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FICTION FICTION

The cavernous docking bay was cold. The eighty men -- and three women -- shivering in grossly inadequate garb were standing on the metal deck in footwear that included neat military boots, cheap Red Cresent vinyl “sneakers” and not in a few cases, actual rags. Their other clothing was equally eclectic: remnants of national uniforms, Emirate Space Navy fatigues, Red Crescent cotton robes and, sadly enough, more rags.

Two men and one woman were well dressed in front.

Chaya Al-Hadin wore the full groundside uniform of a Guardian of the Emir. This included a parka with heavy gloves, comfortable trousers (normally taboo for a Muslim woman) with padded knees and many pockets, and lethal needler paired with less lethal electrowire projector. It did not include such useful items as a respirator or vacuum ball. She was professionally very unhappy. Her training had included cursory exposure to space operations and she knew how to wear a helmet and space suit -- more than some of the wretches shivering in front of her -- but she knew quite well that she did not know nearly enough. Violent death was as close as the nearest airlock - closer in event of attack or accident.

Petty Officer Samir K -- and she did not know his last name -- was dressed in an impeccable Emirate Space Navy undress uniform. He did wear a respirator mask at his belt, in regulation fashion, and his leather was polished. His face was implacable, as if carved from wood. Although it lacked expression, Chaya felt that he was regarding everything and everyone present -- including her and himself -- and doing so with profound disfavor too serious for casual blasphemy. He somehow managed not to see the teenaged Lieutenant standing next to him. Although his rank was Petty Officer, his actual position and duty was that of a Chief.

Lieutenant Pashar was wearing a dress Emirate Space Navy officer’s uniform that had clearly just come out of a pantographic cloth replicator. Among other details, his tie was loosely fastened to his collar, which was itself turned inside out, and his boots were laced more poorly than those of some children of Chaya’s former acquaintance. Even if he were not short and painfully young, he looked more like a child playing dress-up, perhaps for the Christian Day of the Dead, than anyone who deserved to wear the Emir’s eagle.

She looked again. Allah’s curse be turned away, the Eagle - pride of the Emir’s service - was actually UPSIDE DOWN on the young lordling’s collar!

Nonetheless, he stood with pride at the front of the formation. Clearly afraid but no less courageous for that, he regarded his men -- his people -- with what he thought was an expression of benign lordly concern.

Chaya’s eyes automatically sought out exits from the docking bay space. Several large ports that would open only to Eternity, two labeled EMERGENCY LIFEBOAT, three that led to other parts of the station. Beside all, emergency cabinets containing respirator masks and rescue balls -- the most very basic tools of space rescue. Some of the cabinets were breached and battered; more than one was merely empty.

Beyond one of the airlock doors was Chaya’s new home. Emirate Space Ship Broadsword, which itself had come out of the replicators a mere two weeks ago.

Chaya had personally shot the dockyard official who had signed off on the ship’s delivery as “worthy for space in all respects.” Traitor, thief, fool and dullard; all he had lacked was the courage to actually become an enemy spy. She suspected that part of her punishment for being hasty, informal as many such things are in the Emirate, was to be assigned as the Guardian liasion aboard.

“Atten-SHUN!” a female voice shouted. Chief Samir turned, hesitated for a fraction of a second, then bellowed “ATTENTION! STAND TALL. THAT MEANS YOU!” and followed with a brief, fervent torrent of Arabic. He then stiffened and turned to confront the apparation.

The female figure was a young woman - younger than Lieutenant Pashar! - dressed as a Christian but in the loose coveralls with fasteners at ankles and wrists typical of an Ayers Rock spacedweller, who wore a purple ribbon with the eagle of the Emirate displayed prominently on her chest. She wore an Islamic head scarf, poorly as it did not properly cover all of her scalp. She moved slowly, and Chaya realized with shock that she did so due to recent and serious injuries, braces partly concealed by the baggy clothing.

“AT EASE!” she shouted again, and Chief Samir repeated the command at once in both English and Arabic.

Into the small shocked silence, she spoke.

“I am First Lieutenant Amy Martinson of the Emirate Space Navy. Six weeks ago, I was Third Lieutenant Under Instruction Amy Martinson of the Ayer’s Rock Naval Militia. Five weeks ago, I piloted a heavily overloaded shuttlecraft into this star system, and broke my back during orbital re-entry.”

Chaya had seen her before, during rescue operations at the spaceport. The woman on the bridge of the lifeboat, who had given up her own suit to three babies, strapped herself into a chair, and punched the buttons that surrendered control of her craft to Emirate Space Navy, which for all she knew would use her people for target practice.

She stood tall and at attention. This woman was worthy of respect!

“By the authority of the Lustrious Emir... “ _Illustrious_ Emir, Chaya thought painfully to herself. “... I will now read myself in. From: Admiral Saiid, Admiral Commanding, Emirate Space Navy. To: First Lieutenant Martinson Amy. You are ordered and directed to proceed to Orbital Station Four, there to take command of ESS Broadsword and her assigned crew as her Commanding Officer. In no later than thirty days from the date of this order, to proceed in convoy on such operations as the Prince Commanding shall see fit to direct. For so doing this shall be your order and your Warrant for drawing upon personnel and supplies to man, equip and replenish your command. Fail not at your peril. Counter-signed by the MInister for Naval Operations.”

There was a shocked silence. Among the crew, someone began babbling and someone else quickly punched the babbler in the stomach, silencing him.

“All of you will now raise your right hand and repeat after me.” When it became clear that most of the crew did not speak English, Chief Samir translated in a booming voice that would have shaken the rafters, if wood were used on a space station.

“I take service in the Emirate Space Navy of my own free will. I agree to obey and follow the orders of the officers appointed above me. … I agree to the Articles of War. I understand that in free space disobedience of lawful orders carries the penalty of immediate death... ”

After each phrase, Samir repeated the oath in English, then in Arabic, then expounded briefly - and quite profanely, if one understood Arabic - until a ragged chorus of agreement came from the crew. Both Chaya and Lieutenant Pashar maintained a dignified silence during the taking of the oath.

The newly appointed First Lieutenant - called Captain by ancient naval courtesy - turned her gaze on Lieutenant Pashar as if she were a weapons system.

“Mr. Pashar. Do you accept appointment as my executive officer, to carry out my commands and to keep the ship in good order befitting the Emirate Space Navy?”

“Aye ayee, ma’am,” he squeaked out in English.

The Captain then turned her gaze to Chaya.

“Who are you?”

Chaya promptly stood at attention and saluted, as smoothly and respectfully as she knew how -- and the academy had given her high marks in Ceremonial. “Guardian Chaya Al-Hadin.”

A beat of silence. Captain Martinson’s brow furrowed. Chaya explained further, “Guardian. Of The Emir.” Still silence.

“My commanding officer is Colonel Hamid, formerly of Capitol Barracks, now assigned aboard ESS Jewel. I am assigned aboard ESS Broadsword as an Eye of the Emir. Captain Martinson.” She saluted again, with as much care and precision as she had saluted the first time.

The salute was not returned, so this time Chaya held the salute at her eyebrow as required by Guardian regulations.

“Guardian ... what does a Guardian of the Emir _do_?”

As well ask what fish breathe or birds do with wings. But it was a lawful question from a superior, although not her reporting superior, and she would answer it with the same precision she had always applied to surveillance, forced entry, triage and close combat.

“As the Eyes and Ears of the Emir, the Guardians protect the Emir’s people from any threat and perform any act that may be needful, that his other Servants cannot. Other survivors of Ayer’s Rock have asked the same question. My best answer to them was that on Ayers’ Rock I would be like an Agent of the Stationmaster’s Office, with power to bind and deliver and adjudicate. You are Captain of the Emirate Ship to which I am assigned, and your word to me is that of the Illustrious Emir Himself.”

With certain minor exceptions that need not be bandied about in public, Chaya added wryly to herself.

Slowly the Captain put a hand to her brow, and Chaya brought her salute down smoothly.

“Very well. Lieutenant, Chief Samir, Guardian … see me in my cabin in thirty minutes.”

“Chief, be so good as to translate please. Crew! As your captain, your lives are in my hand. The lives of all your loved ones are in the hands of the Emirate Space Navy. Your hands. The Arc and the Republic pose grave danger to this entire living world and all those people in this star system. To save them we must go to other star systems, other worlds, and hope to find a way. Do your duty, obey your officers and those appointed in authority over you, and pray to Allah or whatever other God you may believe in.

“But pray by work! Admiral Saiid said to me, ‘Your biggest foe is Inshallah.’”

Chief Samir stopped helplessly. He stepped close to the Captain and said very quietly, “Captain, I cannot translate that.” His face turned pale. He had just sworn on sentence of death that he would obey - yet death was a small matter compared to his immortal soul.

For her own part, Chaya was not quite so shocked to her core - but she could see how the words could easily incite to violence. She was already watching the crew, which appeared restless. She made note of those who spoke English and the varied expressions on their faces.

But when her new Captain said -- even quoting the Admiral Commanding -- that “The enemy was Allah,” it took every fiber of Chaya’s discipline not to immediately draw a weapon, to confront the deadly threat that would instantly present itself, to herself and to her charges.

“Praise Jesus!” was what the terrorists shouted when they opened fire on peaceful crowds with autoneedlers, or held up detonators and ran into crowds of children, to make their last act in this world one that would hurt as many families as possible. It was like that, a sound that carried atrocity and not just obscenity.

But through years of discipline and a solid education - not just training - Chaya could appreciate her new Captain’s point. Not a Muslim, she could see immediately to the root of the problems with the Emirate Space Navy and in a way, with the entire Emirate as a whole.

How her blasphemy would affect the crew, was the next problem. Chaya prepared herself to engage in riot control operations, discreetly loosening her shock-stick in its holster and tensing and relaxing the small muscles in her wrists and ankles.

The Captain stopped and looked at her new Chief, whose task it was to create discipline in her crew. Chaya wondered how she would meet this test.

“Say instead, ‘Admiral Saiid talked to me of fate. Only a fool trusts their fate to luck or whim.’”

The Chief translated and the Captain continued in this vein, avoiding further references to Allah or to the Will of Allah… Inshallah. The provably false but commonly held belief that if Allah willed a fate, it would occur -- and if Allah did not, no amount of merely moral effort would cause that fate to take place.

“God helps those who help themselves” was a Christian phrase that her Guardian ethics class had debated for days. The thought was nearly untranslatable.

But there were those in the crew who would hear and remember the blasphemy, if not resent the thought that their lives were theirs to live rather than being proper slaves of Allah.

For this and many other reasons, this was not going to be a pleasure cruise.

Meanwhile, Captain Martinson thought to herself as she walked away, "I agreed to captain a warship, not pilot for God-fearing missile bait."

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August 2017

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