The Hajji

by Ray Lacina

 

Datastreams streaming are all the Hajji sees, a crawling itch all he feels. ’Tainment Net menus, talk show guest lists, scheduled documentaries and shockumentaries. RealNet, ShuraNet, CourtNet. His consciousness hangs delicately in the balance between the images.

CourtNet. That’s where he’ll be.

The Hajji’s finger caresses the control surfaces of his dataport. The datastream shifts its flow, winds through the broad course of available channels until bottlenecked by the CourtNet main menu. The Hajji’s fingers skitter awkwardly across the dataport’s pads, made clumsy by fleshfoam bandages.

A soft explosion of air, breath bursting from lips.

On the screen a man stands between the crescented arms of a Shura Council committee table. Grey beard a scrub-brush thrusting out from his chin, grey hair streaked with black hanging down below his ears. The Hajji remembers the paunch that had once filled out the man’s Warden uniform. Now the tunic hangs loose to his knees.

In his hands he clutches a datasheet. The flimsy plastic shakes as he squints down at it.

One of the Qadis speaks. “Warden Muwafaq. If you wish to make your statement, you must do it now. The Council has other matters to attend to.” The speaker scowls with furious importance from beneath his kufiyah. “Warden Muwafaq?”

“‘The Hackboys…’” Muwafaq mumbles, then stumbles to a halt. He’s lost his place. His thumbs move furiously along the edges of the sheet, scrolling through whatever he’s saved in the datasheet’s memory. “Here, here. I’m sorry.” His eyes flicker across the bored faces of the Council. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. ‘The Hackboys are always the last to go in, regardless of who’s playing the Game.’”

The Hajji shivers. Muwafaq reads on, his voice growing firmer as he warms to his subject, as if he’s begun to forget the audience to which he was presenting his speech.

The Hajji’s blue-plastic fingers slide off the dataport’s slick surface and he shivers again.

The Hackboys are always the last to go in, regardless of who’s playing the Game.

After the Thunderheads have rained hellfire down on Enemy defenses and the Goliath tanks have rolled over anything the airships have left standing; after the Bashers and Blasters have done what they could to clear out the opposition’s own heavy infantry, when what killing is left needs to be up-close-and-personal, then the Hackboys go in to clean things up in a very, very messy way.

The Guests love it and the Sprites heal and Misr Entertainment rakes in the dinars. Everyone’s happy.

But a delicate balance must be maintained, not only in the programming of the Sprites, but also in the consciences of the men and women who keep the Battlesport Park World running year after year, battle after battle.

The incident which the honorable members of the Shura Council have asked me to discuss in this deposition was a result of exactly the sort of imbalance which the Park worlds simply cannot bear.

When I was in service as a Warden on the Battlesport Park World, a theory I’d played around with for years was confirmed, and that confirmation led me to do the only thing a man of good conscience could do, confronted with the situation with which I was—

His Excellency is right, of course. I am here to narrate, not to preach. Please excuse me. On with the narration, then.

The incident with Hackboy Tickler occurred about almost a year to the day into my assignment to Battlesport. You smile, Sheikh Amjed—I understand. “Tickler.” The designers take great pleasure in naming their Game pieces. I seem to remember being amused the first time or two I heard the names. Tickler. Daisy. Zephyr. Very amusing.

Again, my apologies. The narration.

On the other Park Worlds, Wardens operate from the shadows, observing, intervening only when something goes wrong, injecting wayward Sprites with new programming, or pulling out Guests who’ve managed to go too far in their butchery, even by what passes for standards at Misr Entertainment.

On Battlesport, a Warden assumes a somewhat more active role. There the Sprites are in almost constant need of correction, the fixing of damaged bodies as well as of slipped programming. And the Guests are closer to slipping themselves, of forgetting the goals and rules of the Game and losing themselves in bloodshed and their power to command it.

So I was right there at the Player’s elbow, observing the Game from the safety of a grav-platform, when Tickler went berserk.

Muwafaq has clearly been straying from his written statement. Now his eyes begin to wander from his script, flickering up to the Council, back to the datasheet, then up again, skittering across the ghazis who line the walls. Now he speaks as often from memory as not.

You’ve all just been shown holos of Hackboys “in action.” Seven feet of angry muscle, beamers or plasma guns clutched in primary arms, the same way any ghazi marine would hold his weapon, and stabbing all around them with what the design specs call “sickle extensions.” Four spindly, frail-looking arms tipped with blades like ten-inch shark’s teeth, sprouting out from between the shoulder blades in exactly the same place Christian artists like to put angel’s wings.

Hackboys come close to Lurkers in their accuracy with a beamer, but Players don’t like to hold them back at beam weapon’s range from the fray. No, they like to see those “extensions” at work. When Hackboys go up against each other it’s… well, it’s a bloody sight. That day the Player committed Tickler’s squadron to the action before all of his opposition’s Goliath tanks had left the field. A tactical error, in most cases, and I was certain that the Player had erred. Rajpal was his name, I believe. A fleshy, sweaty, twitchy sort. Mumbled orders into his Command Phone, watched them played out with his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

“Thunderbird A Squadron pull back to hex C-231.” He spit when he spoke, I remember now. Squinted down at the grav-platform’s field display, pointing at hexes as he directed his forces as if the Sprites could see him. Map all spittle-specked.

The last of his Thunderbirds wheeled overhead and disappeared behind friendly lines. He’d lost most of his ’birds in an attempt to storm the Enemy’s Citadel at the beginning of play.

“Goliath E, F and Y forward center. Basher squadron C fall back to hex J-321, hold. Blaster T and I hold position. Umbrella fire.”

“Hackboy T squad forward.”

Well, now, that was unexpected. Tickler’s boys came up between two of Rajpal’s Goliath squads, the Blasters’ covering fire fanning out over them, keeping the opposition’s own Thunderbirds back. Those Hackboys were heading into the grinder. The other Player’s Goliaths were hunkered down behind a low range of hills, lobbing fire over the heads of dug-in Blasters and Bashers. Hackboys can hustle a good deal faster than the Goliaths, and so Tickler and his squad didn’t take long to get out ahead of the tanks.

The other Player saw it too. Hackboys are essential for mopping-up, and here my Player had committed his too early. The opposition forgot about the Goliaths still on the field, and started pouring fire on those Hackboys out in no-man’s land.

Rajpal spit out more commands, and my stomach knotted up inside me. I saw what he was up to. Horrible. Smart. Very, very smart. But billahi, it was cold. La howla wa la quwatta illa billahi.

The other Player pushed her Goliaths up and over the hills so they could get the whole squadron under their heavy guns. Meds swarmed up over the hills with them, like those little fish that flash in and out of a shark’s teeth. Most players keep their Meds slaved to their tanks. Sorry, let me explain that. Meds are Combat Spritetechs, Sprites programmed to repair other Sprites. When a Player “slaves” them to a unit, he doesn’t have to waste precious seconds—and the seconds are precious indeed in the thick of things—giving a Med group orders. Most players slave the Meds to their Goliaths, so the tank shields will give them some protection from enemy fire. Players are told not to target each other’s Meds, but nothing’s hardcoded into the units to keep them from doing it.

So the Meds came up with the Goliaths. Rajpal pulled his Hackboys back, just a little, just enough to draw the Enemy’s tanks forward. Then he gave the command for his own Goliaths to open up on them. The other Player forgot the Hackboys, concentrated her return fire on the Goliaths.

Then Rajpal sent the Hackboys forward, threw them at the Meds.

“Authu-billahi min aShaitan a-Rajeem.” The Warden’s eyes close for a few seconds. “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan, the Condemned One…”

“La howla wa la quwatah illa billahi” the Hajji murmurs. There is no power and no strength, except with Allah.

Muwafaq lifts his eyes from the datasheet and for the first time addresses the Council directly. The Hajji’s jaws clamp down around his held breath, and for a handful of heartbeats he actually forgets the maddening itch that swarms across his flesh.

A tremor has slipped back into the Warden’s voice. The Hajji suspects he’s begun to stray completely from his prepared deposition.

I will tell you something now that would have gotten me terminated from Misr—in the sense of losing my employment, nothing more sinister than that—had even a hint of such a belief emerged on one of the many psych evaluations they put me through before hiring me. The Sprites’ organic components, the flesh and blood that makes them so much fun to kill or to fornicate with, they aren’t the only biological component Misr’s built into them. The gutbox you all know about—all the Sprite’s vitals are sealed into it, and it’s heavily shielded. It’s next to impossible for anything a Guest might do to permanently kill a Sprite, because the Sprite itself—it’s mind, it’s heart—are beyond the reach of anything short of military-grade heavy guns, which are, of course, banned. When the body’s damaged enough, the Meds seal up the wounds and drag the Sprite back to the staging area, where Misr techs patch up or replace skeletal components, regrow flesh.

Well, most people think of the Sprite’s OS as sitting on some sort of computer, a super-sophisticated system that somehow comes close to artificial intelligence without violating Caliphate laws against A.I.s. That’s simply not the case. Sprites have brains, organic brains. Just like ours. Well, not quite like ours—for one thing, they’re nearly three times bigger, even when folded into the gutbox. Our engineering isn’t quite up to Allah’s.

Still, organic brains. So the question I’ve asked again and again, the question I ask you to consider today, before you decide what to do with me: if Sprites have brains like ours, might they not have souls like ours as well?

The Shura Council howls at that, and the Hajji smirks beneath his bandages. A particularly portly little man in the gold-trimmed brown robe of the Sheikhs of the Najd region of ancient Arabia leaps to his feet and begins pounding on the table. The black-clad mullah beside him puts a calming hand on his shoulder, and earns an elbow in the eye for his efforts. Warden Muwafaq had been right. The Muslim couldn’t put his trust in the Caliphate or the Ulemah, both corrupted by human frailty. Trust in God, trust in God.

Trust in God, but tie your camel. Had he heard the old proverb from Muwafaq? Unlikely. He’d had so little time to converse with the Warden. A Player, probably. Chances were he’d been the camel the Player had been talking about.

Muwafaq’s ghazi minders have thrust him back into his seat, and one of the burly marines whispers fiercely into his ear. Once the rotund little desert sheikh, his face red as a strangled beet, has been coaxed back into his seat, the mullah leans forward and calls to the ghazis. Whatever violence they might have been working themselves up to is reigned in by the mullah’s words, and the two step back from Muwafaq as one.

“Please continue, Warden.” The mullah seems about to say something more, and Muwafaq, after standing, hesitates before speaking. Is there sympathy in the mullah’s eyes, in the twist of his mouth? The mullah sits without speaking, and Muwafaq lifts his datasheet, thumbing the margins as he tries to find his place, mumbling all the time. “Meds… the Meds… ah… yes.”

Although he never again raises his eyes from the datasheet, it is clear he now speaks as often from memory as from his notes.

The Meds never stood a chance. Most didn’t even put up a fight. They could have, you know—and some did, some most certainly did. They aren’t hardcoded not to fight—it’s tricky to hardcode Sprites with much of anything. Organic brains, again. They had no weapons, but surgical lasers do cut flesh. But most of the Meds just stood there as the Hackboys took them to pieces.

This, I think, was the moment I failed. I had my datakey in my hand. I could have ended it. An instant’s pressure of my thumb would have shut those Sprites down, all of them. But that would have meant a full refund for Rajpal and the other player, an audit of the Game, a penalty for me if Misr decided the shutdown had been unnecessary.

So I let it go. I told myself that what Rajpal was doing was unconventional, but not actually against the rules. A new wrinkle to the Game. I can’t formulate a cogent excuse, even now. Really, all I could think of was standing, well, in a room more or less like this one, but facing down, not the distinguished members of the Shura Council, but Namar al-Misri and the Board of Misr Enterprises.

So the killing went on, Sprites with sickles and phase knives tearing through Sprites with leech-paws and sensor pads. Rajpal’s hands raced over the grid as he spit out his commands; as the other player pulled her Thunderheads away from protecting her Goliaths in order to try and save at least a few of the Meds, Rajpal slaved his own planes to his tanks, and sent them into the fray. Though the killing had a ways to go, the battle was all but over. I could see the other player’s grav platform coming forward, could almost see the scowl on her Warden’s face. Already, I was wondering if I should have shut the Game down. If I should still shut it down.

That’s when Tickler snapped.

That’s when he came to himself, the Hajji thinks. That’s when Tickler woke up. On the dataport, Muwafaq’s hands have dropped to his sides, the datasheet dangling forgotten from his right hand.

My eyes were on the other platform. Rajpal started growling—really growling, deep in his throat, and tugging at my sleeve. But all I could see was the other Player, on that other platform, staring down at the mess of flesh and blood and bone that had been her Med Corps, and her Warden—Delacroix, I think it was, Martin Delacroix—her Warden’s eyes were on me. “You did this.” Those were the words behind that look. You did this, Muwafaq; you should have stopped it, it’s your fault. You did this.

A clutch of Meds sheltered in the Hackboy’s shadow. The bolts from Tickler’s gun tore through the other Hackboys in Rajpal’s cadre, his sickles rose and fell, rose and fell, cutting into his teammates. And the other Hackboys didn’t defend themselves, not for the longest time; they just couldn’t seem to accept the fact that he’d turned on them. Their programming couldn’t cope with the possibility of treachery.

Yes, yes, I see the contradiction. The seeming contradiction. If the Sprites are sentient, how can I blame their programming for making them stand there while Tickler tore them apart? But many of you know the resolution of that contradiction—you’ve seen the molecular programming at work, and not only on Sprites, I’d bet.

A flurry of angry denials from the council. To think, the programming shots used on humans! In the House of Islam!

Before each Game, the Sprites are all shot up with a molding algorithm to reinforce preexisting inclinations, behaviors coded into them the way speed’s coded into a fine horse, or ferocity into a fighting hound. On the other Parkworlds Sprites are only injected when they show signs of slipping—of developing behaviors independent of their primary functions. The occasional goblin reciting poetry on Murkworld, or a sheikh showing signs of converting to Sikhism on Glory of the Ottomans might call for a Warden to drop in and set things right with a little shot. Things are somewhat more… fluid… intense… on Battlesport. Combat stress, the chaos of the battlefield, physical trauma—all contribute to an especially high rate of irregularities. So before every Game, we shoot them up. Keeps them on track.

I’m sure Tickler had gotten his dose. The system’s foolproof. Nearly foolproof. We tie our camels at Misr.

Tickler managed to carve himself a clearing. The other Hackboys were having trouble bringing their weapons to bear. The programming, again. In the heat of it, we don’t want a Player’s forces starting to attack each other. So Tickler’s fellows would fire off a few shots, then just stop, this stunned-ox expression on their faces. Fire. Stunned ox. Fire. Stunned ox.

A call came in from my agent at Misr hub. “Pull them out, you idiot.” He said something like that. Maybe he used something stronger than “idiot.”

Muwafaq is laughing softly to himself. How can he laugh?

I hit my datakey, and the Sprites shut down. I was trying to decide what to do next—how to get Tickler out of there, and what to do with him once I had—when it started raining ghazis. I… I didn’t know… that hadn’t happened before. Ever. I froze. Where had the marines come from? Well, I knew the answer to that. The Control Booth always has a few units on hand, to protect Misr interests from Ghul insurgents or Bedouin raiders. But they’d never dropped into a game before. Quite a sight. Solid black, all of them, in their dropsuits, light sliding slick everywhere as material designed to deflect the energies of beam weapons worked its magic on natural sunlight. Straps and buckles, and jutting out from the straps all manner of lethal-looking blades and barrels. Even the drinking tube sticking up from beneath their chins looked like it could be used to slaughter an enemy.

Not that it would be needed. Once their boots touched earth, the ghazis opened up with their bolt guns.

I expected Tickler to disintegrate into blood and bone, nothing left but his gutbox, his vital organs, his brain, his self, shielded, safe, but bodiless. But the ghazis didn’t fire on Tickler. On almost everything else in sight, but not on Tickler.

It was almost beautiful. Plasma bolts leave these truly extraordinary trails in their wake, and the bolts themselves are searingly lovely, prismatic, brilliant. Then the bolts hit home, and the Hackboys came apart, their gutboxes falling to the ground, still wrapped in the shredded remains of their mortal coils.

When the Hackboys were dead, the ghazis turned their attention to the Meds. The slaughter inflicted on them by Rajpal had been horrible, horrible. This was worse. And now, immobilized by my datakey, by me, they couldn’t manage even their earlier pathetic resistance. Their bodies, shattered, broken, their gutboxes dropping like… well, the image that’s always attached itself in my mind to the gutboxes is of eggs. The boxes are round-shouldered, almost oval. Bright yellow, not white—so they can be found after a battle—but still somewhat egg-like. An apt metaphor, I suppose. The egg holds a complete being, and all that’s needed to sustain it; the gutbox, the same, holding the Sprite’s mind and everything needed to sustain it. Its soul, perhaps. Maybe its soul, too.

They don’t like that one bit. Muwafaq had once, quickly, described his theories on the souls of Sprites to him, only hours before their last meeting. The Hajji still remembers the shock he’d felt when he first saw Muwafaq in a ghazi cell, couldn’t quite believe how much captivity had transformed Muwafaq. The way his clothes had hung from his skeletal frame, the way the white glare of the security lights in the cell made his flesh sallow, brought out the dark shadows under his eyes. This CourtNet Muwafaq actually looks much healthier. In the year it has taken him to work his way through the digestive tract of Caliphate justice, Muwafaq has healed. The Hajji has not. He itches everywhere, but especially between his shoulder blades, where he also aches. The itch lays over the ache like flowing lava coating the sides of an angry volcano.

Rajpal, I think, got it an instant before I did. He knew what the ghazis were up to, and had even extrapolated from that his own fate. The call came through to bring the grav platform back to the staging area, with very precise instructions about altitude and speed and an ominous hint at dire consequences if we came in too high, too low or too fast. We came in exactly as ordered. Ghazis ringed the roofpad, and we settled obediently in their midst.

The instant our driver lifted her hands from the controls, the marines were on us. Rajpal disappeared behind the armored bulk of two ghazis. He emitted a single, high-pitched squeal as they manhandled him off the platform. My Wardenship saved me that humiliation, at least. No one laid a hand on me. They just leveled their blunt, brutal rifles at me.

I was shuttled up to the Control Booth, held there for two weeks. I had no way of knowing what had happened to Tickler, but I assumed he’d been put down. For awhile, I felt reasonably certain I’d share that fate. The Booth space station is Misr property, but the corridors occupied by the ghazis have always functioned according to their codes. I now learned the full extent of ghazi autonomy. I was held in a room no bigger than the box I’m standing in now for weeks, seeing no one, hearing only the voice of my interrogator. Once, in the night, I thought I heard, or dreamt I heard, an argument outside my cell. Jerry Nguyen, my supervisor, and someone else. A guard? A noncom? I never learned. But Jerry fought hard for my release. Then left me alone.

But not alone. Not for long. One night I woke up, heart fluttering with adrenaline, not sure what had awakened me. Then the bulkhead beside my ear shuddered as the door of the cell next to mine slammed shut. There was a dull thump, someone dropping onto a bunk, bolted to the cell wall like mine. That night we didn’t speak. Groggy… I was half asleep, hadn’t been fed much… I decided it was Rajpal next door. Cause of all my problems. I banged my fist against the bulkhead a few times, then turned my back to it.

From the other side, three taps. Clank. Clank. Clank.

If I hadn’t been so exhausted, if I’d had a decent meal that day, I might have noticed the strangeness of that sound, the bell-deep ring of metal on metal.

A claxon sounds, like broad shoulders forcing their way into the cramped cabin of the Hajji’s ship. A bastardized escape capsule, transformed by a few cobbled-on components into a vehicle just barely capable of making it from the Pilgrim Embarkation Center just outside the Fold’s gravitational envelope into the Fold itself. A nearly 60/40 survival rate for Foldfall, and a slightly higher chance of the capsule being picked up by the Hajji’s party on the other side. For these services he’d paid a muallam nearly a million dinars. Dinars transferred from Muwafaq’s account to an account created for him by the Warden.

If the capsule hits the Fold at the wrong angle, slips past the streams of gravitational chaos which will race him Earthward, falls into the singularity at the Fold’s heart, the Hajji will never know it. That claxon warns of more than Foldfall. Within the hour, the capsule’s cryo-circuits will kick in and seal him in ice. Because Foldfall is only the first, and easiest stage in his Pilgrimage.

The Sol system is not conveniently located at the edge of the Fold. The discovery of the Fold, an anomaly, an impossibility, a singularity winding like a river through the galaxy, had made possible the vast human domain.

But it had also very nearly made Earth irrelevant. Shortly after the first few worlds had been colonized, New Khartoum had become the Caliphate’s capital, Hannerman’s World one of the greatest commercial centers of human space, and the three worlds of Misr Entertainment’s Parkworld System the place to go to escape the day-to-day grind. Had it not been for the Haramain, Mecca and Madina, the homeworld would have whimpered its way into obscurity. But the Pilgrims, the Hajjis, still found their way home.

And abandoned all they knew to do so. The journey down the Fold to the nearest point to Earth will be a heartbeat beyond instantaneous. From the Fold to Sol system, at least a hundred years.

Muwafaq would be dead by the time the capsule de-iced and freed the Hajji.

The Hajji watches the man with a sharp pang of sadness at the center of him. The Warden’s voice is softer now, as he comes to the heart of his story.

It wasn’t Rajpal in the next cell. I learned that soon enough. The next morning, I called his name. “Rajpal, you fat fool.” Nothing. I thought maybe I’d taken the wrong tone. “Rajpal. We’re in this together.” Nothing.

After the long slow round of another day, after lights out, that metal-on-metal clank, followed by a voice I’d never heard the like of. “When does the game begin?” it said, just that. But such desolation in those words… such emptiness. I knew. I knew they’d taken Tickler, not destroyed him. Why, I couldn’t imagine, not right then.

“What are they waiting for? Why are they holding us? When does the Game begin?”

Tickler thought I was another Hackboy. Thought we were waiting to be dropped into a Game. I hesitated—you won’t believe me, I’m sure—but I hesitated before I answered him. I’d spoken to Rajpal without such hesitation, and I think you have an idea how I felt about him. But this was a Sprite. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. We can all howl about the hypocrites around us, but each of us has one sitting on his own heart. All that time nurturing my belief in the fundamental humanity of the Sprites, and my first impulse in that cell was to ignore Tickler like you’d ignore the annoying buzz of a bad light tube, or an alarm going off in someone else’s room. Like he was an it, a machine making machine noises.

All I can say in my defense is that I stopped hesitating, pushed an answer out past my prejudices. “We’re not in the Game anymore, Tickler. The Game’s over.”

That’s how it began.

“How can the Game be over?”

“Something changed, Tickler. Don’t you remember? At the end of the last Game? Something happened.”

Of course he didn’t remember. The Wardens wouldn’t let him remember. Misr wouldn’t let him remember. But they wanted those memories for themselves, wanted to be able to rifle through the snapshots taken by his soul when everything went wrong. So they’d kept them all intact, filed away in a vault behind a door beneath a deep sea, all at the heart of him, his gutbox. The seat, according to Muwafaq, of his soul.

The ghazis had clearly brought someone from Misr, a Warden, in to work on Tickler. They’d injected a neat piece of programming, raised firewalls around only those memories attached to that last skirmish, to the slippage. Afraid of what he’d do with that memory, maybe, but more afraid of destroying it before they’d figured it all out. How they’d hoped to access it themselves, I’ve no idea. A Sprite isn’t a computer. You can’t plug in an extra output device and read its thoughts. Unless you know what you’re doing, unless you have access, a Sprite’s secrets might as well be sealed away in a vault, buried a mile underground.

But I was a Warden. What one Warden could hide, another had a fair chance of exposing to the light.

“Tickler, listen to me.”

The claxon’s call grows more strident. The Hajji has only a few moments before the capsule forces him into coldsleep. But he can’t tear his eyes from Muwafaq, the Warden’s story holding a skewed mirror up to his own memories.

“Inna lilahi…”

“Where are we? I’ve never been held here before.”

“Tickler—listen to me. Listen.”

“Yes?”

“Inna lilahi wa inna alayhi rajiun.”

Dead silence from Tickler. I wasn’t sure the purge code was still valid—they’re changed regularly, or at least they’re supposed to be. The codes are so rarely used… well, we’ve been known to let one ride for two, maybe three months.

Ever hear the sound of rain on a tin roof? My father owned a farm on Al-Khidr, a good sized one. It never rains on Al-Khidr for long, but it rains often, these short, sharp downpours. We had shelters built in every field, so if we were out when the rain hit, we could get out of it. The rain when it strikes tin—pat-a-pat-a-pat-pat—I can’t even do it fast enough. Explosive rattle, an explosive, cacophonous rattle.

That’s what it sounded like when the code hit, triggered a memory purge, bringing everything that had been buried to the surface. Four scythes shouldn’t have been able to produce that sound—like thousands of drops of rain, clattering. But they did. I can’t imagine what was going on in the other cell…

In his cell—the Hajji had exploded in his cell, images and words and thoughts and all bundled then bursting, memories rising up like angry, strange fish from the depths and so much, he felt so much, felt so much.

Fear… fury… rage… fear…

The Meds dying. Not right. He would never, under his own volition, have killed a Med. Deep coded, that. Soul-deep coded, don’t kill the Med. Don’t strike the platform. Don’t raise your weapon at Player or Warden. Don’t touch the Meds. Don’t kill the ones who don’t fight. He’d suddenly been filled with so much… so many feelings, visions, like shards of broken glass.

So much in me now. So much in me then. So much… so much…

“So much… so much… so much…” Again and again. I could barely make it out, with that terrible clattering. But Hackboys are grown with voice-box enhancements, have to be to be heard when they’re in the thick of things. So his words came through, through the sound of his scythes on the cell walls, through the walls.

And of course, it made sense to me then. I should have realized it immediately, should have seen the danger when Rajpal sent the Hackboys in. An ancient problem, from America’s Viet Nam to the Halverman Conflict in the early days of the Expansion. Human beings are raised with certain rules, taught right from wrong. Indiscriminate killing—always wrong. A man or woman is made into a soldier, trained, conditioned, taught the rules. And then all of that’s turned upside down out in the field. The mind confronted with something it can’t accept, refuses to believe possible. Psychotic break. Shell shock.

Tickler, faced with too great a horror, snapped. Something a computer, a robot, would not have done.

What I’d always suspected—that Sprites were no less human than you or I—was confirmed for me at that moment.

I knew what was coming for Tickler. Once Misr and the ghazis had what they wanted, he’d be wiped, his memory destroyed by a programming virus, or he’d be decommissioned. Executed.

And that’s why I did it. When Tickler settled down, I did it. I explained it all to him, how it would work, what he needed to do. He was there beside me for a week or so before I was taken away, shipped here. I received one good, solid beating from my keeper when they discovered what I’d done. Then I came here.

Ashadu an la ilaha illa Allah, wa ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasul-Allah. I witness that there is no god but the One God, and that Muhammad is His Messenger. That was it. His salvation. Muwafaq had recited it to him, along with the verse of the Qur’an that would save him from the ghazis: “Whoever takes the life of a Believer, his recompense is Hell.”

To make it all official, two witnesses needed to be present for his shahadah. Muwafaq arranged that. Insisted he could help the ghazis crack him.

They’d come into his cell, bolted him to the wall, spread his sickles out until his muscles felt like they’d pull apart and strapped them down. Then they brought Muwafaq in.

How much Muwafaq had changed. Thin, haggard, eyes shadowed. Broken. Broken.

The ghazis, two of them, stood behind Muwafaq. That made three witnesses. More then enough.

Muwafaq nodded. The Hajji belted out his testimony. There is no god but the One God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.

His passport to humanity. The thing that made him, like his captors, like the Wardens, like Namar al-Misri, like the Caliph himself, nothing more nor nothing less than a servant of God. His life became inviolate and—to his own surprise—he felt a loosening in his chest, in the guts of his gutbox. God had asked the question of Muhammad, “Have we not expanded for thee thy breast?” Yes, Tickler thought. Yes. His. And mine.

Yes. The heart crammed into his gutbox, pumping blood through the organs sealed there and out, with the aid of mechanical pumps, into the expendable flesh of his body, that lump of muscle and nerve, expanded.

The response of the ghazis had been immediate and brutal. But they hadn’t raised their hands against him. Not then. Muwafaq felt their blows, before they dragged him bleeding from the Hajji’s cell.

I hadn’t accounted for the ingeniousness of those who held us—Misr, which had run its games for nearly a century without the incessant promptings of chaos spinning them out of control; the ghazis and their keepers, who had managed to hold the Restored Caliphate together through King Halverman’s rebellion and first contact with the Ghul and the war that followed on the heels of that. I had guessed their reaction to Tickler’s entrance into Islam correctly. Muslims have killed Muslims since the time of Rasul-Allah, but the Caliph Munir Al-Britanni, Commander of the Faithful, Successor to the Prophet Muhammad, has been unwavering in his commitment to strengthening the Ummah, to protecting the lives of the Believers and of those under their protection. The powers Tickler and I had gotten so angry would likely, I know, eventually convince him to make an exception in Tickler’s case. But I hoped, could pray that he’d honor a shahadah in front of three witnesses—myself and my guards—and a third, silent but even more reliable witness—the camera which, I’m sure, recorded all that went on in our cells. If he didn’t, Tickler would at least have time, some time. And, in the end, that’s all we have in this life. Time to prepare for the next.

The solution to this dilemma which someone along the chain of command proposed was elegant, simple, effective. A poem, a song so beautiful it needs no accompaniment.

The powers that be know how to tie their camels.

They couldn’t kill Tickler. So they sent him on Hajj.

Yes, they did. But not right away. Before he could enter into ihram, put on the pilgrim’s uniform of two pieces of unadorned white cloth, equal to and no different from any of the Believers, before he could enter into ihram, he would need to be made more like the others. They explained it all to him, even brought in an Imam. Tickler needed to be fixed before he could become a Hajji.

After the Imam, the surgeon. They took his sickles first.

How he howled. A veteran Hackboy, he was told, had no need for anesthesia.

So they took his sickles. The stubs, two on either side of his spine, just where the Christian artists would have painted an angel’s wings, still itched.

Worse to come. La howla wa la quwata illa billahi. There was worse to come.

The Hackboy is shielded from harm by a second epidermis of sofsteel, grafted over their skin. The skin could stay—people had skin. He could have skin. The shieldskin had to go.

The flensing took days. How he howled. Now, even now, his skin crawled with a wormy itching that sometimes drove him into fresh fits of howling.

Can the members of this Council really tell me I was wrong? Tickler’s shahadah was accepted, and he will be admitted to the Sacred Precincts of Mecca, should he survive his journey. If he survives.

I saved a soul, didn’t I? Didn’t I?

The outrunners of the chaos of fields which weave eternally in and out of the Fold catches the signal from CourtNet and snaps it. The dataport goes dead. The claxon howls. From somewhere in the capsule’s hull come a series of thumps, a back-of-the-throat deep clattering, the opening of valves which will bring first the coolant, then the sealant.

A breathing tube snakes up from the console, and the Hajji swallows it.

He could very well survive the journey. He might just make it.

Labaik Allahuma labaik. The Pilgrim’s mantra, the words with which Abraham had answered the call of his Lord. I answer your call, oh Allah. I answer your call.

Muwafaq will be at least one hundred years dead before the Hajji awakes. At least. If the Hajji’s capsule isn’t discovered immediately, he might drift in the embarkation zone on the Earth-end of the Fold for decades. More, if he drifted out of the Zone before discovery. For centuries, then, a long age. Until the end of Creation, Yawm al-Qiyamat. Until the skies are folded up and the mountains cast down.

La baik Allahuma la baik.

On the day when the dead will rise at the trumpet’s sounding, will Muwafaq be there? Almost certainly.

Will Tickler? Only if Muwafaq had been right. Only if the Sprite has a soul.

The Hajji half-hears the beginnings of a hiss from a vent just behind his head. The itching swarms beneath his bandages, over every seeping inch of his body.

Will the coolant soothe the fire on his skin?

Labaik Allahuma, Labaik. Labaik Allahuma, labaik.

God save your servant. God make me your servant. God make me.

Labaik

 

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