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All That Is In The Heavens [Part 15]: Enjoy It While You Can

In a cabin in the woods, Tarek Othman experiences a period of peace and happiness for the first time in his life.

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In a cabin in the woods, Tarek Othman experiences a period of peace and happiness for the first time in his life.

 

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

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This is a multi-chapter novel.  Previous Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3| Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

 

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:

  1. Yasin “Cutter” Rahman – Captain. Combat strategy master.
  2. Weili Menco Zhang – Corporal. Xeno-geographer. Calm and cool in battle. Carries a lasgun and a tekpi (trident).
  3. Ammar Abuzaid – Master Sergeant. Botanist and combat trainer. Oldest member of the squad. Quran hafedh.
  4. Bilal Mustafa – Fleet Officer. Xenobiologist, married to Rowaida.
  5. Rowaida Ali – Fleet Officer. Ship’s pilot, mechanic and fabricator, married to Bilal.
  6. Samir “Smasher” Sufyan – Specialist. Drone tech and explosives expert. Carries an ax. Multiple awards for valor, but also repeated misconduct violations.
  7. Ami Abdulghaffar – Specialist. Medic and psychotherapist.
  8. Amina Quraishi – Private First Class. Computer tech and AI diagnostics. Hijabi. Silat expert. Fearless.
  9. Hisham – Private. Grenadier, plus supplies & requisitions.
  10. Summer – Private. Riflecarrier and food services.
  11. Tarek – Private. Riflecarrier and janitorial. 18 years old.

* * *

Excerpt from Ten Years With The Andach, By Tarek Othman:

The Andach’ find everything about humanity baffling. Our food, music, language, appearance, odor, and cultural relationships are all incomprehensible to their minds. Perhaps strangest of all is our human propensity to kill one another. Among the Andach’, between clans and tribes, combat is ceremonial. Andach’ do not kill each other. Period. It simply does not happen.

* * *

The Pillars of Creation

Major Darwish, whose real name – Tarek knew now – was Saba Othman, and who was his aunt, stopped the hover car in front of a ramshackle wooden cabin deep in the woods. There was not another building for kilometers in any direction, as far as Tarek could tell.

“What is this place?”

“It belonged to your aunt Shubnam, remember her? I wasn’t sure it would even still be standing in one piece.”

“Auntie Shubby Chubby? The one who disappeared?”

Saba laughed. “Is that what you called her? That’s classic. She was a gun runner. She got on the wrong side of the triads, so she hid up here. One day she tried to kill a Scuti fox for food. It bit her, and she almost died. In that moment she had a spiritual epiphany. She said that the angel of death seized her by the throat, and locked onto her gaze with eyes like the pillars of creation. The ground shook, and her body was as light as a feather. Tears of shame and repentance streamed down her face. She realized that all life was one creation, striving for harmony beneath the majesty of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and that the purpose of her existence was not to take life, but to preserve it. After that she relocated to Fatimiyyah, with the intention of becoming a nurse. No one knew this but me. She may indeed have seen an angel. I believe that her empathic sense was powerfully activated at that moment of her near-death, and that the experience overwhelmed her.”

“Shubby Chubby was a gangster?”

Saba clucked her tongue. “I think you’re missing the point.”

Enjoy It While You Can

They spent a week in the cabin, which was solidly built in spite of its outward appearance, and which still had a cache of vacuum sealed foods in the larder. It was seven days of intensive instruction. The major taught Tarek how to pray the salat, and taught him some of the Quran. They prayed outside, laying a blanket on the leafy ground beneath the trees, and Tarek led. He tried to open himself to the life of the trees once again, but the connection wouldn’t come. That ecstatic union with all living things eluded him.

Nevertheless, he had his other senses. He heard the birds and the small forest animals, he smelled the pine and eucalyptus, he felt the give of the forest floor under his hands when he prostrated.

Every day Tarek felt more alive, as the death and torture of the academy faded into his past. He stopped shaving, and his beard came in, thin and wispy. He ate well, including rabbits that the major occasionally caught in the woods. His body filled out as a young man’s should. He told jokes, chopped wood exuberantly, and practiced tumbling motions he’d seen his sisters doing long ago. It was the major who pointed out to him that he was experiencing a proper childhood for the first time.

“Enjoy it while you can, Tutu,” she said. “It won’t last.”

Don’t Care About Me

Saba sometimes talked about Tarek’s mother, Sahara, who had died giving birth to Ghanima when Tarek was eight years old. Tarek remembered her as a woman who could cook a decent meal out of whatever scraps were available, could treat a wound with herbs that grew in the garden, and knew a hundred stories about princes and princesses, warriors and Tioman lions, sufi saints and demon jinnis. But to hear Saba tell it, Tarek’s mom was a hot-tempered brawler who couldn’t stand people and found comfort only in tending to plants. She’d never read a book in her life.

“What about all the stories she knew?”

Saba laughed. “I’m sure she made them all up.”

Tarek’s father was, as far as he knew, still alive. He was a truck driver who was often gone. His wages provided for the family, but after Mama’s death, the kids basically raised themselves. Tarek had not thought much about his mother in recent years, but now he thought that if she had survived, she would look a lot like Saba now. He found himself glancing surreptitiously at Saba, trying to imagine her and his mother growing up together.

One day he was chopping wood and thinking about this as Saba worked nearby on the cabin, hammering in some loose boards. Saba turned to him and said, “I loved her. Even though I was older, I always knew she had my back. But I’m not her, Tutu. You and I have a few more days together here, then we will probably never see each other again. Don’t care too much about me.”

“But… what will you do?”

“I’ll go back to the academy. I’m on personal leave, I have to return soon. There are other children there who need me. Lives I can save. And I’m a major. I can’t just disappear.”

“Why can’t I stay too? Not at the academy, but… Send me somewhere else. Where I can still see you sometimes.”

Saba put down the hammer and nails, came to Tarek and embraced him. “It’s not possible. It’s one thing to get you reassigned, that’s not a big deal. Happens all the time in war. But if you stayed here you’d get caught one day, and then you and I would both be dead.”

“You’re only thinking of yourself.” Tarek regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth. But Saba only smiled sadly and returned to her work. She was an empath. No doubt she knew exactly how Tarek felt, no matter what he said.

Combat and Telepathy

It wasn’t all play, prayer, and chopping wood. For two hours every day they worked on recognizing the signs of a telepathic intrusion, and how to block such an attack. And how to shield his thoughts so no one else could read them.

For another two hours they worked on combat. Saba gave him a long, curved knife, and taught him to use it. They trained in empty hand combat, ground fighting, and sword techniques. But primarily the knife, and there were no practice knives. Tarek was cut many times, and learned quickly.

The rest of the day Saba attempted to fully activate Tarek’s telepathic power, using techniques of relaxed concentration. Again, it would not come. Oh, sure, Tarek could receive thoughts that Saba projected his way. And he could pick up an image that she held in her mind and concentrated on. But he could not read her thoughts in any useful sense. At times he grew frustrated. Once he abandoned his practice and stalked off into the woods, where he climbed a tree and watched a woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatting away at a teak trunk. Another time he shouted in dismay and dumped dirt and leaves over his own head, then immediately felt ridiculous beneath Saba’s calm gaze.

“What does it mean that it won’t come?” Tarek asked.

“It doesn’t mean anything. It will come when you are ready. Only continue your training.”

Superhuman

On the seventh day at the cabin, Saba took a call on her i-link. Afterward she opened a bag and took out a pair of loose Arab robes. “Get changed,” she told Tarek. “We’re going to Bawah Dunia. Under World.”

They were sitting on flat stones around a fire on which Saba had cooked a fish that she’d caught in a nearby stream. Tarek morosely fingered the robe.“Why do we have to leave?” For the first time in his life he was happy and at peace. He never wanted to leave this place.

“The ship that I told you about, the one you’ll be assigned to, will be ready soon. We need to make certain preparations.”

“What if the people you send me to reject me? What if they treat me like a piece-of-bone empath, just like at the academy? Maybe I’ll always be a subhuman.”

Saba’s expression turned grim. “Don’t you ever use those expressions in front of me again. I told you before, you’re not a subhuman, you’re a superhuman. Don’t you understand? People hate us because they’re afraid. They don’t fear us because we’re weak, but because we’re strong. Do they fear the rabbit? No, they fear the lion. We could rule this galaxy if we wanted. But we’re not like that. Because we’re empaths and telepaths, our nature is to care about humanity.”

Ahbareen

Futuristic manThe robes were beige colored, made of a soft material that flowed around Tarek’s form. The sleeves were wide, and – oddly there was a pocket on the chest and the back.

“Hey. The right pocket is missing. It’s just a slit.”

“It’s supposed to be that way. Strap your knife to your waist on the right. You can reach it through the hole.”

In addition to the robes, they each donned a pair of blue goggles with attached earpieces and i-link interfaces. The goggles covered the entire upper portions of their faces, including their empath tattoos.

“We are Ahbareen,” Major Saba explained. “Arab gem traders from Fatimiyyah. Our goggles automatically analyze every gem we look at, detecting its type, authenticity and flaws. The earpiece connects to an AI mainframe in orbit. The AI estimates the value of each gem. When it spots one that can be sold at a profit elsewhere, it tells you to sell. You then point your finger, that’s all. So don’t point at anything, do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t talk. Ahbareen rarely speak.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the connection with the AI requires all their focus. They do speak, but sparingly.”

“So we’re buying gems?”

“We’re not buying anything. It’s a disguise. The goggles and earpiece are dummies, they don’t work.”

“Bawah Dunia is a marketplace?”

Major Saba shook her head. “Of sorts. It is a city beneath the city. Ancient levels beneath levels, all the way down to the earliest construction of Selangor, a thousand years ago. It’s home to fugitives, refugees, aliens, criminals, black market merchants, dark-drunkards, thieves and humanoid AIs. There is no law here. The two things all the inhabitants hate are police and telepaths. Stay alert and keep a hand on your knife.”

“Humanoid AIs? I thought they were banned on all human worlds.”

“Anything goes in Bawah Dunia.”

The Light and the Truth

Future cityTarek gazed out of the hovercar’s window as they approached the glittering lights of the towering city of Selangor. This was not the standing room only, impoverished slum that Tarek had grown up in, but the moneyed heart of Selangor, the immensely wealthy financial district. They raced up the great arc of an overpass that soared over the Tioman River, which was a broad swath of darkness beneath the purple light of Besar.

Saba cursed at a driver who’d wandered out of his lane. “Use your AI, idiot!”

Tarek noted that the major’s own AI was disengaged. “I thought we weren’t supposed to talk.”

They descended into the city. Tarek marveled at the opulence all around him, the skyscrapers whose tops could not be seen, the buildings with fantastical shapes – a kilometer high pen, a hand reaching to the sky, a series of loops, an eight-pointed star.

The adhaan for ishaa’ prayer echoed out across the city from a thousand different minarets. Tarek had grown up with this sound, and it took him back to his childhood, fighting in the streets of South Selangor, protecting his sisters, trying to earn a little money to eat.

“Why did you teach me religion?”

Saba kept her eyes on the road. “Islam is the light and truth of this existence. It’s the power and peace that underlies all creation. Our gift can be troubling, as you well know. Islam gives us a framework for relating to other humans. It keeps us humble before Allah, and it connects us to all living things. Do you remember the ayah I taught you?”

Tarek recited it: “All that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth glorifies Allah, for He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.”

They parked the car in a thirty story garage and walked through the teeming streets of Chinatown. Rahman craned his head, captivated by the exotic foods and spices for sale, the ornate furniture, the strange food scents. They entered a bustling Chinese restaurant, walked through to the back, and down a long, spiraling staircase.

“It really is an underworld,” Tarek said. “How do we get in?’

“There is a door and a challenge phrase. My contact gave me tonight’s challenge response. Now hush. No more talking.” Saba stopped in front of a huge red door that looked strong enough to withstand a Tellian water buffalo stampede.

Challenge Phrase

A hatch opened in the door and a woman’s face appeared. She was Malay, but very pale, with her hair frozen into a rising spiral that mimicked the staircase they’d come down, but in reverse.

“I saw your cousin in the market,” the woman said in a bored tone.

Saba froze, and Tarek could sense her confusion. She’d been confident a moment before, but it seemed her information was out of date.

“Bees love the marigolds,” Saba replied finally.

“That was yesterday.” The pale woman was expressionless. “I saw your cousin in the market.” More emphasis this time.

Tarek watched Saba. Her mouth worked, but she said nothing. He saw her take a deep breath and let her shoulders relax. She was trying to read the door keeper’s mind, but he could tell from her furrowed brow that it wasn’t working.

To their left and right, men stepped out of the shadows. They were big, and had sonic pistols pointed directly at Tarek and Saba.

Third And Last

“Third and last time,” the woman snapped. “I saw your cousin in the market.”

Tarek’s heart hammered. Sweat pooled beneath his goggles and ran down his face. He shifted his gaze to the pale woman. Her eyes were yellow with spots of green – clearly not natural. She… she was near the end of her shift, and tired. All she wanted was to return to her room on a lower level, take a dreamdot, and zone out. She… Her mind opened to him, and he saw everything. She’d never known her father. Mother and two sisters lost in a building collapse. She’d grown up in an Islamic orphanage and knew the entire Quran by heart. She had a knack for numbers. Used to sing for money in the airbus stations, until she got this gig. And she knew the dreamdots were killing her, but at this point she couldn’t imagine getting through a day without one. She felt hopeless and alone, and didn’t know who to trust.

One of the guards touched the barrel of his gun to Saba’s head, and the other did the same with Tarek. Their shoulders tensed. They were about to fire.

The answer to the challenge question hummed in the pale woman’s mind as clear as day. “He was buying fish for the lion cub,” Tarek replied softly.

The men lowered their guns and faded into the darkness, and the door opened.

* * *

Next: All That Is In The Heavens, Part 16 – The Imam’s Tale

 

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.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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