Hassan decided he quite liked the quietness of Space-travel. All he could hear was the gentle humming of the Stardrive engine. He was the Pilot - and sole crew member - of the Cargo Shuttle Belial 5 and had settled into the routine well. So well, that although he was only twenty years of age and on only his third solo trading journey, he already felt like a Space veteran.
Dressed in the loose flowing garments that all the male inhabitants of Lam 3 wore, he stroked his full black beard with his right hand - a habit he had acquired from his scholarly father - and contemplated the infinity of space. But his quiet was broken by an audible alarm:
"Warning. Hostile ships on intercept. Weapons lock detected. Warning. Hostile ships on intercept. Weapons lock detected."
The Shuttle's sensor array showed three ships, closing fast. Already the Shuttle computer had begun to send, and repeat, the automatic greeting to approaching ships:
"This is Cargo Shuttle Belial 5 on route from Lam 3 to Eridani 2. Please acknowledge."
There was no response. Hassan moved to the control console to raise the defensive shields but the computer beat him - the 'Shields Active' display glowed red as his hand reached it.
Just then, the call to Zuhr prayer began. "Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar....." the Muezzin recited, the beautiful sound filling the Shuttle. It was an old recording, made on Earth almost a century ago in the city of Teheran and, for a moment, Hassan did not know what to do. Then, feeling a little uneasy, he switched it off. Mahgrib prayer was still several hours away, and he felt sure he could deal with this minor crises before then.
He was wrong. The hostile ships closed faster than he expected, and began an attack run. They fired, one after the other. Hassan switched to manual control, executed several evasive manoeuvres, and returned their fire. But his slow Shuttle, single StarCanon, and low-powered shields were no match for the ships. There were jolts as the shuttle sustained several hits, and his control console flickered briefly.
"Warning," the computer announced, somewhat unnecessarily Hassan thought, "Navigation, propulsion and weapons systems damaged. Incident report sent to Kufa Cargo Port on Lam 3."
There was nothing he could do except send a personal message to the attacking ships who were now so close he could see them against the background of stars. They were larger than he thought, but he could make out no markings or insignia.
"This is Hassan Zahr aboard Cargo Shuttle Belial 5. I am on a trading mission to Eridani 2 ....."
He got no further. One of the attacking vessels had quickly swopped over the Shuttle, and extended an enclosed gantry which suckered itself to the Shuttle's hull. The blast knocked Hassan over and, still dazed, he had no time to defend himself, as two heavily armed troopers with SpaceVizors covering their faces entered the Shuttle through the blast opening and dragged him back with them to their ship.
He was thrown into a dark and stuffy holding cell, and it took him a few moments to realize there was someone else in the cell with him.
"Hello?" he called out.
There was no reply, and no light at all for him to see by. So he sat where he was, leant up against the cold metallized material of the wall. After a few moments, he began to mentally prepare to say his Zuhr and Asr prayers. He had hardly begun his silent recitation when the sliding cell door opened, very fast, letting in a blinding light. Two troopers, dressed in grey military uniforms with SpaceVizors shielding their faces, dragged him to his feet.
He was taken to a small brightly lit cabin where two men, also in grey military uniforms, sat behind a console. Apart from the console, the cabin was bare.
"And you are?" one of the men asked him as he was made to stand between his two guards.
"Hassan Zahr, trader. On route to Eridani 2."
The two men stared at him. He judged the elder one to be in the middle years of his life, with the other one perhaps a decade younger. Clean-shaven, with their hair closely cropped in a military manner, both Officers showed no emotion.
"And you are from the planet Lam?" The younger of the two officers said.
"Yes. May I ask why you attacked my ship and - "
The Officer ignored the question. "Why were you carrying a shipment of weapons?"
"My cargo bays were empty," Hassan replied. "I was on route to collect - "
"I ask you again - why were you carrying the shipment of weapons we found aboard your vessel?"
"And I, by Allah, repeat my answer - my cargo bays were empty."
His questioner smiled, and it was not a kind smile. "Your word against ours."
"Have you no honour?"
This clearly annoyed the Officer, who repeated his question.
"I ask you once again - why were you carrying the shipment of weapons we found aboard your vessel?"
"You have no right to hold me here," Hassan said.
"We are the law here."
"And you are?"
"Shall we just say - " and the Officer smiled that smile again, "your
enemy. Or your friend, if you help us. We are very generous to our friends,
and very harsh with our enemies. Now - about the smuggling of these weapons.
A very serious crime - punishable by many years penal servitude, if I am
not mistaken. Of course, we can forget about the smuggling - turn a blind
eye as the saying goes - if you agree to assist us. We have had you under
surveillance for some time - since your last visit to Eridani.
"So you see, we know quite a lot about you and know you can assist us. You are a trader, and so am I. I buy and sell information. It is a seller's market at the moment, so whatever price you want, I shall consider it."
"I am an honest trader who trades only goods. Practical goods that you can see and touch. So I cannot help you."
"We shall see. I give you some time to reflect. And remember - there could be serious charges brought against you, and there is no law here but ours."
"You are wrong - there is the law of Allah, Who sees all and Who knows all."
Annoyed again, the Officer gestured to the guards. "Take him away!"
Back in the dark holding cell, Hassan was surprised when a voice said: "They will be back for you soon."
Suddenly, there was light. Hassan could see his fellow captive, who held a tiny sphere in the palm of his right hand which radiated a dim light in all directions. The man was young - perhaps the same age as Hassan himself - and dressed as Hassan had seen some rogue Earth traders dress on his last visit to Eridani 2: he wore a colourful bandana on his head, brown trousers, a brown collarless top and old Earth-style combat boots
"And you must be from Lam - judging by your clothes and beard. I'm Jorg Nansen. Space Pirate," the man said proudly.
"Hassan Zahr. Do you know whose those people are?"
" Some sort of elite unit. Out from Earth. Took me yesterday." He touched the left side of his face, which was badly bruised. "I've been hearing a lot of talk recently about a unit called EarthForce. Guess it's them."
"It is. And I don't plan to stay here," Hassan said. "How about you?"
"Yes, you. I could use your help."
"What for?" Jorg asked.
"There is no escape from here."
"I shall try, Insha Allah."
"Any weapons on you?"
"Not yet," Hassan said.
"What have you got, then?"
Jorg started to laugh, then thought better of it.
"What happened to your ship?" Hassan asked him.
"Same as yours, I guess. Shot up, boarded, then cast adrift."
"How many crew on this ship?"
"Regular intercept class like this - about seven or so. I guess."
"Could you pilot it?"
"Easy! You're not planning what I think you're planning, are you?"
"Probably." Hassan smiled. "We shall go when they come back."
"Just like that?"
"Yes. You can handle weapons, I assume."
"Any type; any make."
"Then - we must wait," Hassan said, and sat down on the floor facing the only entrance, and the only exit.
Jorg started to say something but Hassan interrupted. "We must wait in silence, and in darkness."
So they waited in the darkness of their cell, hearing only the faint humming of the ventilation system. It was a long wait - or seemed a long wait to Hassan and he was about to stretch and exercise his arms when the door opened. Fast though the door opened, Hassan was faster.
He leapt up in one graceful movement, his right foot connecting with the vizor of the trooper who stood a little way outside, a stun gun in his outstretched hand. The blow knocked the trooper back and against the wall and, stunned, he crumpled to the deck. Hassan had already landed from his flying kick, and turned toward the other trooper who just stood facing him, momentarily immobilized by the surprise and the swiftness of Hassan's attack. Before the trooper could react, Hassan lunged toward him. took hold of him and threw him to the deck, wresting the stungun from his hand as he did so.
"Here!" he said to Jorg, throwing him the gun. Then, taking the stungun from the other trooper, Hassan calmly checked its setting before ushering the dazed troopers into the cell while Jorg relieved them of their other weapons.
"Well," Jorg said, as he closed the cell door, "that's two down, and five or so to go. Which way now?"
"This way," Hassan replied confidently, pointing to his right, although he really had no idea which direction was best.
It was a good choice - from the EarthForce point of view. For they had not gone far when they encountered two more troopers one of whom managed to fire his weapon before Hassan rushed toward him, loudly shouting "Allahu Akbar!"
The shot missed, and the ensuing fight was soon over - although it was not much of a fight, just one startled trooper after another being knocked over by Hassan's swift and powerful kicks and then relieved of their weapons by Jorg, who now had so many he was finding them difficult to carry until Hassan came to his assistance and took one, a blast rifle with which he prodded the two fallen troopers, gesturing to them to get to their feet.
They did, and Hassan marched them in front of him as he and Jorg cautiously went from deck to deck until they reached the bulkhead door to the Bridge of the small intercept-class starship. Hassan pressed the control panel and, as the door fastly opened, he pushed the two troopers through. The two Officers and one trooper inside had no time to draw their weapons.
The two Officers were the ones who had questioned Hassan . "Please put your weapons down, very slowly," Hassan said politely, pointing the blast rifle at them.
They obeyed, and Hassan and Jorg ushered their captives out and along the narrow confining decks until they reached the holding cell.
"Please accept my apologies, " Hassan said to the elder of the two Officers. "You shall be released as soon as possible. When we arrive at our destination I shall arrange for a transport to take you back to Earth."
Hassan was surprised when the Officer nodded and saluted him, Earth-style,
with the closed right hand being placed over the heart in imitation of
the ancient Roman custom. The Officer then joined the other captives in
Back on the Bridge, Jorg settled down at the navigator's station. "Eridani, then ?" he asked Hassan.
"No. Lam 3. And as fast as this ship can go."
"Sure thing! They won't take kindly to this."
"The EarthForce guys. From what I've heard they're a tough bunch."
"No other life-signs aboard?"
Jorg checked his console. "No. All accounted for - us here, and our friends securely stowed away."
"Weapons and shields are all functional?"
"Far as I can tell. I guess we'll be defending ourselves?" Jorg asked with a huge grin.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" It was more of a statement than a question.
"Sure! It's not going to do my reputation any harm - seizing an EarthForce ship!"
Hassan moved to the tactical station where he could watch the sensors for approaching ships and activate the shields and weapons. "How long to Lam 3 at maximum velocity?"
Jorg entered some data into his console. "About five hours. In case
you're interested - we've just got a call from Earth
on a secure channel."
"Ignore all calls."
"Sure thing. Mind telling me where you learnt all that fancy fighting stuff?"
"I'll introduce you to the person who taught me if you're interested."
"Yep - that sort of stuff could be very useful."
"Now, if you will excuse me for a moment, I must do my Namaz. In which direction is Earth?"
Jorg briefly glanced at one of the tactical star charts on his display before saying, "That way," and pointing.
Hassan checked his own tactical console before facing the direction of prayer - the Kabba in the city of Makkah on planet Earth. He took from one of the pockets of his gallabiyya-type garment a small piece of Earth clay which he used to perform his Tayammum - the obligatory ritual purification before prayer where access to water is not possible or feasible. Then, from another pocket, he unwrapped his Turba, a piece of clay from Karbala in what was once the country of Iraq on Earth, on which he would rest his forehead during his prostrations, as had been the custom among his ancestors for nearly two thousand years.
Jorg watched in respectful silence as Hassan completed his rakahs, or units of prayer, bowing and prostrating himself as was the Islamic custom. This respectful silence was something new for Jorg - for it was his custom to make jokes, to not take things too seriously, and to scorn all religious beliefs. There was just something about Hassan - his sincerity perhaps or the fact they had just fought together, side-by-side - which made him sit at his console silently.
They past the remainder of the long journey mostly in silence, each
engaged in their own tasks - Hassan monitoring the sensor array for nearby
ships, inbound communications, anything suspicious or potentially
dangerous to them; Jorg monitoring his navigation console and the general
status of the ship from its Stardrive to its life-support. Only once did
they leave the Bridge - at Hassan's insistence and heavily armed- to check
on their captives, with Hassan giving them water and food, scavenged from
the ship's surprisingly small galley. And only once did they break their
communication silence, with Hassan sending a coded text message to the
Spacedock on Lam 3 stating briefly their estimated arrival and the fact
that they had EarthForce guests with them.
The approach to and landing in Lam Spacedock was routine, and Hassan was not surprised when he saw a large party of armed guards waiting by the airlock gantry. But he was surprised to see with them Malik Bahonar. Tall, and sturdy, with a black beard even bushier than Hassan's and wearing a black galabiyya, he looked more like an Arab chieftain from Earth than one of the most scholarly, powerful and influential men of the modern space colony of Lam. His black turban added to this impression, although it really served to distinguish him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
"Assalamu Alaikum," Hassan said in greeting to Malik as he and Jorg descended from the ship's landing platform, the guards rushing by them to board the ship.
"Alaikumu salaam", Malik replied, firmly shaking Hassan's hand. "How are you?"
"Welcome to Kufa," Malik said to Jorg, "You are most welcome here. We are most grateful for your help, Jorg Nansen."
Jorg was so surprised that the man knew his name that he shook hands with Malik in an awkward way.
Malik turned to Hassan "You must refresh yourselves, eat and rest. You will be my guest, of course."
Hassan did not know what to say except "Shukran!". Then, remembering his promise to the EarthForce Officer, he was explaining the situation to Malik when the Officer and the other captives were marched down the landing platform, flanked by armed guards.
"I gave him my word," Hassan said to Malik, somewhat concerned.
"Then we must keep it!" Malik replied before approaching the Officer. "As my brother Hassan promised, you will be returned to Earth, if that is what you wish, on the first available transport. I am forgetting my manners!" And he gestured with his hands. "I am Malik Bahonar."
The Officer saluted him. "Captain Henry Teal."
"I trust you will understand our precautions," Malik said, inclining
his head toward one of the armed guards. "You will be taken to a
holding area until a
ship is available to return you to Earth. Unless, of course, you wish to apply for temporary residence in which case you will be allocated accommodation
and will be free to wander around and observe our way of life."
"Thank you, sir. Your offer is appreciated. But I am duty bound to return, with my men."
"I understand. Now, you must excuse me."
Malik and Hassan - with Jorg a few paces behind - walked out of the
artificial light of the Spaceport into the bright, hot sun of Lam 3
and along the wide, clean but bustling street that connected the Spaceport with the great Mosque of Ali ibn Abu Talib with its many and high minarets.
Jorg found the dry heat oppressive, and he was sweating profusely after only a few minutes. But it did not take them long to reach the Mosque and he was
glad of the shade as they entered an archway that led to a courtyard where the sound of water fountains could be heard. The dwelling of Malik was simple and to Jorg's delight very cool.
"Please, do sit," Malik said to them, gesturing toward the plinths, strewn with cushions, which protruded from two of the walls and which were the only furnishings, apart from a solitary marble-like table and the one carved rock beside it which served as a chair. Malik excused himself, and went to fetch them some refreshments. He was not away long, returning with a tray containing drinking vessels full of cooled fruit juice and plates of sweet pastries.
For a few minutes, they drank, and ate, in silence - Jorg and Hassan perched on one of the plinths, with Malik seated at the table. Once, Jorg thought he saw a figure, swathed in black, by the arched doorway, and once he thought he faintly heard the sound of girlish laughter.
"So, " Malik said directly to Jorg, "what is it that you intend doing now?"
"Well, try and get back to Eridani."
"You have business there?"
Jorg smiled. "Yes. Just some trading."
"Not too bad. Could be better."
"Have you ever been to Earth, trading?"
"Would you be interested in going there again? Trading, of course."
"I might be. You probably know of - how shall I say ?- our traders guild on Eridani with our motto: If it can be traded for a profit, we will find it for you and trade it! No questions asked."
"Yes, I am familiar with the Space Pirates, as is everyone in these star-systems."
"Earth, you say?"
"Of course," Malik said, and smiled, "there is a risk, considering recent events."
"But the payment would naturally reflect the circumstances of the journey?"
"Then we understand each other," Jorg said.
"It would seem so."
"There is one small, very small problem. I hate to mention it, but - "
"You have no ship," Malik said.
"I have no ship."
"Such things can be arranged. There is some urgency about this matter."
"Let me guess. You want me to get there before our friends from EarthForce or whoever they are get back, right?"
"As you said, we understand each other."
"And the cargo? The trading goods? Or shall I guess?"
"Only my brother Hassan - and some small containers."
Hassan, in his surprise, almost fell off his plinth.
"Always assuming," Malik continued, turning to Hassan, "that you are willing to undertake such a journey on behalf of our people."
"Yes," Hassan replied, although he was not quite sure what he was agreeing to.
"Exactly what kind of payment are we talking here?" Jorg asked Malik.
"A ship - as the first part."
"What kind of ship?"
"You should see it for yourself, and then decide, " Malik said. "The arrangement would be a second and final payment when you and Hassan return here. I shall provide all the details you need."
"What kind of final payment and how much?" Jorg asked him.
"Shall we say kursums - and ten thousand?"
"Agreed - depending on the ship, of course."
"Quite so," Malik replied, stood up and shook hands with Jorg. "I shall meet you both at the Spaceport in one hour, Insha Allah. Now, if you will excuse me I have some arrangements to make. Assalamu Alaikum."
"Alaikumu salaam," Hassan responded, as both he and Jorg quickly stood up.
"Well, my friend," Jorg said, slapping Hassan on the back, "it seems
an adventure is about to begin!"
Hassan suggested they spent their hour by going to the Mosque of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, and Jorg was happy to go along to view what he then regarded as part of Lam's strange and, to him, almost alien culture. But he was surprised by the Mosque - and particularly by the large sign that was affixed to the door. It was in three languages, one of which Jorg guessed was Arabic, and the third - English - which he could read. The message read - Please leave your weapons here before entering the Mosque.
He looked beyond the ornate doors covered in calligraphy to see a long table underneath which, neatly placed, were several items of footwear. On the table lay an assortment of weapons: one stun gun, two deadly neural-net pistols and a small hand-held weapon of a type which Jorg had not seen before. Somewhat amazed, Jorg followed Hassan inside and then followed Hassan's example by removing his footwear. This was not simple, for although Jorg's combat boots were made of an advanced technological material they were done up the very-old fashioned way with laces. It took him several minutes to remove them.
Another door led to a small chamber with washing facilities and Jorg watched, slightly bemused, as Hassan completed his ritual ablution, or Wuzu. It did not take long. Inside, the vaulted windows of the large, high dome bathed the Mosque in a gentle light, revealing six men sitting in a semi-circle, the focus of which was an elderly, green-turbaned man whose white beard moved as he softly spoke to them in Arabic, his white robes in contrast to their dark modern military uniforms.
A scent reminiscent of musk pervaded the air, and Jorg sat down in a corner on the Persian-style carpet covering the whole of the floor as Hassan busied himself with his private prayers. It was peaceful, sitting there in the warm light, listening to the gentle beautiful sound of Arabic, and Jorg, unaware of the passing of time, found himself reluctant to leave when Hassan gestured that they should go.
"I would like to visit here again," he said as he stood with Hassan by the table of weapons, struggling to lace-up his boots.
"Insha Allah, we will."
Malik was waiting for them at the main entrance to the Spaceport and he led them along curiously quiet and empty walkways, past curiously quiet and empty docking bays to a small black ship with no markings.
Jorg recognized the class of ship immediately he saw it. "Stealth raider," he said more to himself than anyone in particular.
"Then you agree?" Malik asked him.
"Sure do! This is worth it's weight in kursums! Marvellous - a ship with acausal-drive!"
"You have been on one before, as I understand it."
Jorg was surprised. "You are very well informed."
Malik smiled. "There is one clause to our agreement."
"I knew there would be. As soon as I saw the ship I knew."
"You understand then?"
"Sure I do."
"If there is any chance of this ship being seized by Earth forces you must deactivate and destroy the acausal-drive."
"It's a deal."
"I have your word of honour on that?"
"You have my word," Jorg said. "Does the ship have a name?"
"I like the sound of that. I don't know what it means, but I like the sound of that."
Leaving Jorg to admire his new ship, Malik turned toward Hassan. "The other items to be delivered are aboard, and all the data you need is here, including ship activation codes." And he handed Hassan a small data-crystal.
By the time Malik and Hassan had said their brief farewells Jorg was already inside the ship, excitedly wandering around the flight deck. He was trying the activate the ship's main computer when Hassan joined him.
"Won't work without the codes in this," Hassan said, inserting the crystal into a small receptacle on the Captain's console.
"Authorization code accepted," the computer announced. "My identity is L9A."
"L9A" Hassan repeated.
"Voice pattern entered," L9A replied.
"Your turn, " Hassan said to Jorg.
"L9A" Jorg repeated.
"Voice pattern entered," L9A replied again. "Please enter deactivation code."
"Security feature, " Hassan said to Jorg. "L9A - deactivation code is regulus nine."
"Deactivation code logged. Please enter acausal-drive destruct sequence."
"Go ahead, " Hassan said, "it is your ship after all."
"L9A - acausal-drive destruct sequence is lupus lupus."
"Acausal-drive destruct sequence logged. Command sequence processed. Flight plan entered. Departure authorization obtained from Lam Spaceport."
"Shall we take the ship out?" Hassan asked Jorg.
"Sure! L9A - disengage spaceport locks."
"Locks disengaged," L9A responded.
"L9A - compute then execute on my mark normal departure with optimum orbit for acausal-drive start."
"L9A - mark!"
"Normal departure being executed."
"L9A ," Jorg asked, "detail weapons and status."
L9A proceeded to give the details. "Five StarCanons; full compliment of ship-seeking disrupters capable of acasual 6, plus Harratan clusters and deep-space self-replicating mines. All weapons fully functional and ready."
"Well, that might give EarthForce something to ponder on! You know what's going on?"
"According to this data," Hassan replied, reading from the console which was relying information from the data-crystal, "Earth is planning to invade Lam 3."
L9A interrupted. "Optimum orbit achieved. Ready for acausal-drive start."
"L9A - what is your highest acausal-drive iteration?"
"The acausal-drive on this vessel has a highest iteration factor of 11."
"L9A -on my mark engage acausal-drive iteration 10. Destination as pre-entered flight plan."
"L9A - mark!"
"Engaging acausal-drive iteration 10."
There was a slight shudder as the ship engaged its acausal-drive and then the planet below them disappeared from the view-screen to be replaced by stark blackness as they hurtled out of Lam's star-system into interstellar space at a velocity far in excess of that of light.
"You were saying, " Jorg said, "something about an invasion."
"They don't like us."
"I never did understand politics. Now trading - that's different. So what are we to do when we reach Earth?"
"We are to exchange our cargo for our return passengers."
"Let me guess - these passengers do not have permission to leave."
"True. But it's a little more complicated than that."
"I thought it might be."
"They are in a detention cell on an EarthForce base."
Jorg sighed. "I knew there would be a catch. There always is. Pardon me for asking but is this what you were doing when we first met?"
"In a way. I was going to collect some of our people on Eridani who would return to Lam and take this ship on the same mission to Earth. But EarthForce got to them first it seems."
"So it is up to us."
"I guess these people are important to you - to Lam."
"Certainly. One of them is an Ayatullah." Seeing Jorg's perplexed look, he added: "A man of great learning - what you would call one of our religious leaders. When they came to arrest him at his home, one of his sons tried to reason with them and they just killed him, there in front of his father."
Jorg could see that Hassan was angry, so he changed the subject. "This is a slightly different ship than the one I was on before."
"Latest model. Some improvements in weapons. More security features."
"So - how come you have been on one before?"
"Business, you know the kind of thing. Someone - how shall I say? - borrowed one of these beauties when it was docked on Eridani and asked me to sort of test fly it seeing how I've got a bit of a reputation. As a Pilot I mean. Anyways, I got paid and next I heard some of your guys had got it back. Just after I docked and just before it was due to be shipped to Earth."
"These ships are valuable."
"So I've heard. Earth wants one very bad. The reward they've offered for one is - well, outstanding."
"That' s why we are going. They are holding the Ayatullah for ransom. They want to exchange him for some of these ships."
"Maybe, just maybe, " Jorg said, "I'm missing something here. They want one of these ships, and we are taking one of these ships to Earth."
"Well, as you said, it will be an adventure."
The long journey was uneventful - until they were roused from the routine they had established by L9A's sound and voice alarm.
"Warning. Unidentified vessels detected entering sensor range. Warning. Unidentified vessels detected entering sensor range."
Jorg had fallen asleep in the comfortable Pilot's chair, but he was soon awake and scanning his console.
"Unidentified vessels, " L9A continued, "now confirmed as Intercept Class, EarthForce. Engaging defensive shields. Ashura within weapons range of EarthForce vessels in three Earth minutes, twenty-five Earth seconds, their flight time."
"They've detected us, " Jorg said. "They're altering course to intercept."
"I suggest," Hassan said, "we just ignore them?"
"Are you serious?"
Jorg started to say something, but L9A interrupted. "Ashura within weapons range of EarthForce vessels in nine Earth minutes, sixteen Earth seconds, their flight time."
Jorg smiled. "I see. They can detect us, but not intercept. Obvious really, given our velocity. So what now?"
"We expect a welcoming party when we reach Earth space in -" and he checked his console - "about thirty minutes, at this velocity."
Hassan was wrong. Less than two minutes later, L9A activated the alarm again.
"Warning. EarthForce ships detected in sensor range. Warning EarthForce ships detected in sensor range. Engaging defensive shields. Vessels now confirmed as eleven Intercept Class, three Class Two Troop Transports, fifteen Fighter Attack Class, Two Empire Destroyer Class and eight Heavy Cruiser Class. Ashura within weapons range of EarthForce vessels in two Earth minutes, eight Earth seconds, their flight time."
"By Allah!" Hassan shouted, "it seems we've flown straight into the whole EarthForce fleet! Can we get past them?"
"No chance, " Jorg replied, "they're spread out too much. Even at this velocity we would be in their weapons range." He re-checked the data on part of his console. "No - we'd just turn and be straight in their line of fire."
"Straight through, then."
"Only way - short of turning round. L9A - activate all weapons."
"All weapon systems already on-line, " L9A replied.
"Well, it was good, while it lasted," Jorg said, wryly smiling. "Better strap ourselves in, I suppose. And it was such a splendid ship."
"Message received, " L9A said, "from EarthForce vessel Vespasian. Displaying on screen."
The screen showed the imposing figure of an EarthForce General. "This is General Augustus Chang."
"L9A - terminate transmission," Jorg said.
"Transmission terminated," L9A replied.
"Well, do we have a plan?" Jorg asked Hassan.
"Increase velocity, straight toward them, firing all weapons."
"That's a plan?"
"You could show off some of your fancy flying."
"I thought you'd never ask. L9A - all navigation controls to manual."
"Warning, " L9A replied. "Manual navigation is not a recognized procedure at this velocity."
"L9A - override warning and set all navigation controls to manual."
"All navigation controls reset for manual control."
"L9A - disengage ship gravitational field."
"Warning, "L9A replied, " disengaging ship gravitational field is not a recognized procedure."
"L9A - override warning and disengage ship gravitational field."
"Ship gravitational field disengaged."
"Here we go then," Jorg said, tightening the straps on his seat harness.
His turn was sudden and fierce, and Hassan followed Jorg's example by tightening his own harness. Jorg executed another turn as they came within the weapons range of the EarthForce fleet. Cluster after cluster of disrupter shells were fired at them, and Hassan could see on the view screen the distant momentary flare of StarCanon after StarCanon being fired ship after ship after ship.
He himself laid a trial of self-replicating mines as Jorg weaved his way around and over and under EarthForce vessel after EarthForce vessel until Hassan felt sick from the sudden changes of direction and acceleration. Jorg would increase velocity, then suddenly decelerate until they were almost stopped, then turn and fastly accelerate again.
Hassan had not seen - nor heard of - anything like it, but he was soon too busy with targeting his weapons to notice anything else. He launched several ship-seeking disrupters, and saw his targets take swift evasive action as the disrupters locked onto them. The ships launched their counter measures, including disrupter-seeking-disrupters, and Hassan was not surprised when his console showed that two of his three disrupters had been destroyed. But the third evaded all counter measures and closed upon its target, a Destroyer Class ship.
Hassan felt no elation about the kill, and had to concentrate on his weapons console, and his own fight for survival, to remove from his mind the momentary image of part of a spaceship suddenly being ripped open and exposed to the stark deadly cold vacuum of deep Space. There would be a momentary pause, with perhaps a few bodies and living beings flushed into Space, before the immense explosion ripped the whole ship apart to leave nothing alive.
The explosion did not stop the EarthForce attack. Instead, the heavy ships ceased their firing to allow their Fighters and Interceptors to attack. Within moments the Ashura was engaged in a battle with all twenty-six EarthForce Fighters and Interceptors. The swarm of attacking ships was such that for a brief few seconds Hassan did not even have to aim his weapons. Wherever he fired, there seemed to be a target. He destroyed one, then two of the enemy ships which seemed to make them change their pattern of attack.
He was targeting a fastly closing Fighter when the Ashura shuddered, hit by enemy fire. The ship seemed to spiral out of control - but Hassan soon realized it was another of Jorg's tactics.
"Warning, " L9A announced, "vessel Ashura exceeding maximum acausal-drive capability. Acausal-drive iteration 11 will be attained in eleven seconds. Warning, vessel Ashura has exceeded maximum acausal-drive capability."
The attacking EarthForce vessels tried to follow, and several of them
fired salvo after salvo from their StarCanons, but to no effect.
They could match neither the velocity of the Ashura nor the flying skill
of Jorg and it was only a few seconds before Jorg levelled out his ship,
reduced the velocity to within design limits, and sped toward Earth at
a reasonably safe acausal-iteration 10 leaving behind a trial of EarthForce
Moments later they were within sensor range of one of the military Earth stations just outside the orbit of Pluto. Not that it mattered to them anymore as the military had already scrambled fighters to intercept them, and Jorg delayed his deceleration until the Ashura was well inside Jupiter's orbit. He still maintained manual control, with gravity disengaged.
"Warning, " L9A announced, "three vessels on intercept course. Weapons lock detected. Warning. Two additional vessels detected on intercept course. Weapons lock detected."
"Do you see what I see?" Hassan asked Jorg.
"Their attack pattern. Take a look on your console."
"Five ships - no, make that seven now. All closing fast."
"Warning," L9A announced, "hostile ships within weapons range in thirty-five seconds. Ashura defensive shields at maximum. Maintaining standard Stardrive iteration 2."
"Don't you see?" Hassan continued, "their attack pattern is purely two-dimensional. They're not thinking three-dimensionally."
"Got you! They're just blocking our way to Earth as if we're going straight there. Following the plane of planetary orbits."
"Well then, let's give them something to think about! L9A - engage acausal-drive iteration 3."
"Acausal-drive engaged, iteration 3."
Jorg took the Ashura up away from the plane of Jupiter's orbit at a speed the intercepting fighters could not match. He spiralled the ship several times, then accelerated toward the Sun, following a sinusoidal pattern. He had turned the Ashura around the sun and down away from the plane of Earth's orbit before the intercepting fighters had regrouped and begun the chase.
A few spiralling turns later, Jorg decelerated sharply and lurched the Ashura directly toward Earth.
"You got the landing co-ordinated," Jorg asked Hassan.
"Landing co-ordinates entered."
" Got them! Here we go. How long do you reckon we've got on the surface?"
"Well, as a rough estimate I'd say about two minutes."
"That much, hey? I just hope your people are ready down there."
"Insha Allah they will be."
"If not, we'll have to lift off immediately."
"If so, I shall have to stay behind."
"If that's what you want."
"Yes. They will need help with the supplies we've brought."
"Don't tell me - these supplies are weapons, right?"
Jorg concentrated on his console, one screen of which showed an image of the target landing area overlaid with the Ashura's approach vectors.
"Warning, " L9A announced, "current landing approach velocity exceeds safety level."
"Remind me to re-progamme this ship, " Jorg said. He increased the velocity a little, then levelled the Ashura out before steeply descending and beginning deceleration. "Any incoming?" he asked Hassan.
"Nothing detected. On my mark prepare to deploy cargo."
"On your mark."
Jorg released the cargo bay doors, and shut down the magnetic field restraining their cargo. It fell toward the desert sands below which they could see in the view screen, now only a few thousand Earth metres below them. Then, as the Ashura continued its swift descent, Jorg recognized the type of buildings they were nearing, bathed as they were in the early morning light from Earth's Sun.
"Nice landing site - middle of a military base," he said. They were so close now he could see the feverish activity below as the military prepared to repel the Ashura. The base was not large, and its oblong, watch-tower guarded perimeter enclosed only a dozen or so squat buildings in addition to the two long military barracks.
"Incoming!" Hassan said. "They've launched missiles. Counter-measures away."
The military base was isolated, on the edge of a desert, and Jorg was momentarily distracted as the screen on his console which showed the ground below showed the desert sands erupting. But it was only the hidden armed supporters of the imprisoned Ayatullah throwing off the camouflage which had concealed them and scrambling forth from their sand trenches to assault the military base.
Jorg could not hear them, but had he been able to do so he would have heard the resounding and fearsome cries of "Allahu Akbar!" as the warriors ran forward firing whatever weapons they possessed. Some had missiles, launched from shoulder balanced and ground based launchers, and Jorg saw several explosions inside the military base. He also saw warrior after warrior fall, cut down by military fire.
The landing site was some distance from where the main assault was taking place, and the Ashura had barely touched down before they were surrounded. But the rescue had been well-planned with intelligence gained over many weeks, and Hassan knew exactly where to target his weapons. Several fierce explosions followed.
"Two minutes, " Hassan said to Jorg as he threw off his harness and grabbed an assortment of weapons, including a curved-blade sword whose scabbard he slung over his back, warrior-style, ancient Earth. "If I'm not back - go!"
The sound of the air-lock venting was almost drowned out by the nearby explosions, and Hassan ran down the short landing ramp shooting at anything that moved. Nearby, buildings were on fire, but despite the smoke Hassan could see his objective, a small white building nestling between the two barracks.
He was strafed several times by incoming fire, but deftly zigzagged, evaded it, returned fire and was approaching the white building when a gaggle of men in military uniforms rushed from it. He was about to direct the fire of his two hand-held weapons toward them when he saw a black robed and bearded figure among them. They were hustling the Ayatollah away. Two turned their weapons on Hassan and he felt the grip of his left hand loosen although he felt no pain and did not bother to look at the wound the blast gun had caused. Then, in three swift bounds, he was among his enemy, right hand weapon re-holstered, sword-drawn. His first blow severed a head; his second sliced through an arm. The advanced weapons of his enemies were useless at such close quarters and they barely had time to turn and aim before a slicing, powerful sword thrust was upon them.
"Salaam Alaikum," he said in greeting to the Ayatullah as the last of his enemies toppled headless and blood-spurting to the ground. "We must go!"
The agility of the aged Ayatullah surprised Hassan and they ran back to the Ashura, reaching the air-lock just as strafing fire from military re-inforcements began. As soon as the air-lock was sealed, Jorg engaged acausal-drive.
He ignored L9A's warning and, although uncertain what would happen, blasted away from the ground. In an instant the Ashura had reached the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, its take-off causing a devastating blast wave which reduced the military base to ruins and threw both Hassan and the Ayatullah against the bulkheads.
"Warning, " L9A announced as they seared out away from the Earth. "Five hostile ships on intercept course, weapons lock detected."
As if they had anticipated his tactics, the Earth ships had positioned themselves in a three-dimensional formation and Hassan was barely in his seat at the weapons console when they began their attack run. He was about to begin deployment of Harratan clusters when Jorg fiercely decelerated, brought the Ashura to an almost dead stop then reversed course back into the Earth's atmosphere. There, he entered a standard if momentary orbit before launching the Ashura at acausal-drive iteration 3 straight toward the Sun, swerving away only moments before the Sun's gravity would have overpowered the ship. Then, at almost ninety degrees to the plane of Earth's orbit, he thrust the Ashura at its maximum iteration out from the Solar System.
Hassan's console showed no vessels following or in the near vicinity. For nearly half of an hour they both warily, and a little dazed, scanned their respective consoles as the Ashura hurtled them back toward Lam. Hassan was the first to break their silence.
"Just received a coded message from Lam," Hassan said. "Two of our ships will rendezvous with us in three solar hours at these co-ordinates." He fed them into his console. "They will escort us back to Lam. They report no Earth vessels between us and these co-ordinates. And, in case you're interested, they are heavy Battle Cruisers. It seems that Earth has declared war on Lam."
It was only then - and almost at the same time - that both Hassan and a Jorg looked around for the Ayatullah. He was lying on the deck of the bridge of the Ashura, unconscious as a result of his collision with the bulkhead during take-off. Re-engaging gravity, Hassan and Jorg carried him to the spare seat by the weapons console.
"I'm sure - Insha Allah - he will be alright," Hassan said, retrieving the emergency portable medical scanner. "All Life-signs are fine. Just a minor concussion."
It was a happy Jorg who returned to his Pilots chair. He would get his
fifteen thousand kursums after all.
Copyright 1999/1420 Muhammad Yusuf