After graduating from the academy, she’d put in for Titan, Luna, and Deep Space Exploration Division. It was a long shot but it was better than going home. Fleet decided to station her in the one place she didn’t want. They dangled DSE in front of her to get her to take Mars. Command’s argument that she was familiar with the territory was sound, if not inconvenient, but after two years she would likely get the assignment she wanted. To her, it was just a tease. She’d go home and get comfortable. Spend a year getting her mother to talk to her or treat her as a person then have to pick up and leave. Forever. She was already dreading the first few conversations. Which Amma was she going to get? Snide? Dismissive? Guilting? It got so she couldn’t tell if it was the persistent tugging of the grav drive or her nerves over returning home.
Watching the space in front of the shuttle begin to displace filled her with a kind of religious terror. Distant stars, their own star, lensing in the gravitational distortion created by the gravity drive. The field was otherwise invisible, the only hint of its existence was the stars being tossed about in front of her eyes as if they were luminescent marbles on a tapestry being tugged on, playfully, at either end.
Associating that lensing and the dread with the incessant tugging at her eyes and her cells, only served to reinforce the barely nascent idea that humankind simply was not meant to have that kind of power. The power to bend space and time to their will. The pilot would be sitting in his seat with a cup of coffee brought to him by the yeoman, casually monitoring the grav drives’ status and occasionally making some flight control adjustment. Once she saw a pilot yawn while the convex disc of the gravity field formed.
Did God yawn when he was manipulating spacetime? Not that she was likening the pilot to God. Perhaps in yawning, he was likening himself. Perhaps he was expressing his disdain for the divine, or lamenting its absence. She didn’t like watching them engage the grav drive. She didn’t want it to become so normal that she lost her fear or wonder of it. She didn’t want to become like the yawning pilot and the unknowable into the mundane.
Once the shuttle was underway she managed to fall asleep but was awakened sometime later by the buzzing of her qcomm. It was disorienting and slightly traumatic since her first thought was a malfunction in the grav drive. Others in the cabin, also Muslim, seemed to be stirring to life from sleeping or reading. The Adhan started to play quietly in her ear. She checked and realized she’d forgotten to calibrate her q-comm to subjective time. On Earth, it was prayer time. According to the nav, prayers wouldn’t be for another 15 minutes aboard the shuttle. Ratama coded her q-comm to the holo in the seat back and called up a real-time projection of the ship's location in relation to Earth. Deciding for prayer in objective time, she hopped up and made her way to the restrooms to perform wudu, the obligatory pre-prayer cleansing, before a line formed. It was one of those instances where she wished she’d traveled on the crew deck. Likely far fewer Muslims and a bathroom all to herself. The attendant gave her a bit of a side-eye when she refused to sit in the crew section of the upper deck.
Another downside from the crew deck: There was very little space beyond the seats in coach. A common area on this level, near the aft of the ship, was crowded with prefabricated tables molded to the floor. Even if she and the others were able to find a clear space, the ground of the cafeteria was too dirty to pray on. The point of her wudu was to ritually cleanse herself for prayer so her supplications would be accepted by Allah. The cafeteria would negate this.
The crew deck was far more spacious. It seated fewer people and had less crowded common areas. It also had an observation lounge that would be perfect to pray in. However, the other people on this deck would not be allowed on the crew deck since none of them were officers or even crew. She thought for a moment about making use of the lounge but quickly chased that thought from her mind. Whatever difficulty other supplicants would have in performing their prayers, she would share. To her, it was the point. It was one of the things that were meant to bind all of them together whether they were on Earth, Mars, or in transit in between. They were all meant to kneel in submission to God at prescribed times every day. And do it as one. Going up to the crew deck would be counter to this. She would be placing herself and her prayers above the others.
What was more important? The annoyance of a cabin attendant or the displeasure of God? She flagged down one of the attendants, a man, as he was walking by.
“Is there a common area on this level that some of my fellow travelers and I can use to conduct our prayers?”
“Well, there’s a -”
“Besides the cafeteria.” Ratama cut him off and cursed herself for the extra effort. His eyes moved over her hijab as if he were seeing it for the first time.
“There is a common area for the crew of this level just forward of the bunks. I’m afraid that’s for attendants only.”
She knew he was going to say that last part. It made her wonder if his objections were more for the use of the space or what they were to be used for. It was something people of all faiths encountered in these times. Bigotry.
“That’s too bad. I’m on my way to Mars on assignment and won’t be back to Earth for a couple of years. I was able to use all my entertainment comps at the Megaplex in Capetown except three.” Being a Fleet officer in training had its advantages. Free room and board. Free transport anywhere on Earth. Generous pay for cadets. And complimentary entertainment at any one of thousands of restaurants, theaters, and game zones planetwide. Vendors loved to get them because they redeemed them for cash. She was lying about having only three. She had dozens. They were only good on Earth but traders, pilots, Fleet personnel, and workers were constantly traveling between Earth and Mars.
Fleet handed out allotments of comps every semester. And as cadets advanced through the academy, those allotments became bigger. Ratama didn’t have much time for restaurants and holo games in her last year so she decided to save them up and give them to Ammi as a gift. With the comps she would be able to barter for real rice, better prints of meat for months, or a new q-tel for her apartment.
“How long?” He exhaled and rolled his eyes in feigned annoyance.
“About 10 minutes, five times a day for the duration of the trip.”
“I've seen three attendants on this level. One for each of you.”
“Two each.” He shot back.
“Nope.” She knew the value of comps but it cost him nothing to try and up the price. The truth was, there was no amount she wasn't willing to pay, but he didn't need to know that.
The attendant shrugged in agreement.
Ratama pressed the biochip on the underside of her forearm. A small menu appeared and she selected “currency” then “comps” and entered “3”. Three generic-looking cards materialized above her arm which she swiped toward the attendant. There were three rapid yet gleeful chimes that indicated her contribution had been received. The attendant walked quickly toward the rear of the passenger cabin, turned, then motioned to Ratama and the others to follow him. They passed through the cafeteria with its crowd of stained tables. Food remnants mashed by boot impressions dotted the floor. Then they were in a storage and meal prep area; which was really just cubbies full of silver packets containing flash dried meals, and ovens. A couple of grav carts were sloppily shoved into one corner, waiting for the next meal service.
A female attendant, who had her boots kicked off and was laying on a sofa beneath a rather large porthole reading a book, jumped up with surprise at the procession of non-crew entering their space. She gave the male attendant a look that was both dirty and inquisitive. He responded by holding up both hands and gesturing for her to be calm.
Mars grew large in the porthole. And with it, Ratama’s anxiety. She had maintained contact with her family as much as was possible. She exchanged messages, especially with her younger brothers. Ammi never said much, unless there was some kind of admonishment. “Stay away from Terran boys. Even the Muslim ones.” or “Missing prayers is a sin.”, “Don’t get used to that Terran food. It will make you fat. Then who will want to marry you?”
Now that she was back on Mars, back among her own, she felt a dash of local custom was in order. Martians didn’t view Terrans favorably. Some may have mixed feelings about her presence. Some might even hate her. Wearing a more traditional hijab with her uniform might make things a bit easier on her. People in Terran fleet uniforms were viewed with suspicion. Regardless of whether or not they were born on Mars. Her fellow Muslims would also be quick to judge. A woman, away from home for so many years on her own? The men wouldn’t voice their reservations about her out loud, but her mother will have endured the whisperings of the women on the promenade. Her “hijab” was little more than an Ops cowl, a part of her uniform designed to keep her hair out of her face in zero gravity. It was required for women with long hair to wear them. The alternative was to shave your head completely like the men. Though wearing a traditional hijab was permitted, she often opted for the Ops cowl. It didn’t require any of the usual adjustment, pinning, and she never worried about it coming loose on duty.
Fleet uniforms were form-fitting. The Class B tunic and jacket were sized so tight that she wore one-two sizes larger to obscure the outline of her breasts. Today she was wearing her Class A uniform. A black officer’s waistcoat with a flared collar and epaulets. She’d had hers tailored to be longer so the bottom of it fell over her hips. The pants, which were more like leggings and worn by men and women, were also quite tight. Though everything from just below the knee down was bloused inside a boot, everything from the thigh to the waist was visible. The longer coat hid her hips and butt from public view. She pulled at the bottom of it from time to time, internally obsessing over its length. Ammi would have something to say about it for certain if she thought it was too short. Or worse, she would look Ratama up and down once, quickly, then with flared nostrils give her a ‘hmmph’.
It was bad enough that she had been living on Earth, by herself, for six years. There were a lot of other myths surrounding fleet life. Her brother once asked, in one of his regular messages, if it were true that fleet personnel were required to use unisex showers and bathrooms. Martians could be provincial but they weren’t the only ones. Terrans, victims of a highly elective culture, were often twice as ignorant despite their unfettered access to everything. While studying and having coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Johannesburg, a young Islamic scholar noticed her hijab in fleet colors and decided to ask her about life on Mars. Despite her denials, he was sure that the very existence of Muslims on Mars went against everything the religion stood for. Stories from the early days of settling there had produced horror stories about starving Martians eating each other, and entire towns devolving into orgies of sex and cannibalism.
Since she elected not to travel in the crew cabin she had to disembark from the shuttle with the civilians. Which meant she had to go through customs with the civilians. The customs officer, and an older, balding, white man, eyed her suspiciously. He seemed to scrutinize her credentials closely and looked from them to her repeatedly as if trying to determine if she was really who she claimed as if every scrap of everything about her wasn’t made available through her biometrics. Ratama became annoyed when he began rifling through her carry on. There was nothing particularly personal or private in it. But he didn’t treat her Q’uran with the level of deference it deserved. He merely tossed it aside as he proceeded to inspect the rest of the cases’ contents. He scrutinized her sidearm, which was in a case that had been stowed by the shuttled purser, and had just passed through one of the scanners. When she’d had enough, she clenched her jaw, pursed her lips, and cocked her head diagonally. The customs officer concluded his inspection hastily then closed the case. After which he tried to sound officious telling her she was cleared to enter.
She walked quickly, without rushing, to the reception area just beyond the gates. No one had come. When she was a teenager, her aunt Muneeza had won a trip to Earth in the lottery to go to Hajj. When she had returned, the entire promenade was there to greet her. Her whole family had been there waiting. She’d tried not to make a big deal of it in her message. She didn’t want to seem self-important or pushy. But she’d expected at least one member of her family would have been there to greet her. She ammi might be a long shot, but she hoped her sister and brothers would show. Ratama slung her bag and walked toward the maglev terminal, her head hung in quiet humiliation. She felt foolish for thinking that anyone would be happy to see her.
Having arrived two days ahead of schedule she'd hoped to spend some time with her family, put on a few pounds eating Ammi’s Nasi Lemak, and the Chicken Rendang, (even with the printed chicken it would be delicious), catch up with her brothers, go and hang out on the promenade, and maybe do some caldera hiking and spelunking near Olympus Mons.
As she exited the main terminal of the spaceport she was overwhelmed by a sour, almost acrid smell. Martian tunnels carried the powerful odor of wet mold, a smell she had become so unaccustomed to that it almost made her vomit. It was impossible to forget. She had spent the first two weeks on Earth trying to scrub it out of her clothes. It was the smell of Mars. The smell of yeast farms, mycelial patches, and sweating bodies wrapped in a layer of recycled air. Until now, she remembered it fondly. Those times caught out in open spaces on Earth, overwhelmed by the endlessness of it, she thought of this. Of home.
She turned on her heels toward the Eastbound platform. They weren’t coming. There was no way she was going to spend the next two days in her bunk crying about it. And she wasn’t going to give anyone the pleasure of seeing her moping around the promenade. She was to be stateless. A stranger in her own home. An alien on her own planet. It would be better if she got some rack time and reported for duty early.
There were benches on the platform which she slumped into to wait for the next vactrain. That moldy smell lingered at the platform, no doubt after having been pushed all over Mars through the pneumatic tunnels.
The vactrains weren’t silent, but nearly so. They hovered on top of a magnetic strip at several times the speed of sound. Mars’ low air pressure and the absence of friction aided this. The breeze that flowed through the tunnels along with shifts in the air pressure made it impossible to hear when a train was approaching. The only hint was a blast of air that always preceded the train’s arrival. That blast came, along with a megadose of the ever-present sour smell and finally, the train. But it was on the westbound platform, heading in the opposite direction.
The quiet whine of the train accelerating back into the tunnel gave way to the commotion of people who had gotten off and were scrambling to connecting trains, or making their way towards lifts and escalators. From within the low murmurs of the dissipating crowd, Ratama heard exasperated yelling. But the words made no sense. Initially, it sounded like someone shouting “pop!”… pop!” She looked up but saw only people cueing for the lifts. She lowered her head again and began massaging her neck through the soft fabric of her hijab when she heard the sound again but this time it sounded like “tom! tom!" She ignored it.
A few moments later she could hear frantic footsteps coming up the elevator to her platform. They were promptly drowned out by a burst of hot, moldy, air, shot into the tunnel and the arrival of the eastbound train. She stood up and stepped to the edge of the platform in preparation for boarding. The shiny metal hull of the train cars whipped past mere inches from her face then came to a halt. There was a hydraulic hiss from the doors opening and just before she stepped in, she heard the voice again. But it wasn’t saying tom or pop. It was saying Ratama.
Ratama looked to her left and saw her brothers, Tem, and Boga, emerge from the escalator well. She was overcome yet paralyzed. She was overjoyed and yet ashamed. Her heart sang even as it sank. It was as if they were children again, playing tag in the newly drilled ore tunnels, or sledding on the dunes at Hellas. Tem, who now appeared wider than he was tall. Boga, still a teen, was big-eyed and slight, with head, hands, and feet, disproportionately large for his body. He seemed to have a hard time controlling it all as he ambled toward her awkwardly and hugged her. She took his face in her hands and began kissing his cheeks. The briny tears had fallen onto her lips which made her kisses wetter than they would otherwise be.
“I’m sorry sis. I was coming from work and we got delayed. I made this one come meet me to save time.” Tem tousled Boga’s hair.