It must seem that I do nothing these days but work on this anthology. Well, in truth, it has been taking up an inordinate amount of my time lately, school being out for summer and all. Without the rugrats to occupy my attention, I tend to dedicate myself to my writing. And given the prolific output from the other members of the group, I’d say they are working just as hard!
And here’s the proof: Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, a stellar writer and the person who inspired this concept, recently sent me her first draft of her ongoing story. It’s called “Progenitor” in honor of the colonization project on which our story is based. I highly recommend reading it, as this story’s likely to become kind of a big deal some day soon!
The most famous of Magid Muktari’s epigrams was recorded within hours of his death. As with most of his utterance within the last days of his life, it was in regards to his eldest child Sanaa, the only of his nineteen children to attain the same degree of esteem as himself.
Surely we own our progeny until they realize that we do not. ~ Magid Muktari, 2081
Magid Muktari tried to read the letter, but his eyes were drawn back to the blinking red ticker tape message that scrolled across the top of the stiff paper.
祝贺, Felicitaciones, Congratulations, تهنئة , बधाई .
It had been his idea to add the admittedly eccentric touch to the acceptance letters. His colleagues had thought it excessive and unprofessional but in the end they acquiesced, giving the oldest and most contributory member of the International Intergalactic Yuva Colonization Project the leeway to make the changes he wanted before his inevitable retirement.
“What is this?” he asked knowing full well. He could not think of anything more apt to say to his oldest daughter. She understood that what he actually meant to ask was, why?
“For all the reasons you’ve been touting to the public these last fifty years.” Sanaa squared her shoulders and recited from the legendary commercial that Muktari himself had created and starred in. “Be one of the first to travel to another solar system. Be the progenitor of a new world and a new culture. Take part in the greatest experiment man will ever conduct.” Sanaa tried to smile, but was suddenly struck by just how old her father was.
Magid Muktari was actively dying. Doctors had managed to cure Muktari’s cancer twice, slow the Parkinson’s, restore his eyesight, transplant his heart, and install a semi-robotic arm, but they had not managed to cure old age. Flesh is still only flesh. Sanaa was happy that she wouldn’t be there to see her father die.
“I never intended for one of my own children…” Muktari’s slight body contracted as he coughed wetly into the bend of his arm. “Do you not realize the dangers involved?” Magid Muktari slumped back into the chair behind his desk. “This isn’t a mere trip home-side, my love. You will never come back to us again? Not to mention,” he said lowering his voice, “it would be a shame for an unmarried young woman to go off alone. This is against our tradition.”
Sanaa reached across the desk and took the letter from her father’s hand. “According to this, I won’t be alone.“ She cleared her throat. “You will be in the exceptional company of one thousand other strong, intelligent, capable, progenitors embarking on this voyage of lifetimes.”
“What of finding a husband?”
“Do I have any marriage prospects, Baba?” The question sounded like a rebuke and Muktari cringed. There were none and Sanaa had long ago stopped hoping.
Sanaa turned away from her father and leaned against the ledge of the massive view port, her breaths misting the glass. In the distance to the right, against the black curtain of space she could see the flotilla, each ship moored in its respective dock. Tiny figures tethered to lifelines laced with blinking lights moved over the surface of the ships, readying them for what would be both their maiden and final voyage. She would be assigned to the second ship, the Avicenna, and by virtue of that alone, she thought it was the most beautiful of them all.
“I would have loved marriage,” said Sanaa wistfully, “but men don’t want women like me.” Sanaa unconsciously ran a hand over her veil. In recent times there had been a half-hearted attempt by her generation to return to the original ways; a stab back at the failures of their predecessors. But such attempts were weak and ill-informed and without real knowledge or virtue. They took only pieces of the old traditions and left the ones they deemed inconvenient. “Men want wives who believe, just not ones who show it.”
“My love, in times like these, where women outnumber men nearly two to one, and beauty and brains can be bought in equal measure for a few credits, your kind is a rare dying breed.”
Sanaa laughed weakly. “One day, I will be like the quagga, a long extinct creature that people will think was only a myth.”
“Is this why you’ve decided to do this? Because of a husband?” Muktari strained forward. “I can find someone.”
That was the crux of the problem. For thirty-three years Muktari had been finding Sanaa’s way. When she complained about her overcrowded dorm room when she first left for university back home-side, Muktari arranged for her roommates to be reassigned so she could have the room to herself. She didn’t tell him how she was thereafter ostracized but she later learned that he’d set a guard to watch her movements. When Muktari received reports about the insults, he’d had each guilty girl expelled. When the admissions board at the School of Medicine in Luxor had denied her entrance, Muktari had none too subtly reminded them who her father was. For Muktari, protection equalled love, but for Sanaa, her father’s protection was as a wet cloth over fire. She could not flourish if she was to remain. And it seemed he would not die if she remained.
Sanaa shook her head. “I’ll be leaving in six weeks, Baba.”
“I know. I’m the one who set the schedule. Remember?”
Tamima, Muktari’s fourth wife entered with a brass tray. She acknowledged Sanaa with a nod and placed the tray on the desk in front of Muktari. After she poured his tea she settled a hip onto the arm of his chair.
Sanaa could hardly bring herself to look at the woman. She had two reasons to hate her one-time friend, her only friend. Tamima had not only found a husband while she had not, but she’d found one in Sanaa’s own father.
“What does your mother have to say about your decision?” asked Muktari, rousing Sanaa from her reverie.
“I plan to go home-side next week. I will tell her then.”
Muktari smiled knowingly. “She won’t like it.”
Sanaa shrugged her shoulders. At thirty-three, surely she was old enough to make her own decisions. “No different than you, I expect.”
“Yes, but I will not stand in your way, even though it means I will never see you again.” Muktari’s eyes grew glassy. He lowered his gaze and busied himself with spooning sugar into his cup of tea. He cleared his throat before continuing. “But your mother would hijack the ship before letting you go, if she has it in her mind that you should not.”
Sanaa didn’t know the brash stubborn side of her mother that Muktari had often mused about. She’d been living with her father and his many wives and children in their residential pod since their divorce when she was eight. Her mother hadn’t minded his other wives, or their children, or even his neglect. She’d always claimed that she was the only one of his wives he’d ever truly loved. They eventually divorced because she refused to be forcibly expatriated to orbit because he’d made the decision to have more than his quota of children.
When Sanaa was young, visits home-side had never been more than a week in length and only as frequent as once every two years, so her mother had always been on her best behavior. When she lived home-side, during her years at university in Luxor, either her studies or her mother’s schedule disallowed frequent visits.
I swear, science is stupid in the presence of love and God is greater than them all. ~ Magid Muktari, 2068
The guide’s name tag read Adam and he wore the gray and green dress uniform of the Unified Tellurian Armed Forces. Sanaa studied him as they waited for other orientees to arrive. His hair was cropped close to his scalp and an irregular pattern of stubble shadowed his cheeks and neck. Not a very professional look for a soldier, mused Sanaa.
Adam had a keloid scar that started at his right temple and disappeared into his collar. Such a scar could be easily eliminated in a single visit to a curbside plastic surgeon back home-side. Such blemishes were unheard of there, which made Sanaa wonder if he was one of the newer models of synthetic entities. She’d heard that they would sometimes opt for the addition of physical imperfections so as to seem more human, but as most humans wouldn’t live with such a scar, such attempts at humanity were fatuous.
It was soon apparent that Adam was not an android as a dark blush spread under his pale sepia skin. “Why are you staring at me?” He asked this without looking up at her.
Tact and honesty had always worked best for Sanaa in the past. “Just trying to determine if you’re one of the new models of synthetics.” But then, she thought belatedly, perhaps it was not her tact that had worked best but the fact that she was the daughter of the august Magid Muktari, man of Earth, space, and the stars. “But, it’s obvious that you are not.”
Adam glanced sideways at Sanaa. “How can you be so sure?”
“According to Darwin, blushing is the most peculiar and most human of expressions.”
Adam tapped in a sequence on his data pad and then extended it toward Sanaa. “It seems that you are the only person to appear for the midnight orientation.”
“I’d counted on that.” Sanaa passed her hand over the data pad so that the diamond bijou she wore around her wrist lined up with the reader. A hollow voice announced her name.
In the thirty years that people had been living orbit-side, most had still not managed to shake the habit of adhering to the twenty-four hour day. There was no need to conform to the practice of guarding the hours in space, but living in the shadow of Earth was enough to make them cling to the old habit. The younger generations and those born orbit-side were less connected to the old habits and more willing to discard them for new.
Now it was Sanaa’s turn to burn under an overly curious gaze. She was accustomed to the emotions her name wrought, and by extension and to be exact, her father’s name. She read awe and uncertainty on Adam’s face. “Yes,” she acknowledged flatly, “Muktari is my father.”
“I’ve read that you helped your father design the ships, that you actually sketched the first design.”
Sanaa nodded. “This is all true.”
Adam’s eyebrows rose. The awe Sanaa first read on his face had been replaced by mild disgust. She was used to that too, people misunderstanding her certainty for arrogance, truth for contempt. She was expected to assume an attitude of false humility, play down her part in the genesis of this project. But why? Muktari had doted on her as a child, had called each of her drawings inspired, each of her stories prophesy. He wove her childish imagination into his work. He’d credited her with his very success. Social ceremony had always seemed such a waste and unnecessary deceit in Sanaa’s estimation, and the best lesson she’d ever learned from her father, although it had the tendency to breed loneliness.
“Why do you need to an orientation then? Surely, you know everything about this ship from the cargo hold to the system-wide computers to the—”
“I don’t know about the cryonics chambers.” Sanaa knew the way though, after all the Avicenna could almost be called her ship. She headed off following the maze of steel lined corridors to the cryo-stasis bay without waiting for Adam.
Sanaa found chamber eight hundred and eighty-eight, the one assigned to her. It was surrounded by hundreds of other similar chambers, glittering silver in the low blue lighting of the cryo-stasis bay. As Sanaa knelt next to her chamber she thought about how she’d had to choose this extreme course for the chance to chart her own life free from the weight of the Muktari name. When she awoke in a century, she would be only Sanaa. She would be only herself. With a push of the red button, the chamber door folded open, a cloud of cold air hissing out. IV lines dangled limply down the sides, the capped needle ends resting on the bottom.
“Doesn’t look very comfortable.” Adam stood a few chambers away with his arms crossed behind his back.
“What would be the point?” asked Sanaa absently. She passed the bijou on her wrist over the chamber console. UNAUTHORIZED blinked across the expanse of the screen. Sanaa glanced up at Adam who stepped forward and accessed the computer by punching in the code.
“I read that your father would sometimes send you to inspect—”
Brow furrowed with concentration, Sanaa held up a hand. “Hmph. Propocholine. But how…” She scrolled through the list of steps in the cryo-procedure, her heart picking up speed as she made her way through it. She’d never liked enclosed spaces and the fact that she’d be sleeping for the more than one hundred years it would take the Avicenna to reach Yuva, did nothing to allay her fears. “I should have known, clathrate hydrates.”
“Why are you so interested in the chambers?”
Sanaa disengaged the program and stood up. “Why do you want to know?”
Adam studied her for what seemed to like endless seconds. Sanaa had never been what one would call recessive, but this type of open inspection unnerved her. She crossed her arms.
Without realizing it, Adam mirrored her stance. “I was…well, just thinking that, well…”
“I was thinking that if you have any academic questions about the chambers or the procedure itself, I might be able to answer them for you.”
One of Sanaa’s eyebrows lifted and her mouth formed an O. Her knowledge of medicine was impeccable, but her knowledge of history and current events lacked much. “Dr. Adam, I gather?”
The creator of the Adam Cryo-Stasis Hibernation Chamber nodded.
The most apocryphal of the Muktari aphorisms is: A silent woman is a dangerous woman, an angry rebellious woman always speaks the truth, and an acquiescent woman is a liar. ~ Magid Muktari, 2056
Yohan Lee grabbed Sanaa’s bag with his left hand and steadied her with his right hand under her elbow. “You seem unwell, doctor. Should we escort you to a clinic?” He gently but firmly guided her through the crowded airport toward the exit.
“Thank you for asking, Yohan, but I really am well. I had to take a hefty dose of Xanivan in order to tolerate the ride home-side. The shuttles seem to be getting smaller.”
“They are smaller, the better to preserve fuel and the cost of maintenance, they say.”
Outside, the air was thick and smelled sickly sweet. Sanaa’s eyes burned. She suddenly remembered why trips home-side never seemed much fun. The air they breathed orbit-side was purified through air processors unlike the thick as mud contaminant they choked on here.
Sanaa glanced around for her mother’s transport.
“This way, doctor.” Yohan’s hand slipped from her elbow and he headed toward the left. She lost sight of him for a moment amidst the crowd of people moving in conflicting directions, but she soon caught up with him. He lifted her bag into the trunk of a small green vehicle and slammed the lid shut. He opened the back door and motioned for her to step inside. “I trust you’re ready to depart, doctor?”
“Please stop calling me doctor.” Yohan Lee had been a wedding gift from Magid Muktari to Sanaa’s mother thirty-five years earlier and he had not changed in all that time. Although he was a synthetic entity, Sanaa often forgot he was not human. Though an older model, Yohan was of stellar quality and his learning algorithms gave him the ability to not only learn, but mimic human reactions and motivations. He’d always seemed, to Sanaa, more human than many true humans.
“I wanted to give you the respect that your title dictates.”
“Doctor is my profession, not my title.” Sanaa placed a hand on Yohan’s shoulder. “I’m just Sanaa.”
Sanaa was hardly inside the transport before Firdaws wrapped her arms around Sanaa’s neck. She pressed a wet kiss onto her cheek. “It’s been too long, child. If you didn’t look so much like me, I wouldn’t remember your face.”
Sanaa returned the hug. “It hasn’t been that long, Umm.”
Firdaws held up a hand and counted off the years, emphasizing each one by flicking up a long thin finger. “Four,” she said resolutely. “That’s too long to stay away from your mother.”
“If you had really missed me, you could have visited orbit-side.”
“You know I can’t stand going orbit-side. It isn’t natural. Man is supposed to have soil beneath his feet, not the atmosphere.”
Few people knew, other his closet family, that Magid Muktari was almost completely blind for the duration of nearly a year. Pioneers in the ophthamalgic sciences used an advanced yet experimental technique to restore his vision. Upon opening his eyes for the first time with his newly restored vision, it is said that Muktari exclaimed: Blindness is not the absence of vision, but indeed the state of a heart that despairs.
See? What did I tell ya? Is it not a work of art in progress? Stay tuned because I hope to post follow-up pieces, including those of writer’s Goran Zidar and William Joel. If you like Terraforming, Generation Ships and AI’s, you’ll want to be around for these guys too. They’re kind of a big deal 😉