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Amagon

By Judith Proctor

The mihrab had moved closer to the door - the ship must have made another course change. Hamid turned his prayer mat towards the holographic niche, to face the direction where Mecca had once been, and began the required sequence of prayers. After the hectic time of fighting, the ritual was soothing to his spirit. Allah had seen fit for humanity to triumph over the Andromedans, and in this, as in all other things, Hamid accepted the will of Allah.

      As he completed the first rakat, Hamid heard the sound of flowing water in the antechamber. That would doubtless be Refik washing his hands and feet. The others would follow in their turn. The Prophet (peace be on his name) had wisely decreed that in times of war, prayers might be delayed or said in relays, that the enemy might not gain an advantage over believers. Clearing his mind from distraction, Hamid recited some appropriate verses from the Qur'an. Recalling the prophet's victories seemed fitting today. Refik entered, and began his own act of worship, speaking quietly so as not to distract Hamid.

      Completing his prayers several minutes later, Hamid took his shoes from the rack beside the door and slipped them on. There was much work to be done. The weapon system was going to need a complete overhaul, and some of the damage to the secondary hull would need immediate attention, if they were to reduce the risk of a hull breach.

      Aiysha smiled at him as he walked onto the flight deck. "I've picked up a distress signal. We're heading towards it."

      That explained the course change.

      "Is it one of our people?"

      "No."

      "So, leave them."

      "Not today," his wife said gently. "We all fought together today. All creatures are God's children, and those dearest to God are the ones who treat his children kindly."

      Hamid knew from long experience that when she started quoting the Prophet at him, it was useless to argue. He looked over at the weapons console, hoping for support from his father, but the old man clearly agreed with Aiysha.

      "Inshallah." As God willed it.

      There was no point in being careless though. Hamid ran a series of checks on the scanners. The crippled ship appeared to be of non-Federation design. Tealian at a guess from the style of the engine housing. That meant that there was a decent chance of getting a salvage payment. Perhaps they'd get something out of this yet.

      Was it genuinely damaged? The radiation readings suggested that it was. At those levels, any survivors on board would be lucky to last long.

      "Increase speed to time distort eight."

      His brother Ibrahim nodded, and the background vibration of the engines changed in feel.

      "I'm picking up their signal more strongly now," Aiysha said.

      "Can you get visual?"

      Hamid watched as her slender fingers adjusted the controls. He had been fortunate indeed with Aiysha. She had married him as the same time as his sister Halide had married Musa from al-Muqaddim. A fair trade between ships. But Aiysha was highly skilled as well as intelligent and beautiful; she had brought much that was good into his life.

      There was a face coming up on the screen now: a man with curly hair, the face distorted, but firming into shape.

      

      

"I've got a reply!" Blake said to the man behind him, then started coughing as the smoke irritated his throat once more.

      The woman on the screen looked concerned. "This is al-Baqi, we will be able to dock with you within twenty minutes. Please advise what assistance you need."

      "Amagons!" Blake said in shock. "We can do without your sort of help."

      Radway pushed him to one side. "I don't know what your experience is with Amagons, but if we don't get help within a few hours, we'll all be dead. Unless you really think that we can get that radiation leak under control?"

      Blake shook his head silently. When his life capsule had been picked up by the Warrior, everything had been fine. He'd reported back to Liberator to confirm that he was safe, told Zen to give priority to picking the others up, and concentrated on trying to get some rest. The painkillers Cally had given him before he left Liberator were beginning to wear off, and his chest felt as though it were on fire. Then the alarm had gone off. Weakened in the battle, one of Warrior's burners had failed. When it blew, it had flooded half a dozen sections with radiation. They'd struggled as best they could. Hopped to the eyeballs on a fresh supply of painkillers, Blake had tried to help. With half the Warrior's engineers dead in the explosion, they'd needed all the help they could get. He hadn't been able to offer much though. Tealian ships used a lot of equipment that he wasn't familiar with. In the end, he'd volunteered to man the communications console - that at least that involved minimal movement of his injured ribs, and freed an able bodied man for other work.

      "Even if we get the radiation under control, there's been ruptures to the coolant system. There's a chance the other burner might go, and if that happens - " Blake didn't bother to finish the sentence. He felt so incredibly tired. After all the fighting and pain, was he to fall victim to Amagon bounty hunters?

      "Zen?" He tried his bracelet without much hope. It hadn't worked the last time he'd tried it. Either Liberator was out of range, or the radiation was interfering with the signal in some way.

      The woman's voice sounded from the screen again. "Have you any injured on board? What preparations should we make for medical treatment."

      Blake could feel himself fading out. It was as though the fact that help of a kind was finally on the way gave him permission to collapse. How much damage had he done to his chest while helping to seal off the damaged area of the ship? He forced himself to stay upright, but the ceiling started spinning slowly above him. Voices stopped making sense, and the world slowly faded out of focus.

      

      

"He'll come round in half an hour or so," Aiysha said. "Most of the others only have radiation poisoning, but this man was shot at close range. He should remain here for at least a week."

      Hamid wasn't too worried by that. "We'll put the rest off when we reach Meranol - that's within Tealian space. I want to talk to this one anyway."

      "Why? What's so special about him? He doesn't have any love for Amagons."

      "Neither will the rest, when they discover that we know how to make a claim under Tealian salvage laws." Hamid smiled. Helping the unbelievers was one thing, but it never hurt to make a profit at the same time. Maybe not with this man, though. Radway, Warrior's second in command, had said that the injured man was a freedom fighter, a rebel against the Federation. If that was the case, then he might be able to help... Hamid got to his feet. Right now, there was work to be done. Al-baqi was going to be badly overcrowded for the next few days. He would have to have words with the unbelievers to make sure that no trouble occurred. He knew from personal experience that they could be incredibly ill-mannered, especially where woman were concerned. Aiysha and Meryem were needed to tend the injured rebel, but he would advise the other women on board to keep to their quarters as much as possible, and to dress modestly if they were on duty. Thus, offence could be minimised.

      

      

The sound awoke Blake from his sleep, but he couldn't place it at all. Opening his eyes, he blinked a couple of times. He seemed to be in some kind of medical facility. Not as large or well equipped as Liberator's, but clean and neat. The pain in his chest had faded, and the bandages had been replaced. Cautiously, he sat up, evaluating how he felt. A little queasy perhaps, maybe a result of the radiation he'd been exposed to.

      The door opened quietly, to admit two women. Both were dressed in long tunics, butterfly bright embroidered with a complex web of small glass beads; under the tunics they wore baggy trousers, gathered at the ankle. In sharp contrast to the gaudy display of their dress, the women themselves seemed quiet and reserved, neither having the strength to look him in the eye. Long scarves passed over their heads to trail down the back of the shoulder, and one held the scarf partially over her face, almost as though she wished to hide from him.

      "You are awake," said the other; and hearing the voice, Blake recognised her as the woman from the viewscreen. She hadn't worn the scarf before.

      "Did everyone make it?" he asked. "Are they all safe?"

      She nodded. "There were many with radiation poisoning, but they will recover." She added gently, "How does your chest feel?"

      "Much better, thank you." He smiled into her eyes. "My name's Blake."

      She seemed to withdraw from him in some subtle way, no physical movement, but a distancing none the less. "I am called Aiysha, but please, don't look at me like that. It's not considered good manners in our culture - I find it disconcerting."

      "I'm sorry," he apologised, gazing into her eyes automatically, to show his sincerity. Then, realising, he clapped his hands over his face in exasperation and stared ruefully down at the bed. "Sorry again. Our customs are very different."

      The faintest of laughs told him that his apology had been understood.

      He heard a faint chime as she pressed an intercom switch.

      "Hamid? He's awake now."

      <I'll be right down.>

      "Hamid?"

      "My husband."

      "Am I allowed to look at him?" Blake asked warily.

      That slight laugh again, not mocking him, merely amused. "Of course. He is a man; I am a woman. You may look at me, but it would be rude for you to stare at me, as it would be immodest for me to look you in the eyes."

      "I'm glad about that," Blake muttered, removing his eyes from the far wall where they had been focused. Other people's customs were the devil to fathom, and frequently irrational to boot. "Is there a reason for these customs?"

      "We follow the rules given to us by Allah. We have done so for two and a half thousand years, and we follow them because they work. Divorce is almost unknown among the Amagons. Can your culture say as much?"

      Blake was silent. There wasn't really much you could say to someone who believed their laws to have been given by some ancient hero a couple of thousand years before the Federation. Besides, he didn't particularly want to offend her. The Amagons might be treating him well so far, but his bounty would be the same regardless of his state of health.

      His musing was broken as a man entered the room. Black skinned and curly haired, he was presumably Aiysha's husband. Aiysha was fair skinned, though. Blake had always thought of the Amagons as a racial group, but if these two were a representative sample, then they could be very mixed ethnically. There seemed to be a lot that he didn't know about them.

      "I see you've woken up?"

      That, thought Blake, was pretty obvious. "Yes, some noise woke me."

      "The call to prayer. It's broadcast throughout the ship."

      Blake looked at him in total incomprehension.

      Hamid snorted mildly. "Unbelievers!"

      "You're saying that you have a religion? I though the Federation had destroyed them all?" The idea was fascinating. People who really believed in a deity. Incredible! Admittedly, he had known a couple of outsiders who claimed to have a god - he'd even stood up for their right to worship it - but the whole idea was so ludicrous as to be almost laughable. Still, if he played along with them, he might be able to gain some valuable allies. "That's fascinating. Which god do you worship?"

      Aiysha looked shocked. "Ashaduan la ilaha illa Allah wa ashaduanna Muhammadan Rasool Allah."

      "What?"

      "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet."

      Monothiests then. He was going to have to watch his step. It would obviously be easy to upset them through ignorance, as his experience with Aiysha had already revealed.

      "You are the rebel known as Blake," Hamid stated.

      There didn't seem much point in denying it. "What are you going to do about it? The last Amagons I met wanted to collect the bounty on me."

      Hamid shrugged. "The last rebel I met tried to cheat me on a gun running deal. Rebels aren't all the same, neither are Amagons."

      "What makes you a group then?" Blake found himself curious. Amagons on the viscasts were inevitably cut-throat pirates dressed in long flowing robes. Assuming for the sake of argument that this was largely Federation propaganda, what defined the Amagons to themselves? "What makes you Amagons?"

      Hamid's fingers pulled thoughtfully at his short beard before he replied. "Our ancestors left Earth at the start of the New Calendar, when the Federation sought to destroy our religion. The seven ships fled, each bearing a fragment. I am directly descended from the captain of one of those ships."

      The Amagons obviously had some kind of shared mythology that bound them together. Seven was a number that cropped up all the time in the stories passed from Earth parents to their children: stories remembered in spite of Federation attempts to suppress anything that wasn't directly useful. These people probably had their own distorted legends of events from their own past, and assigned a religious significance to them. Blake became aware that his thoughts were rambling. He put legends determinedly to one side and got to the point.

      "What are you going to do with me?"

      Hamid's manner was intent. "The Federation stole something of great value from us. You have more experience of dealing with them than we do. We need your help to recover it."

      "And then I'm free to go?" Blake regretted the way that had come out. He hadn't meant to sound so suspicious - these people hadn't yet hurt him after all.

      "Then we will take you to the planet of your choice."

      It sounded a fair enough deal if they could be trusted to keep their word. Did he really have a choice in any case?

      "All right. I agree."

      

      

"So, what happened then? What did people say about Muhammad when he claimed he had messages from god?" Blake gestured with his hand, and nearly spilled the juice within the glass he was holding. The drink was essential, the food was hot and spicy, and the back of his throat was burning.

      "They didn't believe him at first," Aiysha replied. "His wife, Khadijah, was the first to accept the truth of Islam, followed by his cousin Ali."

      "And after that, everyone else just followed suit?" Blake felt rather sceptical about that.

      "Of course not." Hamid speared a small piece of meat. "Do you gain instant converts to your cause of freedom?"

      "No, but then the situation isn't an exact parallel. It's dangerous being a freedom fighter; people don't want to risk their lives or their families."

      Hamid and Ibrahim exchanged incredulous glances across the low table. Blake had the feeling that the only thing preventing them from both shouting at him was the fact that he was eating as their guest. He shifted his position uncomfortably, sitting on the floor wasn't exactly his forté. The Amagons seemed to have little in the way of furniture; rooms were multi-purpose, even bedding was stored in wall cupboards to free the space during the day. It made sense; al-Baqi didn't have the almost infinite power reserves of Liberator, and hyperdrive running was expensive. Cargo capacity took priority over spacious living quarters. It had taken him several days to work that out - there was so much that he didn't know about these people.

      "Okay, I'll admit my ignorance. Tell me why religion is dangerous?"

      An hour later, Blake knew more than he had ever wanted to know on the subject. His head was reeling with Muhammad's wars against pagans and those of other religions; of jihads, crusades and massacres of Muslims in later eras; and in recent times of Federation persecution. Some people, apparently, were as willing to fight and die for religious beliefs, as others were for freedom. He was beginning to understand, just a little, why the Federation hated the Amagons so. From what they said, their entire life was structured around their religion. How could factory shifts cope with five daily prayer calls? How could the legal system handle a people who insisted that their law was decreed by god? But most critical of all, was the idea that the first loyalty was not to the system, but to Allah. Ideas were the dangerous thing, and a people whose religion had emphasised war, not peace, from the very beginning, were doubly dangerous.

      "But how far does this apply to all Amagons?" he asked. "I've met members of your faith who were quite happy to work with the Federation. Twelve million credits can overcome a lot of scruples and Tarvin was happy enough to take it."

      "Money is money," Ibrahim replied succinctly. "Every time we trade, we have to work with unbelievers. Muhammad himself was a merchant, there is no shame in it."

      "Besides," Hamid added, "it has to be said that some are more devout than others. Tarvin, for example, is a drinker. He neglects to fast during Ramadan; he doesn't always check that what he's eating is halal; but I do not think he would miss prayers on a Friday. He accepts the law when dealing with other Amagons. He might do a one-off deal with the Federation, but he would never work with them permanently."

      Half of that was right over Blake's head. The more these people tried to explain things, the more confused he became. Ramadan, halal, Friday prayers? One thing was easily evident, these people seemed to have an incredible number of restrictions on their lives. He almost didn't like to ask why on Earth they put up with it, but curiosity won out.

      "It seems to me that there's an enormous list of things you aren't allowed to do. I can't help feeling that you're missing out on an awful lot."

      Aiysha's face was almost condescending. "Blake, it is you who are missing out. How can you live without knowing God? How can you bear the emptiness? What you see as restrictions, are fulfilments. Prayer and fasting bring us closer to Allah. To live as he desires us to live is a pleasure. His laws are not arbitrary, they give us a framework for a happy life."

      Are you happy? he was tempted to ask. But he knew the answer already. There was a serenity about Aiysha that bespoke of an inner contentment. She was not a fighter like Cally, nor an extrovert like Jenna. Aiysha was a mother, a part-time communications officer and medic, and apparently content to be so.

      

      

Conditions in the cargo hold were adequate, if a little cramped. When Blake made his way down there a few days later, Radway and several other members of Warrior's crew were swopping tall stories and playing cards while seated on top of containers marked with the logo of a major electronics firm.

      "Come on up," called a man whom he vaguely recognised as one of the engineers.

      Blake judged the effort needed to get on top of the two meter high container, considered the effect on his ribs, and declined.

      "No problem." The man placed a hand on the rim and casually jumped down. "We can play just as easily down here."

      "Why go up there at all?"

      Radway climbed down in a more sedate fashion. "Change of scenery. They don't like us wandering around the ship unless it's necessary."

      "Are they treating you all right?"

      "Oh, sure. They've provided us with extra bedding, installed a food processor, and we've got free access to toilet and washing facilities."

      "So, what do you make of them?"

      Blake was still trying to flesh out his own opinions. It wasn't just customs, it was the Amagons' whole way of life that was different. The food included many dishes he'd never come across before, their clothing was different, even their style of decoration was different. The cargo hold was bare-walled and harshly lit as cargo holds were the galaxy over, but some of the personal quarters that he had seen were breathtaking. Used to the austere cabins of Liberator, the riot of colour had caught him by surprise. Richly coloured carpets where bold geometric patterns held sway, small pieces of furniture with fine wooden inlay, and brightly patterned walls, all served to match the love of colour and jewellery that he had observed in the dress of the Amagons themselves. They made up for the lack of space by having every item of the highest quality. Their pride in what they produced, stated quite clearly that the vessel wasn't simply a cargo carrier, it was their home.

      Radway shrugged. "They're all right. The women avoid us mostly, but men aren't too bad. They're taking us to Meranol; we should get there in a few days."

      "Wimps," said a feminine voice from above.

      "Sorry?" Blake queried.

      A flash of thigh high boots and a short leather skirt, and a vision of well-endowed womanhood landed on the floor beside him. "The women are wimps. Wouldn't know what to do with a man if they found one in bed with them."

      Blake blushed as he found himself unavoidably staring down her cleavage. Crazy: three or four days among the Amagon women and their all-enveloping clothing, and he was over-reacting to an outfit that Jenna wouldn't have blinked an eyelid at wearing. And that he'd have enjoyed watching her wearing. Unaccountably embarrassed on Aiysha's behalf, he protested, "They have their ways, they seem happy enough with them."

      "Oh yes, arranged marriages between ships where they never get to meet their future husbands until the wedding; never allowed to wear anything that shows so much as a flash of an ankle; being ever so modest and discreet when they go on planet - always assuming they're allowed to leave the ship at all. I'm sure it's a wonderful life. Did you know that the men are allowed to have four wives each? Real equality of the sexes!"

      He'd heard the one about multiple wives before. Hamid and Ibrahim only had one wife though. What was truth and what was Federation propaganda? How much freedom did Aiysha really have. Was she just an indoctrinated slave falling prey to over two thousand years of superstition, or was she really in possession or a truth that he simply failed to comprehend? He inclined towards the former; the idea that god really existed was simply too implausible to be true.

      

      "Nasrudin's neighbour saw him crawling around on the ground outside his house."

      Blake paused on his way past the flight deck and listened. Aiysha seemed to have an endless stock of stories to tell to her daughter. At the moment, they were seated in front of the communications console, Fatima balanced on her mother's knee.

      "'Nasrudin,' the neighbour asked, 'what are you doing?'

      'I'm looking for my keys,' Nasrudin answered.

      The neighbour was a kindly man, so he got down on his hands and knees and helped Nasrudin search. After several minutes, though, they were still making no progress.

      'Nasrudin,' asked the neighbour, 'exactly where did you lose your keys?'

      'In that dark alleyway.'

      'But then why,' protested the neighbour, 'are you looking here?'

      'There's more light here.'"

      Fatima burst into delighted giggles, as Blake entered the flight deck. Hamid, over at the pilot's position, took an obvious quiet delight in his daughter's amusement. It struck Blake in passing that he'd never actually seen Aiysha on her own. Coincidence? Or culture again? He laid that particular question to one side and asked Aiysha, "Does she understand the point of the story?"

      "Not yet," Aiysha answered calmly. "But someday she will. In the meantime, she'll remember it because it amuses her."

      Her fingers darted over the keyboard as she spoke, calling up a selection of squiggles on the screen, which she pointed out to Fatima.

      "What's that? The story you were telling her?"

      "No. A surah from the Qur'an."

      That was their holy book, he'd already worked that one out. What he couldn't decide was why they kept it in an obsolete language.

      "Why don't you teach it to Fatima in Federation Standard? It's an incredible waste of effort for her to have to learn two languages."

      "Because it is the word of God. It was revealed in Arabic, and who are we to change it?" Aiysha's back was to him, but Blake could sense her smile. "Besides, it is beautiful."

      "To look at, you mean?"

      "No - to say. It's poetry, and how can you translate poetry?"

      She ran her finger along the words on the screen, running from left to right. As her finger moved, Aiysha spoke out loud. The words made no sense to Blake, but he had to admit, they were beautiful. There was a flow and a rhythm that carried him along as he listened.

      "I can see what you mean, but," he kept his voice light to rob the words of any offence, "don't think I'm about to convert to Islam."

      "No?" asked Fatima, with the tactless disappointment of youth.

      "No."

      

      

"This is the best map you were able to get?" Blake asked. The diagram on the table was woefully incomplete. He leaned over to look closer, aware as he did so that the action no longer made his chest hurt. The enforced rest and Aiysha's medical care, had worked wonders.

      "We don't have any contacts inside the building," Ibrahim said.

      Blake had got the entire crew and their relationships sorted out now. Ibrahim and Hamid were brothers. Yusuf was their father, and Ahmed was Yusuf's brother. Refik was Ahmed's son. Three of the men were married, and there were a fair number of children on board. The entire crew were actually one large extended family.

      Blake studied the plan of the base more closely. Federation bases tended to be be built to similar designs, it helped minimise construction costs. If the ones he'd studied with Orac were a reasonable guide, the main administration area would be - "Here," he said, jabbing a finger down hard. "If you think the base commander has it, that's where it will be."

      Whatever it was. The Amagons had been remarkably silent about what it was that they were supposed to be recovering.

      "How about guards?" Hamid asked.

      "If they follow typical practice, there'll be a couple of men on guard duty, and they'll be changed at six hour intervals. As far as the rest of the complex goes, there'll be occasional patrols, and possibly security robots. Mind you, if they are guarding something very valuable, there could be far more troops around."

      "No." Hamid shook his head. They don't know what they have. They won't post any extra guards.

      "Look," Blake protested. "If I'm coming with you on this raid, couldn't you at least tell me what I'm looking for?"

      "A carved wooden box, bound in silver."

      "What's inside it?"

      "Nothing that concerns you."

      Terrific. He was risking his neck, and he didn't even know what he was risking it for. "What about the security systems?" he asked.

      Hamid was stonefaced. "Aiysha believes that she can set up a false signal to fool the cameras."

      "She's coming with us then?"

      "Yes," Hamid said shortly. Blake gained the impression that a long argument had been held in his absence, and that Hamid had lost.

      The whole scheme was risky without a teleport, but they should stand a chance. If Aiysha could fool the cameras. If Hamid was right about the low security. If the men could all shoot straight. Too many ifs for Blake's liking. "And if anything goes wrong?"

      "There are others who will make the attempt if we die."

      That wasn't quite what Blake had meant...

      

      

      The wire showed stark against the night sky. From Blake's position on the ground, he could see two small moons, barely large enough to show a discernible crescent as they chased stardust across the sky. The hollow where he lay was bumpy; some kind of native vegetation was working its way into his socks, and his ankles itched horribly. Aiysha was still working on the fence. She'd been taking current measurements with a small probe for around ten minutes, and Blake was worried. Vila would have gone through through that same fence in under a minute, and no one would have been any the wiser.

      To Blake's right, Hamid stirred uncomfortably, the movement revealing his location in spite of his dark camouflage gear.

      "I should never have brought her," Hamid muttered.

      "You had to," replied Ibrahim's voice in a flat whisper from the left.

      "It's too dangerous."

      Blake felt compelled to intervene. "I thought she wanted to come."

      "She did. That still doesn't make it right."

      "I though this was important to you," Blake said, sarcasm tinging his voice. "Doesn't she have the right to fight for what she believes in too?"

      The expression on Hamid's face was impossible to read in the darkness. It might have been hate, or it might have been agreement. Blake couldn't tell.

      A darker shadow moved against the mesh of the fence and beckoned them to move forwards. Two circuit integrators now clung to the wire, passing between them whatever complex pattern the security systems maintained. Producing a pair of cutters from a pocket, Hamid knelt down to make his cuts. Will it work? Blake wanted to ask in sudden panic. But Hamid appeared to have no doubts in Aiysha's handiwork, and Blake kept his thoughts to himself. It wasn't so much that he doubted Aiysha, more that he was suddenly very conscious that he was going into a dangerous situation without Vila and Avon to back him up, without Jenna to have Liberator ready to move at a moment's notice, and without Cally alert on the teleport. Here, there was no instant escape or backup. The target might appear to be an simple one, but if anything went wrong, there would be no easy escape.

      Open ground lay between them and the building they sought to reach. No cover. No obvious detection systems. According to Orac, this type of small establishment tended to rely mainly on the perimeter defences, security robots, and cameras inside the building. There would be troops stationed here of course, but their main task would be to keep the local populace under control. Human patrols would probably be low key, this simply wasn't an important enough establishment to justify a heavy night shift. Which brought up the question once again of just exactly what it was that the Amagons sought here.

      No time to think about that. Just concentrate on the problem at hand. His hand-held detector could pick up no trace of the distinctive whine of a security robot. Either there were none, or else they were around the far side of the complex. The rough ends of the wire tugged at his clothing as he crawled through the gap after the others, then, with a brief gesture, he sprinted forward. Action felt good after the long wait. Briefly, the run was a pleasure in itself as adrenaline coursed through his system. There was an excitement in the hunt, in dealing a blow to his old enemy. He reached the wall and pressed himself against it, caution taking over. Fanatic these people might be, but they were still amateurs. He glanced behind him, checking on their position, but they seemed to have taken his warnings to heart. Exactly as he had instructed them, they were following his every move.

      The first door was surprisingly easy. Almost too easy. Bake unlocked it, using a trick Vila had taught him over a year ago, but he didn't open the door more than the merest fraction, peering through the slit to see inside. Yes, there it was, on the wall ahead. He waved his hand for Aiysha.

      "Camera." He mouthed the word silently.

      She nodded and brought up the jamming device. Fine-boned fingers moved rapidly as she adjusted the controls to create a brief spell of interference, hopefully just long enough for them to pass. Vila, she might not be, but she seemed to know what she was doing.

      Aiysha held up a hand, counting down the fingers to show when the jamming would take effect. As she reached the last one, Blake flung the door open and they all sprinted as a group for the corner beyond the camera, only Ibrahim pausing for an instant to close the door once more.

      

      

Blake flattened himself against the next wall. If he was right, the base commander's office was not far ahead. They hadn't met any people so far, it was even possible that at night the office was not guarded, but they couldn't afford to take any chances.

      He moved up to the next corner and took a quick peek at what lay beyond. Three doors, white painted, small metal name-plates their only decoration. No sign of any troops. Hamid moved up beside him and raised an interrogative eyebrow.

      "Cover me," Blake ordered quietly.

      He moved cautiously out. The first office belonged to a Lieutenant Gilmore, but the second was the one he wanted, Commander A.J. Smith. He tried the handle - locked of course. Now they would have to risk making some noise. The temptation was there to try picking the lock. Vila had shown him this type; Blake had even succeeded in opening one once, but it had taken him half an hour. They didn't have half an hour; there was bound to be a patrol around before then.

      Without having to be told, Hamid and Ibrahim took up positions at opposite ends of the corridor. Blake got out a small laser cutter from his jacket pocket and cut around the lock. The door wasn't particularly thick, three minutes work and he was in. He could only hope that the noise of the cutter hadn't been picked up.

      As the door opened, Aiysha pushed past him. She started rummaging frantically in drawers and cupboards. Blake looked about him for a safe; the idea of anything valuable being left in a drawer was ludicrous.

      Aiysha's shout of joy made him turn round with a start. She held a small wooden box in her hands, no more than ten centimetres wide, and was looking at its contents, an expression of utter rapture on her face. When Blake came towards her, she shut it with an audible snap.

      "We must go," she said.

      Two shots came staccato from the corridor.

      Hamid appeared in the doorway, glanced at Aiysha.

      "Move!"

      There was no benefit in stealth now. Blake ran as fast as he was able. Two bodies lying in the corridor testified to the fact that their presence had been totally unsuspected until now and to the accuracy of Ibrahim's shooting.

      Blake was mapping out the scenario as he ran. First, the door by which they had entered, next the perimeter fence, then the small atmospheric flyer belonging to al-Baqi, then the flight back to the ship. If they made it, it would be a small miracle. Running at a steady pace, he wished fervently for a teleport. Ignoring the cameras that had been bypassed with such care on the way in, Blake pursued Hamid, with Aiysha following close behind.

      Their luck ran out as they left the cover of the buildings: the open space between them and the perimeter fence was a natural killing ground. In retrospect, it was to take on the tone of a nightmare: the floodlights mercilessly illuminating the scene; the non-stop ringing of an alarm; the staccato sound of projectile weapons; and the sharp, crisp hiss of lasers. Hamid and Ibrahim lay down covering fire as Aiysha, clutching the box, ran frantically towards the gap in the fence. Ibrahim's gun fired a burst into the sky, as a shot in the chest flung him backwards like a rag doll. Aiysha, just ahead of him, cried out and collapsed to the ground, clutching her leg in agony. Blake stopped in mid stride and bent to pick her up.

      "No." Her voice was harsh, contorted by pain.

      "We can make it. Quick, put your arms around my neck."

      But she didn't. Aiysha held out the box to him. He stared at her for moment, understanding the message, but unwilling to accept it. Carrying her, he would be slowed down. To Aiysha, the contents of the box mattered more than her own life.

      "You must." Her eyes looked directly into his own.

      Reluctantly accepting Aiysha's right to make her own choice, Blake took the box from her hand and ran for his very life.

      

      

Hamid and Blake stared silently at one another across the table, the open box lying between them.

      "Was it worth it?" Blake asked bitterly. "Was a lump of worthless rock worth the deaths of your wife and your brother?"

      "Not worthless." Hamid picked up the fragment and touched it to his lips with reverence. "A part of the original temple to Allah, built by the father of mankind. Taken by my ancestors when they fled from Earth." His blue eyes pierced into Blake's. "This is one of the seven fragments of the Black Stone. There is nothing of greater value to my people."

      "More valuable than Aiysha? More valuable than Ibrahim?" Blake slammed his fist on the table. "You worship a rock and let people die for it!"

      Hamid sprang to his feet, leaning over the table, threatening. "I worship no God but Allah. I kiss the stone because the Prophet kissed it. It is a link with our past, a symbol of all that our faith means to us.

      "You claim you believe in freedom. What is freedom? Can you eat it? Can you touch it? And yet you would die for it. I tried to forbid Aiysha to come, and yet she insisted. You're the one who claimed she had the right to fight for what she believed in! Does that right only exist if you come out alive?" He seized the box, and strode out of the room, robes swirling about him.

      Blake rested against the table, head in hands, struggling against the fatigue and sorrow that threatened to overwhelm him. Fighting and death. Did it always have to come to that in the end? Was he as fanatic as Hamid? Aiysha had died for nothing. Had Gan and all the others died for nothing? Were all causes and beliefs just phantoms and shadows?

      

      

It should have been Hamid's watch, but everything was topsy-turvey. Hamid had taken the late night watch that would have been Ibrahim's, so Blake had volunteered to help out in the day. He stared at the console where he'd just checked the course hading, trying to imagine life on the distant stars displayed there and failing miserably. This time yesterday, Aiysha would have been sitting at the next console, telling stories to her daughter. What was the point of it all?

      As if on cue, a small, quiet figure appeared by his side: Fatima. Her eyes looked over-large, her face too pale. Silently, Blake gestured to his knee. He didn't know whether it was permitted or not, but he felt a closeness to Fatima; they both needed the comfort.

      They sat in silence for several minutes, Fatima's head buried in his chest, before she finally asked, "Why?" At least, it might have been 'why' - the sound was rather muffled.

      There was no easy answer.

      "Do you remember Nasrudin?" he asked eventually.

      A nod.

      "He looked for his keys in the light, because it was the easy choice, the safe choice. We all have choices like that in our lives. Your mother had a choice. She took the difficult path, but she found what she was looking for."

      Fatima didn't say anything, so Blake held her and stroked her hair. What were words? Did they carry any meaning? Did he believe in them himself?

      What was he looking for?

      

      

"Where do you want to go?"

      Blake put down the thick, sweet coffee he had been drinking. "I haven't decided." Three days after Aiysha's death, and he still hadn't made up his mind. If he had been able to make contact with Liberator it would have been simple. Avon would have taken him to Earth, and with Liberator's strength to back him, any attempt to destroy the weakened Earth government would have stood a chance. The Federation was weaker now than it had ever been, the remnants of the space fleet scattered to the four winds, but on his own, with no one to back him, he had as little hope as the proverbial snowflake in hell. He'd been looking at alternatives; the Amagons themselves suggested one option. If he needed to gather new followers, one way to do it was by bounty hunting like Tarvin. It would give him an excuse for openly seeking those wanted by the Federation, allow him to slowly find fellow rebels until they were ready and able to make a move. Somewhere on one of the frontier worlds, perhaps?

      Yet the Amagons also suggested another option if he was strong enough to take it. He could recall Aiysha's voice as she patiently tried to explain her religion to him. "Do you think it was easy for Muhammad? He was surrounded by those who worshipped pagan gods and who did not believe in Allah. They fought him, tried to destroy his followers, but Allah was with him, and he prevailed."

      Blake wasn't fool enough to think himself a holy man, but even so the legend had power to move him; could he return to Earth and take on the world by himself as Aiysha believed Muhammad had done?

      Did he still have enough faith in his own beliefs to face the world alone? The certainty that had carried him to Star One was wavering. Did he have the right to ask others to fight his fight beside him? Many many had died in the name of Islam. Had their deaths been in vain? Was the dream they had died for any more or less real than the dream of freedom?

      Blake saw again Aiysha's face as she held out the box she had been willing to die for. Her beliefs were not Blake's, but she had freely chosen to give all for her religion. The only way he could give meaning to her death was to accept the existence of faith, otherwise her sacrifice meant nothing. If something was truly worthwhile, then it was worth every risk, every trial. If a cause wasn't worth dying for, then it wasn't worth living for.

      Maybe, just maybe, Aiysha was right, and one man could beat the odds. If he couldn't believe in god, he could at least believe in Aiysha.

      Blake looked into Hamid's eyes.

      "I want to go to Earth."

      

      

      

      

      

      Footnote - According to Islamic tradition, the black stone in the Ka'bah in Mecca came down from heaven and was placed by Adam in the original Ka'bah. During the siege of Mecca in 683 AD it caught fire from flaming arrows and cracked into three parts. In 930 the Qarmartins raided Mecca and captured it. When it was returned in 951, it was in seven pieces. At the time of writing, it is still in seven fragments.

      


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