The Council of Muraqaba – Part I

HD_85512_b_(Artists's_impression)Hello all! Now that I’ve finally finished with all my edits and revisions for Papa Zulu, I thought I might get back on the science fiction train and start working on some the ideas that have been piling up in my memory folder. Awhile back, I began proposing dusting off an old idea – the Council of Muraqaba – and making it see light again. And today, I managed to put the finishing touches on the first installment.

To recap, the story takes place in the distant future and is part of the Legacies universe I came up with many years ago. In this universe, Muraqaba is a colony that grew up around an institution started by Sufis seeking relief from the intense and rapid pace of progress taking place in the Core. However, over the course of many generations, it became an interfaith institution connected to the rest of the universe.

Within the Council, all matters pertaining to faith, belief, practice and the spirit could be contemplated and ironed out. People of all walks of life and faith were free to set up an annex in the place, either physically or virtually, and eventually, it would become a beacon for the establishment of a universal religion. But in this particular story, the institute becomes the site of something much more interesting.

Contact with a presence that is something else entirely. After generations of leading all of humanity in the contemplation of higher things, it seems a higher intelligence wants in on the discussion…

gliese-581-ePlanet Muraqaba, Gliese 581 d
Sol 66, 2278

“If the Qutb is indeed the pole and axis of the universe – a man through whom divine grace did flow – does it follow that men who demonstrated wilaya would have been invincible to attack?”

The specter of Mahdi Grasciano peered intently at the others in the circle, each of which had been rendered flawlessly amidst the background of the Rifa’i. At the moment, the prayer hall was bathed in the faint glow of artificial light, courtesy of the floating embers that ensured the circle could see each other clearly now that nighttime had fallen on the Mosque in real-time.

Standing on the far side of the circle, Imam Selvanayagam hummed thoughtfully and formulated a reply to this latest challenge.

“It does, necessarily, follow. The Qutb could not have been harmed by men, being under the protection of God.”

Grasciano was quick to jump on that:

“Alas, Mohammed, the example of the armed prophet, was unvanquished by men. But Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama, and all other candidates mentioned here today, did not share that fate. They succumbed to treachery, judgement, and poisoning, thus demonstrated that they were of mortal condition.”

Imam Koteib, who had been standing quietly by the northeast column, chose to intervene on this point:

“And yet, in An-Nisa, it clearly states ‘but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.'”

Selvanayagam spoke again.

“Such a circumstance pertains to this one of God’s Prophets, but can it be said to extend to those others as well?”

The heads in the circle turned to Zahawi, who stood at to the south-west end of their circle. Being their host, the one who had selflessly offered the Rifa’i prayer hall to conduct it, his was the place of honor – his back facing towards holy Mecca.

Scratching at the white, wispy beard that covered his chin, he offered what insight he could. “Such a condition could be said to apply, in that all such men triumphed over death in their own fashion. Who can remember the names of the Athenian statesmen who sentenced Socrates to death. And did Sidharta’s wisdom not live on in the absence of his corporeal being?”

Yusuf finally saw an opportunity to offer a point of consensus and spoke from his spot at the east end. “Indeed. Shall it be agreed upon then that the condition of death does not rule out the existence of sanctity?”

“It so shall…” Koteib said, nodding. Grasciano smiled and appeared ready to reply, but the smile quickly faded. His next words sounded almost like a pained admission.

“Hmm, I’m not sure where that leaves us.”

Zahawi also began to look grave and added his voice to Grasciano’s. “Indeed. Have we determined the existence of Qutb, or merely found a way to redefine it?”

A pause followed as each specter groped for something more to add, a comment or illumination that might break the deadlock. Eventually, a number of the Imams began to laugh. There seemed little else to do under the circumstances. Many times, expounding on such matters only served to cloud them further, expanding upon the mystery rather than dispelling it.

One could only laugh in the face of such irony, and perhaps conclude that divine obfuscation was at work. In any case, the debate had run its course, a sort of consensus settling in after many hours of discussion. It now fell to Yusuf to conclude the transmission.

“I would like to thank you all, masters of your turuqs, for your continuing participation in these majalis. In so doing, you are a part of the greatest ongoing spiritual dialogue our species has ever conducted.”

“As-salamu alaykum,” the Imams said in near-unison. Yusuf replied in kind.

“Wa alaykumu al-salam.”

They concluded with the dhikr, citing the appropriate verses and repetition of His name. The simulation began to fade a moment later – the elaborate stone walls and flickering light from the suspended aerodrones that marked the interior of the Rifa’i slowly retreated from his consciousness and was replaced by his true surroundings.

Yusuf became aware of the room, the tall metal panels and the lighting that emerged from behind them, and the cool air like a man waking up from a dream. His mind responded to it all like a harsh reality intruding upon quiet sleep.

As always, he sat on the room’s central dais with his legs crossed, but his knees ached as if he had been upright for some time. The sensation of being offworld was so immersive that he truly felt that he had been standing for hours in an entirely different setting. But of course, that was the point of the experience, and an ongoing cause of concern amongst the more conservative elements in their turuq.

The sound of the door opening behind caught Yusuf’s attention. He turned his head just in time to see Mansur appear in the open doorway.

“Maruf!” he said informally, smiling. “You’re timing is impeccable.”

“I know, Master. I waited until you were finished. I did not wish to disturb you while you were conferring with the others.”

Yusuf slowly stood up and tried his best to hide the sudden sense of chagrin he felt.  It was sometimes difficult to tell how just long a session lasted. Even without the effects of dilation and correcting for local time, hours could feel like days. And knowing Mansur, he could be expected to wait indefinitely.

“So what can I do for you, Maruf?”

“It’s Lusserer, master. She asked that I come find you.”

“Ah, and what does the lady of technical support require of me?”

“Well, sir…” he said delicately. “It’s the signal. We seem to experiencing some trouble.”

“Trouble?” Yusuf stopped, turned to face him. “That’s a little vague, Maruf. Care to elaborate?”

“She did not say,” he replied. “In all truth, master, I don’t think she’s quite sure what the problem is either.”

Yusuf suppressed a scowl. Any sign of misgiving was likely to be taken on by the young Mansur, who was in the habit of taking on his master’s moods and amplifying them by varying degrees. He tried to sound as calm and even as possible as he replied.

“Then I shall go to her forthwith, and see what I can do to help.”

“She would be most pleased by that, I’m sure,” Mansur said and smiled happily. He stood there for a moment, idle and twitchy, as if expecting something more. Another quirk of the young man, always in search of a duty, and always in need of being dispatched before he could tell that a conversation had run its course.

“Perhaps she and I could do with some tea. Would you fetch us some and meet us in the ISIS lounge?”

“Certainly, master!” said the young man, quickly slapping his hands together and issuing a short bow. He was gone quickly after that, letting Yusuf address his own thoughts in private. At the moment, he only had two, and they were vying for just about every inch of his cortex.

A problem with the interstellar array and Lusserer is at a loss, he thought. This must be something of consequence…

Winston Agonistes, Part IV

Welcome back! You know, it feels like I’ve been a little wan in my output lately. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been hard at work on my stories… or not. Hard to say really, but I will say that the anthology me and my colleagues have been working on is coming along nicely! In an attempt to keep pace with my group, I’ve come up with another installment in the Winston Agonistes story.

And just for fun, much of this installment was inspired by real-life tales of Shàngdū, China. It is this ruined city that was once the summer capital of the Yuan Dynasty, as decreed by the Mongol ruler Khublai Khan. Often referred to as Xanadu or Sanadu (in Mongolian), this city is the same place that is mentioned in Marco Polo’s account of China, the one which inspired European dreams of traveling to the Orient and finding cities of gold. It also inspired the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a musical which I will not get into, even to save my own life!

Anyway, here it is, fresh from the press. Behold!

As expected, a greeting party was waiting for them in the Transport Bay. Dressed in their ceremonial robes and wearing pressure masks, they stood on the platform overlooking the main deck. Winston eyed them through the cabin window as their ATV came to a complete stop, noting the individuals and their respective positions from the mantles they wore.

There were five in total, arranged by twos around the one in the middle who wore the most flamboyant garb of all. The ladies he denoted by the choice of red robes, while the males wore the traditional blue, consistent with Shiangdu’s code of customs. Aside from that, there was only a single distinction, which came in the form of the orange inlaying that the man in the center had on his robe. That could be none other Commissioner Yan Moon Kim, Wu’s second in command.

The seals disengaged and the door opened. The top segment rose above the ATV’s roof while the bottom one lowered to form their exit ramp. Winston allowed the Councilors on the other side to file out first and fitted his helmet, which at this point in their mission had remained unused, over his head. Though the Shangdu settlers were no strangers to synthetics, their reaction to seeing one in the capitol’s delegation could not be fully predicted.

As their team filed into the bay, the Shangdu representatives climbed down the steps to the deck to meet them. Handshakes were exchanged between Kim and Mutlu, Kim gesturing to the pressure doors immediately thereafter so that further pleasantries could be conducted without the need for helmets. Mutlu nodded and they marched together, mounting the steps and entering through the cycling doors that would lead them within.

Winton looked back upon the bay, noted the deck hands that began to pour over their ATV. As a courtesy, they refueled the vehicle, removed the excess traces of fungal deposits from its wheels, and packed them away in biohazard containers. Some of the tendrils looked rather large this trip.

The pressure doors opened, admitting them into a small vestibule located next to the main colony. Much like all decontamination bays, the walls were studded with sensors, vents and irradiation panels, all of which became active as soon as the doors closed behind them. Many in their crew drew a hand to their face to cover their visors, protection against the onset of the harsh lighting that began to fill the confines of the room. Winston needed no protection, as his eyes adjusted automatically to the onslaught of the harmful rays. In a few seconds, it was over. All airborne pathogens that had clung to their shells rendered completely inert.

The harsh lights disappeared and were replaced by a green glow. The interior doors began to slide open slowly. Beyond, the grey paneling of the entrance hallway appeared and the Shangdu welcoming committee stepped out and ushered the rest of them forward.

Winston could not help but think this was a momentous occasion. It would be the first time he had ever witnessed a colony outside of Zarmina. He had conducted all the research necessary to prepare himself for the trip. He knew the interior layout of the colony well and the significance of every detail contained within. And yet, to actually see it for himself seemed beyond compare.

We’re he able to describe the situation; the word exciting would certainly come to mind. If only he were capable of truly feeling that.

*          *          *

They came to it at last, the doors that led into the settlement proper, where the expectation of excitement would certainly be at apogee. Winston had learned from his many archival studies on emotions that it was in the last moments before the reveal that feelings of anticipation reached their highest, in what was described as a fever’s pitch. It was fortunate then that he did not feel such feverish emotions, otherwise he might not have noticed the fine details that were in front of him.

The colonies main doors, for example. Constructed of a crystalline-polymer composite, they were clearly meant to resemble a marble gateway that had been etched with classical motifs from the late Yuan Period. And in keeping with the design of the original city, the colony had been laid out in four-quadrants with mayoral palace towards the center-rear, though the layout was circular instead of square. Such a profile would never support the settlements enclosed nature, which invariably required some degree of revision to the original plan.

The doors slid open and Winston’s eyes shifted to long focus, every detail being absorbed as it became clear. He was immediately aware of lush greenery and emerald color schemes, of gilded columns and carved surfaces. A few meters from the doorway, a second party of three people who also ornately dressed, stood and waited for them. In the exact center, dressed to resemble a Manchu-dynasty tyrant, no doubt, was Wu himself. Their greeting party of five joined his, forming a perfect eight.

“Councilman, I am honored,” Wu said in a strained, lightly accented voice. Mutlu stepped forward and bowed gently towards him.

“Mayor Wu, the honor is mine.” Wu returned the gesture and they came together to exchange kisses on each other’s cheeks. The initial exchange was going well, respect being given for each leader’s particular cultural niceties. Winston began to wonder if his request for a seat at the meeting was more or less likely to succeed at this point.

More conversation followed as they walked down the length of the settlement’s main foyer, into what appeared to be a preserve featuring various Terrestrial plants. A path of what resembled cobbled stone stretched out before them, stretching to the far end of the enclosure where the city itself would be accessible. For all newcomers to the settlement, this was the first thing they would see as they made their way into the vast collection of marketplaces, tenements, facilities, and of course, the mayoral palace at the far end.

As they walked, Winston’s olfactory receptors noted the presence of cherry blossoms and plum trees, his eyes detecting the bright colors of birds of paradise plants and even animals prancing about. Most impressive amongst these was the Pelicans that were drinking by the small creak running through the enclosure.

Winston turned to Bhutto next to him. “Synthetics?” he asked. Bhutto looked in the direction he was pointing and shook her head.

“No Winston, those are real. The settlers arranged for ova and sperm to be stowed in their supplies well in advance.”

He looked back at the animals as they continued to graze and drink from the artificial creek. It seemed unlikely that organic creatures would have been transplanted here, given the cost to bread them and added upkeep. And yet, he was being told to believe this very thing. And for a moment, he considered the possibility that what he was experiencing the emotional state known as confusion. Another unlikelihood.

His attention returned to Bhutto when she playfully slapped his arm.

“Imagine that, a synthetic that can’t tell the different between organic and synthetics.”

Wilson smiled obligingly. “For that, you will have to blame the makers, madam. They do their work too well.”

She laughed again and placed both hands on his arm. He registered a gentle squeeze through the layers of his sleeve. His calculated jocularity appeared to be having an interesting effect. In addition to entertaining the Councilor, he was almost sure she was beginning to… like him.