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By Judith Proctor
Page 2 of 5

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.>


      "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."


      "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."



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Judith Proctor

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