When Stars Are Scattered

Ahmed is a doctor working in a far flung outpost of humanity. His way was paid for by the leaders of his faith and his atheism is a guarded secret. His encounters with the “kite people” will cause him to doubt his whole worldview however when the aliens start dying and escalating tensions between religious extremists threatens to destroy the colony’s peace. “When Stars Are Scattered” is a moving story about alien contact, religious intolerance, and the redemptive power of the divine channeled through the spirit. Whether that spirit is human or alien.

The author would very much like to thank Khaalidah Mohammed-Ali for her support & suggestions on this story.

 

The alien lay dead on the sickbed. Mucus had crusted around its enormous nostrils. More mucus had oozed from the small flaps, like gills, on its chest, and dried on the thin translucent skin.

The aliens really did look like kites. It was no wonder no one in the colony could remember the scientific name. A tiny triangular head, all nose and wide ears with pinpricks for black eyes, crested an enormous square, paper-thin body like one wide wing.

“Time of death: zero forty-three.” Ahmed rubbed his eyes and looked around. The sickroom was unusually quiet; just the deep, humming sound of kites breathing and the faint pings from the monitors. “I’m going to move him for the autopsy. I want to look at that second breathing apparatus.”

The imam said, without looking up, “It can wait.” The harsh light of the clinic illuminated the worry creases in his thin face. “I have to know what is killing the kites. To figure it out properly, you need to be rested.” The imam traced a finger along the delicate bones that framed the one huge flap of kite skin.

“I know what killed him,” Ahmed said. “Virus. Could be a new strain of flu, could be something that jumped out of the goats or the pigs, but it’s nothing world-shattering.”

“It could be genocide.”

Ahmed forced himself to exhale slowly. Damn, did this guy ever love the word genocide. “I will know more after the autopsy. Man-made diseases can be fought just like natural ones.”

“Inshallah, Doctor. Take your time. I need to know for sure.” He looked down at his hands. “So few Muslims on this world. So few voices raised in truth, and the kites listen to ours. If only God would tell us what to do.” He stood straight and headed for the door.

Ahmed walked to the exam room, next door to the sickroom, and sat down. “Hell, damn, hell.” He reached for the flask of whiskey in his coat pocket, before he remembered that he was still on the job. He poured more water over the overused grounds in the coffee maker and watched, dazed, as it percolated.

Ahmed suspected that he had already burned through his month’s ration of coffee. This part of the planet Isach was a barren place, far from the communities clinging to arable land along the coasts. No one here but Nova Christos homesteaders, stuck on worthless land, and this community of opposites, the Muslim missionaries who came to “guide” the kites, their new converts.

Anywhere on this planet—anywhere in this sector of space—Muslims were a tiny minority. Ten years ago, when this section of the planet was opened to homesteading, there had been a rare couple of Muslims among the flood of those who wanted to make a new life on arid plains. That couple had, with one Qur’an and a little kindness to the kites, changed everything.

 

Now, the kites just happened to eat the cash crops the Nova Christos homesteaders depended on. So the Christians killed them like pests, and the Muslims brought them to prayers. The territorial authorities argued that the kites weren’t fully sentient, and the Islamic Confederation was mired in political games of their own.

The worst part was, he’d fallen right into this.

The Islamic Confederation paid his student loans, in exchange for service as a doctor in these colonies. Ahmed had jumped on the offer, even though he had been an atheist since he turned twelve. He had expected a backwater. He hadn’t expected a bloody religious war in the making. When was it appropriate to ask for a transfer? Second day?

The nurse walked into the exam room from the sickroom on the other side of the partition, navigating around the examination bed. Her face fell, a familiar expression of sadness. “Another one dead. Did you know his name?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t even remember yours,” Ahmed said. His hand trembled as he sucked down the watery, bitter coffee.

“I’m Adéla,” she said. “I told you twice.” She smiled weakly, as if to say she understood. “In case you missed it this time, that handsome, worried imam who just left was my husband. This last month has been hell for him.”

“This kite that just died—I’m going to do an autopsy on him,” Ahmed said. “You flash-sterilize everything?”

“Yes. I need you to look at one of the living kites…” She was staring at him, up and down, reassessing Ahmed. “In the morning, when you’re not so tired.”

“Why?”

“He’s unusually old. Older than the others by several years. I thought the virus would have gotten him by now, but he’s doing well, mashallah.”

“Bring him in to the exam room. Anything irregular is worth a look.”

Ahmed hadn’t seen a kite healthy enough to move around yet. Most of them lay in bed, wheezing, secreting mucus, too weak to wipe it on their skin flaps.

This one flopped into the exam room determinedly, pivoting on two tiny toes at the lower corners of his body. His head perched on a thin stick of a spine, while the rest of him could have been a draped blanket. His papery frame sagged and he clung to the wall with two little clawed fingers at the top corners of his baggy skin, then he swung his body outward and grabbed the edge of the examination table.

They really couldn’t walk, couldn’t move without a strong wind. They blew across the plains of Isach, endless flocks, living on the updrafts, mating in the sky, only coming down to eat.

He saw Ahmed and gave a hideous, sharp-toothed, mucus-coated smile that could not have been a natural expression. “Salaam alaykum,” he chirped and again, in Standard, “Friend?”

“Ibrahim, this is Dr. el-Mahy,” Adéla said in Arabic. “Ibrahim is, like his namesake, a father of many nations. Twenty-four children.”

“Friend?”

Adéla looked from Ibrahim to Ahmed. “Are you going to answer him?” When Ahmed didn’t answer, she said. “They place a lot of stock in friends.” After a moment, she added “Also, I think it’s the only word they know in Standard.”

Ahmed reached for a syringe. “Can you tell him that I want to draw his blood?”

“He understands Arabic. Tell him yourself.”

Those little black eyes were making him shiver. Ahmed spoke his best, patchy Arabic, “This will hurt, but it will maybe heal you.”

“Naam, sadeaki.” Ibrahim tilted his head, giving Ahmed access to the flat, webbed neck that displayed a number of blue veins. Ahmed took the blood from the kite’s veins. It was a very familiar, Earthly dark red. “Thank you.”

“Friend, sadeaki, allahu akbar, inshallah.”

The little thing babbled in Arabic through the whole blood draw, clinging to the table and occasionally shaking, snapping the flaps of his body. When Ahmed withdrew the needle, he looked at Adéla and squeaked out a long, loud string of Arabic.

“What was that?” Ahmed asked.

“A joke,” she said. “Kind of. He says that his blood is a little overripe. Because he’s old.” She frowned. “Ibrahim, you are funnier when you’re not trying to be funny.”

Ahmed put the vials next to his microscope slides.

“So,” Adéla said. “I have to know—what did they tell you about this assignment?”

“Not enough,” Ahmed answered.

“Well.” That left her at a loss for words. She stroked Ibrahim’s enormous snout. The old kite muttered more in Arabic. Ahmed caught the word “jihad.” He supposed everything must look like “the struggle” right now to the kites.

“Let me take a look at your nose and ears, too, Ibrahim.” Ahmed said. “Might help.” He bent down.

Ibrahim leaned close, and his nose moved, making that peculiar deep rumbling sniff. “Friend…” Ahmed met Ibrahim’s eyes, dark, deep wells—and not so dark. Ahmed thought he saw clouds billowing across that gaze, heard a high wind—

Darkness swallowed everything.

 

He soared; he rose above clouds. The sun should have burned, should have blinded, but it held him, warmed him, danced around him in a graceful pattern.

The light formed words, gracefully swooping, curving words in Arabic. He could almost read them—

Darkness again.

 

He dreamed he was a little child, holding his mother’s hand. She showed him how to bow, how to sink to his knees, and how to get up again. “We praise God five times a day,” she whispered. “It is to remember what God has done for us.”

“What has God done for us?” Ahmed asked.

“Oh, my dear,” his mother said. She pointed above them, and Ahmed became aware that air was rushing around him, lifting him, pushing him into the air. “He taught us to fly.”

He woke cold despite the thick blanket. The tiny room, nearly filled by his bed, was bright with sunlight streaming through the dirty window.

“Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, ash-hadu alla ilaha…” The call to prayer echoed faintly through the air, magnified. Ahmed looked at the small clock on his bedstand. Thirteen-thirteen. Friday.

“Shit!” Ahmed scrambled out of bed. He was still in his scrubs. He bolted through the curtain that marked off his bed from the rest of his small house—“Ahhh!” Ahmed was too late to stop himself. He crashed into Adéla, and a much younger girl. All three of them fell to the floor. A cup of coffee spun around in the air, and came down on the younger girl, drenching her.

Ahmed grabbed the girl by her hand, pulled her up. “Are you burned? Adéla, in my bag…”

“Not burned. It was lukewarm already,” Adéla said.

The little girl wiped it out of her eyes. She was a younger version of Adéla, about thirteen. She pinched the fabric of her blue, white-fringed dress and held it away from her body…her obviously new dress, that had come in on the shipment with Ahmed. Shit.

“Well,” Adéla said. “Salaam alaykum to you too. It’s okay, Sofia.” Adéla raised her daughter up by the hand. “It’s okay.”

Ahmed opened his mouth, and shut it again. By her face, he was sure that Sofia would have gladly traded a new doctor for the new dress.

“I’ll get the stain out, habibi,” Adéla said, and exhaled. “Somehow.”

Sofia finally said, in a very small voice, “Pablo would have done something to it anyway.”

I’m so sorry. The words weren’t much, so Ahmed didn’t say them. Adéla hugged her daughter, heedless of the coffee. She had none of the haggard look of last night—she wore makeup, a soft purple hijab, nice pants, and was rather pretty in this light. “Doctor, this is Khadija Sofia, the better version of me. Sofia, this is Ahmed.”

Sofia said, “Salaam alaykum.” And then, a little more cheerfully, “Mamí thought you had dropped dead last night. We’ve been checking your vitals.” She was remarkably polite given that heartbroken stare.

Adéla added, “If I had known you were that exhausted last night, I would have sent you to bed.”

“I was about to do an autopsy, and I cut the kite and I felt—” Felt the presence of God? “What was that?”

“Ah. You too.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know,” she said, voice a reverent whisper. “It just happens sometimes, around the kites.”

“Huh,” Ahmed said. “Maybe a pheromone or something. Subtle smells can do that.”

“Smell.” She gave him a look like he was a child that had amused her. “It just happens. There’s more coffee on the stove. Drink! I came to invite you to jumua.”

“Someone needs to be at the clinic.”

“I’ll do it,” Sofia said.

Ahmed opened his mouth to say, No, and Adéla chimed in, “This is your first jumua with us. Don’t worry. My husband hates long sermons.”

“All sermons are long,” Ahmed said, and a moment later, cursed himself for being obvious. They’d said it in the briefings. You will compose yourself as a true, faithful Muslim in all things. We will check the reports to ensure you are good representatives of your faith.

“All right, if that’s how you feel.” She laughed and went toward the door.

“No, I’ll come. Just let me clean up.” On a Nova Christos world it wouldn’t be enough to avoid pork, booze, and loose women; they wanted a Qur’an-quoting, happy member of the ummah, who would help resolve disputes and argue the meaning of scripture.

Ugh.

She and Sofia went out the door. Ahmed changed into the pants, shirt, and jacket he’d packed out. He reached into the crumpled lab coat and grabbed the flask of whiskey, splashed a bit of it into a fresh cup of coffee and gulped the mixture with a deep, satisfied sigh.

He stepped outside. The hot, dry air of Isach blasted his face.

A few rugged, bare hills lay on the far horizon to Ahmed’s left. In the other direction, flatland stretched to infinity, marked by red scrubby grass. A brown river ran through the vista, dotted with small, white-barked trees. Corrugated metal buildings clustered on the cleared land around them. A field of corn waved in the wind, the only patch of green against the red and brown.

It was an especially godforsaken place to inspire so much debate about the guy.

Kites rose out of the cornfield, sweeping up toward the sky, like playing cards flying into the air from a child’s hand. Black squares, one after another, lost in the blue.

“They eat the bugs in our crops, and in return, we feed them,” Adéla said.

“Handy,” Ahmed said. “Can’t the homesteaders make the same deal?”

“The homesteaders aren’t getting resupply every six months. That’s a big risk to take on a cash crop.”

“They must be able to live with the kites. You’ve found a way.”

“We have the Islamic Confederation to bail us out when things go wrong, Doctor, and believe me, things go wrong. Everyone else within a thousand miles is a former asteroid miner who made just enough money to buy a patch of a real sky and real earth. One bad harvest, and…” She sighed. “I don’t know that it will matter for much longer.”

“Why do you say that?”

She raised a hand, motioning to the kites in the field. “Just two months ago, when a flock roosted here, they looked like a carpet. They would cling to the ground and the wind would lift them like tents. For miles, covering the hills and the plains.”

Ahmed put fingers to his temples. “I need to find a way around—that thing. What happens around them. I can’t afford to lose it in the middle of a procedure again.”

“Odd, that. It doesn’t happen to everyone. I can feel it, but my husband feels nothing around the kites.” She adjusted the hijab over her head, which was threatening to unfurl in the wind.

“Pheromones,” Ahmed said.

She gave a groan. “Allah, I see that you have brought me another man who knows everything.”

“I’m sorry,” Ahmed said.

“Well, mashallah. He knows how to apologize.” She gave him a broad smile. “I am only giving you a hard time. You are the doctor.”

She was a bit guarded. He hated that. “Yes, well, if something is important, I want you just to say it. Don’t worry what I will think. I need your help, and I appreciate the good nursing.” He added, “I apologize again if I devalued your opinion.”

She actually blushed. “I…well thank you.”

“Say exactly what you’re thinking.” Even if it was religious nonsense, it didn’t pay to ignore a nurse.

The mosque was one of the only buildings in the settlement that had no artificial elements. Light stone the color of the distant hills was chinked with brown, clay-ridden concrete. It was a perfect octagon, washed out by the brilliant sun, and a smaller octagon at the center of the roof made up the minaret. Over the roar of the wind, the call to prayer sounded, lyrical and soft.

Inside the mosque, homespun wool prayer rugs covered the swept-dirt floor, and woven grass hanging proclaimed Qur’anic verses in swooping black Arabic. The riches of the mosque were a sharp contrast to the poor colony outside. Ahmed supposed that the only mosque on the continent, maybe the whole planet, had some kind of duty to impress.

People recognized him even before Ahmed removed his shoes. A thin, bearded man stood up and grasped Ahmed’s hand, and several of his compatriots followed. “Salaam alaykum, Doctor. It is so good to have you here. Rahman was saying how much he wished we’d had a better doctor a few months ago.”

“Why months ago?”

“We found an entire tribe with holes torn through their bodies. Very sad.”

The man identified as Rahman grasped Ahmed’s hand. “Lucky they didn’t live long.”

Another man grasped his hand. “God has surely sent you here.” His eyes glistened. “We were taking kites with us on hajj next year, all the way to Earth. And now those who were to go are dead, all in the last month. This virus is a part of the war, you can be sure. We will see some justice in time, inshallah.”

“Sorry.” Ahmed pulled away and excused himself to a basin for ablutions, washing himself as much to keep people away as to keep up appearances. When he was done, Ahmed pulled a prayer rug from the wall, rolled it out, and sat, trying not to show his irritation. He noticed Adéla doing the same, in the back of the mosque with the women. It felt wrong. He wanted nothing more than to throw down the rug and run. There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. And you’re all goddamn nuts.

The kites clattered inside, clinging to the walls, chirping, squealing with the joy of worshiping God.

Jose, the imam—Adéla’s husband—took the stand, clutching a Qur’an. He gazed out over the crowd, his eyes fierce even behind the scratched, crooked glasses. “What does it mean to struggle?”

It hit Ahmed. A feeling of lightness.

Love.

He looked behind him and saw kites staring, their mouths open in creepy, sharp-toothed grins. He could almost hear kite thoughts, blowing in and out as if they were on the wind as well. Friends. Sadeaki. Salaam. Peace.

Damn it, this wasn’t right. Their emotions shoved into his head, chattered, crowded out Ahmed’s thoughts like some kind of robe-wearing cultish mind control.

Jose said, “Is that jihad? Do we trust in the answers of men or God? The kites will not fight. We have learned this in so many sad ways. The Qur’an asks us all a question. Will you not fight in the cause of the oppressed?”

Wouldn’t fight? Ahmed massaged his forehead. What sentient species wouldn’t fight? In the hundred years of faster-than-light travel, humans had encountered a handful of sentient species. None had any technology to speak of—but they all fought wars, if just with spears and darts. It was a constant.

Ahmed couldn’t think, couldn’t feel anything other than that cloying feeling, like his soul was being soaked in syrup.

The congregation rose to pray. “Allahu akbar.” Choking voices. Weeping voices. “Allahu akbar.” And in the background, the chirping kites’ voices.

Ahmed bolted, pushing through the crowd, away from the kites, out the door. He slowed only once he was across the common area, well away from those damn things. He walked quickly toward the clinic, on the other side of the dusty common area.

Pheromones! Nose plugs. Cotton.

 

She watched the doctor disappear inside, escaping the crowd of kites, and couldn’t bring herself to follow him through the main entrance. It was a shame. She’d hoped for someone who could fit into the community. He wouldn’t last long. He’d be out with the next shipment.

Can I blame him? Adéla thought. What would I do, if I had a choice?

She went into the mosque through the side, did her ablutions, took Pablo to sit with her and sat, listening to Jose—and nearly fell over while she was praying. One of the other women took her arm and whispered, “Get some sleep! You were up all night! We’ll watch your son.”

That was how she found herself stumbling along the pathway by the river, toward their house, half-asleep, slapping herself as she went. “Should have this handled,” she muttered. “Done it often enough.” God, how good sleep sounded when you’d been nursing sixteen hours a day.

“Don’t move,” said a grating voice. “Ain’t looking to be heard.”

Adéla turned to find herself staring down a shotgun.

“Listen good.” The woman’s face was as worn and wrinkled as a kite’s, creases deep around those dark eyes. Her pants were wet and caked in river mud. A homesteader. One of the Nova Christos, from a settlement to the east. Adéla had never seen one. “I know you got supplies in.”

Adéla swallowed. How many were here? What were they going to do? Oh God—would they hurt Sofia, at the clinic?

“We need antibiotics,” the homesteader woman said. “Fifteen kilos. Folks’re sick.”

“That?” Adéla couldn’t keep surprise out of her voice. “We can spare that much easily.”

“Then you take me right there to that shed of yours.”

Adéla led her to the supply shed and unlatched it. Penicillin was right next to the entrance. “Here,” she said, withdrawing three five-kilogram packs.

“This all of it?”

Couldn’t this empty-worlder read? Each pack declared its weight. Probably not, Adéla realized. A life coaxing crops from Isach, perhaps following life as an asteroid miner—neither was conducive to much reading. “This is it.”

“That’s what I need, then.” She scowled. A single kite tossed itself through the air above, in the blasting wind. “Your damn pets ate all the corn.” She shifted the shotgun, slowly, as if she were about to take a shot. Adéla could, for a moment, almost see it—the shots tearing through the kites, the ragged, bloody holes, the bodies spinning to the ground, the screams and the rush of pain through the empathic link and—

The homesteader lowered her gun. “They’re animals. How you don’t see it? Animals.”

“You know they’re dying.” Adéla regretted it as soon as she said it. The gun barrel seemed to be staring at her. Pablo. Sofia. Jose would have rushed the homesteader by now.

“About time.” And yet the woman’s creased scowl softened. “We’re all going to die, this rate.”

She turned and ran, loping, into the creek bed, where she disappeared.

Adéla’s heart pounded so hard she could hardly see. “Ya Allah,” she whispered. “Keep us safe.” The prayer seemed even more hollow than usual.

 

Ahmed went into the clinic through the back, avoiding the sickroom full of kites. There was a keening noise coming from the exam room and lab. A kite? Ahmed hesitated. He took a deep breath. He would just rush the little thing, whatever it was doing, back to its bed. He would just walk in there and ignore that creepy love and push the kite out—

It wasn’t a kite. It was Sofia. Wearing scrubs, holding the coffee-stained dress and crying. Tears made small trails down her face that caught the light.

“Oh, oh, sorry, sorry Doctor, hi.” She turned away from him. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I…” She let out a little half-laugh. “I don’t know.”

“Hold on. Don’t go anywhere.”

Ahmed went back through the exit. He’d thrown most of his personal goods in with the medical supplies, in a haphazard stack inside the storage shed, so he had to search through several dozen boxes to find what he wanted.

That was odd. He could have sworn there was more penicillin. It would be a hell of a thing to explain on inventory reports, missing penicillin. But if worst came to worst, he had the equipment to clone mold and extract it—the Islamic Confederation had paid, no questions asked, for the most up-to-date lab Ahmed could build here.

When he returned, Sofia was washing her face. She had folded the stained dress up neatly on the exam table.

Ahmed held up the box. “I know this doesn’t help all that much,” Ahmed said. “I want you to have this. All of it.” He pressed the box of chocolate rations into her arms. “It’s not often you get a new dress.”

“I can’t take—”

“Don’t fight it. I don’t even like chocolate,” he lied. He had always loved chocolate nearly as much as whiskey.

She took the box. “Thank you.” And then, “You’re crazy. Everyone loves chocolate. Even the kites like it, and they eat bugs.”

“Good meat on a cricket,” Ahmed deadpanned.

She didn’t laugh. “We ate bugs last year. The first shipment flooded and we had no food at all. The kites showed us where the good grubs were, along the creek. I know they’re haram and everything, but my papí said that God would understand.” She looked as if she wanted Ahmed’s approval for eating haram bugs. He nodded in what he hoped was a reassuring way. It seemed to work. Sofia went on, “I was really hungry, so I really didn’t notice how gross they were, but then, a couple of months ago, me and Jessie tried one again, just to see. I almost threw up.”

“That’s…that’s an interesting story.”

Sofia shrugged, and for a moment, sounded like an average teenager. “There’s not much to do here.” She looked at the exam room, and the rows of kites. “Three more came in sick while you were in jumua. I found one dead this morning.”

“I’m working on it.”

“My papí is having dinner brought up here,” Sofia said. “He wants to eat with you.”

“Oh, no, ah, I’m way too busy to sit down for dinner tonight,” Ahmed said.

“No you’re not.” She glared. “My dad is the imam.”

Ahmed closed his eyes, not trusting his expression. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Jose’s arm stirred Adéla awake. “Habibati.”

She leaped up and gasped. “No! I—” She clutched his arm. “I—”

“You’re okay.” He pulled her closer. “Nightmare?”

“Something happened.” She looked down. She was halfway out of her good clothes, and halfway into scrubs. She had fallen asleep, if not a restful sleep—she’d dreamed of running, running to try and find her children, and she could not find them anywhere. Adéla staggered up, threw off her half-buttoned pants, pulled on scrub pants, and sat at the mirror that faced their tiny living room, doubling as half a bathroom.

She rubbed cold water into the bags under her eyes and began re-pinning her hijab.

“What happened?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” Her heart beat away at her ribs.

“What’s wrong?” He walked over to where she was.

“Why do you think something’s wrong?”

“Because you’re about to spear yourself,” he said. Adéla looked down at her hands and saw they were indeed shaking, to the point where the long pin in her hand was pressing against the skin of her other hand, instead of the fabric of the hijab.

He stood over her, brushed a hand across her hair where it had come free of the hijab. He smelled good; a heady mixture of the incense from the mosque, soil, corn, and a hint of the chocolate they’d all been eating. She closed her eyes and leaned against his waist.

“You need someone to help you with that?”

“What would the ummah say if they knew the imam offered to wrap his wife’s hijab?”

“The ummah doesn’t need to know what happens in our bedroom. As I’ve told certain old ladies many times.” He gave a smart-mouthed grin that she hadn’t seen in well over a month. “I just want to see if I can do it as well as you. Or better.”

“You…” He’d asked before, but she’d always laughed it off. Jose was the sort of man who was never satisfied with anything unless he’d done it himself.

But it was good to see him smile. She held up the pin. “If you dare, oh wise imam.”

He leaned down in front of her, his eyes narrowed in concentration, and pinned it, first under her chin, then wrapped the hijab around her head, pinned it again, and stared in confusion. “I can get this part,” he said. “Hold on.” She almost told him just to leave it long, but finally, with more skill than she would want him to know he had, he pinned it back twice, leaving a large fold at her neck.

“Am I supposed to look like a rooster?”

“You tuck that into your blouse!” He stood up. “You know that. I think, for my first time, I did everything right.”

She hated to admit it, because she loved toying with him, but he had done a fair job. “How does it feel to know everything, oh wise imam?”

“I just pay attention,” he said. She turned around to see him taking up most of the tiny space between the stove and cupboards in their tiny kitchen. “So, seriously, what happened?”

Adéla paused, holding a bundle of fabric in her hand.

She wished someone else had asked first. The doctor, or Sofia, or the other Muslims, or even a kite. Jose would feel betrayed if she didn’t tell him first. But he’d also…I need to tell him first. He’s not just my husband; he is the imam. The community has to know. She wished she didn’t have to use that kind of logic so often. “I saw a homesteader.”

“What?” Jose’s gaze hardened. “Where? How many? When?”

“Just one. She wanted penicillin. I got her some. It was well over an hour ago. She’ll be far away by now.” Jose made a noise of disbelief. “It’s okay, we have enough penicillin.”

“I can’t believe it! Here! In the camp! In our own camp? They came in here!” Jose stalked out of the kitchen, toward the closet where he kept his home office. “I have to call the men together. As soon as we’re done eating, I have to…”

His words seemed to blur together. She snuck across the room to the cupboard where he had been. He’d been the one stocking this yesterday, while she was busy helping up at the clinic.

The cupboard was full of bullets. Packs of bullets, in small, oiled-cloth wrapped, flat packages, stacked atop each other.

Pablo chose that moment to open the door and come running in. “Mamí, Mamí, Mamí, where’s the new spaceship? Where?” He pulled at the hem of her dress. “Where?”

“Over there,” she said, pointing. Her hand still shook.

Pablo ran to the table where he had left his new toy and picked it up, his face lighting up. “Spaceship!” He leaped in the air. “Mamí, it’s still here!” She’d ordered a new toy for her son, and a new dress for her daughter, with the resupply.

“Of course it is, habibi,” Adéla said. She walked into the home office slowly. Jose was typing, hard enough that she had to raise her voice over the clatter of the keyboard. “Jose,” she said. “What are you using all those bullets for?”

“Hunting,” he said, without missing a beat. “Aaron is going tonight.”

“Didn’t Aaron get his own ration of bullets?”

“I’m doling out the rations now,” Jose said. “It’s safer that way.”

Adéla almost said it. What are you planning? Have you thought about our children? She wished she could believe that would make a difference. What will change?

“Next time this happens, tell me right away,” he said. “We need to know everything they’re planning.”

The words died on Adéla’s tongue.

She turned and slipped out.

Behind her, the house shuddered in the wind, prefabricated metal beams creaking against the concrete that moored them. Ahead of her, wind swept dust clouds over the trees that grew crookedly from the riverbed.

Adéla walked to the edge of the river, looked out at the water where the homesteader had come from a moment before. It was beautiful, that small flat trickle of water, amongst the Isachian reeds and twisted, white-barked trees. All the more beautiful because it grew in the middle of the brown plains.

She loved this planet. They had made Pablo here. Sofia had grown from a little girl to a woman here. She had come to love the kites here, in their innocence, in their peace, for their strength when supplies ran out, for their strange senses of humor.

And Jose…had stopped smiling here.

Adéla put her arms around herself. It wouldn’t take long. She would walk back in there, and ask him what he was planning, and he would talk about how helpless they were, watching the kites die. She would ask him to be patient, to wait and find out what the doctor could find out, to not do anything rash, and he would say they were already out of time, and he would leave to pray, because he was a good man, one who never raised his voice or showed his rage, saved it all for his prayers, and sometimes she would have sold her blood to know what he said in those prayers. And what answers he received.

 

The whole family sat around the exam room, plates in laps, full of meat, cornbread, and rehydrated peas. All except for Pablo, Sofia’s three-year-old brother, who held up his spaceship and yelled “Whoosh!”

“Settling in, Doctor?” Jose said. “Adéla says you know your way around a lot better than our last doctor. Of course, he was just a field medic. When they said they were sending a virologist, I fell to my knees and thanked God over and over again.” He took another bite of cornbread. “Then they said they were sending sugar, and Isach turned into paradise itself.”

“Sofia, eat,” Adéla said. Sofia was gingerly sliding the meat away from her other food.

“It’s a rat,” Sofia said.

“Young woman,” Adéla said, “you’ve only read about Earth rats in books, and thugs are nothing like them.”

“Oh, this is the thing that was poking around the landing site?” Ahmed asked. “Little brown thing with a long tail?”

“Yes,” said Jose. “We call them thugs, because they fight each other endlessly. Don’t worry, they’re halal. They’ll maul each other, but they eat bugs and grass.” He half-smiled and raised a forkful of meat. “I still dream of beef.”

“Its cranial shape is kind of like the kites,” Ahmed said. “Probably a common ancestor.”

“I’m not eating a kite!” Sofia shrieked.

Pablo jumped into his mother’s lap, holding up the spaceship. “Whoosh! Whoosh! Spaceship takes us all away! Whoosh!”

“Not so loud, Pablo,” Adéla said. She ruffled her son’s hair. “Little habibi.”

“Mamí, let go,” Pablo said. “I need to fly spaceship.”

Adéla asked, “I always wonder about having him this close to the kites. Do you think he’s in any danger from the virus, doctor?”

Jose went oddly quiet.

“Yes,” Ahmed said. “It’s possible. Unusual, but I studied primaria on Xara for five years. That was the first virus to jump from one sentient species to another, and the Xarans were so insular that we couldn’t discover anything about its origins. Interesting. Really interesting, the more you look at it. Humans in the first stages actually reported that they could see or hear better.” He started to take another bite, then put down his fork and kept talking. “Take an alien virus, and let it mix its genetic material with a human host cell, and even once the virus is dead, and even once you kill the pathogen, the cell is still affected, acting strange, so to speak, because it didn’t co-evolve with the virus. Sometimes it’s irreparably damaged, sometimes it’s—” He stopped. “Sorry. I can go on.”

Adéla smiled at him. “Look, we found his passion.”

“If it’s a genetically engineered virus,” Jose said, “it won’t jump. They’re made to target one population only.”

“We don’t know that yet,” Ahmed said.

“Well, yes. You don’t,” Jose said.

“A custom virus,” Ahmed said, standing up and washing his hands, “built to take down a specific genetic structure? That’s a lot to ask of backwater Nova Christos.”

“There were three thousand kites outside the settlement at this time, just a year ago.”

Ahmed didn’t speak.

“But you are right,” Jose said, his voice bitter. “We can’t accuse the Christian homesteaders of crimes against sentience. No matter what we know. No, we have to wait. First, we waited for a virologist. Now, we wait for you to figure out the nature of the virus. Then, once we know, we petition the Islamic Confederation to bring an interstellar tribunal against the territorial authority, who are all Nova Christos and won’t do anything. By then, every last kite is dead. So we wait,” he said, rinsing his plate, “and pray. To the only authority who listens.”

It was the stupidest thing to say in the whole galaxy. But it came out of Ahmed’s mouth anyway. “Don’t be so quick to consult God. No matter which way you look at it, He’s responsible for the virus.”

Sofia, Jose, and Adéla all stared at him. Sofia looked shocked. Jose looked angry. Adéla put her face in her hands. Was she laughing?

Pablo walked up to Ahmed and said, “Whoosh! Spaceship take us away!” When Ahmed didn’t answer, he pointed at the spaceship and said, “I want you to come too.”

 

Adéla’s family cleared out in the awkward silence, and Ahmed went to work, focusing on anything but the conversation he’d just had. In a way, it was a relief. They were finally leaving him alone.

Once the scanners were set up, it took little time to find the disease. The kites were Earthlike enough, their blood red and thermo-regulated like a mammal’s despite the lack of milk ducts, and despite irregularities in their blood, Ahmed found something that looked an awful lot like a virus; a nasty, complex thing. Ibrahim’s blood had lower concentrations of the virus, as expected, than the other blood samples.

He spoke aloud to the empty room. “Something’s going on there.”

The autopsy was more questions than answers, but Ahmed discovered that there were dozens of little glands in the secondary respiratory system on the kites’ chest. Must be where the pheromones came from. Each one was a perfect little sack of chemicals, ready to become airborne and expelled. They were connected to what looked like thick nerve clusters. Can they actually control what they release? Is it conscious?

Pheromone exchange explained why an airborne virus moved even quicker than usual, at least.

Too many questions. But he looked at where he had mixed Ibrahim’s antibodies, and thought there might be an answer.

When Ahmed walked into the sickroom, Ibrahim was awake, whistling softly to himself. Ahmed hesitated. Hell, he couldn’t avoid checking vitals, no matter what sort of creepy visions they were putting in his head. Ahmed forced himself forward, looking at the readings on the old kite’s monitor.

“Anything, friend?” Ibrahim chirped.

His Standard was better. That was fast. “Well, your blood’s not overripe,” Ahmed said, as he checked the old kite’s vitals. “It’s well-seasoned.”

Ibrahim squealed with laughter, so hard he almost fell off his bed. “Oh, friend! You understand!”

Ahmed walked away from the table. No vision. He couldn’t help sighing with relief.

 

Three batches of cake batter, and Adéla’s tongue was numb from sugar. “I feel sick, Sofia. I don’t think I’m a good taster anymore.”

Sofia looked over at the now-depleted box of chocolate rations. “I can’t believe he gave me all of it!”

“I’m glad you’re happy, sweetie,” Adéla said. She couldn’t avoid brushing her hand through her daughter’s hair. Narina and her family were talking in the living room, drinking the fresh coffee. Adéla couldn’t think enough for small talk; it was all about how good the new food was, anyway. And about the kites. “Are you coming home with me? Dad will be home by now.”

“I still have to make frosting, Mom!”

“Fine,” Adéla said. “Come home later. No, wait. Stay here. Pablo, too. I don’t want you walking home.”

“What? Why?”

“Don’t question,” Adéla snapped. “Trust me.”

Sofia nodded quietly. “Okay, Mamí.”

Adéla left, first checking to make sure her son was still asleep on Narina’s couch. She couldn’t say why she’d told them to stay. She walked the sixty-six steps to her own prefabricated house—why worry about sixty-six steps? They should be fine—and opened the door and said, “I left them at Narina’s with the sugar. Did you know Ahmed gave Sofia—”

Jose wasn’t there.

Adéla checked around the house. Jose was not asleep. He was not in the bathroom or the kitchen.

We pray. To the only authority who listens. And what had God told him?

She stared at the cupboard. She was better off knowing less and less—and yet she walked to the cupboard, and opened it.

The bullets were gone.

She walked out into the dry cold wind. “Oh God,” she whispered. “What do I do?”

 

It was well after midnight when Ahmed finished the autopsy and stumbled to bed. The wind howled around him, throwing dust in his face. He slammed the door behind him and fumbled for the battery-powered lamp, flipping it on.

Adéla was sitting on Ahmed’s bed. She held up his flask of whiskey. “This will not make you popular.”

“It’s for my bedside manner.” Ahmed sat at his table. “Hello.” It seemed stupid to ask why she was there.

“Jose’s gone,” she said. “I don’t know where.”

“Oh for God’s sake.”

She laughed. “I’m pretty sure you want nothing to do with God. ‘He made the virus anyway’? Cute, Doctor.”

Ahmed didn’t answer.

“I knew a boy, growing up, who wanted to be a doctor. Very much. Not very religious, until the Confederation covered his medical school. You’ve never seen a more rapid conversion.”

“Uh, uh…I’m not the most devout, but…”

“Secret’s safe, if this is.” She took a drink from the flask. “Oh. Wow.” She poured a glass of water, then another one, gulping them down.

“First time with a bottle?”

“First time in quite a while. I was hoping it would help me forget my worries. I think it’s just going to make me sick.”

“You need something for your stomach?”

She clicked her tongue for no. She stood up, taking a moment to steady herself, then walked closer to Ahmed. “You want me to be blunt, right?”

“Yes.”

“Right now, I would take any way off this planet. Anything that lets me, and my children, go somewhere safe. Tonight.” She was standing even closer. “I should have said something before, but this all happened so fast, and I’ve been so tired…” He could smell her breath, sour with whiskey. “I don’t know what Jose is doing, but I know that whatever he is doing, he believes he’s in the right, and he can’t be convinced otherwise. That scares me.”

“That’s a side effect of always speaking for God.”

“You are a terrible actor,” she said. Quicker than he would have thought possible, she unpinned her hijab and removed it, letting it fall to the ground. Her black hair fell around her shoulders. She leaned over and her hair brushed his ear. “Please, tell me what to do.”

Ahmed found his voice. “Adéla, I’m—what are you doing?” Her hot breath was on his cheek now. “Are you using me for a convenient way to divorce?” She looked very beautiful, her pleading eyes caught in the low light. It had been a long, long time. Many virology labs ago.

“I’m…flailing.” Her voice fell, soft, blending with the howling wind outside. She withdrew a little, looked at the hijab on the ground as if just now realizing she’d taken it off. “You don’t know what it’s like. I love the kites, and I love my children, and I love my husband, but the ones I can still protect, out of the three, are my children.”

Ahmed couldn’t think of what to say.

“You have an education, connections. If you could get us off-world, I would…”

“No.”

Relief filled her face, for half a moment before the fear returned.

Ahmed waited. The wind beat at the corrugated tin walls of his shack. The metal shook, ringing. Adéla walked to the other side of the room, and then back again, picking up her hijab and twisting it in her hands as if wringing it out. “I’ve been watching kites die for a month now, on sickbeds. For years, I’ve been watching homesteaders kill them. I can’t do this anymore. And Jose never sleeps. He prays, and he reads the Qur’an and hadith. All night long sometimes. Prays and reads and prays.”

“Doesn’t he get answers?” Ahmed said.

“I’m scared that he has gotten his answer.”

Ahmed stared at the window. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he finally settled on, “I can get you something for anxiety.”

“That’s good,” she said. She stepped closer to him. “I suppose it would be a horrible scandal if I asked simply to sleep here?”

Ahmed didn’t answer.

“Simple sleep. I don’t want to be alone.” Her voice trembled, broke, high-pitched for a moment like a kite’s. “One of those pills would help.”

“I’ll take the floor,” Ahmed said.

Adéla clicked her tongue for no. She lay on the bed, and he brought her a glass of water and a sleeping pill. After she took it, he lay next to her, not touching, chaste, just listening to each other’s breathing.

She whispered, “How can you not believe? Look at the sky, the water. Children! It will change when you have children. The universe is such a cold place if you assign everything to chance.”

“It is a colder place when you have to know why a merciful God would do horrible things,” Ahmed said.

“You got me there.”

They waited, until exhaustion took over.

 

To struggle, in the soul, before God.

He glided through the sky, on high, cold winds, spattering drops of rain. He tumbled, soared over small dark buildings. He dove and seized the ground, rooted himself and flattened out on the plain.

These were kite thoughts, Ahmed half-realized, through sleep. A dream? No, he felt the rain slide against his thin skin, the wind beat at his ears. The air was rich with scent: sweet corn, the stink of cattle, dry grass rapidly softening in rain.

A large cross rose against the stars here, and beyond it, a circle of brick homes. This was not territory for friends; it was a place of others, the not-yet-friends. Why were the friends, the Muslims, here?

He climbed across the ground, letting the wind beat against him, flatten him out over the small pricks of grass.

The lights went on in the small, dark buildings.

The friends, the Muslims, knocked down doors, forced other humans out of the buildings with the crosses on them. The other humans were not-yet-friends, but the friends, the Muslims, were not kind to them, did not seek to befriend them. The friends forced the others to their knees.

The friends, the Muslims, made prayers, allahu akbar and bismallah.

But the prayers were made in not-friendship, and such prayers do not fly up to God.

The friends pressed guns against the not-yet-friends, the homesteaders. Their fear filled his nostrils, a sharp, cutting scent, breaking into his brain, making him quiver. Homesteaders wept and he smelled the salt of tears, heard the words of a father telling his daughter to be brave, of curses, of prayers to the cross God. He climbed forward, against the wind lifting his body, clutching at the wet earth, to speak to the friends, to stop them—

They fired. Muslims shot homesteader after homesteader. The round human heads broke, like clouds in wind, shreds flying away.

Ahmed jolted up, bumped into Adéla, fell back against the wall. She mumbled and rolled over.

It was cold and dark. His window rattled. It had blown partway open, letting in the freezing wind. He slammed it shut. His breath ran ragged through his lungs; Ahmed looked down, expecting for a moment the flat flap of a kite’s chest.

The moon was shining through the window onto the waves of Adéla’s hair on his pillow. She rolled over, mumbled in her sleep, and suddenly opened her eyes. “Bismallah! Not-friend!” She sat up, eyes wide open, locking with Ahmed’s. “Jose? Ah—” She swallowed. “Ahmed.”

“Hi,” Ahmed said.

“My God. What a dream.”

“I saw the same thing,” Ahmed said.

She turned toward him, her face alight with the moon. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that dream was exactly what it seemed like it was.” He stood up and rubbed his eyes. “Some kite saw it, and it got relayed to the other kites. We even caught a bit of it on the wind in their pheromones. It means…” He stared at her, his heart hollow. “It means Jose just killed an entire homestead.”

She didn’t speak. She looked unable to speak, as if her voice had been taken. After an eternity of cold silence, the walls ringing with the wind, she said, “I need to check on my children, Doctor.”

“Call me Ahmed, for God’s sake.” He frowned. “Stop making me feel like I’m diagnosing you.”

She looked at the door, then she leaned closer to him. “Thank you for tonight.”

After she left, he crossed the brown openness to the clinic, looking around. For once, the wind had died down. It was still as a funeral out here today. The Isachian sun hadn’t broken the horizon yet. The sky was a sheet of predawn gray over the soft brown landscape.

The clinic was quiet in the early morning. Ahmed went through the sickroom, holding his nose, keeping one eye on the kites. Everything appeared normal. All monitors were showing vital signs as good. “Sofia? You here?” He thought he heard noises in the exam room again.

Ahmed opened the door to find Ibrahim, clutching at the table in the exam room, praying. “Ash-hadu anlaa ilaaha…” He looked up at Ahmed and launched into Arabic.

“Ibrahim,” Ahmed said.

The barrage of chirpy Arabic would have been impossible for even a linguist to understand. But this was good. Ibrahim wanted to pray, and he had the faculties to do so—that meant the old kite was actually recovering.

He reached for Ahmed. “Help, friend? No wind to help me pray.”

“To pray?”

“The wind,” Ibrahim said. “We pray in ground, and we pray in wind.”

“Oh.” Kneeling and standing. Of course it would be difficult for the kites to move up and down without the wind. They must have prayed on the ground first, then flying up into the wind in lieu of kneeling and standing.

Ahmed clutched at his pants. Wondered if he should get nose plugs. And then thought, stupid. After last night, there would be far worse things in store than a few pheromones.

Ahmed took the kite’s hooked hands. The pebble-rough claws grated against Ahmed’s skin. The same tough, thick claws that he’d felt last night, digging into the earth, keeping him rooted against the wind. He lowered Ibrahim into something approximating a kneel while the kite prayed, raised him again as if he were standing. “Thank you,” Ibrahim said.

“Let me look at your nose while you’re here.” Ahmed hesitated. “Just…go easy on me.”

Ibrahim didn’t answer. Ahmed shone the scope into those enormous nostrils. The mucus was fairly viscous, but there was no blood, and he could hear the air whistle through the passages. “Still looking good. It’s like you just got a cold and everyone else got tuberculosis. Hm. We may have an option other than watching you die.”

“We are watching you die, friend,” Ibrahim said, with an uncharacteristic serious tone.

Ahmed had to stop for that one. “What?”

Ibrahim’s nose sucked in air like an overeager dog, but his voice tone was cold and serious. “Friend. Listen, friend.” He peered at Ahmed through those wrinkle-rimmed black eyes. “This is the struggle. This is the jihad. To understand the friend.” He opened his mouth, showing sharp teeth, in a strange smile. “We teach you flying.”

More words came back, from the dream-that-was-not-a-dream. The prayers did not fly. Ahmed’s mind went different. Wrong. Like a kite’s. He could feel it. Storm clouds, cold, wet, driving hail, eating him up, along the lines of his skin. Roofs and walls were wrong, keeping out the wind. His hands shook and his breath wheezed in his throat.

A voice called to him out of the sky, a voice that rumbled in his body, moved through him like blood. The voice of—God?

He saw the homesteaders’ heads break apart again. They were on their knees, still before the guns, their fear was burning in his nose, and then they were dead.

Sofia came into the room, her hair tied up. Her eyes were bleary. “I brought you cake, Doctor. We used your chocolate and made three kinds last—are—are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Ahmed lied. Tears trickled cold down his face. “Ah, just sand in my eye. Sand everywhere.”

She coughed suddenly, a long series of coughs, grabbing a tissue and hacking into it. “Gross. Sorry. Allergies.”

“Did that bring up mucus?” Ahmed asked.

“Not much.” Sofia held up the tissue. Ahmed took it. It wasn’t the stuff of allergies; there was a distinct dark note to the mucus. “You might have a sinus infection,” he said. “I ought to take some of your blood.” The tissue shook in his hand. “After I get some air.”

“I can take my own blood,” Sofia said.

“You shouldn’t,” Ahmed said.

“I’ve been doing it for two years.” She rolled her eyes in the way only a thirteen-year-old could. “I’m not afraid to take blood, Doctor.”

He stumbled outside, leaving Sofia. The sun was rising over the plain, a faint gray light stealing over dull metal buildings and the variegated, irregular surface of the mosque. The wind battered Ahmed’s face. The community was just waking up. He saw the thin man who had talked to him in the mosque, and his friend, and a half-dozen others, a few of whom waved. Ahmed wished he could tell whom, of the figures walking to the mosque and to the garden plots, gently weeding or carrying pots of food, had been in the dream last night.

Who had killed.

He heard Adéla behind him. When she got close enough, he said “Any word?”

“You can’t tell who was gone and who wasn’t last night,” she said. Two kites soared over the mosque, wheeling in the wind, into the cornfield, their cries rising. “I’m going to go have a few words with my husband.”

“Are you going to ask him if he started a war?”

She tightened up, wrapping her arms around herself. “What do you say when you already know the answer to a question like that?”

They waited there in silence, watching the community. “I’m sure you wish you had never come,” Adéla said.

“Interesting work for a virologist,” Ahmed said, for lack of anything else. When she didn’t respond, he said, “I won’t leave you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

 

Jose was washing his arm in the sink. The water tank creaked beneath the house as it ran over him. Water mixed with blood and ran pink into the depths of the sink.

Adéla watched him until he looked up and saw her. “Hello, habibati.”

“What did you do last night?”

He waited too long to answer her. “Cut myself, for one.”

“You weren’t here.”

“I know.”

How did you ask your husband if he was a murderer? How did you ask your bright, fierce husband, whom Adéla had loved for his courage in the classroom and his passion for learning, who was brave enough to take this assignment when Adéla feared they weren’t up to it, who always had an answer, whose surety had once given her such comfort, if he had murdered people in cold blood?

He answered for her.

“We can’t wait any longer. I know the homesteaders made the virus. They will know how to unmake it.”

“Why?” Adéla said. “Why did you kill them? What message does that send?”

Jose’s face went blank. “How…how did you know?”

“The kites told me,” she said.

He didn’t say anything.

“You’ve put us all in danger,” she said. “Me, the children, the kites, the entire colony. How could you do that? Why would you just kill them?”

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I discussed this with the ummah, yesterday.”

“Not everyone!”

“I couldn’t put you and the children in danger!” His voice calmed, that sure tone she had once loved, that now terrified her. “We fasted upon it, studied jihad, spoke late into the night, and we could see no other way but to take action now. I fulfilled all the precepts, habibati. I spoke to that homestead, just last month, after we finished hunting. I told them we would trade food, medicine, I would get the kites to leave their crops alone if they could just stop the virus. You know what? They laughed in my face. I did what Islam decrees—”

“You should tell me!”

When she started to speak, he said, “It was justified, habibati! They were warned.”

“How does this get us any closer to curing the disease”—she spat out the words— “oh wise imam?”

His face went dark. “I’m tired of being afraid. It is their turn.”

“This isn’t right!” she said. “Jose, this—this isn’t you!”

“This is jihad!” he said. “Why would you not fight in the cause of God and oppressed men, women, and children?” He came closer to her. He reached out and touched her hair, and she realized that her hijab was gone. She’d left it on Ahmed’s floor.

“Adéla, they were warned.” He put a hand at her neck, stroked her hair. After a moment, he grabbed a hijab she had left on the dresser and gently wrapped it around her hair, pinning it for her until it shrouded her head.

She didn’t speak.

“I’ll be in the mosque,” he said to her silence. “I haven’t said my morning prayers.”

 

Ahmed went back to the lab. Focus on work. Focus on work. He checked Ibrahim’s antibodies. They were thriving. The virus was not. Whatever Ibrahim had survived, it gave him immunity to this. It was as he’d thought.

Ibrahim survived a similar disease sometime in his youth.

And there was the answer. This was no man-made disease, just a very nasty new strain of old flu.

Ahmed walked outside, into the storage shed for the medical complex. Past where he’d stored the chocolate, he found the heavy square of a genome-mapper, followed by a thick bundle that read FREEZE AFTER OPENING. There would be no final answer until he truly understood the virus and the antibodies and knew exactly how they worked. But the genome-mapper could mass-produce clones of Ibrahim’s antibodies, and Ahmed could inject them into other kites, to try and hold off the virus.

As the genome-mapper worked, he noticed the vials of blood Sofia had left on the counter. Her own blood. Ahmed dripped some onto an examination disc, slid it under the microscope.

It was hard to tell at this stage, but there was something in her blood that could have been a virus. It could have been any virus. She might have had a cold, or a flu coming on. But just in case, Ahmed added a packet of Ibrahim’s cloned antibodies to the dish.

Adéla came in the door, the call to prayer echoing after her.

“Are you all right? Did Jose say…anything?”

She didn’t answer. Her face was bleak, and she stared past Ahmed. Ahmed picked up the cloned antibodies. “Help me get these into vials,” he said. “We have to hurry on this.”

“What is it?” She eyed the genome-mapper. “I’ve never seen one of those before.”

“I isolated some of Ibrahim’s antibodies. If I’m right, this is a new form of an old disease, one that Ibrahim survived years ago. It’s come back in a particularly virulent way, but he’s still resistant to it.”

“You found a cure?” she asked. “You—it’s an old disease? It’s not man-made?”

“I found something that might help. I will have to study the nature of the antibodies to really figure out a vaccine, but no, it’s a natural pathogen.”

Adéla broke into choking sobs.

“Are you crying?”

“Of course,” she said, and threw her arms around him. “God must have surely sent you, Doctor.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Let me have my faith,” she said. “Now more than ever.”

Ahmed gave up and hugged her back.

“Mom?” asked Sofia from the doorway. Adéla pushed away from Ahmed.

“Sofia,” she said, exhaling, straightening her hijab. “Ahmed found a cure.”

“Really? Really?” She jumped up. “I have to find—I have to find Papí, and I have to tell everyone, and—”

“First,” Adéla said, “find your brother. I haven’t seen him all morning.” She took Sofia by the shoulders and pushed her toward the door. “But yes, please…” Both mother and daughter were shedding tears. “Do tell your papí.”

Adéla turned back around. “Well. Lots of work to—”

A loud, concussive boom cut through the air, shaking the walls.

Ahmed and Adéla rushed outside. Everyone had turned their heads. Human heads looked up from the stand of corn, and kites rose into the air with the wind.

Jose ran from the mosque, looking in the direction of the sound. A number of men spilled into the street behind him.

The only people who hadn’t looked up were a group of children, running through the dusty common area.

Something flew through the air—a kite? Too fast to be a kite, Ahmed realized, and falling. Toward the common area. A high whistle cut the air. Whatever it was, it gleamed in the light for a moment, the gleam of metal and plastic. “What’s—”

The missile hit the mosque.

Concussion smacked Ahmed’s body, drove breath out of his lungs, burst blood vessels in his nose. Pieces of sand-colored stone went whirling overhead, screaming through the air, obscuring where Adéla had been standing. Warm blood leaked from Ahmed’s ears and his nose. Ahmed ran for her. He became aware that he was shouting something, “Find the wounded! Help me out!” He looked around, but the smoke and the dust were too thick to see; he heard crying and screaming and he felt screaming, felt heat toss kites into the sky, rents through their skin, heads and hands gone, ripping like paper.

“Find me Adéla!” Ahmed called.

But he found her. She knelt on the ground, holding her son in her arms. Her son, who was missing half his head.

 

“I couldn’t keep you safe,” she whispered. “I couldn’t keep you safe.” She huddled in a corner of the clinic. His little body was so still, and growing so cold. His little body that had held a spaceship and stared at her bright-eyed and kissed her cheek and cried at bedtime and it was cold. It was wrong.

“I’m so sorry, Adéla,” Ahmed’s voice said, from far away. “I need a nurse, or we’ll lose more people.”

“My sweet boy,” she whispered. “My Pablo.”

“Please, Adéla,” Ahmed said. He was next to her, but she didn’t listen. “I need your help.”

“No!” Adéla’s voice felt raw, cutting like a saw. “No! I’m not going to wrap him—put him in the death, in the cold, I’m not…”

Someone else was there. His nose brushed her hijab, pushed it back, let the hair spill onto her son’s body. His breath was warm on her ear. “Oh friend,” Ibrahim said. “Oh, friend.” The little kite keened, weeping and clinging to her, his enormous flap of skin covering Pablo like a shroud. “Salaam.”

Ibrahim’s own grief doubled hers, and broke the dam. Tears like she had never shed fell onto her son, dark tears from the bleeding bottom of her soul, and she sobbed like a wounded animal.

“Adéla, I need you,” Ahmed said.

“Please, Ibrahim,” she whispered between sobs. She pressed her son’s body inside that flap of skin. “Shroud him for me.”

Ibrahim’s arms, like God’s, enfolded Pablo, wrapping her son in the only life he could feel. “Salaam,” he squeaked, either to her or to her son, she could not tell.

 

Ahmed walked to the half-wrecked mosque. His hands ached from sewing, from bandaging, from shots. His eyes were blurred and throbbing.

Most of the structure had held, but the entrance had been blown apart, scattering rock and mortar everywhere. One of the Arabic hangings, on woven grass, had blown into the square, torn right through the swooping characters invoking the name of God, tearing Bismillah in half.

Ahmed ignored the shouts of his name. He ignored everything; the clinic behind him, the wounded. The chirping of the kites. He ignored the people on their knees praising God for the kites’ lives.

Jose was crying and praying, facing the mihrab. Sofia held on to her dad’s shoulders. She sobbed, her thin body wracked and shaking.

Adéla was with Pablo’s body in the clinic. They had come here, and she had gone there.

Ahmed found the ladder easily enough, and climbed.

He reached the top of the mosque, stood bracing his legs against two logs. A hole had opened up in the minaret, giving him a perfect view over the settlement.

The same thing he had seen yesterday. A few green squares for crops. Kites scattered in the wind, overhead. The smoky, rubble-strewn square, now a scar on the land. Beyond them, the emptiness, and somewhere beyond there, a homesteader community now burying its dead, and planning perhaps another act of retaliation.

A microphone hung from the tower overhead. Ahmed found the switch, flipped it, and tapped the microphone. It worked; a loud thud resonated through the speakers.

“Attention,” Ahmed said. “Attention.” He exhaled heavily. Jose would hear every word as loud as the voice of God. “The virus is not man-made. The kites are dying of a typical disease cycle, and it should pass once we administer the antibodies from older kites who survived the last cycle. The virus is not man-made.”

He stopped. He couldn’t think of any more to say. So he threw the microphone against the bricks and dropped down the stairs.

He crossed the carpets, woven with fine patterns in Arabic, praising the name of God. He walked across blessings of mercy, praise for He who had made the universe, made man from a blood clot. He walked by the nave that pointed up, toward the place in the sky where Earth and Mecca looked upon them. He walked past the praise and over the poetry, until Jose seized his arm.

“What are you doing?” Jose slammed him against the wall. “What are you thinking? You liar!”

“I’m not lying,” Ahmed said. It was strange. He wasn’t angry. He had been, atop the mosque. And now, as he looked into Jose’s face, red and torn by tears, he couldn’t summon the rage. “Sofia will confirm it.”

“Liar!” Jose slammed him into the wall again. The man was strong. “Let me go,” Ahmed said.

“Liar! I know what I know!” His hands tightened on Ahmed’s arms. “Do you think—do you think—who would do what I’ve done without knowing?” Fresh tears began to stream from Jose’s face. “What father would do what I’ve done?”

Ahmed had no words for Jose.

He went around the rubble, past the bloodstains on the dirt. He had thought to go back to the clinic. Adéla would want help preparing her son’s body; the generators would need refueling to fill another morgue, and he couldn’t leave her alone, not now—

But instead he walked into the thigh-high grass, past the scrubby, white-barked trees, into the mud of the river. River water rippled, black in its valleys, red in its crests, against the round reeds of Isach. He waded into the water. Green figure-eight insects buzzed around his head. Ahmed thought of his conversation with Adéla. The kites. The food we eat! Love. Children. She would take this as evidence of God’s existence.

Night cast a rusty glow over the plain beyond the stream, red reflecting on red to eternity. Above the plain, ten healthy kites fell from the sky, spreading themselves wide at the last moment to land. Once on the ground, they humped up like tents in the wind, their claws keeping them rooted in the dirt.

Two of them circled each other. They danced forward, then back like boxers, sniffing each other furiously. It was interesting. No talking; none of the humanlike chirping of Arabic; just sniffing.

He waded into the river up to his chest, pushing against the current, letting himself be soaked by the cold water, swimming and stumbling through the thick mud of the other side. He pushed through more grass, clinging to his soaked scrubs. Ahmed came closer, and closer, until the kites’ emotions began to beat at him.

It was clear they were in conflict; one thought the other was not fair with him. They sniffed furiously. They’re talking, Ahmed thought. Empathic talking. No wonder they aren’t profound in spoken language. Enormous nostrils flared and contracted. The vents on their chest, that second respiratory system, expanded and contracted. It was a different kind of language.

The two circling kites came closer, touching noses.

And suddenly, the animosity collapsed. The two kites in conflict let go of the ground and tumbled together into the sky, squealing with delight before they came down again. They muttered one word, a word like a victory. Jihad.

Ahmed felt it, carried to him on the wind. Love, now. Pure, whole, embracing love. Sorrow for the fight. There was no conflict among kites. There couldn’t be, not when they could share this.

This was their struggle.

They had to live without violence, because it would poison their communication.

He almost backed away. Back to the clinic. Back to samples and cells and what he could understand. After a long moment, Ahmed pushed himself forward.

The kites turned toward him, their noses twitching furiously. Their love was molten metal in his veins. “Sadeaki?” Ahmed bent over, went on his hands and feet, until he stood with them, his back humped up like theirs. He stared right into ten pairs of tiny black eyes.

“Sadeaki. Friend. Allahu akbar.”

Ahmed closed his eyes and for the first time, emptied his mind. Anger left. Skepticism left.

The kites came in.

The vision returned.

Above was sky, below ground, and between wind—wind that carried him between worlds, toward the light above. Cold wrenched him down, a rush of rain that soaked his body, made it heady, unwieldy. Warmth lifted him. Dark clouds drifted away, far below. The sun swallowed him, consumed him. He could hear the words. He could see them form in bright curls, Arabic all around him. Ribbons of light along the sky proclaimed the mercy of God. In the name of God, the great, the merciful…

Ahmed faced the words, the Arabic that tore through the sky in bright beams.

So you drive these people insane and make them fight? Ahmed said. This is part of your good, merciful plan? This is what you taught Jose?

Something whispered No. You’ll teach them.

The words parted like curtains and revealed a huge T cell, a shining version of the antibodies he had seen in Ibrahim’s blood.

 

He opened his eyes and he was alone. Dust blew in thick gusts over him. The kites were distant specks in the sky.

He stumbled back to the river, washing the dust from his eyes frantically. He waded into the water, up the other side. He could still hardly see; it was as if the vision had half-burned those eyes. He began coughing, what felt like a dry, dusty cough, until he hacked a gob of pink-laced spit into his hand. He stared at it like it was a new star.

He stumbled back to the colony.

Adéla sat in the exam room. Ibrahim’s head was in her lap. The old kite keened softly.

“I know,” Ahmed said to Ibrahim.

The old kite’s chest expanded and contracted as he looked up at Ahmed.

“It’s the virus. It changes us, modifies the cells in our nasal cavities. It makes us feel like you feel. All the humans on this planet are going to know eventually, aren’t they? What you feel.” He fell forward on his knees. “I’ve got the virus. So do Adéla and Sofia. And it’s airborne, so it won’t be just us.” He stared into Ibrahim’s eyes. “If I can cure it, will…will we still feel this way after the virus is gone?”

Ibrahim sounded much older than he ever had. “We will change you forever.”

“When the homesteaders get the virus, will there be peace? If they can feel what you feel?”

Ibrahim’s enormous head twisted, and stared up at Ahmed. “The peace is made by you, sadeaki.”

Ahmed looked at Adéla’s face, wracked and red, and back at Ibrahim. “I have to take these antibodies,” he said softly, “to the homesteaders.”

 

The days blurred as they traveled. Adéla was on the transport, then she was walking with Ahmed in the grass, and then they were surrounded by angry, sun-blasted faces and their shotgun barrels, and then they were among more prefabricated buildings, shoved into a hot, small room, and Ahmed was saying, it’s okay, I’m a doctor, just a doctor and they were yelling, murderers, murderers, just like your little animals and again Ahmed said I’m a doctor and finally Ahmed brought out his flask and passed it around, saying, will that convince you?

Adéla just stared. Stared at the woman she had seen a week before, who had taken fifteen kilos of penicillin. The woman waited, once again on the other side of a shotgun.

The woman said something, and the others quieted. “This one gave me medicine.”

“You’ve got some kind of flu, right?” Ahmed asked. “Coughing blood, high fevers. Same disease the kites have, now jumped to humans.”

Noise of assent. The woman looked back at Adéla. Adéla stared at her and thought, did you kill my son? Probably not. This woman probably hadn’t pulled any triggers, built any missiles—hadn’t killed anyone, except, like Adéla, she hadn’t done enough to stop it.

Perhaps she had been afraid too, impossibly afraid.

“This is a cure,” Ahmed said. “I’ve isolated the antibodies.”

The woman who had taken the penicillin spoke. To the room, but to Adéla in particular. “We got a flu, yeah, you’re right—real bad one—but I want to know about our heads? What’d you and your pets do to our minds?”

“That,” Ahmed said. “I can’t do anything about that.”

Adéla leaned forward. She lifted up the shard of plastic she’d had clutched in her hand. A piece of Pablo’s new toy, shattered in the missile strike. Without a word, she held it out.

She thought she could feel Ibrahim’s soft body enclosing her, wrapping her in light. She closed her eyes and said. “Salaam alaykum.”

After a moment, the woman did what Adéla had hoped she would. What Adéla knew she would. She took the piece of plastic, the remnant of Adéla’s son, and spoke. Her words were soft, hesitant, as if she was just learning to say them. “And unto you be peace.”

They walked back through the rustling grass from the transport, and stopped just outside the Muslim settlement. “I’m amazed I wasn’t shot,” Ahmed said, more than once.

Adéla looked up at the starry sky, an expanse of bright, clustered suns in black. “Can I get another sleeping pill?” she said. “I don’t want to wake up thinking my son’s still alive.”

Ahmed put an arm around her. “I’ll get something.”

She leaned into him. They stood there in silence. In the distance, the colony shone, the tin buildings bright in moonlight, the mosque catching the light in different patterns.

“I have to go with Jose,” she said. “After his trial, Sofia will need both of us.” She put one hand to his cheek. Her hand was rough, worn, cut in places from the dry weather and the constant hand washing. He took her hand in his own equally weathered hand.

Their dry lips touched, locked in a long embrace.

He whispered, “I love you, friend.”

“I’ll miss you, Doctor.” She laughed. “Ahmed.”

Overhead, specks of black blew over the stars. A flock of kites, like a hand moving across the sky.

“Do you still believe?” Ahmed asked.

“I don’t know,” Adéla said. “Like you said. The universe looks different when you have to ask why a loving God would do horrible things.” After a long silence, she asked, “Do you?”

She didn’t know what she expected. The usual sarcasm. Contempt, perhaps, for the foolish way they’d thrown their lives away, the way Jose’s certainty and the human arrogance and her own fear had led to this.

Instead he said, “There is an immune system for the universe, I think. A way of fighting off our own fragility and self-destruction. Something the kites know about, that we will understand one day.” They watched the kites tumble across the stars. “Maybe. I’ll run some tests.”

“Ahmed.” Adéla let go of his hand, and looked to the mosque. He looked with her. The moons had come out, illuminating the dark crescent at the apex of the weathervane. “One day. When the sky is torn, when the stars are scattered, then a soul will know what he has given and what he has held back.”

In Arabic, Ahmed answered, “I believe that.”

 

“When Stars Are Scattered” copyright © 2017 by Spencer Ellsworth

Art copyright © 2017 by Micah Epstein

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