By Deka Omar
“Captain, we’ve arrived at the rendezvous point. Shall I initiate a sweep?”
“Yes Kal. Contact our clients and let them know that the package is en route”
This, more than anything else is what Leila Diallo hated about her job: the hand-off. If anything could ever go wrong it is at that precise moment. It could be a client suddenly getting greedy; a trigger-happy hired gun getting nervous; some local wannabe thugs deciding to hijack the proceedings; or worse yet, those insufferable bounty hunters shooting up the whole place. Yep, it’s all fun and games until someone gets vaporized or riddled with bullets, she though.
Leila wasn’t particularly afraid of a little action, but with age and maturity one learns to become risk-averse. After dodging capture for the past three months by travelling through some of the worst systems this galaxy has to offer, she was more than ready to hand off the package, get paid, and go on her merry way without too much fuss. Knowing her luck however, things will probably go sideways before she can get off this forsaken planet. Good thing I have just the ship for a quick escape, she thought smiling to herself.
Her ship called Kahil—whose artificial intelligence Leila affectionately dubbed Kal—was a relic from the war. The devastating decade-long conflict engulfed the entire galaxy in its path; killing millions across eleven systems, and pitting the most powerful families of the Ruling Assembly against one another in a merciless tit for tat. The feuding oligarchs poured the bulk of their wealth and resources into the development of sophisticated weapons, each group desperately trying to tilt the balance of power in their favor. Out of that frantic arms race emerged a whole new breed of warships. The Tyshen-class starships were built to be fast, highly maneuverable, and came with a deadly array of weaponry. While Leila had served aboard one of the much bigger Sumong-class starships, she had seen first hand the effectiveness of the Tyshen ships like her beloved Kahil.
When the war ended the remaining ships were decommissioned and later destroyed. The Ruling Assembly of the Caliphate declared these war machines obsolete, and an unnecessary reminder of the conflict. In reality, the destruction of the oligarchy’s deadly armadas had little to do with ushering in a new peaceful era, and everything to do with ensuring that no one could break the peace treaty on a whim. However, a few ships escaped that fate, and the Kahil was one of them. Much like the ships, the soldiers who fought in the war became an equally painful memory to erase. There were no elaborate ceremonies, no long-winded speeches about bravery and heroism, and certainly no thanks from a grateful Ummah; just a measly pay for service rendered, trinkets in the form of medals, and a few vouchers for free dinners. Leila and Kahil were both war relics who found solace in each other.
“Sweep completed captain. The area is secured.”
“Shukran Kal. Any answer from our clients?”
“No captain, still awaiting confirmation from their end.”
A client running late to a rendezvous is never a good sign. Better be prepared, she thought as she unlocked Kal’s armory. Her favorite item in her rather impressive arsenal was by far her pulse rifle. It had the advantage of being relatively light and easily concealable under her long coat. Better be safe than sorry, she reminded herself as she slung the weapon’s strap across her body and readjusted her Hijab before putting on her coat. As backup she puts a side arm in her leg holster, and a dagger in the sheath strapped to her belt.
“Are we expecting trouble captain?”
“Possibly Kal. Keep sweeping the area, I have a feeling we’ll have some uninvited guests soon enough. Any sign from our clients yet?”
“Let me know as soon as you hear anything from them.”
Let’s get this show on the road, she though unenthusiastically. Exiting the bridge, she heads towards the living deck, and approaches the only other occupied quarters in the ship. As the door opened, Leila entered the darkened room.
“Lights”, a child’s voice calls out. Leila turns around and smiles at the little boy sitting cross-legged on one of the bunk beds. Before she could say anything Kal’s voice resonates through the ship’s intercom.
“Captain, the clients finally replied. They are running late but they will be at the designated area for the hand-off in 5 minutes. I’m continuing to sweep the area but so far all seems in order.”
“Shukran Kal. All right kiddo we’re here. It is time for you to go home.”
“I’m ready Captain Diallo”, answers the child as he gets up from the bed.
Leila spent the last three months trying to keep this child safe. When she was hired to safely transport a package to the capital, she never thought the package in question would be a kid, nor did she expect things to get as dangerous as they did. The job seemed straightforward at first. A third party had successfully negotiated the release of a kidnapped child, and was looking for someone to take him back to his parents who are willing to pay handsomely for his safe return.
“Captain Diallo, this job will require the utmost discretion. The child comes from a rather well known family, and the parents are keen on avoiding any scandal that may arise from this situation. You are to transport him safely to the capital where you will be paid double your usual fee.”
What should have been essentially a mere milk run for Leila rapidly turned into a dogfight with an assortment of bounty hunters trying to get their hands on the child.
“Captain Diallo, it seems that the kidnappers have changed their mind and are now trying to capture the child anew. We have also been informed that some members of the oligarchy have put a bounty on him, and intend on using him as a bargaining chip to strong arm his family into giving up some of their key assets. Due to the changing circumstances, the parents are willing to pay you three times your usual fee. It is imperative that you succeed Captain.”
That was the last message Leila received from the third party who hired her. To escape detection, she decided to avoid the well-known and more frequented spaceports, and chose instead backwater planets located in the seediest systems she could think of. It has been a long, brutal, and bloody journey but they finally made it to the capital.
As the main cargo bay doors opened, Leila flanked by the little boy emerged from the ship. The coordinates to the rendezvous point brought them to one of the countless old scrapyard scattered across the city of New-Cairo. The place was littered with the remnants of dismantled and wrecked warships, cruise liners, and commercial transport ships. The capital was as always buzzing with an endless stream of activity. Every so often, transport shuttles would fly over the scrapyard on their way to their destination. Leila could see glistening in the distance the towering structures built to house the rich and powerful. These luxurious self-contained buildings were a far cry from the wretchedness of the city sprawled at their feet. Overcrowding, squalor, crime, and poverty were the reality of the average citizen. Even the thick smoky fog of pollution that seemed to constantly choke much of New-Cairo couldn’t dampen the splendor of these daunting arcologies. Walking toward the center of the scrapyard, Leila started taking stock of her surroundings. This is the perfect place for an ambush, she remarked to herself.
“Kal, keep the coms open and keep sweeping.”
“Don’t worry kiddo, you’ll be home soon Inshallah”, she said smiling reassuringly at the child standing by her side.
“Captain, six individuals are approaching your position. Five of them are heavily armed.”
She takes a few more steps and comes to a halt when she sees them. “That’s far enough gentlemen”, Leila says as she grabs her side arm and strategically positions herself between her young charge and the men.
“Captain Diallo, I presume? Salamu Aleikum, glad to see you’ve made it to New-Cairo safely. You have our gratitude for bringing young Suleiman back to his family safe and sound.”
The obvious leader of the group wore the kind of ostentatious and over the top attire favored by the wealthy of New-Cairo to display their status and privilege. At first glance, he didn’t seem to be packing any weapons like the rest of his crew, but Leila knew too well that appearances can be quite deceiving in these circumstances.
“As agreed upon, you will receive three times your usual fee for your excellent work. May I approach to finalize the transaction captain?” the man asked.
Suddenly, Kal’s voice resonates through her earpiece. “Captain, you’ve got some new visitors. A shuttle is headed your way, it will reach you in less than a minutes at its current speed.” Leila calmly reaches for Suleiman’s hand and takes hold of it. Looking her interlocutor in the eyes she asks him, “Were you expecting some friends to join us?”
She could see the multitude of emotions dancing on his face as he processed her words: confusion, surprise, and fear. Before he could answer, Leila starts running for cover dragging a bewildered child behind her. They reach the safety of a rusting escape pod just in time to avoid the haze of bullets raining down on their previous position. She hears a thud and turns around to watch the lifeless body of the well-dressed man falling to the ground. From the transport shuttle hovering dangerously close to the ground, a horde of heavily armed men exits and scatters throughout the scrapyard. Ya Rab, they’ve got us pinned down, she thought.
“Suleiman, everything is going to be fine. I’m going to get you home. Hang in there for me kiddo”, Leila says trying to reassure the little boy. She takes one more look trying to assess the situation, and realizes that her client’s hired guns are rapidly losing ground. Only three of you left, I’m going to need some backup, remarks Leila.
“Kal, I need some cover”, she says. Kahil deploys immediately his forward pulse cannons and starts shooting. In the mayhem that ensues, many of the attackers fall victim to his relentless attack. Trying desperately to avoid Kahil’s bullets, many of them stop shooting, and instead take refuge behind the remnants strewn across the scrapyard. This gives Leila and her charge a chance to run back toward Kal. Leila grabs her side arm and shoots to clear the way to her ship while holding the child’s hand in the other. “Let’s go Suleiman, time to run”, she yells.
Startled by the sudden pain irradiating through her hand, Leila releases Suleiman and turns to look at her throbbing hand. He bit me, she remarks. By the time she overcomes her own surprise, the child is already running the other way, and trying to reach the position of the three remaining hired guns. Leila races after Suleiman firing her pulse rifle at those shooting at him. She reaches the little boy just in time to grab him, and leap behind a pile of debris.
“Cease fire, everybody cease fire. Captain Diallo, please call off your ship and let us talk with you. We have an arrest warrant for your passenger issued by the judicial council.”
Leila was flabbergasted. An arrest warrant for a child? These oligarchs are sinking to a new low, she thought.
“You must collaborate Captain Diallo or you will be charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive.”
Suleiman once again scrambles out of her reach and tries to run toward the remaining hired guns. Grabbing him by the collar, she yanks him back forcefully. “What are you trying to do? You’re going to get yourself killed. Don’t move a muscle or I’ll shoot you myself”, she says angrily. She closes her eyes for a second and takes a deep breath. She kneels in from of the frightened little boy and looks him in the eyes. “What did I tell you when we left Soakin?” she asks him smiling softly. “That you’ll keep me safe and take me home?” he responds with a trembling voice. “Exactly, I promise you little one I want let any harm come to you. I know this is very scary, but you got to trust me kiddo. I’m going to get us out of here.” The little boy nods and gets closer to Leila. The next voice she hears stops her dead in her tracks.
“Lieutenant Diallo, you need to stand down. You have no reason to trust any of these guys but you know me. You need to hear them out.”
The last time she heard that voice she was badly injured and half-blind on some backwater planet waiting to be evacuated. She slowly stands up, and takes a quick look in the direction the voice came from. Recognizing the face looking back at her from behind the debris of an old transport freighter, Leila smiles to herself. “Alhamdulillah”, she says under her breath, and turns toward Suleiman. “We’re going to be okay, don’t you worry kid, I got this.”
“Salamu Aleikum Commander Rafiq, it’s good to hear your voice Sir. I wish this little reunion was taking place under better circumstances…and its Captain Diallo these days Sir.”
“Wa Aleikum Salam lieutenant…sorry Captain. Look, can you please call off your ship? The damn thing has already killed half of my men.” Good boy Kal, she thought.
“Stand down Kal”, she says and Kahil’s reign of terror comes to an end as quickly as it started.
“Since when do you hunt children Sir?”
“I don’t. That thing you’ve been hiding and protecting for the past three months is no kid Lieutenant. I know this is hard to believe, but trust me when I tell you he’s been using you. There is no kidnapped child by the name of Suleiman, only the war criminal Mustafa Jalil trying to hide from his crimes.”
Leila suddenly doubles in pain. Shocked, she turns around trying to assess the source of the hot, searing pain irradiating through her body; only to find her own dagger now firmly lodged in her left flank. He stabbed me. Little Suleiman was still holding the dagger’s handle, and giving it one last push to drive it further into her body. Gone was the frightened and shy little boy she had protected so fiercely for the last three months. The cold and calculating eyes starring back at her held none of their past innocence.
“Captain Diallo, did you hear what I just said? You’re protecting Jalil the butcher of Carthage”, reiterates Commander Rafiq.
“Play nice Captain, and I might just let you live. Tell your army buddy and his goons to back off, and keep your hands to yourself or that dagger of yours will do more damage”, whispers Suleiman.
Still reeling from the pain and the shock, Leila closes her eyes trying desperately to keep her calm. The world seemed to be tilting around her, not even in her worst nightmares did she imagine such a turn of events. Laughing almost hysterically, she shook her head.
“Well, you’re out of luck. Army buddy or not, Commander Rafiq will never back off. Not for me or anyone else, and for the record if that is you in there Jalil, I hope he blows your head off”, she says her voice trembling with pain.
Anger flashes through Suleiman’s eyes before he plunges the dagger further into Leila’s body. Smiling in delight at her pain, he slowly twists the knife making her cry out in agony. “Now, now, Captain. I’m sure you can do better than that. Isn’t amazing how the line between pain and pleasure is a lot thinner than most people think? I just need a little bit more time Captain, that’s all.” Having such words uttered by a child made it that more sickening to Leila. Covered with sweat and breathing heavily, she calls out to Commander Rafiq.
“I heard you Sir. You can’t possibly expect me to believe that”, she says before coughing up a copious amount of blood. She was rapidly becoming light-headed with blood loss. I have to find a way out of this before I pass out, she thought.
“Captain, I know this is hard to believe but it is the truth. Look, I also didn’t believe it at first. Give them a chance to explain it to you, they have the proof.”
“Captain, five short range vessels are headed your way. Please advise”, asks Cal through Leila’s personal coms.
Taking advantage of Suleiman’s momentary distraction Leila yells “Shoot them down Kal, don’t let them land.” She brutally punches Suleiman in the head to make him lose his grip on the knife. Bewildered, he falls to the ground and scrambles away from Leila. She yanks the knife out of her flank, and stumbles out of their hideout trying to reach Kal. At the distance, five small vessels were rapidly converging toward them. Kahil was already on intercept mode firing at them. One of the vessels hit by Kal, spun out of control and crashed violently on the ground, sending fiery debris throughout the scrapyard. Leila felt her body falling to the ground. She was being pinned down and could feel a heavy body covering hers. “Stay down Lieutenant, all hell is breaking loose.” Those were the last words Leila heard before the edges of her vision blurred, and darkness finally claimed her.
While Kahil and Commander Rafiq’s men were dealing with the four remaining vessels, a cloaked transport pod landed discreetly in the farthest side of the scrapyard. Amidst the chaos and the flying debris, no one paid attention to the two men running toward the pod with a child in tow. The tallest of the two was carrying Suleiman, while the other one covered their retreat. As he was running, the second man suddenly fell hit by a stray bullet. “Hurry up you fool, we are running out of time”, yelled Suleiman. Startled by a close-by explosion, the man carrying him lost his step and stumbled, almost dropping him in the process. “Put me down you imbecile, and keep Rafiq’s men at bay”, he snarled before continuing to run toward the pod. The panicked hired gun started shooting wildly attempting to cover Suleiman’s retreat. Reaching the pod after a few minutes, Suleiman closes the door behind him, before turning toward the pilot awaiting his orders.
“Take me out of here, at once”, he yells.
“What about him?” the pilot asks nodding his head toward the man still shooting at Commander Rafiq’s men to cover Suleiman’s escape.
“Leave him”, says the little boy before leaning back and resting his head on the seat.
The transport pod leaves the scrapyard as silently as it arrived, leaving behind the ongoing chaos and the last of the hired guns screaming for them to come back for him. Kal eventually takes out two more of the attacking vessels, prompting the remaining ones to retreat. Slowly emerging from their various hideouts amidst the smoke, the smell of charred flesh, and the cries for help, Commander Rafiq’s men were gradually taking stock of their losses.
“Captain, are you alright? Captain Diallo please respond…Captain?”
Kal’s voice could be heard coming from Leila’s coms lying on the ground in an ever-growing pool of blood spreading around two lifeless bodies.
Deka Omar is a PhD candidate currently working on her doctoral degree in sociology.