Chapter 1: Uninvited Guests
The sensor tech observed the decaying hyperspace footprint of the newcomer. "That looks weird," he thought. "It certainly isn't one of ours and it isn't a Swarm drive either. What the hell is it?" He decided to ask for help, «AI, what is that?» Conversations with the AI were kept sub-vocal to avoid distracting cross-chatter in the scan section.
«It is an L'Chekt drive, Private.»
He'd seen that mentioned a few weeks ago; if only he could remember what it was about. There was definitely something about an L'Chekt drive somewhere. There was so much stuff to take in and most of it rubbish. He forgot almost all of it as soon as he'd read it. The AI would know, «Tell me more.»
«The new arrival is almost certainly the Salah al-Din, returning from the Arab League colony on Escardis. Orders are to notify the Officer of the Watch as soon as it arrives.»
He didn't need that last part. As soon as the AI had mentioned the Salah al-Din he'd reached for the call stud by his sensor station. That part of his instructions he did remember. Once Commander Katz arrived he could pass this one upstairs for someone else to handle.
Captain Rayyan al-Basri stood on the bridge of the Salah al-Din and glumly surveyed the view on the scanners. This was what he had feared he might see. Confederacy ships were visible, as expected, though they were near Saturn, which he had not anticipated. Those ships did not present a problem. While not exactly friends, the Confederacy were not enemies either. Judging by past experience they would observe, but not interfere. His problem was those other ships, the strange ships clustered near Earth. They were definitely not Confederacy. The only likely explanation was that the Swarm had arrived. The presence of the Swarm would also explain why the Confederacy fleet was so far away from Earth. That was not good, not good at all. Insha'Allah he and his ship would be able to make it back to Escardis; anything more than simple survival would be a bonus.
He told his Exec, "Call a meeting of the ship's senior officers in fifteen minutes. Keep scanning and let me know as soon as you see any reaction from either the Confederacy or the unknowns." What they were seeing now was more that an hour old, the light had been on its way even before they had arrived back in the solar system. There was still some time to wait before they would be able to see any reactions to their arrival. Similarly, they would have to wait for any response to the message to the Arab League on Earth, announcing their return. He wasn't even sure if the Arab League still existed; with the presumed Swarm fleet that close to Earth there would likely be fighting on the ground in some areas.
Their only real choice was between staying where they were or moving towards the Confederacy fleet. The Salah al-Din was defenceless, so there was no sense in trying to orbit Earth with the Swarm fleet nearby, that was just asking for trouble. Approaching the Confederacy fleet would allow them to gain more knowledge about the current situation. Things in the solar system had very obviously changed a great deal in the years since their last visit.
It took more time than Rayyan wanted, but eventually he managed to persuade everyone that they needed to approach the Confederacy fleet. It was essential for them to gather more information on the present situation. Due to the way the Confederacy had treated Moslems on Earth, there was still a great deal of mistrust among his officers. They did not want to have to rely on the infidels if they didn't absolutely have to. He had to spend the time convincing them that their need was absolute. He wanted them with him on this, not reluctantly following orders that they disagreed with. If he was to make correct decisions, then he needed accurate facts to base them on. Too many incorrect decisions might mean that none of them would ever see Escardis and their families ever again.
In space the Confederacy had never shown any overt aggression. Being treated with indifference was something they could put up with if they had to. It was better than anything they could expect from the Swarm.
Rayyan returned to the bridge after the meeting and ordered, "Helm, set course towards the Confederacy fleet at normal sub-light cruising speed. We will halt two light-seconds short of their nearest ship."
Shortly after they started moving the scan showed the Confederacy's first reaction. "Captain, three ships are leaving the Confederacy fleet and moving towards us. Two small ones, similar to the Corvette that shadowed us on previous occasions, and one larger ship. Not one of their largest, probably a Destroyer or a small Cruiser, sir."
"Maintain course and speed towards the Confederacy fleet," Rayyan ordered. "We will talk to them when the distance allows it." The Confederacy had to know who they were. Their sensors were far more advanced than anything he had on board. Even with his relatively primitive kit, he could tell the difference between the unknowns and his own ship.
There was no detectable reaction yet from the presumed Sa'arm fleet. They were further away, so the speed of light would not allow the scan to see their response for some time. Rayyan did not doubt that there would be a response; he would just have to contain his impatience, and his anxiety, until he could see it.
At last the waiting stopped. "Incoming message, sir. It is from the largest of the three approaching Confederacy ships," the communications rating announced. "It's in Arabic!"
"I'll take it in my ready room." Rayyan didn't want the entire bridge hearing this conversation. "Make sure you record everything."
"Of course, sir."
Once he was alone, Rayyan listened to what the Confederacy had to say, "This is Captain al-Tarhouni of the Confederacy Destroyer CSS Bactria. Please come in, Salah al-Din. Reply on this frequency. Over."
The message repeated after a five second pause; obviously a recording on a loop. Captain al-Tarhouni had a Libyan accent with something else mixed in, probably American. It was a good sign that there was at least one Arabic speaker on board the ships sent to meet them and he was also the Captain of the largest ship. It showed that the Confederacy was expecting them. No doubt the Confederacy trading station orbiting Escardis had told Earth of their departure twelve months ago.
Rayyan replied, "This is Captain al-Basri of the Salah al-Din. I am ready to talk. Over."
He didn't expect an immediate response of course. There was still enough distance between the two ships to impose an annoying delay due to the speed of light, and Captain al-Tarhouni would need time to get to a microphone. Rayyan decided to catch up with some paperwork while he waited.
To his relief, he was soon interrupted, "Captain al-Basri, this is Captain al-Tarhouni. I had expected to be talking to Captain al-Fulani. I hope that he is well and that nothing has happened to him? Over."
"Captain al-Tarhouni, I am pleased to say that he was perfectly well the last time I saw him on Escardis. We decided that more than one person needed experience of captaining the Salah al-Din, so I stepped up for this voyage. Over."
"Good, I am pleased to hear that he is well. I see that you are moving towards us. May I ask where you intend to station yourself?"
"We will halt at two light seconds distance from your fleet," Rayyan told him.
"Very good. I have orders to protect your vessel from the Sa'arm provided it stays close to our fleet. Two light seconds is fine for the moment, though in an emergency we may request that you move closer."
Rayyan wasn't going to commit himself to following Confederacy orders, even if they were politely phrased as a 'request'. Instead he avoided the subject altogether and asked a question of his own, "Those strange ships near Earth are the Sa'arm, then?"
"I'm afraid they are, Captain. You are lucky to have arrived during a lull in the fighting. Obviously, some parts of the system would not be safe for you. I assume you are still unarmed."
"Your assumption is correct, we have nothing beyond sidearms for the crew. How do you think that the Sa'arm will react to our arrival?"
"Swarm tactics generally follow set patterns," Captain al-Tarhouni explained. "Currently you are an unknown. They will probably start by investigating you to see if you are a danger to them. If they follow previous practice they will send three scout ships to scan you. I will allow those scouts close enough for them to do a long-range scan, but not closer."
"Could you not stop them scanning us?"
"I could, but it would not be worth it. When the Sa'arm meet an obstacle, they increase their forces and attack it again. They would only come back at us with a larger force and things would escalate from there. You are in minimal danger from their scouts. My ship specializes in anti-missile defence, so I will be able to intercept any attack in the unlikely event that they fire something at you. They use scouts for scouting, not for attacking."
"How do you think the Swarm will classify us?" Rayyan enquired.
"Since your ship is unarmed, they will likely see you as harmless. Their only interest would be to dismantle your ship for scrap and our Fleet can stop them doing that."
"Thank you for the warning, Captain al-Tarhouni. I will let my crew know to look out for their scouts. Can you tell me anything about the current state of relations between the Arab League and the Confederacy?"
"I'm afraid I cannot be a great deal of help there, Captain al-Basri. I do know that negotiations have been going on over the last year, ever since we got news of your ship's departure from Escardis. I imagine that your arrival will add a new degree of urgency to those talks. Beyond that, I'm afraid I am unable to help you. Your question relates to diplomacy, which happens at a level well above a mere ship's captain. I am sorry not to be able to help you more. Over."
"Thank you for your help and advice, Captain al-Tarhouni. It has been useful. Over and out."
Rayyan was glad of the warning about the Sa'arm scouts. The scan soon picked up three small ships as they left the enemy fleet and moved towards him. There were many anxious faces on the bridge as they approached. Rayyan himself was nervous; they were very vulnerable if the Swarm tried anything and the Confederacy decided that they were expendable.
He felt a sense of relief when the three Confederacy vessels interposed themselves, as Captain al-Tarhouni had said they would, to prevent the alien scouts approaching too close. His crew detected the predicted long-range scan and soon the trio of Sa'arm scouts returned to their fleet. He maintained a watch of course, but from then on the Swarm seemed to ignore him. Presumably his ship was 'harmless' after all.
His biggest concerns now were resupply and passengers. He couldn't approach Earth without protection, and Confederacy protection was only available close to their fleet. How would he be able to load any supplies or passengers if he had to stay this far from Earth? Without supplies, they would not survive the year-long journey back to Escardis. Without passengers, two years of effort would be completely wasted. The purpose of this return journey to Earth was to carry more people from Earth to Escardis, so unless he could load passengers he would not be able to carry out his mission. He would pass the problem to the Arab League and wait.
Tribune Leo Nevin's secretary announced his next visitor, "Sir, His Excellency Emir Ahmed Al-Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Exterior Minister of the Arab League."
The smiling Tribune greeted his guest at the door to his office, "as-Salaamu 'alaykum and welcome, your Excellency. Please enter."
"Wa 'alaykum as-salaam, Tribune," the Minister responded, "How are you? Are you well?"
"I'm very well Your Excellency, disgustingly healthy in fact. And yourself?"
"I also am well, though I do not have access to the, ahh ... facilities that the Confederacy provides."
"Good, good. May I offer you some coffee, Your Excellency?"
"Your hospitality is most generous, Tribune."
Soon they were both settled at the low table, savouring their small cups of hot Arab coffee, served with fresh dates. The social formalities having been completed, the Minister turned their conversation to business.
"Thank you, Tribune, for seeing me so promptly. As I'm sure you are aware, there is some urgency in our requests for assistance with the Salah al-Din."
"We are fully aware of the urgency, your Excellency, and we can already answer many of your requests. We will defend the Salah al-Din from the Sa'arm, provided it does not move too far from its current position near our fleet. We will refuel and resupply it for the journey back to Escardis. My people tell me that we still have to clarify some minor technical details, such as the type of connector you use on your Oxygen tanks. I am sure we can quickly resolve those issues at a lower level."
The Minister nodded. "I thank you for your offers of protection and of supplies for the return voyage. They will be a great help to us." He paused to emphasise his point, "You have, however, not mentioned the loading of passengers. I would stress that the return journey will be effectively useless if the ship has no passengers. That is not something we would wish to see."
"We would not wish to see that happen either, your Excellency, and we have some ideas to help you avoid that eventuality. In general, the humans of the Confederacy are in favour of as many human colonies in space as possible, and we include your colony on Escardis in that assessment. We can certainly find some passengers for you, so the return journey will not be entirely wasted. The potential passengers fall into two groups, those with CAP scores and those without. We will not have any problem sending you those who have CAP scores. The major issue is with any who do not yet have a CAP score."
"Indeed," the Minister agreed.
"Dealing with the easier group first, we see two sources of people with CAP scores. Firstly, those of your citizens on Earth who have already taken the test and secondly, those who we have extracted to the Moon and tested, but not yet transferred to one of our colonies. We will offer any of those people on the Moon the option of travelling on the Salah al-Din instead of shipping out to a Confederacy colony. What proportion of non-Muslims are you willing to accept, Your Excellency? We expect that a number of non-sponsor men would see life on Escardis, with four wives, as being preferable to anything we could offer them in the Diaspora."
The Minister was emphatic, "Non-Muslims would not be acceptable, Tribune. We will only accept Muslims for settlement on Escardis. Non-Muslims have many other colonies to choose from."
Tribune Nevin nodded; this was the answer he had anticipated. "Very well, we will only allow Muslims to volunteer. My people will let you know the volunteers' details. I expect that there will be a higher proportion of men than you would want, with your preferred ratio of four women to one man. You will of course be able to refuse passage to those you do not wish to carry."
"I await your list, Tribune. We will indeed want to select only those who would be suitable for life on Escardis."
"Similarly, my staff will need a list of the names and details of those people who you wish us to transfer from Earth. For the moment, just those who already have CAP scores. You will need to assemble them at agreed sites on Earth. We will transport them to the Moon, combine them with the selected volunteers and ship them all to the Salah al-Din.
"That can easily be arranged, Tribune," the Minister confirmed. "I'll start my assistants working on it today."
"We do have a bigger problem with any untested people you may wish us to take directly from Earth, Your Excellency. The AIs impose certain conditions on whom we can carry; our ships could not even move if the AIs were not satisfied that all the passengers met the right criteria. That would give us a veto over who went to your colony and we do not imagine that would be acceptable to yourselves."
"No, indeed it would not," the Minister confirmed vehemently.
"As we anticipated," the Tribune acknowledged. "We are currently negotiating with our AIs to try to resolve the issue. It helps that we are only discussing a transfer within the solar system, not an interstellar voyage. There is already precedent for transporting people without CAP scores from the Earth to the Moon. We are trying to extend that precedent to persuade the AIs to help you."
"I am sure you will be able to come up with a satisfactory solution, Tribune, insha'Allah.
Walid was wondering if being extracted to the Moon was a big mistake. With his CAP score of 4.7 he knew he wouldn't be a sponsor, but the big Confederacy Marine had assured him that they were taking almost everybody from the building. He could come along with everyone else if he wanted to. The only ones being left behind were old women and refuseniks. As the days passed he could see that the unattached men like himself were staying unattached. The women were mostly finding sponsors pretty quickly, but the men were finding it much more difficult. In two days he would go back anyway; they returned unselected men to Earth after a week up here. That wasn't a good prospect, to have gotten so far and then be rejected at the last stage. Insha'Allah, something better would come up for him. Even if it didn't, he'd been doing all right in Dearborn. Perhaps his job would still be open when he got back? The Confederacy had extracted so many people that the company would have a lot of vacancies to fill very quickly. Surely, he hoped, they wouldn't have replaced him already? Even if they had, there was always the Army; they wanted recruits to fight the aliens.
The AI spoke through his concubine collar, interrupting his thoughts. "Walid ben Hamdi, make your way to Lecture Theatre Four. You are required to attend a presentation there."
As the theatre filled, Walid noticed that a lot of people in the audience weren't European. Some were, but most were of Arabic, African, South Asian, or Far Eastern appearance. The Confederacy didn't pay much attention to racial types so what was going on here?
Everyone went quiet as a tall olive-skinned Civil Service officer walked up to the lectern at the front of the room. "Welcome to you all. I am here to make you an offer that you can refuse." That got him a small laugh from those who recognised the reference. He continued after a slight pause, "The Arab spaceship, the Salah al-Din, has returned to the solar system and is looking for Muslim passengers." That required a longer pause as the audience sat up and took notice. Walid could tell that this wasn't an ordinary announcement; the Confederacy mostly gave orders and didn't allow concubines any option to refuse. The officer continued, "Any of you here today can, if you wish, volunteer for the Salah al-Din and be taken to the Arab colony at Escardis..."
While the CSO spelled out the details of the offer, stressing that volunteering was only the first stage in the selection process, Walid was thinking. Here was just the opportunity he'd been looking for. Escardis would offer him far more possibilities than either being a male concubine on a Confederacy world or being returned to Earth in the face of the Swarm. As soon as he could, he told the AI that he was putting himself forward.
The AI ordered Walid and the other volunteers to a new area. This was much more the familiar Confederacy style -- no choice any more, just do what you're told. They put him in with the other single Moslem men and he settled down to await developments. The Arabs would still have to decide whether or not to accept him. The Civil Service officer was very clear that there was no guarantee that any volunteer would be accepted. He had taken the first step; the rest was in Allah's hands.
Tribune Nevin settled behind his desk for his morning planning meeting with his Chief of Staff. "So, Colin. Let's start with the Arabs. How are you doing on the capacity planning for that?"
The Decurion consulted his notes, "It looks like we'll have to take three trips, sir. The Salah al-Din carries 5,000 people. She has 500 crew on board, so there are 4,500 passengers to move. Using the Kindertransport pod design we could put twenty-four adults into every pod, which would mean separating some husbands and wives. That would let us do it in just two Aurora trips, but I think that would make more trouble than it's worth. Splitting husbands and wives will cause problems, and twenty-four adults to a pod makes no provision for any children the family may have with them. I recommend that we go with three trips to cut down the crowding and stress on the passengers."
"Yes, I can see that overcrowding might be a problem. OK, Colin, we'll go with three trips; notify the Arabs and the other interested parties. You'll need to identify the ships we'll use as well."
"I already have two probables and a couple of possibles, sir. I don't foresee any issues."
"OK, but let me know early if it looks like we'll have a problem freeing up the shipping space."
"Hmm ... I'm not sure DECO will like three trips," the Tribune pointed out. "They've promised me the use of a hundred pods on a Kilopod as compensation for each Aurora journey I have to cancel. I think they were assuming only two, not three, journeys taken out of the Kindertransport schedule. I'll just have to twist their arms a bit. They did promise, and I warned them that it might take three trips to load the Salah al-Din. Anyway, that's DECO's problem now. What about the non-family people, Colin. Could you save some space with them? They won't all have children."
"Unmarried men and women are less of a problem, sir. We can easily fit up to twenty-four adults to a Kindertransport pod as they will have far fewer children with them. Each pod will be single sex of course, as the Muslims don't like the sexes mixing too much. It's the families that are the difficulty. With a husband and four wives we can only get four complete families maximum into a pod, perhaps only three if they have a lot of children between them. If we spread the work out over three trips, then we can give them all a bit more room. That should cut the potential for problems, sir."
"Will all the husbands have four wives, Colin? Some of them may have fewer."
"I'm planning on the basis that they will all have four, sir. Judging by past experience, they may shanghai women from schools and colleges to make up the numbers. We'll keep married women with their husbands. If they're single, then they can go into a single sex pod with the other unmarried women. We won't know exact numbers until the Minister's staff get back to us with their detailed lists. We're expecting the first part sometime tomorrow, sir."
"How are we doing with the volunteers from the Moon?"
"That's going well, sir. We've separated out the volunteers into three holding areas, one each for single men, single women and families. All their names and details are with the Arabs. They're already getting back to us with the first rejections and acceptances. We're putting the accepted people into three different holding areas, awaiting transport. The ones they don't want go back into the general concubine pool. Every so often a new candidate arrives on the Moon and if they volunteer we're passing the name along. At some point the Arabs will tell us they have enough people and we'll stop."
"Good, thanks for the update Colin. Anything else for the moment relevant to the Salah al-Din?"
"No, sir. So far it's mostly going smoothly."
"Right, now how is the main Kindertransport program doing?"
Mohammed al-Umawi watched the Confederacy fleet getting closer on the video display projected onto the bulkhead ahead of his seat. Somewhere among those ships was the Confederacy transport that would be carrying the third and last group of passengers from the Moon. The contrast with the interior of his own ship was striking. The Salah al-Din was a hastily built prototype and it showed; even now there were still some rough edges left. In contrast, this shuttle was the well finished and beautifully engineered descendant of a long line of predecessors.
According to Captain al-Basri's briefing, he would be working with a Sub-Decurion Nicholas Kavanagh. Apparently that was roughly equivalent to his own rank of Mulazim Awwal, a Lieutenant in Confederacy terms. His job would be to help with translation and to make sure of representation for the Arab interest during the passenger transfer. He would need to use his discretion, since the ship would be under Confederacy law, not Arab law. Feedback from the two previous trips was that he shouldn't encounter any major problems dealing with the Confederacy; they were generally trying to be helpful. The mistakes they'd made had primarily been due to ignorance or lack of resources rather than malice. The presence of the Swarm seemed to have made both sides more willing to work together than before. If nothing else, the Salah al-Din could carry a few thousand more people safely away from the Swarm -- something that both sides could agree on.
The shuttle was weaving its way through the Confederacy fleet, approaching his destination. An Aurora class transport according to his briefing notes. It looked like a freighter, with six rings of cargo containers fitted round it: three rings forward and three aft. Not one of the Confederacy's most modern ships, but obviously enough to do the job. Musa and Younus, who had performed the liaison role for the two previous trips, had said that this type was well suited to its current task.
Boarding the Confederacy ship was Mohammed's first experience of a transporter. The Salah al-Din didn't have one of course, so the shuttle had landed in the larger ship's boat bay to let him board. The transporter pad set into the deck glowed green and he walked forward onto it.
Suddenly he was elsewhere. It took him a few seconds to reorient himself. He was in a large chamber with two people. Off to his right a technician in a blue uniform was sitting at a control panel. Waiting in front of him was a tall fair-haired man in a grey uniform. An officer, judging by his rank tabs.
"Welcome on board the passenger transport CSS Sadi Carnot, Lieutenant al-Umawi. I am Sub-Decurion Kavanagh."
The Sub-Decurion was only slightly taller than Mohammed, which surprised him. He'd thought that all Confederacy people were two metres tall, not of normal height. This man looked ordinary; he wouldn't look unusual in any city in the West. The crewman at her console looked normal height as well, though it was more difficult to tell because she was sitting down.
Rayyan had selected Mohammed for this role because of his command of English. "I am glad to be on board, Sub-Decurion."
"Call me Nick, please. I'll show you to our quarters, Lieutenant. We'll be sharing for the duration."
On their way, Nick explained that this ship was normally used by the Kindertransport programme. It had just arrived back from delivering 3,000 women and children to one of the colonies and had been temporarily diverted to this job. While the internal setup was not ideal, it was the best that could be provided at short notice. Ordinary colony ships of this class had about one-quarter the carrying capacity of a Kindertransport ship and so were less suited to boarding the Salah al-Din's passengers.
Soon they arrived at a door marked with the number one, in both western and Arabic script, in a blue circle. "Welcome to pod Blue One," Nick said. "AI, allow Lieutenant al-Umawi full access rights to this pod."
"Yes, sir," a disembodied voice responded, startling Mohammed slightly.
"That is a Confederacy Artificial Intelligence?" he asked.
"Yes it is," Nick confirmed. "It runs the ship and controls pretty much everything for us."
"You have added Arabic to the sign," Mohammed pointed out.
"Yes. We'll be carrying Arab passengers, so it makes sense. We don't know if they can all recognise western numerals. All the signs in the pods and passenger areas are bilingual as well and the AI can speak Arabic."
Mohammed nodded. He was impressed by the trouble the Confederacy had taken to accommodate its temporary guests.
The inside of Nick's pod was a surprise as well; far larger than his quarters on the Salah al-Din. After the stories he'd heard about the disrespectful way the Confederacy treated its women, he'd expected to see some half-naked women running around. "You don't have any concubines here, Nick?" he asked.
"Yes and no," Nick replied with a smile. "In theory I will own all the unmarried women on board. Every concubine must have an owner, so I'll be their temporary sponsor. All my permanent concubines are on the Moon. Once we've finished the passenger transfer to your ship, I'll go back to my day job." He paused to change the subject, "Your quarters are on the upper level, though I'm afraid they're a lot smaller than mine.
When the CSO took him to the upper level, Mohammed could see the truth in Nick's words. His temporary quarters were even smaller than on his own ship -- just a small sitting room, an even smaller bedroom and a tiny bathroom. Someone had partitioned off much of the space on this level so it was inaccessible.
"I suggest you take the opportunity to rest now," Nick said. "There isn't much to do until the Captain's meeting just before we get to the Moon and start loading. After that we'll be very busy until we reach the Salah al-Din. If you have any questions you can ask the AI."
Taking that as its cue, the AI broke in, "Sub-Decurion, Lieutenant al-Umawi does not have a CAP test on record. I assume I am to consider him a sponsor."
"Correct. He is an adult male, so he is a sponsor during this trip."
Nick explained to Mohammed, "To simplify things, we've split the untested passengers by age and sex. From the AI's point of view, anyone under fourteen is a dependent child, all adult men are sponsors and adult women are concubines. If they're married then they belong to their husband; if they aren't then they'll belong to me, as I mentioned earlier. The AIs like to have everyone neatly classified." Neither of them realised how much hard work had gone into negotiating that compromise with the AIs.
Mohammed was dozing when the AI roused him for the Captain's meeting. He quickly got ready and went down to meet Nick on the lower level. So far, the Sub-Decurion had been perfectly polite, though there had been no need for any conflict between them yet. Hopefully any disagreements could be kept to a minimum. The Arabs and the Confederacy had some different goals, so it was always possible that they might clash in future.
Nick provided him with a Bluetooth set to let him talk to the AI without everyone else in the room listening in. That would be more important once the passengers were on board. The AI's Arabic was excellent, if somewhat formal.
Nick led him to an area in the ship's spine, near the crew's quarters. This was part of the ship that the passengers didn't normally get to see, so the signs were all in English. Nick introduced him, in his role as Liaison Officer, to Captain Williams and Marine Sergeant Cole. Both were women. Mohammed was more accustomed to it than some of his comrades would have been. His years learning English in the West had got him used to the different way they did things.
The surprise for Mohammed was not that women held command positions, it was Sergeant Cole. This was the first time he'd seen a Confederacy Marine. He knew in a general sense that they were medically enhanced. Seeing the sergeant's full height of two metres was a big surprise; big in both senses.
Seeing Mohammed's expression, she smiled at him, "Have you not seen an enhanced Confederacy Marine before, Lieutenant?"
Flustered, he offered his excuses, "Ahhh ... No, Sergeant. I had heard about the enhancements, but seeing them for the first time is a shock. My apologies for my rudeness."
"No need, sir. I often get that reaction when I'm on Earth and people see my height for the first time."
Like Nick, Sergeant Cole was temporarily assigned to this ship. Her team of Marines had been specially assembled for this job, with a higher than normal proportion of women and two Arabic speakers to help with translation if the AI couldn't cope with slang or cultural references. Translating "red herring" as "pink fish" wasn't really a great deal of use in getting the real meaning across.
Mohammed stayed quiet and listened for most of the meeting, which mainly covered the differences between a normal Kindertransport run and this trip. For example, the Salah al-Din didn't have replicators, so the passengers would have luggage with them. Carrying sponsor men would be another change, since Kindertransport ships normally only carried concubine women and children. All the men would be treated as new recruits, so they would have to obey any Marine or ship's crew as their military superior. In that sense, they wouldn't be a great deal different from concubines. It was just that most of them would have their wives and children with them.
The Captain had decided to handle the two halves of the ship separately. The aft half would hold women with no men. The Confederacy volunteers and the CAP tested people from Earth already transferred had too high a proportion of men, so there were enough unmarried women on board to allow them all to reach four wives apiece. The front half, where Nick's pod was, would hold mostly families: a man, his four wives and their children. Those with few children would be four families to a pod, while those with many children would share a pod between three families. Two of the forward pods held the last few single men to be transferred. The passengers would stay in their pods for the trip, with replicators supplying food and other essentials.
Sergeant Cole would split her Marines, with mostly women covering the aft section. That pleased Mohammed; it showed consideration for Muslim sensibilities about women mixing with men from outside their family. Things weren't perfect, both of the translators were male for instance, but it was obvious that the Confederacy was trying to accommodate the needs of their passengers. That was a good sign for the rest of the journey. Both sides obviously wanted this to go as smoothly as possible.
One thing did worry Captain Williams. "Some of the wives are under fourteen years old," she told Mohammed. "In Confederacy law, that means they are children, so if their husbands try to have sex with them, then we will execute the offenders. The AIs are not going to give any ground on that one. Do you think that will cause a problem, Lieutenant?"
Mohammed paused to think before replying, "You will need to warn the husbands involved that those wives are off-limits. You can issue a general notice, but some of the men will likely ignore it. You must let each of them know individually. I think most of them will obey. Do any of them have all their wives under your limit?"
"No, all the men involved have at least two wives who are old enough under our law. Most of them have three who are of legal age."
"I don't foresee any major problems then. Maybe one or two will try something, but nothing you shouldn't be able to handle."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion?"
"Yes, Captain. Have you considered the khanjar daggers that many of the men and boys may have with them?"
The Captain smiled, "Yes, Lieutenant, we've thought of that. We have told them to pack their daggers in their luggage and to leave them there. Nobody can unpack their dagger until they have left the ship. If they do try, then we will knock them unconscious and they'll wake up with a very bad headache."
Nick accompanied Mohammed from the meeting to the forward transporter room where they would await their passengers.
Worried, Mohammed asked, "Are we safe this close to Earth? Will the Swarm want to interfere?"
"They haven't so far," Nick assured him. "We never get close enough to the Earth for them to take much notice. They react violently to anything in low orbit over the areas of Earth they occupy, but we'll stay at long transporter range on the far side of the Moon from Earth. They can see the ship of course, but we don't think they can see the transporter. Even if they can, they've never reacted to it in the past. We're unarmed and we're not threatening them, so there's no reason for them to interfere. We'll be safe."
Mohammed mentally added, "insha'Allah," to that. The future was always uncertain, at least for mere men.
Science Fiction /