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By Judith Proctor
Page 3 of 5

"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.


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Judith Proctor

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