By Iona Douglas
Abdul has learned you must always be ready to leave, and to always pack light. His whole life fits in his backpack.
He wipes sand from his goggles in time to see the supervisor approaching on camelback. No autonomous hovers here, where even the supervisors are poor. Abdul resumes his work, blowing sand from black photovoltaic cells in coppery billows.
He’s seen photos of the Sahara before the solar farms appeared. Miles and miles of undulating dunes locked in a diurnal twisting and turning. His view of the farm never changed; the dunes of Erg Chegaga obscured by a sea of black snakes stretching to Zagora.
On the fringes of the farm, dusk looks the same as always, as though the sun doesn’t know that this is Abdul’s last day. As though he hasn’t conspired with it for months.
The day shift has almost destroyed him, his scarf barely enough to protect him from the midday sun. He collapses into the cart that transports them back to camp.
He abandons his equipment in the toilet and pulls on his kameez, the one he paid his supervisor over three times the going rate to buy for him during the last supply run. “Moss green,” the foreman had grunted when he handed over the matching shalwar.
He pushes some paper into the plughole and presses the water release below the sink. He makes the most of his water ration to wash his face. At one metre eighty-nine, he hunches over to see his face in the mirror.
His height is a miracle, given the fact he has subsisted on three proper meals a week. He made up for it with nutrient-rich milkshakes provided by the corporation. Not free, of course, the credits were taken from his paycheck.
He hopes that later his height will work to his advantage and offset his youth; though the farm has aged him, the sun has burnt away the childlike chub in his cheeks. He combs his matted hair, dropping a tangle the size of his fist into the bin. He’s surprised he has any hair left at all. He doesn’t quite scrub up well enough to look like he belongs in a kameez, but it’ll have to do.
He itches the silver scar above his wrist, just above where his chip was implanted. He has never prayed, but in quiet moments he would stroke his stigmata, reminding himself of how far he’s come and steeling himself for what would come next.
He pulls on his goggles and scarf, hoists his backpack onto one shoulder. The night bus to Zagora scans his chip, and he climbs aboard. It is half empty. Few workers use their bi-monthly day off to visit the city.
Settling into a seat at the back of the bus, he takes out the glue and a small bag of hair he snipped from his head the night before. The glue makes his face itch. His beard is patchy. He grunts when some of it falls from his lip into his lap. He applies more glue and trims the underside of his chin. That’ll have to do. He covers his face with his scarf once again. He’s learned it is better to be cautious.
He sends his contact, ‘grosse_bite_Zagora’ an encrypted message in French:
Ibn_Battuta.2: My man will be at the requested place at 07:50 AM. Here is the
‘big_dick_Zagora’ replies immediately.
grosse_bite_Zagora: He had better be alone. We will be watching.
The call to prayer warbles across the city, something now alien to Abdul. There are no minarets in the solar fields, no imams to summon the faithful. No religious affiliations allowed in the Corporation.
He takes some Pep when they arrive. Not too much, just enough to give him an edge, to get the blood pumping. He fingers the scar on his wrist, glancing at the mountain, visible to the West, a constant observer.
A WasteBoy trundles past, sucking up a half-buried wrapper. Abdul chuckles. What was that old slogan? Reuse, reduce, recycle? He could have repurposed the bot if he weren’t getting out of here.
The agreed location is a boarded-up shack. Abdul notifies ‘big_dick_Zagora’ that he’s arrived and waits. He will not sit. He has learned to always be ready to run. The boarded-up door swings open, hidden hinges squeaking. A large silhouette grunts, waving a gun, inviting him inside. He hesitates. He is not fearless. Caution has kept him alive this long.
Entering the dark, his hand traces the wall. His toes test each step. The smell of mint wafts towards him. He is suddenly parched, his tongue clinging to his palate. A guard blocks his entry, the barrel of his gun pinned to the bridge of Abdul’s nose. He’s only slightly taller than Abdul, but at least twice as wide, with eyes that looked like they had forgotten how to shine.
“Step aside, Idda,” says a deep but unmistakably feminine voice. Idda grunts and moves. Curled in a chair hanging from the ceiling is ‘big_dick_Zagora’.
She stretches, swinging one leg from her cocoon. She reminds Abdul of a street cat, without the mange and parasites. Zagora sizes him up, she swings her chair forward by walking on the bare linoleum.
“Ibn Battuta sends a boy?”
“You’re a woman!” Abdul tries to blink away the thought of a cock swinging between her legs.
She laughs, a chortle that grows into a chuckle. Leaning towards him, Abdul could kiss her if he wanted, if he dared.
“A woman, and still I’ve got more beard than you, boy.” With a sharp tug, Big Dick Zagora rips some of Abdul’s glued hair from his face, tearing off some skin with it. He winces.
He can feel the cold metal of Idda’s gun on his neck. She chuckles again and swings the chair back to her desk. She unlocks it with a key that dangles from a silver chain around her neck. An actual mechanism. Abdul hasn’t seen the like in years.
“You got Battuta’s money? Or you spent it? On… whatever it is you kids buy.”
At least she doesn’t know that he is Battuta. Best to keep it that way, keep her thinking there was someone who would notice if he went missing.
“You know you’ll get the other half on delivery.” Abdul holds out his hand. He thinks he is authoritative. When Zagora appraises him, eyebrows raised, there is something in him that stirs, though he can’t tell if it’s excitement or fear.
“Worth a try,” she shrugs. “One blank chip, a new print scanner,” she pauses, frowns. “A tablet, unused. You know how difficult it is to get these?”
Abdul knows it’s cost him a third of a year’s worth of hacking spoils. He takes the items, resists the urge to clutch them to his chest. He nods, takes a step back, feels the guard’s boot under his heel.
“You ever met Battuta?” Zagora asks, dipping her toe on the lino. The chair swings forward. She grabs his kameez, hangs there, her toes playing on the floor.
Don’t. Break. Eye contact.
“Nah, I know him online. I’m pacman78. I just go where he tells me.” Abdul’s heart beats a furious rhythm.
“And where will you go from here?”
The heat from her knuckles bears into Abdul. He pushes his chest towards her. Needs more of it. “Though he won’t tell me where exactly until I get there.”
She nods to the guard and lets go, swinging back into the half-light.
He doesn’t stop walking, success fueling his footsteps. He walks East. His watch says eight-ten. The transport to Marrakech leaves in an hour. Once he gets there he’ll have four hours to wait before the shuttle bound for Oasis leaves. When he reaches one of the few coppices some miles from Zagora, he settles. He aches for a drink and allows himself a small ration of water. His back against tree bark, the branches provide blessed shade.
He traces the faint scar on his wrist. He had just turned three when they implanted it, but he could still remember. A minor operation, no anaesthetic. He hadn’t had any parents to pay for such a luxury.
He feels sick. He needs it out of him, this alien thing. He takes some more Pep, rubs it over his gums, relishing the metallic sting as the drug settles into his skin. Pulling a penknife that had cost Gloria Franzen of Massachusetts a pretty penny, he wonders if she ever noticed the missing credits from her account.
He lines the point of the blade against his skin, pressing the tip against one side of the chip. He pauses and breathes. There is still time to return to the farm. Back to the farm that would be the death of him.
He knows that forty thousand miles above him the luxury liner, Oasis, spins. He knows as he stands on this forsaken planet, pods are ferrying the lucky ones from Oasis to the colony ship Island One, the colony ship about to embark on a twenty-year journey across the stars to reach Ross 128b, a little exoplanet Abdul was planning on calling home.
He closes his eyes and gouges the penknife underneath the chip.
Blood spills, more than he expected, obscuring the incision. He feels the chip, plucks it out with the knife. It touches air for the first time in nine years. He savours the moment, but there isn’t time to linger. He slips his new chip into place.
This one doesn’t feel wrong, like the last. He swears it hurts less too. Perhaps just a memory, playing tricks on him. No. This time it’s his decision, that’s what stings less.
The cut is small. He presses it to stay the blood, dresses it with some rags he has boiled for the occasion. The sun winks at him. He laughs at their secret. He says a small prayer when he links the print scanner to the new tablet, fully charged, as promised. He’s practiced the method, memorised the pathways, whispered them as a mantra, spoken them in his sleep, but still his fingers quiver.
It doesn’t take long to hack his employer’s account, delete his print record. Now he needs to download his new identity to the chip. He has kept his first name, but stolen the surname of his favourite explorer. It is the first time in his life that his surname isn’t the same as the company that indentured him.
He likes it. Placing his fingers on the print scanner, his stomach lurches with uncertainty as he types.
It lights up green when it syncs with his new chip. He breathes a sigh of relief. Ecstasy creeps out from his gut, extending its fingers all over his body. He shakes. He can’t contain it.
How to dispose of the other chip? He knows breaking it would send his location to the corporation. His life isn’t worth much, but perhaps worth enough that they would search for him, make an example out of him to deter other escapees. Should he leave it? Hide it?
A WasteBoy rolls by. Abdul grins. Chuckling, he picks it up, its tread spinning wildly. He glues the chip to the belly of the machine. It dries instantly, and he returns the bot to the ground. It continues garbage guzzling. If the company came looking, this would give them the run-around.
“Go on, WasteBoy!” Abdul´s laughter peels towards the city.
He has sold his soul for a chance of life multiple times. First, he exchanged the calls of imams across Fez for the solar farms of Erg Chegaga, and now, here in Marrakech, he will relinquish the heat and gravity of Earth for the cold wastes of space.
He feels unfamiliar elation in his blood when he thinks of his old chip, moving around the wastes of Zagora. He grins foolishly when he approaches the launch site, the sun glinting off the rocket bound for Oasis. This is a moment he has pictured for years. It has haunted his dreams and overlaid his vision of the solar fields. Deja vu ebbs and flows, tripping between the similarity of his daydream to unimagined mundanity.
He is small here, amidst the crowds of other revellers and travellers, coalescing towards the station. He has a little over four hours to get through customs, a genuine test of his new identity.
He is no longer indentured, but he is still indebted.
He knows where to find the house, full of boys his age and younger. His nerves are almost too much as he approaches. A small boy waits outside the door, his eyes focussed on the dust, shoulders tense, his head shaved and his ear clipped. He looks the same age as Abdul.
He clutches his bag to him, suddenly nervous. The place is exposed, but this is a quiet street in the heat of midday, with most people hiding from the sun. He knows the boy’s ear clip will be fitted with GPS and will shock him if he dares to leave whatever boundary, generous or otherwise, his owners have allowed him. Abdul remembers those shocks, remembers the headaches that followed.
“Hé!” Abdul hisses. The boy winces, observes Abdul with confusion. No children would voluntarily visit this part of the medina, certainly not those dressed in matching kameez and shalwar. Abdul waves him over, trying to imbue the gesture with urgency. The boy shakes his head, fear knotted to his expression. Reluctant, Abdul approaches.
“Do you have a secret place?” A simple question, but Abdul knows that secret places and torturous daydreams were how one survived somewhere like this. The boy only looks more scared. Abdul curses his naivete. You wouldn’t give up your secrets when they were all you had. “I’ve got something for you.” He shakes the tablet, tries to push it to the boy, who appraises it with wide-eyed curiosity. “I used to be like you. Indentured. I used this to free myself. Do you know how to use one?” The boy nods, unsure as to whether he can trust this strange, well-dressed child.
“There’s a programme on there that will deactivate the GPS in your ear clip,” Abdul nods to it, distaste curling his mouth. “I’ve included a text file on there to explain how to use it – can you read?” The boy nods, resumes his fascination with the ground. A woman rounds the corner. Abdul mimics the downtrodden posture he has done his best to shake off all his life.
“You heard of the Island One mission?” he asks. It’s a stupid question, everyone in the solar system had heard of Island One. “I’m going. I’m out of this system, away from this planet, and it’s all because of this.” The boy looks Abdul up and down, taking in his attempts to look older.
“How? You got a lottery ticket?” he sniffs. Abdul had considered buying a ticket to the global lottery when it was first announced. Then, Horten enterprises announced that a ticket would be automatically granted to every registered citizen in the system over the age of sixteen. Those who won received a place on Island One, to ensure random genetic diversity for the colonisation mission. If an indentured person was lucky enough to win a ticket, Horten enterprises would pay their remaining contract fee. Lucky for some. Free or otherwise, Abdul is twelve, and never stood a chance at winning one. This had irked him once, but now he sees it as a testament to his determination, that he hasn’t given up, that he would get there without luck.
“I’ve got to go. Take this, please.” Abdul pushes the tablet into the boy’s chest. The boy stares down at it, his eyes wide with fear. The shutter to their left opens, revealing an overweight, balding man in a garish red and orange kameez, halfway through eating a briouat. For a moment, they all stop, his eyes flitting from the boy to the tablet, to Abdul. Cursing himself for risking everything for an indentured stranger, Abdul turns on his heels.
“Hey!” The man pursues him, pulling out a gun that looks small in his meaty fist.
Abdul takes a sharp left and narrowly dodges a bullet that ricochets off the sand at his heels. He doesn’t know these streets, but the shimmering plates of the shuttle loom over every building in Marrakech, pointing the way. If he can just get there… Another bullet skims the sandstone on his right and he throws himself down a narrower alley, lines of washing flying.
He gasps for air, adrenaline driving him on. It’s been so long. He’s worked too hard to miss this flight. Another left, then something knocks the wind out of him and he finds himself on the ground. Choking on air, he can still hear the feet of his pursuer behind him.
He looks up, directly into the face of Zagora’s burly guard, Idda. Disappointment crawls its way from his stomach to his throat. He tries to swallow it down, but he can feel heat building behind his eyelids. Not like this. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Idda aims his gun as he hears Abdul’s pursuer skid around the corner. When he fires, Abdul feels the wet slap of brains and cranium hitting the bag of his neck. The enforcer turns his gun back on Abdul.
Shaking, he forces himself to look up at Oasis, a glittering jewel seventy-four thousand kilometers above. If he was going to die, he was going to die with dreams in his eyes, not the barrel of a gun.
Zagora appears from behind her henchman and squats beside Abdul, cat-like. She wipes blood and a piece of brain from his forehead.
“Now, how is Battuta going to get his lovely stock if you get your head blown off by a second-rate slaver?” She grabs his wrist, turns it to inspect his handiwork. “For that matter, how’s he going to get it if it’s inside of you?”
“You followed me?”
“You followed me?” Zagora mocks. “Nice trick cutting out your old chip. Shame we brought it with us.” She delves into her pocket and pulls it out. He snatches for it, but she is too quick, handing it to Idda.
“Give it to me!”
She laughs. “I tell you what. You take us to Battuta and we’ll give you your chip. We won’t even tell the Corporation what you’ve done.”
“I don’t know where he is.” Abdul struggles upright, wiping the sweat from his face. His hand is scarlet with the dead slaver’s gore.
“Idda?” Zagora croons. #
The clink of glasses from a bar crowd wakes him. Abdul’s head throbs. He forces his eyes open, making out the blurred silhouettes of people crowded around a screen. He, Idda, and Zagora are squashed into a private alcove.
“Good. You’re awake. For a hot minute I was worried Idda had hit you too hard.” Zagora pushes his hair back in an almost affectionate way. “We got ourselves a VIP booth.”
‘VIP’ wasn’t quite how Abdul would have described it, nor the bar itself. The air, full of vape smoke, cloying, and the alcohol fumes were so strong he wondered if he might get drunk merely inhaling them. Here, in an independent belt so close to the launch site, alcohol was permitted.
“Please let me go. I’ve got somewhere I need to be.”
“Of course,” she croons. “We’re both going to the same place. You see, I’ve got business with Battuta.”
“No, you don’t,” Abdul coughs up blood-stained phlegm into his palm.
Idda cocks his gun, pointing it at Abdul’s head.
A waiter pushes his way through the beaded curtain of the alcove. He carries a tray with three beverages balanced on his metal prosthesis. No look of surprise at the sight of Idda’s gun. Zagora waves her wrist over the waiter’s, a ping confirming payment. One of his fingers emits a flame, which he uses to light her drink on fire. She claps, delighted, before blowing it out. The waiter grunts, and leaves.
“Well you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Tell him to come here – Rusty’s Riad, and we’ll let you go on your way to make your great escape or visit the red quarter. Whatever it is you need a fake beard and a new chip for.”
“He won’t come.”
“Well, he won’t if you don’t ask him.”
“I’m Battuta.” At this, Lars and Zagora exchange an amused glance before bursting into peals of laughter.
“You’re Battuta? The Battuta?! The guy’s ransomed more people in the Federation than have bought a ticket for the Island One lottery. You’re telling me Battuta’s a kid?!”
Abdul cursed himself for his naivete. He’d been greedy, and too daring. Got off on ransoming the most powerful politicians, the businessmen most lacking in morals, the most famous celebrities. It was true. He’d made a name for Ibn Battuta over the years. It was hardly surprising that it had come back to bite him.
“Yes. It’s me.” He straightens up, brushes his hand through his hair, and gives them both a look that he hopes appears stern, authoritative. “Now, I really, really have to be somewhere, and there’s a time limit, so can you tell me what you want? Or kill me or whatever? Just get it over with.”
“Kill you?” Zagora cocks her head. She looks genuinely inquisitive.
“If I don’t make this appointment you might as well. It will all have been for nothing. Did I ransomware you? Is that it? Do you want your funds back? I don’t have any, but I can get you some.”
“No, it’s not that. We need something else.”
“I want an import-export license for the Milankovitch lunar quarry.”
“You want me to hack into the Lunar Department of Commerce.”
“And forge a license so that you can, what? Do you want to import or export?” Abdul asked, already whipping out his tablet.
This was doable. Given an unlimited time period and the finest equipment. But with less than four hours and an ancient tablet, the odds were against him. He needed to buy time. Lucky for Zagora and him, having operated in the world of online blackmail and bribery, Abdul was at least semi-familiar with WTO protocols, and had previously done something similar for a client looking to export Single Malt to Oasis.
“I plan to export foodstuffs from the African Federation to the lunar colony, and export metals from the lunar quarry.”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t know. Believe it or not, but commerce isn’t exactly my thing, but typically nations have treaties that determine you know… taxes and stuff.”
“Aluminum. I want to import aluminum.” He types, and the answer appears quickly.
“Right. Well, you’re in luck. The Moon has a treaty with the African Federation, so that makes getting your license a little easier.”
“Great,” Zagora rubs her hands together.
“I said a little easier.”
“Shouldn’t be too difficult for the notorious Ibn Battuta now, should it?”
“You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” Abdul snaps. Lars growls. “Did he just… growl at me?”
“Well, lucky for you, I can use the BPv7 protocol, which means I don’t need a fiber connection. I can theoretically do it with this.” He gestures toward the tablet. “Also, it’s like the stars are aligning for you or something, I’ve had to put in a lot of hours to get here today, so I already have a worm I coded-”
“It’s a machine-learning algorithm that will allow me to use an exploit – ugh, I’m not gonna explain this to you. This isn’t school. It’s a virus. It’s gonna take me ten to fifteen minutes to send it to the moon.” Abdul bit his tongue to stop him from mentioning the next part of his plan, his insurance.
“Not so long.”
“First, I need to contact someone who owes me a favour. And I’m gonna need you to give me your name. Your real name. Or your company name or whatever. The license has to belong to someone.”
“I trust that this information won’t be shared with any… unnecessary sources.”
“Listen, I´ve got to be somewhere very important in,” he checks the time display, “three and a half hours. If I do this for you, you will let me go, won’t you?”
A dart narrowly misses Abdul’s head. It’s a stray, fired by one of two cyborgs just outside the alcove. Zagora turns and shoots one of them straight in the forehead. He falls into the arms of his stunned compatriot. Idda growls..
“Do we have a deal?” He holds out his hand. Zagora shakes it.
“We have a deal. Idda?”
Idda rips open the velcro on his bullet-proof vest and pulls out a small piece of paper. Abdul takes it, unfolds it.
Hassan Services, Import and Export.
Abdul stifles a laugh. Knowing her name gives him a sliver of hope. He might just pull this off and get out of here in time.
The second darts player pulls out a gun and charges the beaded curtain, but the waiter, passing with another tray of drinks, casually aims his prosthetic arm. His hand unhinges, swings down, and he shoots the guy in the back of the head.
The bar crowd cheers, though whether at something on the screen, or the carnage unfolding, Abdul can’t be sure.
Idda takes up his position, pointing his gun once again. Aliyah grabs the scruff of Abdul’s kameez and presses the barrel of a small but undoubtedly powerful pistol into his crotch.
“You breathe a word of this to anyone and you’ll be doing a remarkable impression of the slaver in the alley back there.”
“I’m not gonna tell anyone that I’m hacking into the Moon’s governmental headquarters, don’t worry.” It wasn’t the first time he’d rented a server on the Moon, and he still had sufficient credits to mean that it didn’t take too much of a bite out of his budget. If he never made it to the ship his credits wouldn’t matter. Maybe he could hack enough to afford a beachfront apartment in the Arctic.
He takes the water, hoping neither Idda nor Zagora notices the slight tremble in his hand. One line of code at a time. That’s how he’d always done things, that’s how he’ll do it now. First, he needs to find out how to parse the worm to NotchPro. Luckily, he has a wide range of contacts who he’d blackmailed and bribed over the years, one of whom happens to be a back-end software engineer on the lunar quarry. His fingers are speedy, and he opens the encrypted chat they last communicated in. He only hopes he is online, otherwise, he’s screwed.
Ibn_Battuta.2: Ratty I know I said once our deal was done I’d never contact you again but here
I am doing exactly that and we both know that if you don’t respond I’ve got
some fairly interesting files and photographs I can send to both your employer
and the Lunar authorities so for both our sakes just respond.
Blowfish_5: What the fuck do you want?
Ibn_Battuta.2: I’ve got a worm I need to parse from AsapCode to NotchPro, you got any strings
I can pull?
Blowfish_5: That’s it? That’s all you want?
Ibn_Battuta.2: Yes. Time’s a factor, Ratty tik tok tik tok.
Blowfish_5: I don’t suppose you can be more specific.
Ibn_Battuta.2: Obviously not.
Blowfish_5: You’re gonna have to manually look for whatever you want there. You can’t just keep turning up and demanding things, you know.
Ibn_Battuta: With what I’ve got on you? We both know that’s not true. For what it’s
worth, this should be the last time.
The waiter enters the alcove, holds out his arm to Zagora, who looks sheepish.
“Sorry about that, Rusty. Appreciate it.” She holds out her hand, and the payment goes through.
Rusty just grunts, and makes about dragging the two bodies out of sight.
Abdul shakes his head in disbelief. Things were different in the independent belts. The sooner he got off this damned planet, the better.
Connecting to an area node, specialised node and then one of the many satellites around Earth isn’t too taxing, kid stuff. He finds the strings he needs to port his worm to NotchPro while he hops from satellite to satellite, looking for one within reach of the colony. To his delight, it doesn’t take long, and he gives a little yelp of excitement when he connects to a local node.
The hour passes swiftly, his fingers dancing a furious rhythm on the keyboard as he tries to break into the Lunar Ministry of Commerce through brute force. A quick search had given him a list of employees, and it hadn’t taken long to find someone stupid enough to have her birthdate, place, and full name on her profile. He runs a password generator in the background. In the beginning, Zagora watched him, curious, her eyes darting between his concentrated face, and the strings and arrays taking form on his screen. To his relief, she tired of this after some time, and pulled out a thin hologram bar. It projected a chessboard. She plays against herself, Idda not seeming to display any interest in the game, but rather keeping his gun cocked and his eyes fixed on Abdul.
“Yes!” He exclaims, shocking Zagora. Idda remains unphased. “Okay, I’m in. Luckily some intern at the Ministry hasn’t paid much attention to her cyber privacy.”
“Nice one, kidda. What next?”
“Well, now I’m installing a RAT.”
“Why are all these things named after animals?”
“A Remote Access Tool. A remote desktop. It lets me see this intern’s desktop. So, now I just need to poke around for a while until I find an example of your trade license, generate you an account number, fake the apostille and bish bash bosh you’ll be legal.”
“Calls for a celebration, I think.” Zagora pushes a button in the middle of the table to call for Rusty. “What are you drinking?”
“Nothing,” Abdul shakes his head, fully focused on the task at hand. He needs to stay sharp. He still has time. If he can do this in the next half an hour and convince them to let him go, he could still make it in time.
It had helped him, having owners who were inclined to let him learn a little code. Those were his first owners, as far as he can remember. Small-time hackers, who needed someone to feed them and someone to kick when a scam fell through. He preferred the beatings to the blazing heat of the solar farms, but he had fetched a good price for his owners, so there he went. The foreman had raised his eyes when Abdul first arrived, nine years old and painfully thin. He soon averted them, preferring manpower over ethical hiring laws.
Scoring a fake ID had been expensive, but easy once he’d worked out how to disguise himself as a woman online. Blackmail was where the real money was at. Thankfully, those buying indecent pictures were easy to blackmail. ‘Ratty’ had been the one to help him, eager to avoid his employers finding out about what he liked to spend his money on.
He has it, it is done. He types for a few more minutes, feigning busy. He needs to steel himself for what he’s about to do.
“I have it.”
“Let me see.” Zagora spins the tablet to face her, biting her lip with delight when she sees her name printed below the Lunar Ministry of Commerce’s seal. “You really did it. Send me the certificate, you’ve already got my details. Abdul does it, takes a deep breath, and stands, reaching for his backpack.
“Where do you think you’re going?” It is the first time Idda has spoken, his voice has a smooth, soothing tone that startles Abdul.
“I told you, I have somewhere very important to be, so if you could give me my chip back, please.”
Zagora takes out her pistol, casually pointing it at Abdul, so loosely that it looks like it could fall out of her hands.
“Now the thing is, Battuta, that you’re a loose end.” She smirks, her catlike mannerisms returning. Cold reaches spiny fingers into Abdul’s stomach. Despite having predicted it, he had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. “And I don’t like loose ends.” Rusty steps through the curtain, his bionic wrist already hanging loose, revealing the laser deftly hidden inside. Abdul had to admit, he liked the design.
“But, you promised.”
“Idda didn’t promise anything. Neither did Rusty here.” Idda stands, and downs his milk before aiming directly at Abdul’s head.
“I don’t think you want to do that.”
Zagora laughs. “I think you’ve seen too many movies, kiddo. Don’t worry, Idda’s a great shot, you won’t feel a thing.”
“I rented the server in your name.” He holds out the tablet. “Your actual name. Now, I have somewhere to be, and I swear to whatever sacred deity or beloved family member you hold dear that if I miss it I will send a copy of the logs to the authorities and lay my head down on the chopping block for you because truly, I don’t give a damn about living otherwise, you got that?” The colour drains from Zagora’s face. “How long do you think you’ll get in a regolith cell? If you’re lucky?”
“And what’s stopping me from shooting you now?”
“Ah,” Abdul chuckles. “The importance of back-ups. There’s a timer on the worm. If I don’t disable it myself, in three hours it will inform the authorities on my behalf. I believe that’s what you call checkmate.”
“Ibn Battuta as he lives and breathes. You’ve got some balls, kid.”
“Leaving it a little late, aren’t we?” The gate attendant chuckles to himself as he reads Abdul’s new id on the screen. Abdul had figured his age would be the thing to rumble his cover, but his height was an advantage, one metre eighty-six a passable height for someone claiming to have spent most of their life in space.
“I had some work to complete here,” Abdul explains. “My supervisor’s expecting me.” The attendant nods and the gate opens.
“May the stars guard you, Abdul Battuta,” the attendant’s smile is genuine. Abdul ushers himself through, ignoring the fireworks in his stomach. He strokes his chip through his skin, caresses his new name in his mind.
Since the age of eight, he has earned enough money to open some serious doors. He shudders when he thinks of some of the things he has had to do. Still, he would never have to do that again. His next door is six miles above him.
He has bought a ticket for economy class. Anything else would be courting discovery, so out of place would he look amidst those headed to Oasis to enjoy the benefits of lesser gravity. Here, in the lower deck, amidst the overalls and stench of other repair experts, he stood out less.
He wonders where they are headed, the lunar quarry, or somewhere further afield? The cryovolcanic mines of Enceladus, perhaps? His suit is uncomfortable, but he has never felt better. The mask hides his youth from his fellow travellers. He tries to mimic the slouched stances of his fellow travellers, though it opposes his true feelings. He is about to be off-planet. Off-planet. He feels an unfamiliar elation creeping in when he thinks of his old chip, tripping over stones around the wastes of Zagora.
“Passengers, we will take off in just a moment,” came a voice over the intercom. “Please ensure your harness is correctly attached.”
An attendant in blue grabs Abdul’s holster and tugs hard. He has fastened it correctly. The attendant checks the clasp on his helmet and grunts appreciatively before moving to the next person.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the same voice. “This is Captain Fern speaking. On behalf of the entire crew, I’d like to welcome you aboard the Horten enterprise’s non-stop service from Marrakech, Earth to Oasis, the Solar System!” At that, there is a muffled cheer from somewhere on board. Probably business class, those around Abdul seemed bored by the news. Seasoned travellers. “Our flight time will be ten hours and forty minutes. Please ensure that flight mode is activated on all your portable electronic devices and implants. ” Three attendants scuttle past Abdul and ascend to the cabin above.
“We request that you prepare yourself for turbulence during the launch and descent. It is prohibited to leave your seat during this flight but if you need a vomit receptacle please find one in your harness pocket.”
The turbulence as they leave the confines of Earth is the best thing Abdul has felt in his life. He watches their ascent on a screen in front of him, the browns of Marrakech fading into the landscape of Morocco. He can see Fez from here. Africa looms. He sees all the countries and seas he will never step foot in.
As they escape the Earth’s pull his legs, strapped in, want to rise. He holds his arms out, marvels at the weightlessness that extends its tendrils into his mind, unhooks the anxiety. Suddenly they are enveloped in the blackness of space, broken only by the sight of the sun, big and yellow, in the distance.
Flanked on his left by the glowing lights of Russia, and the scorched red of North Africa, Abdul drinks them in. He tries to appreciate them, knowing that in the future he’ll ache with nostalgia for this place, a place that he had spent his life trying to escape. He pulls his face away, focuses instead on the lights past Oasis, which still wink seductively at him, beckoning him onwards.
About the author: Iona teaches English by day and writes by night. She’s passionate about etymology, climate justice and is studying a Masters in Translation Studies. Her work has previously appeared in Timeworn Literary Journal, Stories of Yore and Yours, Bob’s Short Story Hour, and Bewildering Stories. You can find links to her previously published work here: https://ionadouglaswrites.com/
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