Star Crossed: Part Two

“The truth is Commander, this is unchartered territory for all of us. Zaya received a direct blast from a weapon we know virtually nothing about. We know that it affected her neurological system as a whole. But the extent of the damage is something we are still grappling with. While a certain amount of memory loss is to be expected after a brain injury, we cannot explain why she believes she is someone else all together. You’ll have to be patient, and give her time to adjust to her new circumstances.”

Dr. Faysel Tolmen could read the worry, desperation, and frustration dancing on Jorran’s face. He couldn’t help but wonder what devious mind came up with the devastating weapon that almost took Zaya’s life. For twelve years, her husband vacillated between hope and despair, never giving up on the faint chance that she could one day wake up from her Coma. This was certainly not what he’d hoped for. But then again was anyone involved in the war against the shadow cluster expected to come out of it unscathed? Faysel instinctively touched his temple, running his fingers over his own war souvenir in the form of a cranial plating, thankfully covered by synth skin.

XXX

Jorran entered Kilwa’s masjid, his heart heavy with a renewed sadness he thought impossible. His mind was desperately wresting with the ever-growing emptiness, trying to find a purpose in a world bereft of all sense. He quietly moved to the front of the hall, and started praying. As his head prostrated to his creator in humility, his heart cried out for guidance. He never felt so adrift and on the brink of despair. Despite Zaya waking up after so many years, she remained lost to him. Instead of returning to ops* immediately after his prayer, he decided to remain in the masjid for a little longer. Closing his eyes, he allowed his weary mind to be lulled into relaxation by the melodious voice of a young student reciting the Qur’an. A hand gently laid on his shoulder forced Jorran to open his eyes and look up. He immediately recognized the face greeting him with warmth and affection.

“Salamu aleikum Imam,” said Jorran smiling back at the man now seating by his side.

“Wa aleikum salam Commander. How are things?” asked the Imam.

“Alhamdulillah all is well,” replied Jorran while trying to keep his smile in place.

The Imam wore the traditional garb of Nadji religious scholars. The yellow and green colours of his clothes contrasted perfectly with his blue skin, peppered with whitish little spots that from afar looked like small scales. Much like Jorran’s people, the Nadji embraced Islam when Muslim scholars from the Alduvian homeworld arrived in their galaxy. Ten millennia ago, the first Muslims from Earth ventured into space taking their religion with them to the stars. Since then, Islam spread to hundreds of planets across many galaxies, unifying alien worlds through a common religion. Four hundred years ago, when the Intergalactic Alliance was established to ensure peace amongst the worlds, it was mostly due to the hard work of men like Sheikh Sakib. As a result of the involvement of Muslim scholars in the founding of the Alliance, an important contingent of its world members were planets where Islam was the main religion.

“I know that for your people talking to foreigners about your bonded pairs is taboo. But, please know that my door is always open to you Jorran,” said the Imam with a great deal of compassion in his voice.

“Thank you. I will keep that in mind,” replied Jorran before getting up.

“I will keep you both in my prayers and supplications. Salamu aleikum Commander.”

“Wa aleikum salam Imam,” said Jorran before leaving the masjid and returning to the command centre.

In Valdevian culture, marriage was more than the union of two people, it was a also a joining of minds. Being a race of telepaths, such a union implied that Valdevian couples were bonded pairs. Attuned to each others thoughts and feelings, they become over time two parts of the same mind. Allowing another to have such an access to one’s deepest thoughts, fears, and desires requires an unshakable trust. Marriage did not come easily to Valdevians. Finding a spouse was a quest that could often take decades. They referred  to this process as the search, and it only ended when they found their soulmates. The union of bonded pairs was held in such high regards in Valdevian culture, that it was taboo to discuss the intricacies of such a relationship with others, especially non-Valdevians. Jorran appreciated the understanding and tact displayed by the Imam when bringing up his relationship.

Being cut off from the mind of his wife was as painful to him as any physical wound he ever experienced. While she was unconscious and floating in the tank, barely alive, he would often sit beside her and open his mind. Lowering all his barriers, he would try to reach out to her unresponsive mind. After her miraculous recovery, his hopes of being reunited with her were dashed yet again. The mind he touched in that hospital bed was foreign to him. It shrieked from his embrace, frightened by what came naturally to their species; telepathy. When he probed a little further, trying to coax a response from it, he was hit with a deluge of thoughts and images he couldn’t recognize. It was as if nothing remained of his Zaya. Death, as painful as it would have been, is something he could accept. This however, he had no idea how to react to. How does one mourn a spouse still living? His heart ached when he remembered how frightened she was, unable to recognize anyone or anything. A part of him wished she’d never woke up. He hated himself for feeling that way.

XXX

Anissa tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as she walked through the throng of spectators attempting to push their way into the already overcrowded esplanade, all in the hopes of catching a glimpse of  the show taking place in the main arena. This part of the space station was an open area housing several shops, restaurants, houses of worship, an arena, and a garden. The arrival of a group of dream weavers meant that the esplanade was unusually packed with curious and excited spectators. Their voices rose in a crescendo as they jubilantly talked about the canvas in progress, each one eager to share his or her impressions. Anissa went directly to the lift panel on the side of the main access door and pressed the button. The door opened quietly and she quickly climbed aboard. She could feel the gentle rumble of the lift as it traveled toward the habitat ring.

Her eyes fell upon a reflection looking back at her from the metallic double doors. For a moment, she was taken aback by the alien face staring at her, before remembering that this was her now. Her previously chocolate brown skin was now dark grey. A thin ridge travelled from the edge of her forehead to the bridge of her nose. Enlarged black pupils full of confusion stared back at her. Under her hijab, she hid her now lavender hair. She was an utter alien to herself. Her mind still couldn’t accept that the life she thought of as hers was just a dream, the product of a comatose mind. She still held on to the hope of waking up from this nightmare. The last thing she could remember from her previous life was passing out from pain. Please God, let me wake up, she implored again, closing her eyes to stop her tears from falling down.

The psychogeneticist she’s been seeing for the past two months had warned her about these sudden bouts of sadness, anger, and intrusive memories. You need to keep it together, she scolded herself. She was exhausted by the waring thoughts in her mind, and couldn’t wait to go to sleep in the quarters assigned to her by the station’s Commander. My husband, she reminded herself. He had been kind to her. Understanding that she didn’t see him as her husband, he gave her own quarters and kept his distance. At times, she would catch him staring at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. The agony she could read in his eyes left her shaken every time. She felt guilty for causing him so much pain.

XXX

The hidden figure observed Anissa as she walked toward her quarters. She was unaware of the presence following her as she strolled down the habitat ring. The figure was relieved about this, and reached out with its own mind to probe hers. Pain immediately coursed through Anissa. She grabbed her head and fell to the ground. She could hear a voice screaming in the corridor, but couldn’t recognize it. Everything was getting hazier.

 

*Ops: Command and control centre of the space station

Featured picture: Sci Fi Space Station Wallpaper

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Star Crossed: Part 1

October 2016

Anissa sat silently, listening to the loud chatter emanating from the reception hall. She could hear her aunt’s voice gleefully describing the future plans of the happy couple. Eyes cast down, she remained motionless to avoid bringing unwanted attention to herself. Her sight remained trained on those beautifully intertwined patterns etched onto the white marble slabs of the patio. She stared at the ruffle of her dress and smiled, remembering all the frenzy and money that went into finding the right dresses for the nuptials. The wedding picture of her cousin surrounded by her cortege of bridesmaids was a particularly high point in the festivities. Her eyes stung a little when she remembered how out of place she felt in that moment. Having a middle-aged, rotund relative, with a rather mediocre life in the midst of her otherwise young, beautiful, and successful bridesmaids was certainly not something her cousin was too keen on. Nevertheless, her young relative had shown herself gracious and kind, insisting on having her in the portrait, despite her older cousin’s protestations.

The repeated notifications from her phone roused Anissa from her sad and depressing reverie. Her inbox indicated a new email waiting to be read. She jumped from her seat and started pacing, her anxiety going straight into overdrive. She was expecting yet another disappointment and was bracing herself for the sadness to come. When she finally mustered the courage to read it, Anissa’s heart quivered with relief.

“Congratulations, Miss Hassan. Upon reviewing your application, we have decided to invite you for an interview.

XXX

February 2017

The library was the one place she could find some peace from her own thoughts. She could spend a lifetime strolling through the beautifully baroque decor, running her fingers on the shelves, and losing herself in the feel of book covers. With the advent of digital books, the paper manuscripts that served for so long as a repository of mankind’s knowledge, artistry, and dreams were quickly going out of style. But for Anissa, nothing could ever replace the pleasure she got from gently caressing a book jacket, or inhaling the subtle odour of aging paper before losing herself in it. Finding a job in this old library was the single greatest thing that could’ve happened to her. Lately however, she seemed out of place even in her own life. It was as if she had lost her way and suddenly found herself walking in someone else’s shadow; only to lose her bearings and find herself even more adrift. The sadness that always lingered in the confines of her heart was growing, threatening to engulf her whole being. At night, under the cover of darkness she often cried, yearning for something she had no knowledge of.

She could feel the tale tale sign of an impending migraine. For the past few months, her headaches had gotten worse, she was barely able to function without painkillers. Looking at the clock, she was relieved to find her shift was coming to an end. Her sufferance was not something she was too keen on sharing with her colleagues. She preferred to keep her distress as private as possible.

“Please be advised that the library will close in five minutes. Thank you for your patronage.”

The familiar voice on the library’s intercom roused Anissa from her reverie. She quickly grabbed her bag, and started walking toward the elevator when her vision darkened and her headache doubled in intensity. Panic immediately took hold of her, the last thing she wanted was to pass out in her workplace. Trembling with pain and unable to keep her composure any longer, she franticly searched for her painkillers. When strength ebbed out of her body, leaving her weak and unable to hold her own weight, her legs crumbled beneath her. She looked at the ceiling helplessly, tears gently cascading down her cheeks, while her colleagues gathered around her. When darkness finally decided to claim its prize, she happily surrendered to it, and gladly offered her agony as a tribute for this great deliverance.

XXX

The orbital station stood solemnly in the vastness of the great black. A towering majesty of high-grade steel and Titanium built to weather the ferocity of solar winds, and the harshness of a hostile and frigid environment incompatible with life. With the glacial surface of the Nadji homeworld as its backdrop, Kilwa’s ring-shaped outposts slowly rotated on themselves like a cosmic Ouroboros. From this endless dance stemmed the centrifugal pull that gave the station its artificial gravity. It’s docking bay consisted of nine docking pylons continuously teeming with activity. Freighters, Cruisers, Assault Carriers, Genships, and Frigates regularly docked at Kilwa; some coming back from long journeys and others beginning their voyage toward the outer rim worlds. In the far distance a little blue dot shimmered; once the Alliance’s capital from which it reached out into space to claim its celestial destiny. Commander Jorran Tallinn watched the passing ships from the observation deck, his eyes longingly gazing into the distance. Old memories of past happiness had a way of creeping back into his mind in the rare moments of tranquility he enjoyed. His uniform had become his second skin over time, and his career the sole aim of his life.

“Commander Tallinn, please respond.” The voice resonating through his personal comms took him by surprise, forcing him to extirpate himself from his all consuming train of thought.

“Tallinn here,” he responded expecting to be called back into ops.

“Sir, you are requested at the infirmary. It’s an emergency,” said the nurse with a hint of agitation in her voice.

“On my way. Jorran out.”

There had been no accidents, no contagion, or anything else that could be qualified of urgent. Jorran was curious to find out what this new medical emergency could be. Of course, it could very well be that one of the scientist simply ran out of some random component crucial to their experiment, and was now throwing a tantrum demanding to see the Commander at once. As the Commander of Kilwa, he was the poor soul tasked with not only seeing to the day to day functioning of the station, but also handling all possible tantrums. Put your game face on, he thought to himself before entering the infirmary.

“Ah, Commander here you are. Please follow me,” said the nurse who seemed to have been waiting for him.

“What is going on exactly? You said there is an emergency…..,” his voice trailed off as the nurse led him into a room he knew all too well. His heart sank when his eyes fell upon the empty tank.

“NO,” he screamed running toward it, his mind wild with pain and despair. This was the one possibility he refused to consider. Numbness rapidly spread through his body, while his heart gave way to the hopelessness that threatened to assail him for so long.

“Commander, it is not what you think. She is alive. She finally woke up”, said someone before taking him gently by the shoulders and leading him toward a bed in the far side of the room.

Jorran’s brain could hardly come to terms with what he was seeing. For so many years, he had dreamed of this moment, hoped and prayed for it; and now that it was here he was completely paralyzed.

“Commander, your prayers were finally answered it seems. She just woke up a few minutes ago. She took us all by surprise, I must say. You have her back Commander, you finally have your wife back,” said Dr. Tolmen; the chief medical officer of Kilwa.

Jorran finally got his body to move and he slowly approached the bed. The part of his mind that still harboured the child in him was afraid of waking up from this marvellous dream. His heart beating a mile a minute, he reached toward her, and for the first time in more than a decade he was able to touch her hand. The tears that burned his eyes finally left their abode to roll down his face. Her skin was still cool from the healing fluid of the regeneration tank. Her face had remained the same, unblemished by the passage of time. The same visage he had longed for was finally looking back at him.

“Where am I? Who are you?” she asked, her voice hoarse from a decade of unuse.

“Zaya, it’s me Jorran. Don’t you recognize me?” he asked softly.

Shaking her head frantically and becoming more agitated with every passing minute, she asked anew. “My name is Anissa. What is this place? Who are you?”

 

 

Simulacrum

The Ottoman railway line built in 1760 during the reign of Sultan Mustafa III was not only a symbol of Ottoman ingenuity and progress. It also facilitated the flow of people and commerce throughout the Ottoman territories and the surrounding Muslim regions. There were plans of establishing connecting branch lines into Arabia, Africa, and the Mughal Empire. This was to become a titanic undertaking requiring funds, manpower, and the involvement of the best engineers in the Muslim world. In its present state however, it connected Sarajevo to Kars, an Ottoman city bordering the Caucasus. This region over the years had become the theatre of an ongoing bitter struggle between the Ottoman Porte and the Russian Empire.

Every city traversed by the railway built massive stations in a bid to stimulate their local economies. Izmir’s train station was always crowded. It was constantly animated with a continuous stream of human activity and filled with an array of travelers either visiting the city, or simply passing through on their way to some other destination. Built in 1766, the station represented a fusion of numerous styles and influences showcasing the intrinsically heterogeneous nature of Muslim civilization. Opulent stained glasses, lavishly designed arches, a ceiling decorated with intricate geometric designs and arabesques, a splendid vault, and a colossal mechanical clock marking the passage of time gave Izmir’s palatial train station a distinctive style.

Musa khant Ali was seating at a food stand near the arrival gate enjoying a cup of Sentetik, a bland and cheap imitation of coffee. The ongoing conflict with the Habsburg Monarchy, and the ramblings of the war to come with the rapidly expanding Russian Empire had led the Ottoman State into a period of economic stagnation and financial strain. The exorbitant cost of living made the simple pleasures of life, once so easily attainable, almost impossible to enjoy. The coffee houses of the city, previously overflowing with every imaginable blend of the popular elixir, were now reduced to serving the bulk of their clientele a mixture of synthetic caffeine and colorant. This must be what swamp waters taste like, Ali thought as he took another swig of Sentetik. Buying real coffee was still possible of course, but it was now a risky venture capable of very quickly taking a toll on a public servant’s purse. During his last travel to Baghdad, he received a small stash from a dear friend. He cherished that gift for almost a year, only enjoying the brew occasionally. But now that he finally ran out he had to rely on this swill just like everyone else. He kept his eyes trained on the panel announcing the newest arrivals from Istanbul. As a swell of newcomers entered through the gate, an automated service-bot approached him.

“Salamu aleikum Beyefendi . You are Musa khant Ali currently employed at the War Ministry?” asked the three feet and seven inches tall grey bot.

“Yes,” Ali answered.

“Your presence is requested in the customs area. Please follow me,” instructed the bot.

“I am waiting for someone. What is this about?” he asked.

“Your presence is requested in the customs area. Please follow me,” reiterated the service-bot.

He expects me to just follow him through the station like a lost puppy, thought an irritated Ali. But since decorum dictates that a public servant must never disparage the authority of a fellow public employee, even an automated one, he had no other choice but to comply.

“Uh-huh, you guys are always such paragons of clarity,” he said sarcastically. “Alright, lead the way.” He took one last gulp of his drink before following the bot.

His automated guide led him to an entrance marked authorized personnel only. The door opened immediately as if his arrival had been anticipated. The bot quickly entered the room followed by Ali. He found himself standing in the middle of what appeared to be a storage area for unclaimed luggage and packages. Perplexed as to why he was led to this place, Ali called out to the bot standing silently near the door.

“Excuse me, why did you bring me here? I have to get back to…”

Before he could finish his sentence, he heard coming from behind him an all too familiar click. He turned around just in time to watch the clock mechanism of a seeker perched on one of the shelves counting down to the last few seconds before the inevitable. The ensuing blast was strong enough to shatter the beautiful stained glasses of the station’s main hall. Almost nothing remained of the room where previously an aghast Musa khant Ali met his untimely death.

***

A shadowy figure walked hastily through Izmir’s back alleys, hugging the walls to avoid the dim light emanating from the street lamps. The city was crawling with soldiers in high alert. The explosion at the train station earlier that day reawakened the fear of sabotage by foreign agents seeking to weaken the Ottoman Empire through fear and chaos. Merchants and street sellers were ordered to close their shops early and comply with the curfew now in full effect throughout the city. Stragglers who found themselves outside were to be searched and questioned by patrols.

Their brisk walk through the city brought the cloaked figure to Izmir’s small but well serviced port. They quickly hid behind a cargo waiting to be loaded, desperately trying to avoid a passing guard performing his nightly rounds. Small droplets of blood stained the ground where they hid trembling with pain. Retrieving a tiny light-producing device from their belt, the lone trespasser proceeded to flash a small beam of light toward a dhow anchored on the harbor. The pain was now unbearable, forcing the mysterious visitor to bite their lower lip and close their eyes to keep the dizziness at bay. In the darkness of the night illuminated solely by moonlight, the seeker’s needle firmly lodged in their badly bleeding palm glistened. The sharp hooks lining its sides were designed to burrow the needle further into the flesh with every single movement. Its poisoned tip had already released its deadly venom into the blood and it was now only a matter of time before death claimed its prize. Three flashes of light emanating from the dhow prompted the figure to shamble as quickly as possible toward the small boat.

***

Lost in his own musings, Suleiman Pasha walked endlessly throughout the imperial garden of the Caliph’s summer palace. He finally sat on his favourite bench in the opulent garden, and longingly gazed at the majestic Mount Uludag towering over the city like a vigilant sentinel. The vibrant green of the forests surrounding the city gave Bursa a unique tranquility that always appeased Suleiman’s heart. You are truly God’s gift my beloved Bursa, he thought smiling to himself. The feel of the parchment still in his hand broke his reverie. He closed his eyes and made a silent supplication to God for wisdom and patience. His heart was troubled as his mind once again conjured up the dreaded word: betrayal. He squeezed the parchment as anger gripped his heart.

He was slowly rising from the bench when he felt a sting in the back of his neck. Feeling suddenly feverish and weak, he fell back on his seat, unable to hold his own weight. The world was tilting before his eyes as a dark curtain fell over his vision. The soothing sounds of the nearby water fountain now reverberated in his ears with the magnitude of a thousand mighty cascades. Numbness spread throughout his body, while an unseen hand squeezed his heart. Suleiman fell to the ground, eyes wide open, and the parchment still clutched in his hand. A palace page watching the scene from behind a large Cypress tree approached the Pasha a few moments later. He was holding a small modified pistol equipped with a crossbow trigger mechanism that he quickly tucked under his caftan. Knelling beside the body, he looked for signs of life before forcing the parchment out of the dead man’s grip and hiding it under his own sash. He retrieved a barely visible dart from Suleiman’s neck and quickly rose to his feet. He hastily walked away before anyone could see him standing beside the deceased Suleiman Pasha.

News of an assassination at the Caliph’s palace spread throughout the city like wildfire. The initial shock quickly gave way to suspicion. Rumours, from the most improbable to the more lascivious, were now swirling around. The entire city was ablaze with a nervous energy feeding into the collective paranoia now gripping Bursa. The Janissary regiments stationed in the city were asked to double their street patrols and increase the number of soldiers tasked with guarding government buildings and public spaces. The city was holding its breath.

Three women wearing long coats and face veils strolled through Bursa’s heavily guarded train station. Moving with purpose they headed toward the main platform where passengers were boarding a transport train to Istanbul. They presented their tickets to a steward who immediately stepped aside to let them in. The women quickly moved toward the passenger compartments located in the rear-end of the train. The interior of the carriages resembled that of a standard transport train: cramped and a little worn out. They silently took their seats at the very back of the compartment, being as inconspicuous as possible.

***

Two figures wearing black cloaks lay on the roof of a house watching intently a small residence located near Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The darkness of nightfall battled the  brightness of  the street lamps casting their radiant tentacles into the pitch black veil of the surrounding tenebrosity. They could hear hurried footsteps echoing on the cobblestone street as a man wearing a simple black caftan approached the residence. He discreetly looked around before knocking on the house’s elaborately carved wooden entrance. A few moments later, someone answered the door. From their position on the roof, the two figures couldn’t make out the words being exchanged by the two men. Once the visitor was let into the house, they both got up from their position and gracefully leapt into the street without making any sound. They approached the home silently and took their positions on opposite sides of the door.

Noises of a great tumult soon rose from inside the residence followed by the scream of a man crying out in pain. The door suddenly swung open and the visitor pursued by a third cloaked figure burst through it while holding his clearly injured stomach. The two sentinels immediately took hold of the fleeing man and dragged him back into the residence’s main hallway. He struggled against their hold and eventually succeeded in freeing himself from their grip. Before he could reach the door however, the third  pursuer retrieved a rod from under his cloak. When the thin black instrument came in contact with his back a high voltage electric shock coursed throughout his entire body. Every single one of his muscles started spasming violently. He was no longer able to move or hold his own weight. He crumbled to the ground, and unable to break his fall hit the back of his head on the stone slabs of the hallway. He continued to convulse while the three cloaked figures stood over him. Somewhere in the back of his mind as he started to drift into oblivion, he noticed the face veils and soft voices of his assailants.

***

Suleiman Pasha’s funeral was held at Bursa’s Grand Mosque with all the pomp and circumstance befitting the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. Ulu Cami was not only the largest mosque in Bursa, it was also an impressive feat of Ottoman architecture. Called the green mosque by the locals, its construction was commissioned by Sultan Bayezid I in the early days of his reign. Built in a distinctively Seljuk style, the mosque showcased twenty domes methodically arranged in rows and two impressive minarets. Breathtaking Islamic calligraphy executed expertly by some of the best calligraphers in the Empire adorned the interior walls of Ulu Cami, while a large fountain for ablutions stood in the heart of the prayer hall.

A heavy janissary presence could be felt throughout the city and on the mosque’s grounds, since the entire Imperial Council was in attendance at the funeral. Once the Janazah was performed, Suleiman Pasha’s body was escorted to his final resting place in Bursa’s main cemetery, followed by a procession of dignitaries, family members, and locals. The clearly bereaved young Caliph, surrounded by members of his Imperial council, walked stoically behind his mentor’s corpse. Suleiman Pasha had faithfully served his family for more than four decades. As Grand Vizier, he had weathered many perils threatening to engulf the Empire, and all the while displayed unparalleled wisdom and courage. None more than you, my dear Suleiman, deserves to be accepted by Allah into the highest levels of paradise. Who shall I turn to now for guidance? though the grieving Caliph.

***

Mehmet Pasha, the Agha of the Janissary, discreetly broke away from the other members of the Council making their way to the summer palace after the burial. He found his way to a small path leading out of the cemetery, and eventually reached a small private garden manned by two service-bots. He approached them cautiously, allowing the automated sentinels to complete their initial scan from a distance.

“Salamu Aleikum,” said Mehmet.

“Wa aleikum salam,” replied the first bot.

“Leave the path and you will never find the treasure,” said the second bot.

“Remain faithful and you will attain Allah’s pleasure,” responded the Agha. He had carefully memorized the answer to the riddle as instructed.

“Welcome Beyefendi,” said the bots in unison. “You are expected, please enter,” added one of the sentinels, before moving aside to let him into the garden.

He went into the labyrinth and promptly navigated through the maze of greenery leading to the heart of the garden. When he reached its gorgeous centrepiece, he found four women standing over a pond feeding the little fishes swimming lazily around the waterhole. Mehmet Pasha approached them and stood at a distance waiting to be acknowledged. All four women simultaneously turned toward the Agha. Placing their right hands on their chests, they nodded their heads as a sign of respect. Mehmet reciprocated in a similar fashion, smiling warmly.

“Salamu Aleikum, Agha. Thank you for coming. May Allah honour you in this world and the next,” said the old woman who was clearly the leader of the group.

“Wa aleikum salam, Safiye Hanim. May Allah reward you with goodness,” replied Mehmet Pasha. “May Allah grant our sister martyrdom, and give you strength and patience. Shahida Inshallah,” he said addressing the other three women whose sorrow was plainly etched on their faces.

‘’Ameen,” they replied in unison.

They silently moved away from Mehmet Pasha and Safiye Hanim, choosing instead to stand under the shade of an old Turkish pine atop a small hill. While to most people they would appear to be nothing more than young maidens strolling through the garden, Mehmet’s long military experience allowed him to detect the alertness in their stance. From where they stood they could surveil this entire section of the garden and intercept any unwanted visitors. They wore long dark coats over their modest robes and hijabs. Nothing about them was ostentatious or striking, they could easily blend into any background. Despite their different origins, revealed by the contrasting shades of their skin color, they moved as a single body.

“You have trained them well Safiye Hanim,” said a deeply impressed Mehmet.

“They are like daughters to me Pasha. Losing Maryam has hit them hard. They all grew up together. Little orphans finding a family in each other and purpose in serving their Ummah,” said a mournful Safiye.

“Were you able to speak to the Shahida before she returned to her Lord?”

“No. She knew the exact nature of her mission and accepted her fate before she left for Izmir. Being poisoned by a seeker’s needle is certain death, but Maryam by the grace of Allah survived long enough to be debriefed by another one of her sisters. Her sacrifice was crucial in putting our plans into motion. May Allah reward our Shahida for her efforts.”

“Ameen.”

“We had to force their hand, Agha. It is unfortunate that we’ve lost so many good people in the process, but this could be disastrous for the Ummah if we do nothing,” said Safiye Hanim in a taut voice.

“I know,” replied a pensive Mehmet Pasha.

***

He slowly opened his eyes, blinking repeatedly to clear his blurred vision. He could feel his aching body gingerly resting on the lumpy mattress atop the sturdy wooden bed frame that came with the small room he rented near the Galata Tower. His body was in such pain that he could barely move it an inch. In the distance, the melodious voice of the Muezzin calling for the midday prayer could be heard. He slowly pulled himself up to the head of the bed and came to a semi-seated position. From this new vantage point, he could finally see what his latest brush with capture had cost him.

His legs and hands were covered with bruises, while a big laceration ran across his right flank, to his abdomen, and all the way to the midsection of his left flank. The cut looked deep and had bled profusely overnight, soaking the mattress and forming a massive red stain. He was shocked by how deep and big the gash seemed. He instinctively brought his hand to the nape of his neck, carefully running his fingers over a small injury stinging fiercely. It had an odd shape to it as if a small flower had been cut into his very skin. How did I get this, he thought. But the pounding wound on the crown of his head soon grabbed his attention. He proceeded to touch it trying to assess the damage. His hair was caked with blood, and he could only remember bits and pieces of last night’s events. He could recall the ambush at the rendezvous point and having to fight for his life against well trained agents. He vaguely remembered running through a house, trying to shake his pursuers. His memories past that point however were nothing more than a jumble of images, voices, and sensations; a loss of memory he attributed to his throbbing head wound. He couldn’t recall exactly how he found his way back to his lair, but he was glad he did. His eyes fell upon the caftan of a palace page, immaculate and well maintained, dangling from a hook on the door. Now that his cover was blown, he had to leave the city quickly with the precious information he had uncovered.

***

A simple Troika driven by a rugged Russian coachman moved at a steady pace toward the bridge leading to the winter palace. The horses pulling the carriage galloped with ease in the snow-covered roads of Saint Petersburg. The weather was surprisingly mild for this time of year, and the inhabitants of the imperial city milled about in the streets delighting in this pleasant break from the usual harshness of the Russian winter. The city gleamed with the kind of beauty befitting the capital of the Romanov dynasty. The sumptuous winter palace housed the State Council; the powerful advisory body to the Tsar. The carriage approached the entrance to the castle and came to a complete halt in front of the main gate manned by heavily armed guards. A sharply dressed man exited from the Troika and walked toward the sentinels, handing them a letter stamped with the distinctive seal of the Romanov Emperors.

A few moments later, the man found himself traversing the long hallway leading to the Council chamber. He was escorted by a page wearing the usual livery of imperial servants. Resplendent double doors guarded by two servants led into the chamber where the Tsar and his advisors were holding their usual meeting. As the doors unlocked both he and the page entered the room. His anxiety spiked immediately as he listened to  the servant announcing his arrival in accordance with palace protocol. His latest mission, completed against all odds and with great success, had elevated him both in status and reputation amongst the members of the advisory body. The Tsar himself had requested his presence, which to a loyal servant of the Russian Monarchy was the epitome of honour and recognition. His head started throbbing again as a myriad of colours and sounds suddenly assailed him. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Get a hold of yourself for God sake’s. You are meeting the monarch, he scolded himself. He bowed and kept his eyes trained on the ground to show his deference to his Emperor. The elaborate protocol and etiquette of the Romanov court forbade someone in his position to directly address the monarch. His head was now spinning as he continued to bow waiting for the Tsar to acknowledge him. Pressure was building in his ears and his head was growing heavy. The wound on the nape of his neck was stinging fiercely and he had to fight the urge to touch it. The Tsar’s intermediate who was tasked with conveying messages to and from the monarch approached him.

“Please rise,” the servant said.

He rose to his full height, trying to remain as dignified as possible despite his increasingly painful headache, making it difficult for him to concentrate on his interlocutor.

“His highness is pleased with your extraordinary work on behalf of the Empire. He realizes how difficult it must have been for you to remain so far away from your homeland for so long. Your work and diligence have given the Empire a chance to once and for all eliminate the Ottoman threat. You shall be richly rewarded for your courage and commitment toward Mother Russia.”

His eyes drifted toward a massive table in the middle of the room. Spread on its smooth surface, he saw the blueprints of the Ottoman’s secret weapon he obtained at great personal risk and peril. For the past week, the advisory body poured over the intricate and detailed plans of the late Musa khant Ali, chief engineer of the Ottoman War Ministry. No one outside of the State Council knew of the existence of these plans. This was to remain a tightly kept secret for the moment. The Ottoman Empire was decades ahead of Russia when it came to automation technology. They developed over the years a slew of automated tech; from the mostly benign service-bots to the terrifying spider-like seekers used exclusively in surveillance and assassinations. When a source within the Ottoman State warned their agents in Istanbul of plans pertaining to the development of a new and devastating weapon capable of tilting the balance of power forever, he was sent to sabotage the endeavour in question. Stealing the only existing blueprints not only effectively sabotaged the Ottomans’ plans, but also gave Russia a possible lead over its enemy. What kind of devious mind could come up with powerful flying machines capable of destroying vast swaths of land and people in one single strike, he knew not. But he was glad Russia could now create mechanical monsters of its own. Breaking with protocol, the Tsar approached the agent, indicating to his intermediate that he intended to conduct the discussion in person. The servant bowed his head and discreetly moved away to stand at a distance, while remaining close enough to reprise at a moment’s notice his role as an intermediate.

“You have delivered quite a blow to the Ottomans by bringing us these plans. You have shown courage, determination, and a rare genius for infiltration. The Council is extremely pleased with your performance. We are as well. Well done Alexei.” The Tsar extended his hand as he congratulated his agent.

Alexei Lebedev slowly rose his head to meet the piercing eyes of his monarch. His ears were now buzzing as his head grew heavier than ever. His headache seemed to have doubled in intensity the moment the Tsar got closer to him. He was fighting with every fibre of his body the growing urge to run away from the room and put as much distance as possible between him and the Tsar. The small wound on the nape of his neck was now burning in earnest. A fine sheen of sweat covered his body as he struggled to maintain his composure. He grabbed the Emperor’s extended hand and squeezed it with a force he didn’t know himself to possess. He could feel the bones of his monarch’s hand breaking under his grip, but found himself incapable of releasing the Tsar. His entire body was now taut like the string of a bow. He could no longer hear any other noise than the frantic beat of his own heart. He was lost in a memory that emerged from deep within his mind.

He was chained to a cold table trembling with pain and fear. Looking down his body, he saw that the big gash running across his right flank was still bleeding profusely. It is only a few seconds later that his mind registered the full horror of his predicament. The cut that previously ran from his right side to the middle of his stomach was extended to his left flank. It came to a stop below his left armpit. The flesh was flayed leaving his ribcage exposed. His sternum was cut open straight down the middle and all the way to his abdomen. The cut halves of his chest were being held apart by instruments affixed to both sides of the table. Inside the gaping hole he could see that where his heart was previously nestled, there was now a copper-coloured machinery mimicking the movements of his missing organ. Shocked and paralyzed by fear, he turned his head to the side and starred at a window located on the other side of the room. Catching a glimpse of his face on the window’s glass surface, Alexei started shrieking in horror and fighting against his restraints.

“Cover those windows at once,” yelled a commanding voice.

Alexei continued to scream and struggle against his chains. He was operating on pure instinct and was caught in a fight or flight dilemma. The more he struggled, the tighter his restraints became. He was breathing heavily and between bouts of ear-piercing shrieks would plead in Russian to be released. Lost in his terror filled mind, he barely took notice of the figures approaching the table. One of them extended his hand toward Alexei and lightly pushed on the nape of his neck. The screaming and fighting stopped immediately. His body laid on the table completely still, as if he was nothing more than a puppet whose strings had been cut. Like a fish gasping for air, he continued to open and close his mouth, but no noise came out of it. Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks as he frantically looked from side to side unable to recognize any of the faces staring back at him.

“Is he aware of our presence?” asked the old lady.

“Yes and no Safiye Hanim. He can see us but by the time we are done with him, he will recall nothing of this. Nevertheless, seeing his face without the mask of humanity is enough to induce terror. We certainly don’t want to fracture his mind beyond repair,” replied the man.

Alexei’s mind was still reeling from the shock of realizing that the monstrous face looking back at him in the glass was his. Gone was the bearded human face he knew so well. The creature he had become held nothing of his former warmth and beauty. In the absence of flesh, he clearly saw the array of rotating mechanisms, springs, and hard copper metal intertwined with the tendons and muscles of his face. He was no longer a man, but a machine. 

“What will be the trigger?” she asked as she touched the restraint clasping Alexei’s left hand.

“He must get a visual and tactile confirmation of the Tsar’s presence to trigger his program.”

“Will he be aware of what is happening?” asked one of the three young women standing at the foot of the table.

“Once his program is triggered, his consciousness will fade into the background. Fear will naturally occur, but his body will be unable to comply with any attempt at escaping or stopping the program. The small flower-like seal on the nape of his neck is a fail-safe intended to prevent any premature triggering,” replied the man diligently.

“When will he be ready?” asked Safiye Hanim. 

“In three days. We shall then return him to his lodgings. To him it will be as if only a few hours passed. He will be unaware of his capture thinking that he instead escaped the ambush.”

“Mashallah. Excellent work Murad Effendi,” said another man who entered the room just in time to hear his explanation. 

“Shukran Agha,” he replied deeply moved by the compliment.  

Alexei’s eyes fell upon the Tsar crumbled in pain at his feet. He was still holding his hand and squeezing it painfully, breaking further bones in the process. Several members of the council and the Emperor’s servants were desperately trying to rescue the monarch from his deadly grip. His body was no longer his to command. Much like a spectator he was left to watch in horror his enhanced body attacking his Tsar. He could feel the last strands of his consciousness slipping into oblivion as the previously dormant program took control. He looked one last time at his Emperor and said, “I’m sorry” before his eyes rolled back in his head. The seal on his nape shined faintly and Alexei immediately opened his mouth. What looked like the barrel of a gun emerged from his maw and a split second later one could hear the sound of a bullet striking the Russian Tsar’s head. Now dead, the monarch continued to dangle by the limb still in his killer’s grip. The Flesh on Alexei’s face rapidly receded to the sides revealing his new visage to terrified advisors and servants. He produced a loud strident sound shattering almost every window throughout the castle. A few seconds later a powerful explosion rocked the Romanov winter palace obliterating the dead Tsar, his family, and his entire advisory body in the process.

***

Sultan Mahmud stood silently at the window of his personal chamber facing the gardens of Topkapi Palace. The young man assumed the throne to the Ottoman Empire when his father passed away suddenly a year ago. He took a deep breath and straightened his spine to project power and authority. It was unbefitting of a Sultan to show hesitation or weakness, when the moment called for decisiveness and fortitude.

“Now that the Russians are destabilized, what are your plans for the war Agha?” he asked as he turned away from the window to face his war minister.

“Elite troops fitted with Musa khant Ali’s armour suits are ready to be deployed throughout the Caucasus and the Crimean Khanate, with your permission Sultan. These armours will protect our Janissaries against much of the Russians firepower, while increasing their ability to strike back with deadly force. This is the moment to draw a line in the sand and show the Russians what a war with the Ottoman Empire will cost them,” answered Mehmet Pasha.

“The death of the Grand Vizier and the arrest of the Chancellor for treason leaves the Imperial Council weakened. Suleiman Pasha and Orhan Pasha were the only  substantial voices within the Council against the war with the Russians. They were the only ones opposing your calls for an all-out war with the Romanovs…. but you already know that,” said Sultan Mahmud staring at the Agha of the Janissary; trying to catch glimpses of a reaction on the man’s inscrutable face.

“It was indeed shocking to find out that the plot to undermine the Empire landed right at Orhan Pasha’s feet.  The Grand Vizier and so many more sacrificed their lives to untangle this web of deceit and safeguard the Ummah. They gave us, at their own peril, an opportunity to address a clear and present danger to our civilization,” responded the Agha.

“The Chancellor was as devoted to the Empire as was the Grand Vizier. I find it difficult to fathom that such a man could conspire against the Muslim Ummah and leak vital information to our ennemies.”

“Sometimes good men make wrong decisions my Sultan,” replied Mehmet Pasha.

The young man was keenly aware of his inexperience. Without the guidance of his late Grand Vizier he was out of his depth and felt overwhelmed. Deprived of the voices of wisdom and reasonableness within his Imperial Council, he could not help but feel that his hand was being forced. Looking at the impassive face of the Agha, he remembered what his late mentor told him once. There are those, my young prince, who live and work in the shadows. A good Sultan seats at the confines between the light and the darkness.

“You have my permission to deploy the new troops. And see to it Agha that the Chancellor remains alive while he awaits for his trial. I will hold you personally responsible for his untimely demise,” said the young Caliph before turning away from Mehmet Pasha, and back to his window.

 

Featured image by: Almacan

Glossary: 

Agha: Honorific title for a military officer in the Ottoman Empire. An agha was essentially a commander.

Agha of the Janissary: Chief commander of the infantry.

Ameen: Amen.

Beyefendi: Ottoman male title akin to Sir/gentleman.

Grand Vizier: Prime minister of the Ottoman Sultan.

Hanim: Ottoman female aristocratic title akin to Lady.

Janissary: Elite infantry units of the Ottoman army.

Pasha: Title given to a high ranking Ottoman officer.

Shahida: Female martyr.

Seljuk: Medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim Empire.

Ummah: Concept referring to the Muslim community at large. This term transcends ethnicity and nationality and instead reiterates the importance of religion in binding Muslims as a unified community.

 

 

The Passenger: Part 3

Date: 3965 (10 years before the galactic war)

Location: Planet Tuva

Tuva the green, the jewel of the Sabah system was the fiefdom of the Tej family, a prominent member of the Oligarchy. Tucked away in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, Tuva has always been a land of contradiction. Known primarily for its lush agricultural farmland, it was also—for the privileged few—the private playground of the Oligarchy. Beautiful villages peppered the deep verdant green of its hills and mountains. The distinctive Tuvan architecture gave their elaborate minarets an almost ethereal beauty. The valleys were covered with a kaleidoscope of colours during the flowering season, while its prairies long converted into farmland fed the greater part of the system. Tuva the green, the jewel of the Sabah system was in the eyes of its inhabitants a miracle and as close as one could get to paradise in this universe.

According to the Tuvan tourism ministry, members of the Oligarchy flocked to their planet for its beauty and the restorative qualities of its natural springs. Tuvans would see them walking in the streets of their villages looking for trinkets to buy as souvenirs. Their colourful and opulent clothes spoke of riches, status, and power. They were in any conceivable way the very opposite of the Tuvans with their modest traditional garbs and little to no power outside of their communities. Life was for the most part as idyllic and wholesome as many Tuvans believed. But there were rumours, unspeakable tales whispered in great secrecy of mysterious ongoing on the ancestral land of the Tej family, perched high on Mount Ilya.

The end of Ramadan was always marked in Tuva by three days of celebration. It symbolized a time of renewal, hope, and anticipation. The village squares were filled with people buying, selling, eating, singing, and playing games. The clear Tuvan sky, usually unspoiled, was filled with multi-colored fireworks displaying the respective colours of each village. That year however, on the second day of Eid a stealth cruiser dropped out of FTL near Tuva. While it remained in orbit, a shuttlecraft left the ship and entered the planet’s atmosphere. Equipped with the same stealth technology, no one saw it descending toward Mount Ilya and heading directly toward the land of the Tej.

A young man entered hastily in a greenhouse located behind Tej Manor, and cleared his throat to signal his presence to the old man tending lovingly to his flowers.

“Father, our guests have arrived”

“Excellent. Make sure they are confortable”

“Yes father”

As he traversed the beautifully maintained lawn, someone barreled into him and they both went down hard. Surprised and somewhat bewildered he looked at the young woman already scrambling to get up.

“I’m sorry I didn’t see you coming and….wait, who are you?”

He had never seen her before and she wasn’t wearing the usual uniform of the servants. In fact she seemed rather out of place and somewhat terrified. Wearing what looked like a hospital gown, barefoot, and disheveled, the young woman only uttered the word “please” before shaking her head and resuming her mad dash toward the dense forest surrounding the property. She kept glancing behind as if she was expecting to be pursued. A scream of pure agony suddenly resonated through the air, and he watched her dropping to the ground unable to break her fall. Before he could get up to help the clearly injured young woman, he heard coming from behind him the sound of heavy boots stomping the ground. Three men ran past him rushing toward the unconscious woman. Not wearing any distinctive insignia on their uniform, he nonetheless deduced from their stance and alertness that they were most likely military. Taken aback by their presence, he contemplated for a second calling the manor’s guards to intercept them. Before he could do so however a hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly.

“Glad to see you are not injured son. Now, run along and return to the manor”, his father urged him gently.

Surprised by his father’s sudden appearance, he blinked slowly trying to make sense of what was happening. “Father, who are these men? Where did the girl come from? What’s going on?”

“My apologies young Master Tej. I hope she hasn’t spoiled your jacket. These creatures can be so filthy,” said the man accompanying his father. Everything about him was unsettling: from his vibrant green eyes, to his tone of voice, to the mysterious insignia on his uniform. What branch of the army is that? he thought.  The mysterious man was holding in his right hand what appeared to be a modified version of the stun guns he had seen carried by their own guards. Placing nonchalantly his weapon in his leg holster, he looked toward the three men standing around the young woman still sprawled on the ground. He swiftly signaled to them with a nod before turning his attention once again toward the young man looking now more confused than ever.

“Come now son, go back to the house and change your attire before the reception.” his father said.

He could hear fear and concern in the old man’s voice. Deciding to heed his father’s silent plea, he started walking toward the manor. Looking once more behind him, he saw the men carrying the obviously pregnant and unconscious young woman toward parts unknown. A feeling of dread coiled deep in his guts as the young man wondered what was to become of her.

“Should we go back inside Colonel Jalil now that this unfortunate situation has been handled?”

“Of course Master Tej, lead the way. And please, call me Mustafa,” said the man smiling as if nothing happened.

That was the very first time Hassan Tej, eldest son of Tej Effendi, heard the name Mustafa Jalil. A name he later came to associate with a deep sense of terror.

                               XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Leila’s mind was dazed from the shock of waking up in a regeneration chamber, floating in a vat of healing fluid. Looking down her body she saw the tiny automated medical units methodically suturing her wounds. Becoming agitated, she started desperately struggling against the tubes connecting her to the medical module tasked with assessing her status inside the vat.

“Lieutenant Diallo, you need to come down. You are safe. There’s no reason for you to be alarmed. Please remain calm and let the medical module do its work.”

The disembodied voice didn’t sound familiar to Leila. Unable to remove the breathing  mask connecting her to the medical module, she started franticly yanking on it. She was desperate to get out of this vat. Must get out, was the only thought running through her mind. A tap on the glass surface directly above her head caught her attention. Eyes wild with fear and breathing heavily, she tried focusing on this new presence. The man looked at her before rolling his eyes.

“Lieutenant, you are going to hurt yourself with these antics. You need to come down. It is all the adrenaline we pumped into your body to jump start your system that is doing this to you. Certainly this not your first time in a regeneration chamber? You know the drill.”

Leila tried in vain to shout “Get me out of here” but all that came out was a muffled sound. Incapable of quelling the unbridled fear coursing through her veins and mind, she grabbed the breathing tube again and started pulling on it with all her might. She could hear the previously gentle tap turning into a pounding as the man now yelled for her to stop.

“Lieutenant Diallo, stop this foolishness at once or we’ll be forced to put you under again,” yelled the man.

She couldn’t hear him anymore. Lost in a memory of pain and fear, she was now operating on pure extinct. Survival was all she could think about. She was a twenty year old soldier dying on a backwater planet all over again. She could feel her flesh blistering from the heat as the raging fire got closer to their position. The high-energy blast bomb detonated by the enemy had taken out most of her platoon and left her blind and badly injured. Her left leg had been cut almost clean off in the process, all she could do now was try and crawl away from the advancing inferno. She was nothing more than a nameless soldier dying in a failed large scale ground offensive.

“Lieutenant, snap out of it. You are no longer on Sovakin. The war is over soldier, you are not dying. Listen to my voice and hang on to it. Calm down soldier, you are safe. That’s right, calm down. Take deep breaths, listen to my voice. That’s it Leila, that’s it. Relax, keep breathing, that’s it.”

This was a voice she recognized even though she couldn’t put a name or a face to it. But somewhere in the back of her mind, something was telling her to trust it. He will get you to safety, the little voice kept repeating. She held on to his voice like a life line, and slowly opened her eyes. She found herself staring at a smiling face radiating with warmth and affection. Commander Rafiq, she thought when she finally recognized him. He slowly stretched his hand and placed it on the glass surface of the regeneration chamber.

“I’m right here Lieutenant, I’m not leaving you. Concentrate on getting back on your feet soldier. That’s an order,” he said smiling.

 

Featured image by: Darkcloud013

 

 

 

 

 

A strange tale of transmutation

He stirred from his sleep inconvenienced by the intense pain radiating from his neck to the middle of his back. He had the habit of sleeping in the most outrageously disagreeable postures known to man. His ever evolving twists and bends could probably give many professional contortionists a run for their money. Slowly rising from his sleep, he turned on his back, stretching his poor aching neck, and rolling his shoulders to get the kinks out. As he opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was the light. Forgot to turn the lights off again, he thought still groggy from his sleep. All around his bed and nightstand an assortment of packages, each once containing a variety of sinfully delicious pastries, were strewn about. This is what his life had been reduced to; a continuous binge of equally bad food and entertainment.

His eyes travelled from his nightstand to a pile of papers laying haphazardly on the ground. Their mere sight elicited in him a deep and painful dejection. So much hope, so much hubris, he thought bitterly before closing his eyes to escape the all too familiar sorrow that assailed him every time this kind of rumination grazed his mind. Furious with himself for yet again allowing his wandering thoughts to venture into those treacherous terrains, he swiftly threw his sheets to the side to get out of bed. That is when he realized something was wrong. In fact, it would be right so say a lot of things were wrong, starting with the man quietly seating at the foot of the bed on one of his chairs. Shock and fear came over him like a crashing wave. As he struggled to stand up, he realized that his legs could barely move.

“What?….who?… A’udu billahi minas-shaytaanir-rajeem*,” he uttered in confusion.

“Please don’t be alarmed, I don’t mean you any harm. I’m neither a thief nor a Jinn. The sedative will wear off in twenty minutes or so, and you’ll have full control of all your faculties again. After all, we wouldn’t want you running around like a panicked chipmunk….Ah, yes! I should probably introduce myself,” said the man with a smile on his face.

The stranger was wearing what looked like a traditional West African Boubou, but with a myriad of strange patterns with exceedingly flashy colours. These designs formed a series of hypnotic arabesques drawing you in as you contemplated their graceful dance. Those things could probably trigger a seizure in a small child, he thought as his mind lingered on the  motifs  decorating his visitor’s strange, yet familiar, attire.

“I wouldn’t look too closely at those moving, flashing patterns if I were you. You might end up with some brain damage. Oh! nothing too serious, I assure you; negligible at best. But why risk it, right?” said the ever smiling man.

“Umm, who are you?” he asked still confused, and now slightly dizzy.

“Salamu Aleikum. My apologies for barging into your humble abode in this fashion, and disrupting your sleep. But, it became quite urgent to intervene,” said the man while allowing his gaze to linger on the evidence of his most recent unfortunate binging.

This stranger looking at the leftovers of last night’s meltdown made him surprisingly self-conscious. He almost surreptitiously became a hermit in an attempt to avoid the prying eyes of his family and friends, and their looks of pity. The last thing he needed was to be judged by this stranger who knew nothing about his life.

“Look, I don’t know who you are or how you got in, but you need to leave before I call the authorities,” he said angrily. What gave this stranger the right to barge into his sanctuary uninvited?

“I understand that this is no doubt unsettling for you, but please understand that the decision to intervene was not made lightly,” the man responded with that infuriating smile still on his lips.

“Intervene? What are you talking about? Never mind, I don’t want to know; just get out of my house before you regret ever setting foot in it,” he said while attempting to sound menacing….If that is even possible while wearing pyjamas, he remarked to himself.

The stranger seemed to be studying him closely like some kind of lab specimen. He didn’t seem angry, afraid, or frustrated by his subject’s belligerence. On the contrary, his face remained as inscrutable as ever. After what seemed like an eternity to his interlocutor, he took a deep breath and very slowly leaned forward on his chair, as if he was approaching an easily spooked prey.

“Well, we’ve clearly started off on the wrong foot. So, let us start over. While my name is of very little importance, what you need to know is that I’ve come here to correct what could be a disastrous decision on your part,” said the man.

He is working my last nerve with all this enigmatic rubbish, he thought.

“So, you came into my house uninvited and drugged me with God knows what, but you somehow expect me to seat here and just listen to you telling me about some terrible life decision I’m about to make. Is that right?” he asked sarcastically.

“Exactly,” responded the man unfazed.

“So this is an intervention? Who put you up to this? Is it my brother? I bet it is him. The perfect son with the perfect life who just loves reminding me of what a failure mine is. This is too much even for him. To allow a stranger with a proclivity for drugging people into my house, what was he thinking? Well, Mr. Therapist you can tell him to mind his own business, and that his help is not required,” he said hotly. His older brother never missed an opportunity to reiterate his own greatness by constantly shining a light on his little brother’s obvious shortcomings.

“None of your family members or friends had anything to do with this. It will certainly be difficult for you to wrap your head around this at first, but I do believe you are better positioned then most to eventually accept it. I am a level 6 employee of the ministry of labour and social development, or what some people crudely call a temporal agent. I have travelled from the 27th century to help you plan the rest of your life. You, my dear brother have a destiny to fulfill,” stated the man.

He vacillated between amusement and annoyance for a while, not quite sure what to make of this man and his outrageous claims. Is he some sort of crazy person? There is after all an asylum about 15 minutes from here, he wondered. Erring on the side of caution, he decided to play along until he could stand on his two legs again.

“So, you travelled all the way back to the 21st century to help me plan my life? Let’s say for a minute that I believe you. Why? What is so important about my so-called destiny?”

“You will allow a young boy to dream of the many wonders that this world holds, and because of that he will become a great scientist whose work is without parallel. That is what makes your destiny important, my dear brother.”

“And how exactly will I do that? Do I travel to the 27th century and give this young boy a pep talk?” he asked amused by this rather fanciful tale.

“The young man in question is from the 25th century to be exact, and your books will do all the inspiring for you.”

The mere mention of his books felt like a hot searing dagger stabbing him in the heart. This was his achilles’ heel, his greatest passion and his most painful disappointment. He once foolishly thought he could become a famous novelist, and make his living through his writing. But that dream revealed itself to be sheer folly.

“That’s it. Get out, I do not wish to entertain you and whatever this is any longer. Leave my house this instant,” he yelled at the stranger angrily. His thoughts were going back to those all too familiar feelings of self-loathing and disillusionment, and this time he had this fraudster to thank for it.

“My apologies, I did not mean to vex you. I realize that the subject of your creative endeavours is a sore point with you. But that is exactly why I came here to give you some much needed perspective on all of this. You’ve convinced yourself that your work is inconsequential, that whether your books exist or not hardly matters. But, I am here to tell you that it does matter. Your stories will spark a flame that will light the way forward to one of the greatest discoveries ever made by our species. I know you are disappointed in what you perceive to be a lack of success. But giving up, becoming a recluse that spends his days binging on unhealthy amounts of calories, while subjecting this amazingly creative mind of yours to tedious drivel is not the answer. Deep down, you know that what I’m saying is true. You’ve never been happier than when you are seating at your desk and bringing to life those wondrous worlds that exist in your mind: Aisha and the cursed automaton, Tales of the one thousand and one stars, The beast of Pakmari, The invisible Chunk, and of course Shrieks of the Pterodactyls.”

How does he know about shrieks of the Pterodactyls, I haven’t even completed it? He looked at his abandoned novel scattered on the ground and wondered if the stranger read his manuscript while he was asleep.

“No, I didn’t take a peek while you were asleep. I didn’t need to, I’ve read the completed version,” the man said anticipating his question.

“You mean folks are still reading my books in the 27th century?” he asked incredulously.

“Oh, God no! We’ve moved beyond such things. Don’t be disheartened by that, Moby Dick is considered a children’s book in my time. You see, we are intellectually at a far more advanced stage of human development. Of course, we are fully cognizant of the fact that human knowledge is cumulative in essence, hence why we’ve created vast archives where everything humans ever produced, from the groundbreaking to the trivial, is  stored for posterity.”

“I don’t understand how my work could inspire anybody in a world where Moby Dick is read by toddlers,” he said feeling despondent once more.

“It won’t. But, for a young man born into a family of asteroid prospectors in the 25th century, and whose life was rather difficult, your stories became a refuge to escape the dreariness of his existence. Why did he gravitate so much toward your books? No one really knows. Many historians have speculated that it was really a case of sheer coincidence. The 25th century was a peculiar time. Human colonies were established haphazardly across the galaxy, often by private enterprises trying to gain a foothold in the ore rich sectors of space before their competitors. A slew of outer colonies appeared  in remote regions often cut off from the rest of human civilization. I’m afraid the great push forward to establish a firm human presence throughout our galaxy didn’t come without blunders. Living on a mining station in the freshly established outer colonies meant this young boy had access to a limited database of reading material. It seems that he found some archival material on a reader containing, amongst other things, your books,” explained the man.

“I still don’t understand how my books inspired him. What did he invent that is so important anyway?” he asked still feeling a lingering sadness.

“He invented nothing, he is however part of an important chain of events that led to an amazing scientific discovery. For a long time, historians focused solely on important events and individuals without however taking into account the multitude of smaller historical details without which the broader patterns observed in human history would probably look vastly different. Have you ever heard of Fräulein Hilda Gustafsson?”

“No.”

“Of course not. Her name appears in none of the historical annals of your century. She, for all intent and purposes never existed despite her notable role in Albert Einstein’s revolutionary work on relativity. He had the habit of buying his morning indulgence in the form of freshly baked bagels from his local bakery belonging to the Gustafsson family for more than three generations. Fräulein Gustafsson’s oven had a peculiar set of indentations that left long, circular streaks on her bagels. His morning routine consisted of a walk near the river, after purchasing his favourite bagels, and seating by one of the benches on its banks to ponder on his work. It is while staring at those streaked bagels that he contemplated the possible interwovenness of space and time into a single continuum known today as space-time. He noticed that those streaks became distorted as they ran along the curvature of the bagel which prompted him to wonder if the presence of massive objects would have a similar effect in space-time. Fräulein Hilda Gustafsson and her peculiar bagels were an important part of a specific chain of events that led a young Einstein to consider the nature of the relationship between time and space. Much like your own books will play a role in the discovery of time travel,” said the man smiling anew.

“Time travel? Wow…..Wait, isn’t dangerous that I know all these details about the future? Doesn’t it create some sort of time paradox?” he asked now completely enraptured by the stranger’s story.

“Temporal paradoxes are a lot more complex than what science fiction would have you believe. There are no time-loops to trap you in an endless repetition of the same events, nor will you die if you were to meet your counterpart from a different era. Such fantasies make for great stories, but that is all they are: pure fantasy. While by your century a basic understanding of the space-time continuum has been acquired, its inner workings still remain a mystery to you. In the upcoming centuries humanity’s grasp of those fundamentals will improve, and because of that our understanding of human history will change drastically.”

“How does my….destiny fit into all of this?” he asked more intrigued than ever.

“Explaining accurately the theory of temporal pliability in relation to time travel would entail a series of complex partial differential equations, which you obviously wouldn’t be able to comprehend. For the purpose of our current discussion on your destiny, what you need to understand is that we’ve discovered the existence of strands in the space-time continuum that display a certain rigidity, which renders them a fixed point in time. These are not only the building blocs of the tesseract that allows time travel, they are also indispensable to historical continuity. Level 6 employees, such as yours truly, are entrusted with the important task of protecting the integrity of these fixed points. You happen to be a part of a such a strand. In the 25th century, a young boy growing up in a mining colony in sector 2580 stumbled upon your books and became quite fond of them. His great-grandson found his reader while sifting through some of the packages his mother labeled family heirlooms. Certainly out of childish curiosity he started reading your books and developed a great nostalgia for the past. This desire to revisit the past compelled him to work on the nature of time as a scientist. His theory of temporal pliability became the cornerstone of a whole new branch of physics which eventually led to the discovery of time travel a century later. Any changes that could endanger this succession of events would have a disastrous impact. You and your books are as important to the discovery of time travel as Fräulein Gustafsson and her peculiar bagels were to the discovery of general relativity.”

“What about multiple timelines? Is that a thing? What would happen if I stopped writing books all together, will this create a different timeline?” he asked truly fascinated by the subject.

“Not quite. There is always only one real timeline. However when disruptive events occur they tend to create an adjacent pocket reality where the initial corruption causes a chain reaction that eventually leads to its inevitable collapse. These collapses create areas of great instability within the tesseract that can render time travel dangerous. This is why only temporal agents and historians with special dispensations are allowed to partake in time travel in order to limit any tampering that could create disruptions.”

His head was swimming with conflicting thoughts and emotions. For the first time in his life he was left speechless. His lingering despondency was being eclipsed by a renewed sense of purpose. He rapidly shoved this blossoming dream aside, afraid of letting himself hope too soon. Can this be true? he wondered.

“Will I ever know success as a novelist in my own time?” he asked hesitantly.

“You will never be the next Hemingway, Achebe, Roy, Mahfouz, or Dostoevsky. Your work will never be considered as highbrow literature, but you will continue to publish a steady stream of books that will find a small but dedicated readership. The importance of your destiny has nothing to do with you finding commercial success in your lifetime, but everything to do with fulfilling your role as a writer of wonderfully fanciful and creative tales,” his visitor answered.

Hearing that he will toil in obscurity as a writer of lowbrow speculative fiction would have sent him over the edge earlier. But now, he found himself looking for a silver lining in all of this. A small but dedicated readership, he repeated to himself already picturing his future meet-and-greet with his devoted fandom. A flurry of new ideas assailed his mind, stories were already taking shape and characters coming to life. Lost in the effervescence of his creativity, he barely noticed that he could once again move his legs.

“I see the sedative is starting to wear off. Remember dear brother that there is no such thing as a trivial destiny. We were all born to play a role in this life. While your books may not be for most, they will be indispensable to the right ones. It has been a pleasure and an honour to make your acquaintance. May Allah preserve you and keep you on the straight path always,” the man said.

His voice sounded strangely weak as if it had travelled through a great distance. The patterns on his boubou replaced their previously graceful dance with a frantic movement creating an increasingly shimmering light. His entire being seemed to be gradually fading into the background. Soon, nothing other than the empty chair remained of his strange visitor’s passage. The silence in the room was deafening. I didn’t even ask him his name, he thought. Able to stand again, he took a few steps toward the manuscript thrown in anger against the wall the previous night. He picked up a few of the pages laying on the ground and started to read them aloud.

“Not too bad for lowbrow literature,” he said smiling.

 

* I seek Allah’s protection/refuge/shelter from Shaitaan, the Accursed one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Passenger: Part Two

“Suleiman, everything is going to be fine. I’m going to get you home. Hang in there for me kiddo,” Leila said trying to reassure the little boy. She took one more look trying to assess the situation, and realized that her client’s men were rapidly losing ground. Only three of you left, I’m going to need some backup, remarked Leila.

“Kal, I need some cover,” she said. Kahil immediately deployed his forward pulse cannons and started shooting. In the mayhem that ensued, many of the attackers fell victim to his relentless attack. Trying desperately to avoid Kahil’s bullets, many of them stopped shooting, and instead took refuge behind the remnants strewn across the scrapyard. This gave Leila and her charge an opportunity to run back toward her ship. Leila grabbed her side arm and opened fire to clear the way to her ship, while holding the child’s hand in the other. “Let’s go Suleiman, time to run,” she yelled.

Startled by the sudden pain radiating through her hand, Leila instinctively released Suleiman, and turned around to look at her throbbing hand. He bit me, she remarked. By the time she overcame her own surprise, the child was already running the other way, and trying to reach the position of the three remaining men from the client’s escort. Leila raced after Suleiman firing her pulse rifle at those shooting at him. She reached the little boy just in time to grab him, and leaped across a flurry of bullets to land behind a pile of debris.

“Cease fire, everybody cease fire. Captain Diallo, please call off your ship and let us talk with you. We have an arrest warrant for your passenger issued by the judicial council,” said one of the attackers.

Leila was flabbergasted. An arrest warrant for a child? These oligarchs are sinking to a new low, she thought.

“You must collaborate Captain Diallo, or you will be charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive,” the man reiterated.

Suleiman once again scrambled out of her reach and tried to run toward the remaining hired guns. Grabbing him by the collar just in time, she yanked him back forcefully. “What are you trying to do? You’re going to get yourself killed. Don’t move a muscle or I’ll shoot you myself,” she said angrily. She closed her eyes for a second and took a deep breath to regain her composure. She kneeled in front of the frightened little boy and looked him in the eyes softly. “What did I tell you when we left B’elax?” she asked him smiling. “That you’ll keep me safe and take me home?” he responded with a trembling voice. “Exactly, I promise you little one I want let any harm come to you. I know this is very scary, but you got to trust me kiddo. I’m going to get us out of here.” The little boy nodded and got closer to Leila.  The next voice she heard stopped her dead in her tracks.

“Lieutenant Diallo, you need to stand down. You have no reason to trust any of these guys but you know me. You need to hear them out.”

The last time she heard that voice she was badly injured and half-blind on some backwater planet waiting to be evacuated. She slowly stood up, and took a quick look in the direction the voice came from. Recognizing the face looking back at her from behind the debris of an old transport freighter, Leila smiled. “Alhamdulillah,”she said under her breath, and turned toward Suleiman. “We’re going to be okay, don’t you worry kid, I got this.”

“Salamu Aleikum Commander Rafiq, it’s good to hear your voice Sir. I wish this little reunion was taking place under better circumstances…and its Captain Diallo these days Sir.”

“Wa Aleikum Salam lieutenant…sorry Captain. Look, can you please call off your ship? The damn thing has already killed half of my men.” Good boy Kal, she thought.

“Stand down Kal,” she said and Kahil’s reign of terror came to an end as quickly as it began.

“Since when do you hunt children Sir?” she asked, trying to assess if she could still trust him as she once did.

“I don’t. That thing you’ve been hiding and protecting for the past three months is no kid, lieutenant. I know this is hard to believe, but trust me when I tell you he’s been using you. There is no kidnapped child by the name of Suleiman, only the war criminal Mustafa Jalil trying to hide from his crimes,” he replied.

Leila suddenly doubled in pain. Shocked, she turned around trying to assess the source of the hot, searing pain radiating through her body; only to find her own dagger now firmly lodged in her left flank. He stabbed me. Little Suleiman was still holding the dagger’s handle, and giving it one last push to drive it further into her body. Gone was the frightened and shy little boy she had protected so fiercely for the last three months. The cold and calculating eyes starring back at her held none of their past innocence.

“Captain Diallo, did you hear what I just said? You’re protecting Jalil the butcher of Carthage”, reiterated Commander Rafiq.

“Play nice Captain, and I might just let you live. Tell your army buddy and his goons to back off, and keep your hands to yourself, or that dagger of yours will do more damage,” whispered Suleiman.

Still reeling from the pain and the shock, Leila closed her eyes trying desperately to keep her calm. The world seemed to be tilting around her, not even in her worst nightmares had she imagined such a turn of events. Laughing almost hysterically, she shook her head.

“Well, you’re out of luck. Army buddy or not, Commander Rafiq will never back off. Not for me or anyone else, and for the record if that is really you in there Jalil, I hope he blows your head off”, she said her voice trembling with pain and rage.

Anger flashed through Suleiman’s eyes before he plunged the dagger further into Leila’s body. Smiling in delight at her pain, he slowly twisted the knife making her cry out in agony. “Now, now, Captain. I’m sure you can do better than that. Isn’t amazing how the line between pain and pleasure is a lot thinner than most people think? I just need a little bit more time Captain, that’s all.” Having such words uttered by a child made it that more sickening to Leila. Covered with sweat and breathing heavily, she called out to Commander Rafiq.

“I heard you Sir. You can’t possibly expect me to believe that?” she said before coughing up a copious amount of blood. She was rapidly becoming light-headed with blood loss. I have to find a way out of this before I pass out, she thought.

“Captain, I know this is hard to believe but it is the truth. Look, I also didn’t believe it at first. Give them a chance to explain it to you, they have the proof,” Commander Rafiq insisted.

“Captain, five short range vessels are headed your way. Please advise”, Kal suddenly asked through Leila’s personal comms.

Taking advantage of Suleiman’s momentary distraction Leila yelled “Shoot them down Kal, don’t let them land.” She brutally punched Suleiman in the head to make him lose his grip on the knife. Shocked by the swiftness of the attack, he fell to the ground and scrambled away from Leila. She yanked the knife out of her flank, and stumbled out of their hideout trying to reach Kal. At the distance, five small vessels were rapidly converging toward them. Kahil was already on intercept mode firing at them. One of the vessels hit by Kal, spun out of control and crashed violently on the ground, sending fiery debris throughout the scrapyard. Leila felt her body falling to the ground. She was being pinned down and could feel a heavy body covering hers. “Stay down Lieutenant, all hell is breaking loose.” Those were the last words Leila heard before the edges of her vision blurred, and darkness finally claimed her.

While Kahil and Commander Rafiq’s men were dealing with the four remaining vessels, a cloaked transport pod landed discreetly on the farthest side of the scrapyard. Amidst the chaos and the flying debris, no one paid attention to the two men running toward the pod with a child in tow. The tallest of the two was carrying Suleiman, while the other one covered their retreat. As he was running, the second man suddenly fell hit by a stray bullet. “Hurry up you fool, we are running out of time,” yelled Suleiman. Startled by a close-by explosion, the man carrying him lost his step and stumbled, almost dropping him in the process. “Put me down you imbecile, and keep Rafiq’s men at bay,” he snarled before continuing to run toward the pod. The panicked man started shooting wildly attempting to cover Suleiman’s retreat.  Reaching the pod after a few minutes, Suleiman closed the door behind him, before turning toward the pilot awaiting his orders.

“Take me out of here, at once,” he yelled.

“What about him?” the pilot asked nodding his head toward the man still shooting at Rafiq’s men to cover Suleiman’s escape.

“Leave him,” said the little boy before leaning back to rest his head on the seat.

The transport pod left the scrapyard as silently as it arrived, leaving behind the ongoing chaos, and the last surviving member of Suleiman’s escort screaming at them to come back. Kal eventually took out two more of the attacking vessels, prompting the remaining ones to retreat. Slowly emerging from their various hideouts amidst the smoke, the smell of charred flesh, and the cries for help, Commander Rafiq’s men were gradually taking stock of their losses.

“Captain, are you alright? Captain Diallo please respond…Captain?”

Kal’s voice could be heard coming from Leila’s comms lying on the ground in an ever-growing pool of blood spreading around two lifeless bodies.

 

Featured image by Philip Straub

The Passenger: Part One

“Captain, we’ve arrived at the rendezvous point. Shall I initiate a sweep?”

“Yes Kal. Contact our clients and let them know that the package is en route.”

This, more than anything else is what Leila Diallo hated about her job: the hand-off. If anything would ever go wrong it is at that precise moment. It could be a client suddenly getting greedy; a trigger-happy hired gun getting nervous; some local wannabe thugs deciding to hijack the proceedings; or worse yet, those insufferable bounty hunters shooting up the whole place. Yep, it’s all fun and games until someone gets vaporized or riddled with bullets, she though. Leila wasn’t particularly afraid of a little action, but with age and maturity one learns to become risk-averse. After dodging capture for the past three months by travelling through some of the worst systems this galaxy has to offer, she was more than ready to hand off the package, get paid, and go on her merry way without too much fuss. Knowing her luck however, things will probably go sideways before she can get off this godforsaken planet. Good thing I have just the ship for a quick escape, she thought smiling to herself.

Her ship called Kahil—whose artificial intelligence Leila affectionately dubbed Kal—was a relic from the war. The devastating decade-long conflict engulfed the entire galaxy in its path; killing millions across eleven systems, and pitting the most powerful families of the Ruling Assembly against one another in a merciless tit for tat. The feuding oligarchs poured the bulk of their wealth and resources into the development of sophisticated weapons, each group desperately trying to tilt the balance of power in their favour. Out of that frantic arms race emerged a whole new breed of warships. The Tyshen-class starships were built to be fast, highly maneuverable, and came with a deadly array of weaponry. While Leila had served aboard one of the much bigger Sumong-class starships, she had seen first-hand the effectiveness of the Tyshen ships like her beloved Kahil.

When the war ended the remaining ships were decommissioned and later destroyed. The Ruling Assembly of the Caliphate declared these war machines obsolete, and an unnecessary reminder of the conflict. In reality, the destruction of the oligarchy’s deadly armadas had little to do with ushering in a new peaceful era, and everything to do with ensuring that no one could break the peace treaty on a whim. However, a few ships escaped that fate, and the Kahil was one of them. Much like the ships, the soldiers who fought in the war became an equally painful memory to erase. There were no elaborate ceremonies, no long-winded speeches about bravery and heroism, and certainly no thanks from a grateful Ummah; just a measly pay for service rendered, trinkets in the form of medals, and a few vouchers for free dinners. Leila and Kahil were both war relics who found solace in each other.

“Sweep completed captain. The area is secured.”

“Shukran Kal. Any answer from our clients?”

“No captain, still awaiting confirmation from their end.”

A client running late to a rendezvous is never a good sign. Better be prepared, she thought as she unlocked Kal’s armory. Her favorite item in her rather impressive arsenal was by far her pulse rifle. It had the advantage of being relatively light and easily concealable under her long coat. Better safe than sorry, she reminded herself as she slung the weapon’s strap across her body, and readjusted her Hijab before putting on her coat. As backup she puts a side arm in her leg holster, and a dagger in the sheath strapped to her belt.

“Are we expecting trouble captain?”

“Possibly Kal. Keep sweeping the area, I have a feeling we’ll have some uninvited guests soon enough. Any sign from our clients yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Let me know as soon as you hear anything from them.”

Let’s get this show on the road, she though unenthusiastically. Exiting the bridge, she headed towards the living deck, and approached the only other occupied quarters in the ship. As the door opened, Leila entered the darkened room. “Lights,” a child’s voice called out. Leila turned around and smiled at the little boy sitting cross-legged on one of the bunk beds. Before she could say anything Kal’s voice resonated through the ship’s comms.

“Captain, the clients finally replied. They are running late but they will be at the designated area for the hand-off in 5 minutes. I’m continuing to sweep the area but so far all seems in order.”

“Shukran Kal. All right kiddo we’re here. It is time for you to go home.”

“I’m ready Captain Diallo,” answered the child as he got up from the bed.

Leila spent the last three months trying to keep this child safe. When she was hired to safely transport a package to the capital, she never thought the package in question would be a kid, nor did she expect things to get as dangerous as they did. The job seemed straightforward at first. A third party had successfully negotiated the release of a kidnapped child, and was looking for someone to take him back to his parents who are willing to pay handsomely for his safe return.

Captain Diallo, this job will require the utmost discretion. The child comes from a rather well-known family, and the parents are keen on avoiding any scandal that may arise from this situation. You are to transport him safely to the capital where you will be paid double your usual fee.

But, what should have been a mere milk run for Leila rapidly turned into a dogfight with an assortment of bounty hunters trying to get their hands on the child.

Captain Diallo, it seems that the kidnappers have changed their mind and are now trying to capture the child anew. We have also been informed that some members of the oligarchy have put a bounty on him, and intend on using the child as a bargaining chip to strong-arm his family into giving up some of their key assets. Due to the changing circumstances, the parents are willing to pay you three times your usual fee. It is imperative that you succeed Captain.

That was the last message Leila received from the third party who hired her. To escape detection, she decided to avoid the well-known and more frequented spaceports, and chose instead backwater planets located in the seediest systems she could think of. It has been a long, brutal, and bloody journey but they finally made it to the capital. As the main cargo bay doors opened, Leila flanked by the little boy emerged from the ship. The coordinates to the rendezvous point brought them to one of the countless old scrapyard scattered across the city of New-Cairo. The place was littered with the remnants of dismantled and wrecked warships, cruise liners, and commercial transport ships. The capital was as always buzzing with an endless stream of activity. Ever so often, transport shuttles would fly over the scrapyard on their way to their destination. Leila could see glistening in the distance the towering structures built to house the rich and powerful. These luxurious self-contained buildings were a far cry from the wretchedness of the city sprawled at their feet. Overcrowding, squalor, crime, and poverty were the reality of the average citizen. Even the thick smoky fog of pollution that seemed to constantly choke much of New-Cairo couldn’t dampen the splendor of these daunting arcologies. Walking toward the center of the scrapyard, Leila started taking stock of her surroundings. This is the perfect place for an ambush, she remarked to herself.

“Kal, keep the comms open and continue sweeping.”

“Understood captain.”

“Don’t worry kiddo, you’ll be home soon Inshallah,” she said smiling down at  the child reassuringly.

“Captain, six individuals are approaching your position. Five of them are heavily armed.”

“Understood Kal.”

She took a few more steps and came to a halt when she saw them. “That’s far enough gentlemen,” Leila said as she grabbed her side arm and strategically positioned herself between her young charge and the men.

“Captain Diallo, I presume? Salamu Aleikum, glad to see you’ve made it to New-Cairo safely. You have our gratitude for bringing young Suleiman back to his family safe and sound.”

The obvious leader of the group wore the kind of ostentatious and over the top attire favored by the wealthy of New-Cairo to display their status and privilege. At first glance, he didn’t seem to be packing any weapons like the rest of his crew, but Leila knew too well that appearances can be quite deceiving in these circumstances.

“As agreed upon, you will receive three times your usual fee for your excellent work. May I approach to finalize the transaction captain?” the man asked.

Suddenly, Kal’s voice resonated through her earpiece. “Captain, you’ve got some new visitors. A shuttle is headed your way, it will reach you in less than a minute at its current speed.” Leila calmly reached for Suleiman’s hand and took hold of it. Looking her interlocutor in the eyes she asked him, “Were you expecting some friends to join us?”

She could see the multitude of emotions dancing on his face as he processed her words: confusion, surprise, then fear. Before he could answer, Leila started running for cover dragging a bewildered child behind her. They reached the safety of a rusting escape pod just in time to avoid the haze of bullets raining down on their previous position. She heard a thud and turned around to watch the lifeless body of the well-dressed man falling to the ground. From the transport shuttle hovering dangerously close to the ground, a horde of heavily armed men exited and scattered throughout the scrapyard. Ya Rab, they’ve got us pinned down, she thought.