them. One of the men on the lines was AbdulAzeez. He was heavily bandaged around the midsection and his face was as white as death. A trickle of blood rose from his scalp and streamed up toward the breached hull. As he slid ponderously down the line, a massive bullet struck him and nearly cut him in two.
They were on the floor of the queenship. Gravity was light, maybe four fifths earth standard. Water and atmosphere continued to stream toward the breaches in the roof, but the water on the floor was still shin deep. The walls were lined with masses of purple and green tubes, and with black control panels that had no lights or switches but instead were operated through smooth grooves that covered them like hieroglyphs. Dead crab warriors littered the floor, while others continued to come. Corridors as tall as buildings branched off in every direction.
Rahman tapped the skinpad on the back of his left hand and set the timer to a countdown. 20:00. Twenty minutes until the TONC blew this ship in two, killing every living creature aboard.
The members of squad 3690 fanned out across the floor, fighting hand to hand, slaughtering crabs by the dozens. The crabs fired antiquated but frighteningly effective projectile weapons that could tear a human in two, along with more modern wave cannons that boiled humans alive where they stood.
The other ships had rammed along with Rahman’s, and the queenship’s halls and corridors were a nightmare of flashing light and cacophonous sound. Men and women died in the most horrific ways, some screaming endlessly, some disfigured beyond recognition.
The humans, however, carried lasguns that cut through the crabs’ armor as if it were soft cheese, and sonic pistols that pulped their flesh right through their shells. The lasguns could generate ten-second bursts with only a second of cooling needed in between, while the sonic pistols could be fired continuously. In addition, the humans wore smart goggles that saw through walls and bulkheads, and tracked infrared as well, enabling them to detect crabs by their heat signatures. The result was a score of crabs killed for every human.
At first squad 3690 stayed together, but in the chaos of battle, they were separated. Rahman cast his eyes about for Zhang, but instead spotted Aminah Quraishi and “Smasher” Sufyan ten meters away. They appeared to be attacking seven crabs that stood guard in front of a huge golden door. It was insanity. Even a single crab was hard to handle in hand-to-hand combat. But Quraishi was a silat expert who could move like no one Rahman had ever seen, and Smasher was a maniac. They ducked and weaved, firing their sonic pistols. Quraishi’s pistol ran out of charge and she drew her backup weapon, a small curved blade called a kerambit. With it she hooked the edge of a crab warrior’s exoskeleton, pulled the chest plate loose and cut its throat.
Smasher drew his ax. It was nearly as long as an arm, and was made – Rahman knew – of an energy-dispersing amorphous metal, with a carbon nanotube coating. Normally when someone struck something with a tool, the shock was transmitted into the object but also back into the wielder’s hand. With Smasher’s ax, however, 99.9% of the energy was delivered into the recipient. It was a devastatingly effective weapon.
A crab struck Aminah a glancing blow with its pincer and sent her flying. Now it was five warriors versus Smasher, who had his back to a wall that was thick with pulsating green cables. As Rahman watched, a crab swung a sword at Smasher’s head. The big drone tech ducked and rolled, swinging the ax and slicing cleanly through one of the crab’s legs. Coming out of his roll, he leaped and drove the ax between another crab’s eyes, just as the monster brought a wave gun to bear. But Smasher drove the ax so deep that it stuck in the creature’s forehead. He dodged the dead warrior’s bulk as it tumbled to the ground, then seized the ax, trying to pull it free even as the remaining three crabs raised their swords.
Not A Normal Human
Rahman was already racing forward. Three against one, or against two if you counted Rahman. Difficult odds for a normal human. But Rahman was not a normal human. Five years ago, in a pitched battle in the streets of a demolished human colony, he’d been seared by the beam of a radiation-pulse cannon fired by his own side. He’d only caught the edge of the beam, but it had been enough to fry his nervous system.
The autodoc had tried an experimental procedure on him, using nanomachines to build an artificial nervous system. Rahman later learned that he was not the first subject of this experiment. He was, however, the first who survived.
His artificial nervous system was capable of extreme acceleration in moments of stress, allowing him to think and move three times faster than normal, though at a tremendous caloric cost, and at the risk of tearing muscles or tendons.
He revved into hyper-acceleration mode and plunged into the melee with his pistol in one hand and the long nano-scalpel in the other. He dodged, leaped and slashed. The crabs seemed to move in slow motion. He slaughtered the three remaining crabs and stood, breathing hard. Smasher had recovered his ax but he’d been wounded. A long, bloody slash ran across one shoulder and down his chest. The skinsuit had already repaired itself and sealed the outer epidermal layer, and as Rahman watched the blood was reabsorbed by the suit.
Smasher gave Rahman a silent nod of thanks. He stood a head taller than Rahman, and his body bulged with muscle. His face was gaunt and clean shaven, and his black eyes were hidden behind the smart goggles.
“Did the drones set the TONC charges?” Rahman asked.
“How much time?”
Smasher tapped the skinpad on the back of his hand. “Fourteen minutes forty seven seconds.”
Rahman tapped his own skinpad, updating the time to detonation to the second. He then tapped his i-link twice for broadcast frequency and sent out a message to all the UA fighters, from his squad and others: “This is Lieutenant Rahman of the Starburst. We’e laid charges to detonate this ship. We have just over fourteen minutes. Everyone head aft. We will take the troop carrier. I repeat, head aft, and make haste!”
Aminah was back on her feet, one hand held to the side of her head.
“What did you two think you were doing?” Rahman demanded.
Smasher gestured at the huge door. “They were guarding something. Might be valuable.”
The three of them strode to the door, grasped its huge handle and heaved it open. As he stepped inside, Rahman’s eyes went wide with shock. It was a vast sunkeen room, filled with deep water, and with islands of rock rising from the water here and there. Rahman recognized it as the water room, where the crabs slept. Every crab ship had one.
This water room, however, was packed with teeming crowds of crabs, in the water and on the rocks. Some were half the size of the male warriors, and others were much smaller. None wore armor or carried weapons. They were females and children. Civilians. Rahman had seen civilians on other crab ships, and in fact this was one of the most confounding things about the crabs, that they always had civilians aboard, even on battleships. But he’d never seen this many. There must be two thousand of them.
As the three humans gaped in astonishment, the crabs nearest the door swam away in fear, whilst the ones on the rocks dived into the water. A low moan rose from the assembled crabs, building to a crescendo. Rahman had never heard this sound before, and realized that it was an expression of fear. They were in terror of the humans.
At the same time, the moan sounded vaguely like a prayer. His uncle Zaynul had belonged to a sufi order, and Rahman had gone along to watch sometimes. When they sat in a circle chanting, after a time the chant elongated and lost articulation, becoming more a sound than a word. The terrified moaning of the crabs took him back to that moment, sitting in a small country masjid with jasmine incense burning, listening to the men chant.
Remembering this, he thought of the ayah that Abuzaid always recited before they went into battle. “All that is in the Heavens and all that is in the Earth praises Allah, for He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.”
“Fish in a barrel,” Smasher said, then drew his laser rifle and fired. The shot caught two of the nearest crabs in the water and burned right through them, passing through one and into the other. A gout of steam rose from the water, along with a fountain of bright red blood.
Stunned, Rahman spun and drove an elbow into the man’s gut. He did not hold back, and Smasher fell backward onto his behind. He rolled with the momentum and came up on one knee, pointing the rifle at Rahman.
“Are you out of your mind?” Rahman bellowed. “These are civilians. Women and children!”
“Women?” Smasher sneered. “Do you hear yourself? Women? They’re monsters. There is no such thing as crab civilians.”
Rahman dropped his voice and spoke in a tone as hard as steel. “Lower your weapon, soldier, or I will have you court martialed.”
Slowly, Smasher lowered his rifle and stood.
“Let’s get out of here,” Rahman ordered. “We’re done here.”
Outside the room, with the door once again firmly shut, Rahman glared at Smasher and said, “We have to disable the TONC.”
Smasher tilted his head and stared, uncomprehending. “What?”
“We need to disable the explosives. We cannot blow this ship. There are two thousand unarmed civilians in that chamber. To kill them would be a war crime. Can you shut down the timer remotely?”
Still staring as if Rahman were speaking crabese, Smasher said, “No. It has to be done manually. You literally have to flip a switch. We make it that way deliberately, so that it can’t be compromised remotely.”
“Then send your drones back to flip the switches.”
“I can’t do that.”
Rahman’s grip tightened on his nano-scalpel. “I am giving you a direct order, Specialist Sufyan.”
Smasher shook his head and sneered. “You misunderstand me, Lieutenant.” He turned the word into an insult. “I cannot.” He tapped the skinpad on the back of his hand and showed Rahman the display. The drones were out of commission. All of them had been destroyed. “It can’t be stopped,” Smasher said firmly.
“Would you stop it if you could?”
“Does it matter?”
Rahman glared at Smasher for a long moment, then turned away. “Let’s get off this ship.”
A Strange Sight
They returned to the battle. In only a few moments, both sides ran out of ammunition or charge, and the fight turned into a bloody mess. Rahman gripped his nano-scalpel and cast a glance up the long debris-strewn cabin. Humans and crabs were locked in personal combat all across the shattered chamber. Bodies lay in unnatural positions, blood was splashed across the walls like hellish artwork, and fires had broken out in several places. But the queenship must have some auto-repair systems, because the hull breaches had apparently been sealed, and water was now pouring back down to the floor of the ship, dousing the fires.
A woman’s scream of fury came from around a corner. Rahman instantly recognized the voice. It was Zhang. Rahman dashed around the corner, and was confronted with a sight that made no sense. Ami Abdulghaffar was down on one knee, bending over a UA soldier that Rahman did not know. A tall Caucasian with red hair and green eyes. Someone from one of the other ships. He’d been disemboweled, and Ami was working feverishly, holding the man’s head out of the shallow water with one hand, and with the other hand trying to stuff his intestines back into his belly.
But that wasn’t the strange part. The strange part was that a crab stood over the two of them, not making any hostile moves, nor even holding a weapon, but simply standing there. This crab was smaller than the others, and wore body armor that extended further back into its thorax. A female. It carried no weapons, but held a massive piece of shattered hull plating in one hand.
Zhang stood five meters away in a deep crouch, with a trident held at arm’s length, aimed at the crab. It was a folding weapon, lightweight and fashioned from a ceramic alloy, with tips sharp enough to pierce steel. Rahman had seen her use it to deadly effect many times. “Get away from her!” Zhang shouted. “Or I’ll run you through.”
The crab replied in its alien language, a string of consonants with too few vowels. It sounded like “Tkch-klwah andch krrr.”
No humans had ever learned the crab language, as far as Rahman knew. The few peace talks that had occurred had used Tellian intermediaries and translators.
Zhang began her charge. But something about this scene was not right. Rahman shouted, “Zhang, wait! Hold!”
The beautiful xeno-geographer skidded to a halt. At the same moment, a male crab approached at a run. This one still carried a sheath of spears, of all things, and it drew one and threw it at Zhang’s head. The spear flew fast and true, but the female crab extended its arm, blocking the shot with the shield. The male drew another spear, aimed at Ami and threw. Again the female blocked it, and this time she cut loose with what sounded like a command, aimed at the male.
The male did something Rahman had never seen before. Its red exoskeleton, visible in places beneath the armor, suddenly became illuminated, as if it were transparent and a light were shining from inside the beast. Then it turned and scurried off.
Smasher came around the corner from behind Rahman, saw the scene before him, and without hesitation ran forward, swung his ax and severed one of the female crab’s legs. Rahman cried out for him to stop, but Smasher paid no mind. As the female tried to adjust her balance on her remaining legs, Smasher darted underneath and swung a blow up into her chin, nearly severing her face from her head. The female began to fall, and Rahman saw to his dismay that the beast was going to land right on Ami and the wounded soldier. He cried out for Amy to move. She looked up, saw the monster tumbling her way, and rolled clear at the last instant. The female crab crashed beside the wounded man, narrowly missing him. Her shield, however, landed on the man edge-on, cutting deeply into his torso. The man was dead.
Ami darted back to the dead man and tried to lift the shield from his body, but could not.
Rahman turned to Smasher. The drone tech had lost his goggles, and Rahman could see the look of satisfaction in the drone tech’s eyes. He seized Smasher’s neck in one hand and bellowed in his face. “It was protecting Ami! I gave you an order to halt!”
Smasher gripped Rahman’s wrist and pulled it free from his throat. His eyes had gone cold. “Crabs don’t protect humans,” he replied in a low voice. “You’re making bad decisions. You need to get your head on straight, Lieutenant.” Again he pronounced the word as an insult.
Cut in Two
“Get this thing off him,” Ami Abdulghaffar cried.
“What’s the point?” Smasher replied. “He’s dead.” Nevertheless, the big man strode forward and yanked at the shield, which did not budge. “It’s too heavy.”
“Lieutenant,” Ami pleaded.
Rahman stepped forward. The female crab was not dead but was horribly wounded, and lay twitching in agony. As an act of mercy, Rahman drove his nano-scalpel into the crab’s brain. Then he grasped the shield – it must have been part of a door, because it had a handle in the middle – and lifted it clean out of the man’s body. Ami rushed forward and checke the man’s vitals, but it was obvious he was dead. His torso was nearly severed in two.
Still holding the shield, Rahman turned in a full circle to make up for the lost vision from his missing eye. A huge wave of crabs was converging on their position, coming from all directions. A hundred meters aft, a large, pyramid-like construction rose from the ship’s floor. Rahman didn’t know what it did and didn’t care. It might offer a bulwark or defensive position they could use against the crabs. And it was in the direction they needed to go.
He double-tapped his i-link. “All UA fighters on me. Make for the pyramid at the aft end.” He nodded to Smasher, Ami, Zhang, and Aminah. “Let’s go.”
On The Move
They began moving, staying close, covering each other’s backs. Abuzaid joined them, and a handful of other UA fighters he did not know. They pushed their way aft, battling through scores of crabs.
Rahman carried the shield in one hand and his nano-scalpel in the other. With the shield he battered the crab warriors, either bludgeoning them or using the edge to hack into their carapaces. With the nano-scalpel he sliced through their legs as easily as one might cut open an avocado, following up with thrusts into their heads or torsos, and taking care to stand clear when they toppled. There were many species of sentient crabs, and these were reds, one of the biggest. The fighting males weighed a thousand pounds, and even a crippled or dead body would kill you if it fell on you.
Abdulghaffar’s injection was still in his system, making him strong, and taking away his pain. Between that and his enhanced nervous system, the crabs did not know what to do with him. They appeared befuddled by his speed.
In his peripheral vision he monitored the others: Zhang spun, raking her trident across crab warriors’ eyes, thrusting, dropping low and leaping up. Aminah Quraishi, a religious young woman who wore hijab even in battle, spun and slashed with her kerambit. Maryam Munir, a recent recruit, was in trouble, barely holding her own against a single crab. Rahman launched himself in Munir’s direction, but too late. The crab’s sword cut diagonally through Munir’s body, severing her in two. Rahman leaped high and brought his nano-knife down between the crab’s eyes.
River of Death
They moved toward the pyramid, leaving a red river of death behind them. Everything was stained by the crabs’ cherry red blood, for crab blood was brighter than human blood. They were all drenched in it. A real-life horror show. And still more crabs came, and more. Some of these were probably technicians, not warriors, but they were all fighters now. They fought with a frenzy, as if they knew that their entire ship was at stake. Was it possible that they knew about the explosives?
Spinning, mowing down crabs with the shield and knife, Rahman could not check his skinpad. He called out to Smasher: “Sufyan!Time to detonation?”
“Six and a half minutes!” Smasher bellowed back.
Six minutes. They weren’t going to make it. This realization entered Rahman’s consciousness gradually and softly, like the sun rising behind the clouds on a Ramadan morning. There were too many crabs, not enough humans, and not enough time. They weren’t going to make it.
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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