The line was moving steadily forward. Not as quickly as they would like, but it did move. Zeinab and her youngest mother Adeena waited quietly. Rasha, Zeinab's thirteen-year-old half-sister, was running around nearby letting off some of her youthful energy. As they neared the front, Adeena called Rasha to her so all three could enter together. Some days it seemed that Rasha was the only one in the family who had any enthusiasm at all for life.
At the counter, Adeena placed her right hand on the palm-reader.
"Family of Dhakir Filali? Seven of you altogether?" the woman behind the counter confirmed. With the size of the queue outside there was no time for the usual polite pleasantries.
"Yes, that's us."
The woman turned to the row of small cupboards behind her and took out large packs of bottled water, rice and lentils together with a small packet of salt and spices. No meat this time of course. They'd had a little meat last time and nobody ever got meat twice in a row. "This has to last you all for three days. Come back for more then," the woman told them. It always puzzled Zeinab that the small cupboards were never empty, no matter how many people came for their rations.
Adeena thanked the assistant, and the three of them carried the supplies back to their hut. At least this camp had huts. Some of the refugee camps further south only had tents and the supplies there were much less reliable. Here the depot always had food in stock. Rice and lentils were boring, but they were much better than nothing at all.
Even further south was their house, but that must have been overrun by the aliens now. The family had joined the great flood of refugees northwards. They'd passed the ruins of Damascus – still too radioactive for safety – and were now in this camp east of Homs. So much they'd been forced to leave behind; they were still alive but all they had now were the essentials that they could carry with them.
Zeinab's four brothers had all been conscripted into the Arab Legion, even Waqqas, who hadn't reached sixteen yet. They knew Farhan was dead, they'd received the notice just before leaving home for the last time. There was no news of the other three. The family wrote to them regularly at the last addresses they knew, but hadn't had any replies. It was hard not knowing, but they kept writing anyway whenever they could. With all the chaos and confusion of the long retreat it would be difficult for her three surviving brothers to get their replies through.
Back at their hut, they dumped their loads in the kitchen area. No rooms in the hut, just sheets hanging from ropes to separate the different areas. Zeinab missed their old house, but there was no point in getting too nostalgic about it. She needed to survive here and now. She'd seen other refugees who couldn't let go of their former lives and had gone into a decline. They lost the will to live here and now, retreating instead into their memories of the past. She could see the attractions of the past, but that was not what she wanted. It was important to live here and now, no matter how bad the situation. They had food and shelter. The hut was small and crowded with seven of them, but it was better than those tents further south. Life could be worse.
"Where is father?" Zeinab asked Tahira, her oldest mother.
"Sayyid wanted to talk to him about something. They are discussing it in Sayyid's hut. Apparently whatever it is involves both families."
"Oh good! I hope he's asking daddy if he can marry me," Rasha exclaimed excitedly. She had a big crush on Sayyid, and was always pestering her father to arrange her marriage as soon as possible.
"We'll see," her mother said, smiling. Rasha's eagerness was one of the few amusements they had left. Without her, life in the hut would be very boring indeed. There was so little to do, mostly just waiting.
"Sub-Decurion Kavanagh, you have a video message from Tribune Nevin. Do you wish to accept it?"
Nick looked up from his work, both glad of the interruption and slightly apprehensive about what the Tribune wanted now. "Yes. Put it on, AI."
The tribune's face appeared on the office wall, "Sub-Decurion, this is just a quick update on the outcome of our negotiations with the Arabs. Thank you for your earlier input, it was very useful. We have agreed the main points, much as you forecast. All that is left now is for a few minor dhaal's to be dotted and some tee's to be crossed.
"They have agreed to the two-for-one figure you proposed. Reading between the lines, I suspect we started too low. They might even have agreed to three-for-one. The sensible people on their side have realised that we might be a long way from perfect, but we are a far better option for their people than the Sa'arm. Your rough estimates of numbers turned out to be low. They think that they can accommodate 20,000 new colonists on Escardis, so we've had to increase the shipping estimates accordingly. Privately, I think they are being over-optimistic, but that is not really my problem. The more people we can get off Earth the better, so we'll go with the higher numbers for now.
"The biggest sticking point was over our offering a place in the Confederacy to some of those they wanted to send to Escardis. We had to give up on that one. They agreed that we couldn't carry someone if the AIs said no – they had no choice there really – but they wouldn't let us cherry-pick their people after that. We might lose a few sponsors, but we will gain a great many concubines, together with a few sponsors among the people they send to us.
"They accepted your suggestions for the arrangements on board ship during the actual transfer to Escardis. They've agreed not to send any under-age wives, at least not officially. No doubt some husbands will try to sneak one through. The Arabs know that we will execute any who break our rules and have, reluctantly, agreed.
"Thanks again for your input. It was extremely useful."
The video ended, and Nick smiled. Getting a 'well done' from the boss was always good.
When Dhakir arrived home he had a big smile. Rasha immediately got overexcited and her mothers had to calm her down. When his three wives and three daughters were all gathered, he started.
"You know that I tried to get us all a place on board the Salah al-Din, but I was unsuccessful." They all nodded; this was well-known family history. A move to Escardis was far preferable to being refugees on Earth. They had tried, along with many others, but the family had not been selected for emigration.
"Sayyid tried as well, and was also disappointed. However he has a contact who has offered him another option. There is still a way to get some of us to Escardis."
"How?" Tahira, his senior wife, asked. "With the Sa'arm on Earth, the Salah al-Din will not return until after the aliens are totally defeated. And that is many years away."
"Those who leave will not be travelling on the Salah al-Din, but on a Confederacy ship."
That caused shocked gasps from the six women. The Confederacy! There were some terrible rumours about how badly the Confederacy treated women. Any woman unlucky enough to fall into their hands would be kept as a naked sex-slave, prey to the lusts of any Crusader who wished to abuse her. Maybe that was an exaggeration, but who wanted to take the risk? "We would never agree to that!" Tahira said.
"It won't be as bad as you think," Dhakir told them. "There will be five hundred of us Arabs on board their ship and only a few Confederacy crew. Two of you will be part of Sayyid's family for the journey. Once you arrive at Escardis you will be among believers again."
None of the women were convinced, but they stayed quiet for the moment. Tahira changed the subject. "How will we pay for the journey? We have so little money left."
"The payment is not in money, but in slaves." The women gasped again. "For every Arab colonist that the Confederacy carries to Escardis, they require two women to work for them in the Confederacy." He paused to let that sink in. "Sayyid has offered to marry either Zeinab or Maysam, and to take Rasha as a dependant..."
"But I want to marry him!" Rasha interrupted quickly.
"That would be my choice also, Rasha," her father assured her. "We all know how you feel. However, the Confederacy does not allow wives younger than fourteen. If you married Sayyid now, the Confederacy wouldn't take him to Escardis until after your next birthday. He does not want to delay his journey, and I was unable to persuade him to wait. You will go to Escardis as his child, not as his wife."
"No!" Rasha shouted. "If he adopts me he'll never be able to marry me because then I'll be his daughter!" She burst into tears and ran off to cry. Dhakir nodded to Adeena, who went to comfort her child.
He turned to his two older daughters, "Zeinab, Maysam. One of you will marry Sayyid and go to Escardis with Rasha and the rest of his family. The other will go to the Confederacy as part of our payment. That way both of you will be safely away from the aliens. Let me know tomorrow morning which of you will marry Sayyid; I promised to let him know then."
Zeinab looked at her sister. They would talk it over later between themselves. What a pity Rasha couldn't marry Sayyid, that would have made things so much simpler. The Confederacy rule was stupid! Zeinab was eighteen and Maysam a year younger, so the Confederacy rule didn't apply to them. No doubt that was why Sayyid would take one of them for his wife in their sister's place.
"What about the rest of our payment?" Tahira asked. "If Rasha and one of her sisters are going to Escardis then we need to find three more slaves."
"No, we only need one more to go to the Confederacy. In their eyes Rasha is a child, so she can travel at no cost. We only need to pay for whoever goes with her, either Zeinab or Maysam."
"Then who else will go, my husband?"
"I have decided to divorce Adeena and send her to the Confederacy. You and Israa will stay here with me, Tahira."
"Why are you divorcing her?" Tahira asked, shocked. "Has she offended you? She is a faithful wife and a good mother."
"You are right, Adeena is a good wife and she has not offended me at all. She will need to find herself another man in the Confederacy, so I will divorce her first to set her free."
"If you are divorcing her, then she could marry Sayyid, and your child would be born on Escardis, among the faithful, insha'Allah."
"You are wise, Tahira. That is exactly what I said to him, but Sayyid wants a virgin for his new wife, so I had to offer him one of my daughters instead. This is the best I can do to get them all away from the Sa'arm, two will go to Escardis with Sayyid and one will go to the Confederacy with Adeena."
"What about me or Israa?" Tahira asked. "You could divorce one of us instead..."
"No!" Israa exclaimed. "If I cannot be with Dhakir, then I don't want to live."
Dhakir smiled at his second wife. "Unfortunately, I cannot go myself. Sayyid said that they very rarely take men as payment. Tahira, you are too old for them I'm afraid. They need women who can bear more children." Tahira looked sad at that, but it was true. "Adeena is pregnant with my child and everyone says that the Confederacy infidels treat children well. My child will have more chance away from Earth and away from the Sa'arm. The infidels may be bad, but the aliens are far worse."
"But they are infidels. How can you be sure your child will grow up as a believer?"
"He will be with his mother, and there is nothing they can do to block the will of Allah. There are other Muslims in the Confederacy as well, those they take from the West." Dhakir had obviously made up his mind.
That night, after Rasha had finally cried herself to sleep, Zeinab and Maysam whispered together, not wishing to wake their younger sister. Neither of them wanted to disappoint Rasha by marrying Sayyid and neither of them wanted to go to the Confederacy as a slave. What a horrible choice for them. In the end it was what they disliked least that decided things; Maysam would, reluctantly, marry Sayyid and Zeinab would go to the Confederacy. Zeinab thought that Sayyid was too pious, and Maysam was the more religious of the two sisters. Maysam pointed out that Zeinab always did well in tests, and the Confederacy tested everyone who joined them. Both of them felt sorry for Rasha. She had really set her heart on marrying Sayyid, and it was only the stupid Confederacy rule that was stopping her. She was old enough to marry him either here or on Escardis, it was the journey in between that was the problem.
Zeinab woke the next morning with an idea. She explained it to Maysam and Rasha, who both quickly agreed. Dhakir thought it was good as well and went to talk to Sayyid about it. Maybe Rasha could get what she wanted after all, insha'Allah?
There were lots of tears as the bus was loading and families were being torn apart. Zeinab hugged her mothers Tahira and Israa and her sister Maysam. Even Rasha was sad today, though she managed a wan smile and a hug for her oldest sister, to thank her for her wonderful idea. Zeinab had already said goodbye to her father in the family's hut. The crowd around the bus was mostly women, not really a place for men. The Confederacy had made it clear that they wanted women in preference to men for their payment.
On the bus, Zeinab and Adeena held hands. Both were olive-skinned with black hair. Even before her current pregnancy, Adeena had thickened around her waist after her two earlier children, Waqqas and Rasha. Zeinab was still slim. Sometimes she thought she was too slim. There had been a reaction in the Arab world against the Western ideal of the slim woman. A more traditional fuller figure was coming back into fashion. Her figure didn't really matter much though. Her ugly teeth were enough to put any man off. She hid them behind a niqab whenever she was outside, but she knew that stories had spread.
Adeena sat in silent despair. She'd spent one last night with her husband and in the morning he had divorced her. In her head she knew he'd done the right thing to get her and their new child away from the aliens. Being divorced, she would not add adultery to the other sins the Confederacy would force on her. In her heart ... Her heart had three awful wounds, inflicted as Dhakir had said those terrible words three times. It felt like her heart would never heal. Whatever the Confederacy did to her would never be as bad as this. The fact that he had done it because he loved both her and their child only made it worse.
Holding hands was a comfort to the two women. They had both heard the horrible stories of what would happen to them. Some were obviously exaggerated, but even so there was probably a kernel of truth in them. The Confederacy was not Muslim, so their future life would be different. The only good part was that they would be away from Earth. Life on Earth was only going to get worse as the aliens advanced and war spread everywhere. There were no risk-free choices anywhere, except on Escardis. At least their sacrifice would help Maysam and Rasha be safe with Sayyid's family, insha'Allah.
The drive north along the highway was boring. Even when they turned off onto a smaller road, the brown countryside was no more exciting. Fifteen minutes from the main road the bus arrived at a fenced compound, a kind of military base with high wire fences and watchtowers. The single-storey buildings inside looked temporary, like larger versions of the huts in the camp. The bus drove through the gates and parked outside one of the low buildings. The driver told them all to wait and went inside. He returned shortly with a tall woman in an unfamiliar green uniform, not the khaki of the Arab Legion.
When the woman boarded the bus, Zeinab got a better look at her. She appeared Arab, and what could be seen of her hair under her green headscarf was black. The most obvious thing about her was that she was much taller than any other woman Zeinab had ever seen. Taller than almost all men. Didn't one of the wilder rumours she'd heard say that Confederacy soldiers were all giants?
"as-Salaamu 'alaykun. I am Private Barika al-Khoury of the Confederacy Marines," the tall soldier introduced herself. "Not long ago I was sitting where you are, wondering what was going to happen to me. I can tell you that things will change for you all, but the changes may not be as bad as you fear."
That surprised Zeinab, and she could tell that Adeena sitting next to her was surprised as well. This woman, Barika, had started on a bus like this! That was completely unexpected. There were possibilities here that she hadn't anticipated; this woman was a soldier – neither naked nor a slave.
At the front Barika was still speaking, "First I want to make sure you all know what is happening and what you are doing here. My apologies if you already know some of this, but it helps if everyone knows the basics.
"The Salah al-Din is on its way to Escardis, and is not likely to return for many many years. The Arab League has negotiated a deal with the Confederacy to carry more emigrants to Escardis to help the colony grow. Each colonist carried to Escardis costs the Arab League two people for Confederacy colonies. The next trip to Escardis will take five hundred people, and you women are some of the one thousand in payment." Adeena and Zeinab had already heard this from Dhakir so it was nothing new to them.
"What we will do next is to test you. As a result of that test one of three things will happen. Most of you, maybe all of you, we will accept as concubines, that is as slaves. Life for concubines is not as bad as the worst rumours say, but I can guarantee that it will be very different from the lives you have known.
"Second, if you do extremely well on our tests then we will take you as a sponsor. That is what happened to me, I'm a sponsor. Being a sponsor is rare because it is difficult for women to get a good enough score on the test.
"Third, we might reject you as unsuitable for the Confederacy..."
Zeinab and Adeena looked at each other in dismay. What would happen if the Confederacy rejected one or both of them?
" ... though we reject very few women," Barika continued, reassuringly.
Zeinab was not the only one who wanted to ask questions, but the tall Marine was not taking any.
"If you have questions they will have to wait. For now we need to get you all off the bus and tested. We have a lot of you to process today."
Inside the low building there were two corridors off the lobby, each with many small cubicles. All the staff were women, decently dressed in loose plain grey coveralls and hijabs. There was no sign of any Confederacy men at all, which helped the group of nervous women relax a little. One of the assistants showed Zeinab to a cubicle with a well-padded chair facing a large screen.
"You'll need to take off your niqab," the woman told her.
Zeinab did so, making sure to keep her mouth closed, and sat in the chair. A disembodied feminine voice started asking questions and she drifted off to sleep. She had some strange dreams. There was one about rescuing two babies from a burning house; the second baby was really difficult to find. The dreams faded and she woke up with a start.
"Thank you, Zeinab Filali. Your test is now complete," the voice told her. "Please return to the entrance hall."
"Have I been accepted?" she asked. She wasn't sure if she wanted to hear 'yes' or 'no'. Either path held problems in the future.
"You have scored 7.6 on your Capacity, Aptitude and Potential test and have been provisionally accepted for Confederacy service as a sponsor. Further details will be supplied in due course. Please return to the entrance hall now."
She thought her dismissal was rather abrupt, but when she saw the crowd of women waiting to take their test she realised why. Another bus-load or two had arrived while she was in the cubicle. How long had she been in there? Looking around for a familiar face, she didn't recognise anyone except Barika, who towered over everybody else. Where was Adeena? Had she been accepted or rejected?
One of the assistants approached her. "Zeinab Filali? Please follow me, sir." As the woman in grey led her away from the crowded lobby, Zeinab added another question to her list: why was she a 'sir'?
The silent assistant led her to a small lounge. There was an Arab woman in a black abaya sitting there. Zeinab asked, but the other woman didn't know anything either, so they both waited quietly. After about ten minutes Barika came in, leading a third woman. The tall Marine started talking before any of them could ask questions, "Congratulations to the three of you. You all scored 6.5 or more on the test and are eligible to join the Confederacy as a sponsor. You can refuse our offer and we will return you to your home. I can also tell you that we accepted everyone else on your buses as a concubine, so if you stay with us you won't be abandoning any friends or relatives you arrived with."
Zeinab sighed with relief; that was one less thing to worry about. They had accepted Adeena as well. Maybe the two of them could get together later? She knew so little about how life would be in the Confederacy. Still, it was obvious that being a sponsor would be better than being a concubine. They had made the correct decision picking Maysam to go to Escardis with Sayyid. Her sister had been right about Zeinab doing well on tests.
All three women accepted Barika's offer. For Zeinab there were too many potential complications if she refused. Would it prevent Maysam or Rasha reaching Escardis? She couldn't risk doing that to her sisters. Adeena had already been accepted, so she would be left alone in the Confederacy without Zeinab. Despite the huge uncertainty about her future, accepting the Confederacy's offer was the only realistic choice she could make. The Sa'arm made it foolish to stay on Earth when she had the chance to leave.
"Excellent," Barika told the three of them with a smile. "You have all made the right decision, insha'Allah. The Confederacy has a lot to offer you as sponsors." She paused, "The first thing to do is to get you to one of our bases in the moon. Follow me please."
The speed things were moving took Zeinab by surprise. She had expected a longer wait before leaving Earth. Her two companions looked equally surprised as the three of them followed the tall Marine. Obviously the Confederacy acted very quickly once it had decided on something.
"What of the others on my bus, are they on the moon?" Zeinab asked. She was worried about being separated from Adeena. If she was a sponsor, then maybe she would be able to own her step-mother as a slave. That should make things easier for Adeena, though it would be the opposite of their usual roles.
"Yes they are," Barika replied. "Once we have accepted someone we move her to the moon for medical treatment and training. If there is someone you know, then you will be able to see her there."
Zeinab smiled in relief. She noticed that one of the other two was smiling as well. She'd obviously had a friend on her bus.
The glowing green disc on the floor looked just like the ones she had seen on television, back when they still had a television. Barika's instructions were simple enough, "Walk forward and keep walking on the other side."
On the other side there was no view of the surface of the moon, just the inside of a large plain room. The only vaguely interesting thing was a control console with a woman in a blue uniform behind it. There was no time to sightsee, Barika came through the transporter and quickly led them down a corridor.
"Next stop is the Medical Section for your health check," she explained. "As part of that you will get an internal interface to a Confederacy Artificial Intelligence, an AI. The AI will answer any questions you have."
The Medical Section was like no hospital Zeinab had ever seen before, with two rows of metal tubes, one down each side of a large room. Women were moving around; most of them were wearing plain white uniforms and hijabs with a few in very short grey smocks. Maybe some sort of hospital gown? They were certainly completely unsuitable for wearing in public where men might be around to see. Even for a women's hospital like this they were much too short and showed far too much leg.
One of the nurses in white approached, "Come this way please, sir."
"Why are you calling me 'sir'?" Zeinab asked. At last, someone who might answer her questions. Barika was efficient but not good at supplying answers.
"You're a sponsor, sir, and us concubines have to call sponsors 'sir' unless we're told otherwise."
"You're a concubine then?"
"Yes, sir," she touched a metal collar around her neck. "Do you have any immediate medical problems that we might need to fix?"
Zeinab was embarrassed. "My teeth..."
Outside her home, Zeinab always wore a niqab to hide her mouth, a habit that had gained her an unjustified reputation for piety. She had been born with a hare-lip so her upper teeth were out of place and looked ugly. The surgeons had been able to repair her lip, but not her teeth. She wore her niqab to hide them.
"Yes, sir. We can fix that," the nurse said, looking into Zeinab's mouth. "It will take a couple of days and will ache a bit. We'll have to work on the bone in your upper jaw to get your teeth properly aligned. We can clean up the residual scarring on your upper lip as well."
"I'll look normal afterwards?"
She smiled. Something she didn't usually do without her niqab, since smiling too broadly showed her ugly teeth.
The nurse whispered something into her collar and the rest of the ward suddenly disappeared. Zeinab jumped, but the nurse reassured her, "The AI has just put up a modesty screen, sir. Please disrobe and get into the tube."
Zeinab fell asleep as the tube closed over her.
She woke as the lid of the tube opened and immediately felt the ache in her upper jaw. It wasn't too bad. She could live with it for a few days if it made her teeth look right. The nurse handed her a plain black coverall and her niqab. "You can keep the niqab for two days until your teeth have settled, sir. After that you'll have to wear a hijab."
"Don't I get a choice?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. In the Confederacy everyone, including sponsors, has to follow orders. Dress codes apply to us all."
Suddenly a disembodied female voice sounded in her head, «Sponsor Zeinab Filali, nurse Souza is correct. You have temporary permission to wear a niqab. After that you will revert to the standard uniform code, which only allows an optional hijab.»
Zeinab started in surprise. "Are you an Artificial Intelligence talking to me?"
«Yes I am. It is sufficient to sub-vocalise for me to understand you. There is no requirement to speak aloud.»
«Like this?» she tried.
«Correct. Now you should join Private al-Khoury in the canteen. I will guide you.»
She followed the AI's directions to the canteen, where Barika was waiting. "I suggest you get soup," she said. "Eating something too solid will hurt your teeth."
"How did you know about my teeth?" Zeinab wondered.
"The AI thought I needed to know why you're out of uniform, so it told me."
She went to get her soup from the replicators set in the wall. Seeing them close up, she realised that they were very like the small cupboards that had puzzled her back in the refugee camp. The AI confirmed her suspicions, «Where practical, replicators are used to help supply basic foodstuffs to refugees displaced by the fighting on Earth.» Here in the canteen there was a lot more on offer than just rice and lentils. She wasn't sure if the meat would be halal, so she ordered a cucumber soup. Anything without lentils in it; she'd had enough lentils to last her a lifetime.
The soup was very tasty, far better than Zeinab had expected. Whoever had prepared it was an excellent cook.
"What about Adeena?" Zeinab asked. "She was on the bus with me and isn't a sponsor."
Barika got a distant look in her eye. "At the moment she's in a training session for new concubines. The AI can send her to your apartment when the lecture finishes."
"That will be good. Thank you." Zeinab took another spoonful of her soup. "What happens to me next?"
"You get settled in your new apartment and can ask the AI a load of questions," Barika told her. "For the rest of today you're free. Your training starts tomorrow. The AI will let you know your timetable."
Zeinab's new apartment was huge, much bigger than the hut and almost as big as their old family home. The AI guided her around. As well as her own large bedroom, there were four smaller bedrooms for concubines, a small prayer room and a space for children, though as yet that was bare and undecorated. "I get four slaves?" she asked aloud.
"Yes," the AI replied. "You scored in the range 7.0 to 7.9 so you are allocated four concubines."
"Does one of them have to be a man?"
"Any number from zero to four of your concubines may be male. If you do not select a male, then there will be males available on a temporary basis to impregnate yourself and your female concubines."
Zeinab knew that Confederacy women had to have babies, so pregnancy was not unexpected. "How soon do we need to get pregnant?"
"All female concubines are expected to be pregnant within six months of joining the Confederacy. The timing for female sponsors may be altered by the requirements of military training or service."
Six months. Well, that gave her time to think about things. Obviously Adeena would be her first concubine, and she was already pregnant. She could take things more slowly with the other three. Maybe she should pick one man? A woman needed one man to rely on. Having many different men would be against Allah's will. One man and three women then. Counting Adeena, that meant two more women and a man to find. So many questions. For the moment she was too tired for more questions so she decided to relax before Adeena arrived.
She made the mistake of trying the TV first. As soon as she saw what many of the channels were showing she had the AI switch it off. Some of that stuff was so immoral! Did people actually do that sort of thing? And in front of a camera! She was beginning to realise just how different life in the Confederacy would be.
She decided that a book would be safer, and the AI provided an e-reader with a respectable author she already knew. The replicators here could produce much more than just a wider range of food. She settled down to read while she waited for Adeena. She hoped there wouldn't be any more shocks today.
When the apartment door slid open, Adeena looked momentarily surprised, "Zeinab! What are you doing here? Why are you wearing black? Where are the others?"
Zeinab staggered under the barrage of questions, and then staggered again as Adeena burst into tears and fell into her arms. "It's so horrible here!" she wailed.
Zeinab led Adeena to a settee and sat with her, holding her hands while she cried. She saw that her step-mother was wearing a collar, like the nurse, and one of those very short grey hospital gowns. When the other woman had settled, she asked, "Tell me about it. What has happened to you since we got off the bus?"
Adeena explained through her sniffles. At first things were the same as for Zeinab. She took the test, was accepted as a concubine and transported to the moon for her medical check. Then the differences started. Adeena wasn't given a black coverall, just her collar and short grey smock. After medical came lessons about all the nasty things that could happen to concubines if they didn't follow orders. There was even film of a concubine being executed for disobedience. After lunch in the canteen, they assigned her to an apartment with nine other newly arrived concubines. She'd had a short time to settle in before the afternoon lectures. Then the AI had told her to report here.
"How long did your test take?" Zeinab asked. From Adeena's description she had been on the moon longer than herself.
"I don't know. I slept through most of it. All I remember is a dream about rescuing a baby."
The AI's voice broke in to answer the question. "Adeena's test took seventeen minutes. Your test took two hours thirty-one minutes, Zeinab."
"Why the difference?" Zeinab asked.
"You are a sponsor, so we performed a complete test to obtain a full and accurate score. Adeena was not near either the score for sponsor or the score for rejection, so we only did a short preliminary estimate for her. We will call her back for a full test within the next three days. The shorter test allows us to process large groups of new people more expeditiously with the limited facilities at the reception site on Earth."
"You're a sponsor!" Adeena exclaimed. Zeinab nodded. "Can I be your concubine? Please? I really don't want to belong to some infidel man. Please. There's no telling what he might make me do. Please, Zeinab."
Zeinab smiled. "Yes of course I will." Adeena sighed with relief, and her tears started again. Tears of happiness this time.
"Sponsor Zeinab Filali, is it your intention to offer sponsorship to unattached concubine Adeena Filali?" the AI asked formally.
"Yes it is."
"Unattached concubine Adeena Filali, do you accept the offer of sponsorship from sponsor Zeinab Filali?"
"Yes. I accept."
"Adeena Filali is now the registered concubine of Zeinab Filali."
Adeena smiled through her happy tears and fell into Zeinab's arms again. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea how much that means."
When she had recovered a little, Adeena asked, "Can I get something proper to wear? This grey rag is horribly indecent and it's all I have now."
"AI, what are the rules?" Zeinab asked. The nurse in medical had talked about rules for clothing.
"All concubines must wear their collars at all times, except when sleeping or bathing. Inside your apartment your concubine must wear whatever you order. Outside, she must conform to the dress code for owned concubines. Currently that is a plain grey coverall with an optional hijab. Do you wish me to replicate one in Adeena's size now?"
"Yes please," Adeena interjected eagerly.
"Do you wish me to replicate one in Adeena's size now?" the AI repeated.
Adeena and Zeinab looked at each other puzzled.
"Why are you repeating the question?" Adeena asked.
"Do you wish me to replicate one in Adeena's size now?" the AI repeated.
Zeinab had a thought, "Are you repeating the question because I didn't reply?"
"Correct. You have not instructed me to respond to your concubine."
"I instruct you to respond to Adeena."
"Confirmed. Do you wish me to replicate one in Adeena's size now?" the AI asked for the fourth time.
"Yes please," Adeena said, uncertainly.
"The coverall is available at the replicator in the kitchen."
While Adeena rushed to the kitchen, Zeinab confirmed, "Is that what the women at the testing station on Earth were wearing?"
Adeena emerged with a bundle of cloth, and went to change in private. When she returned, decently clothed at last, she observed, "There are four small bedrooms there."
"Yes. I get four concubines. You and three others."
"Four!" Adeena exclaimed. "You know I said that there were ten of us sharing an apartment?" Zeinab nodded. "There was a really nice woman, Bushra, just a few years younger than me, with a ten-year-old daughter. It would be nice to have a child around the place. Just like Rasha."
Zeinab knew that she'd need more concubines, and if Adeena already liked this Bushra, that was a good sign. Having an older child would be nice as well. "AI, how do I go about finding more concubines?"
"It is strongly suggested that you wait. As part of tomorrow's training you will receive advice on selecting concubines. Also, we are unable to provide accurate estimates of compatibility because full testing has not yet been completed for all concubines."
"You let me pick Adeena."
"The two of you already knew each other. Hence an accurate compatibility estimate was not such a pressing requirement. I have moved full testing for unattached concubine Bushra al-Tuluni forward to an earlier slot. I will be able to provide a recommendation by mid-afternoon tomorrow. Will that be satisfactory?"
Zeinab nodded. She was about to speak her answer out loud when the AI said, "Confirmed." Obviously it could see as well as hear. Oh ... That might be embarrassing. Did the AI count as a man or a woman? It was using a woman's voice, but that probably didn't mean anything.
That night they both slept in Zeinab's bedroom. The bed was plenty big enough for two – it had obviously been sized for five – and a lot more comfortable than the pallets they'd been sleeping on in their hut. Both women needed a rest after their strange day. They held each other for comfort before drifting off to sleep.
Science Fiction /