Life can be so fleeting. One moment you are fighting to survive, desperately holding on to the tiny dying embers of your soul, and the next you are floating in an ever-thickening mist. Exactly at what moment does one die? When does the very essence of your soul escape your reach forever? Is this what it is like to taste the bitterness of death?
Where am I? What is happening?
His mind was still reeling from the shock of suddenly regaining consciousness and finding himself submerged in the freezing waters of a subterranean ocean. The remote-control unit of his pressurized suit clearly indicated the direness of his current situation. He couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t help but sense the disconnect from his own body. He was nothing more than a broken, injured corpse, sinking helplessly into a deep and dark alien ocean, while being kept alive by his suit to experience the full horror of his ordeal. As his fear and confusion spiked, he started desperately struggling against the powerful tides taking him deeper into the darkness.
No please, not this! I need to get out.
A faint light shining from above caught his eye, and hope blossomed in his heart. Getting out from this place was the only thing he could think about. Somewhere in the midst of his muddled thoughts, he could hear a little voice telling him to calm down and remember his training. But a sheer feeling of terror overrode all rational thoughts when the faint light disappeared just as mysteriously as it materialized. Amidst his wild thrashing, the presence of the figure observing him from the mouth of the crater overlooking the ocean went unnoticed. Eyes wild with terror, he looked again at the panel indicating the rapid depletion of his oxygen supply. The cold was starting to seep through his suit, brought on by the failure of its environmental system. Soon he will either freeze to death or suffocate. Hope was fleeting again, quickly replaced by a deep sense of despair. He was now crying in earnest. “Ya Rabb, please help me!” he cried out. But death would have its due. He was being dragged into a world of stillness and obscurity foreign to all human life. As he sank further into his icy tomb, his cries gave way to a quiet resignation. Taking a deep, shaky breath he started reciting verses of the Quran asking for mercy and guidance.
“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger,” he said, quietly reiterating his faith in God for the last time.
Location: Bayt al-hikmah (space station in low Earth orbit)
“Students, students please take your seats. This is no time to socialize and chatter about your ill-spent vacations. Need I remind you that you are all expected to be on your best behavior on this momentous occasion? You are about to embark on your apprenticeship and become seekers of knowledge. I will not allow you to shame our illustrious institution with your usual antics, especially you Rashid. Now, take your seats at once and quiet down.”
As a flurry of young men and women quickly moved toward their designated chairs, Ayman Yassin adorned with his official vestment as head master kept a watchful eye. He had spent the last five years teaching these young people, guiding them and preparing them for the most important journey of their young lives. He thought of them as his children and couldn’t help but be as nervous and anxious as they were. The path to knowledge is difficult and trying little ones. May your journey be a blessed one, he thought. The increasing chatter in the room roused him from his reverie and he moved promptly to the front of the hall. The ceremony was about to begin.
“Silence,” reiterated Ayman.
As his voice resonated throughout the hall the voices fell silent. Smiling to himself he felt extremely proud of what he and his fellow mu’allimun had achieved. Five years ago, when they first came to them, these children were barely ten years old. They were filled with the innocence of childhood, undisciplined, and unfocussed. Yet here they were now wise beyond their years, attuned to every command, and moving as a single body. They are no longer children, he couldn’t help the lingering sadness he felt.
“In a few minutes, you will find yourselves in the presence of some of the greatest minds of our Ummah. You will have the honour of joining as novices an order dedicated to the search for knowledge; an order that seeks to enlighten mankind and improve the human condition. As your teachers, we have done our best to prepare you for this journey. We have taught you the discipline, the focus, and the humility required of a talib. Each one of you will become the protégée of an ‘alim under whose tutelage you will become scholars in your own right. Make us proud,” said Ayman with great emotion in his voice.
On these young faces looking back at him, Ayman could read an array of emotions: sadness, joy, fear, doubt, excitement. This is something he knew all too well, and understood just as much. Once upon a time, he sat there looking at his own teachers delivering a similar speech. He remembered how an overwhelming sense of excitement and paralyzing fear gripped him all at once. This is what being a talib meant, constantly teetering on the edge between bliss and utter dread. The imposing wooden doors at the back of the hall opened, and a procession of teachers and scholars entered each wearing their robes of honor indicating their status and their ranks. Much like Ayman, the teachers of the institute wore cloaks trimmed with green threads at the front, while the scholars’ robes of honour were embroidered in golden fabric. The atmosphere was crackling with a nervous energy, and Ayman could sense the anxiety emanating from his pupils. One by one, the cortege greeted him and moved toward the stage to take their seats.
“ Mu’allimun, ‘ulema, members of the majlis, we welcome you. We are honored by your presence,” said Ayman.
“It is we who are honored to be your guests brother Ayman. Are your pupils ready to begin their apprenticeship?” asked one of the scholars.
“Yes, they are respected ‘alim,” answered Ayman.
“Let us begin then. Salamu Aleikum. My name is Abdul Ghani Hassan, I am an ‘alim in the science of usul al-fiqh. I stand before you today as a representative of the assembly of scholars, the majlis ul ‘ulama. For the past five years your teachers have endeavored to prepare you to take your place in our midst. They have taught you the four most important qualities a young novice must possess. What are they?”
“Discipline, focus, piety, and humility,” the students answered in unison.
“Indeed. You were recruited at the tender age of ten by the institute because each and every one of you had displayed extraordinary abilities. Becoming an ‘alim however requires not only intelligence but also commitment. Our work is at all times guided by the ethics, the rules, and legislations set by the majlis ul ‘ulama in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet, the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Once fully trained it is within a scholar’s power to improve the human condition through his or her work; thus, becoming a force for good. Or one could choose to exploit the knowledge acquired to his or her own advantage, and in the process lay waste to many lives. Thus, becoming a scourge upon the world. This is why it is vital that we instill in you the values in which your work must always be rooted. It is our responsibility to help you avoid the pitfalls of arrogance that could lead to your ruination. Each one of you will become the protégée of an ‘alim for the next six years. They will be your greatest teachers and harshest critics. They will push you to your limits and will expect nothing but perfection in return. Your journey as seekers of knowledge has just begun, and it will only end the day you take your last breath. Use your apprenticeship wisely, and may your path to knowledge be a blessed one. We ask Allah to preserve us from our arrogance and ignorance.”
“Ameen” reverberated throughout the hall.
“Brother Ayman, as the head master of this institute will you do us the honor of calling forth your pupils so they may receive their robes of apprenticeship?” asked Abdul Ghani.
“It will be my pleasure,” answered Ayman. He stood in front of his students and began the final stage of the ceremony.
“Once your name is called, you will come forth and receive your robe from your designated ‘alim,” he said before calling the names of his beloved pupils one last time.
A young man seated in the last row stood up and moved toward the stage with confidence. Despite gaining somewhat of a reputation as a loner over the years, and often displaying a disconcerting amount of disinterest in his education, Ayman knew that underneath all that bravado laid a rare genius. He had seen Anas surpass all expectations when he bothered to put some effort into his work. In fact, he was convinced that the problem with young Anas was due to one simple truth; he had outgrown the institute a long time ago.
“Anas, may I present to you one of our most respected scholars, sister Safia Mahmoud,” said a smiling Ayman.
The whole room erupted in loud gasps and murmurs. Safia Mahmoud was not only a scientist of great repute, she was also an alumna of the institute. Over the years, she rose to fame as a pioneering figure of the deep space exploration program. Never before had she expressed the desire to take a young novice under her wing. Her work was deemed too important to be entrusted with those still undergoing their noviciate.
“Salamu Aleikum Anas. I’ll have the privilege of tutoring you through your noviciate. You are to become from this moment on a novice in the field of Molecular Biology,” she stated.
Anas was taken aback by her statement, and gave Ayman a puzzled look.
“I’m sorry ‘alima, there must be some mistake. I wish to specialize in the field of Cybernetics and not Molecular Biology,” said Anas.
“I am aware of your interest young man. I assure you, your talents in cybernetics will not go to waste,” she said coldly.
Before Anas could reply, his old head master intervened.
“Anas, one of the key elements of your noviciate is to trust your designated scholar’s judgement. There is more than one path that leads to knowledge,” he said before giving his pupil a long look discouraging him from further argumentation.
“Yes, of course. My apologies ‘alima,” said a confused Anas.
Once all the students received their robes of apprenticeship, Abdul Ghani Hassan stood again to address the crowd.
“As a representative of the majlis ul ‘ulama, it is with great pleasure that I announce the official start of your noviciate as future scholars. May Allah guide you in your future endeavours.”
Location: Tekrour City
Tekrour City was the very first human settlement established on the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. The surface of this Jovian moon was marked by vast lava plains formed billions of years ago when Ganymede was still geologically active. Molten Rock flowed beneath its surface and formed lava tubes where it left colossal hollow chambers as it receded. These caverns chiselled into the bedrock offered the necessary protection against harmful radiation, while also serving as a natural insulator. The largest of these caverns was terraformed to house a settlement inhabited at first by the scientists and other support staff of the space exploration program. When the expansion of human presence throughout the galaxy was finally sanctioned by the authorities, Ganymede attracted its fair share of colonists eager to start a new life among the stars. What was initially a mere settlement grew within the span of a few decades into a bustling city.
Aslan Sadulayev, on his way back from a brief vacation on Earth, was just about to clear the customs area of Tekrour city’s spaceport when a young port agent approached him.
“Salamu aleikum Efendi. Are you assistant chief medical examiner Aslan Sadulayev?” asked the agent.
“Wa aleikum Salam. Yes, that’s me” he answered perplexed.
“May I see your credentials?” said the officer.
“Of course,” Aslan responded before retrieving his Ident-Card from one of his jacket’s many pockets. “What is this all about?” he asked anew. He was starting to feel somewhat uneasy.
“Please come with me,” said the officer.
“I don’t understand what is going on here. I’m just coming back from Earth,” said an obviously annoyed Aslan.
“Sir, I’m just following my orders. I’ve been asked to escort you, so please follow me,” reiterated the officer haughtily; walking away before Aslan could protest any further. Jerk, Aslan thought irritated by the man’s sternness but deciding nonetheless to follow him as instructed. Their stroll through the port took them to the very edge of a boarding bridge still connected to a transport ship. The officer gave a nod to two security personnel guarding the entrance to the ship who immediately stepped aside. The interior of the ship was that of a standard transport freighter: cramped and a little worn out. Aslan followed the officer to the main cargo hold. While the ship’s passenger compartiments were empty, it’s hold was crawling with security personnel. He immediately recognized Tekrour City Law Enforcement personnel by their distinctive uniforms. They were in the process of cordoning off a section of the hold with bright red biohazard tapes. Two law enforcement bots were hovering over the area recording every single detail, while a third was keeping a quarantine field in place. This is a crime scene, Aslan thought to himself. The customs officer walked in the direction of a woman standing near the crime scene perimeter, giving orders on her handheld communicator.
“Harbourmaster, this is Dr. Aslan Sadulayev from the office of the Chief Medical Examiner,” said the officer.
“Shukran Ali, you may return to your post. Salamu Aleikum Doctor. I am Maryam Abdallah, harbourmaster of Tekrour City Spaceport. This ship is the Matahari Terbit bound for Earth. It left Rijl al-Qanṭūris six months ago with a full load of passengers and cargo. Ganymede was the last port of call on their schedule before their final destination. It was supposed to stay here only for an hour, the time to unload some passengers and cargo, before resuming its voyage. However, our port personnel found a body during their inspection. Of course, we immediately initiated the emergency protocol and contacted law enforcement,” the harbourmaster explained.
“I’m sure the Chief Medical Examiner’s office will send someone to examine the body. I can’t just step in and…”
“We were told by your office that an assistant chief medical examiner was already in our premises. They expect you to take charge of this case,” she said before he could finish his sentence.
“That is not how it works harbourmaster. I must be given clear instructions by my office on this matter.”
“Feel free to contact them,” she said calmly.
Aslan moved away from the crime scene and retrieved his communicator from his jacket. “Dial office,” he instructed.
“Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, how may I direct your call?” said a female voice a few seconds later.
“Morgue,” said Aslan. My vacation is not over yet, no way I’m getting saddled with this, he thought angrily.
“Kawthar, this is Aslan. Is there a reason I am being asked to process a crime scene while still on my vacation?” he asked hotly.
“No need to rip my head off, I was more then willing to go there and do it myself. But, the chief is the one who decided otherwise. Something about you being already on the premises,” Kawthar answered, clearly annoyed by Aslan’s hostile tone.
“Fine, just transfer me to his office,” said an exasperated Aslan.
“Patching you through. Good luck.”
“Dr. Abdourahman here,” said a booming voice.
Aslan took a deep breath to get a hold of his emotions before addressing his superior.
“Salamu Aleikum Dr. Abdourahman, this is Dr. Aslan Sadulayev. It seems that a body showed up in one of the ships at the spaceport. Apparently the harbourmaster is under the impression that I’m to process the body, but as you know I’m still on my vacation, Sir. May I ask who has been assigned to the case, so I can reassure the harbourmaster someone is indeed on the way?”
“Wa aleikum salam. Yes, I am aware of that Aslan. But Kawthar isn’t nearly as experienced as you, and according to the harbourmaster the body seems to be displaying some unusual and worrisome characteristics, hence the quarantine protocol. I need someone with experience on this one, and since you were already there coming back from Earth…”
“Sir, with all due respect, the harbourmaster has probably never seen a dead body before. She’s most likely referring to the effects of rigour mortis and… “
“Let me stop you there Sadulayev. Maryam Abdallah was deployed on Mars during the Hima virus outbreak. That woman has seen more dead bodies then you and I combined. She is not some hysteric, this is someone whose judgement and wisdom I trust and respect. You will do well to show her the deference she is due. Am I making myself clear?” asked the chief medical officer in a taut, controlled voice.
“Yes, of course,” replied a defeated Aslan.
“Good. We’ve already dispatched a forensics unit, they should be there by now. I expect a detailed report of this case first thing tomorrow morning.”
Aslan walked back to the crime scene and joined the harbourmaster supervising the ongoing work. She was discussing with an inspector of Tekrour Law Enforcement, no doubt charged with investigating the suspicious death. “It seems you were right harbourmaster. I am indeed assigned to this case. I’m going to take a look at the body now with your permission,” he said. Both the harbourmaster and the inspector nodded their heads in acquiescence. Just then Aslan saw the forensics unit entering the cargo hold with their specialized bots in tow.
“Right here guys,” he said waving to his colleagues.
“Salamu aleikum Aslan. I thought you were still on your vacation,” remarked a young man with a mischievous grin.
“Very funny Daoud. Let’s get to work,” replied a less than amused Aslan. “First things first, lets’ put one of our bots on quarantine duty, and expand the field to encompass that entire section of the hold. A level 2 quarantine should suffice for now. Set up a decontamination station as well just in case we need one,” instructed Aslan.
“What are we dealing with here?” asked Daoud.
“No idea. The harbourmaster believes that the corpse is displaying some unusual and worrisome characteristics,” he replied mimicking the chief’s voice as he repeated his words. “Let’s just get it over with, alright?”
Sensing Aslan’s frustration, Daoud tried sounding conciliatory.
“Ok. No worries, I’m on it.”
Now wearing a biohazard suit, Aslan entered the quarantine field and moved closer to the stacks of crates hiding the body from view. He walked behind them and approached the cadaver now in his direct line of sight, before quickly coming to a complete halt.
“My God….what is this?”
‘Alim/’alima/ulama: Scholar (masculine)/(feminine)/(plural)
Majlis ul ‘ulama: Council of scholars
Usul al-fiqh: Branch of Islamic knowledge pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence
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