Tarek Othman is taken deep into the forest by a major from the empath academy. What happens there is unexpected and life-changing.
See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Previous Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3| Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
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“Saba Darwish saved my soul, Yasin Rahman saved my life, Tessi Thundercloud saved my heart, and the Andach’ saved my squad.”
– From Ten Years With the Andach’, by Tarek Othman
Teach You How to Pray
Tarek Othman stood in the forest clearing, staring at Major Darwish as she laughed with her head tilted back, her white teeth shining in the dim light beneath the canopy. Had the woman lost her mind? She’d taken him out of the academy, bought him a Rambly burger – the first red meat he’d ever eaten in his life, and how delicious it had been, filling his stomach in a way that made him feel like he’d never actually eaten before – and now she’d brought him deep into this forest. And when he’d asked if she intended to kill him, she’d burst into laughter.
This woman with dark skin like his own, and a sharp, angular face… A UA major with a laser pistol on her hip, and, incredibly, an empath like himself, with a big letter E tattooed in black on her forehead. The mark of shame, humiliation, and servitude. His own E might as well stand for egoist, for ever thinking he might be something special. Or elegy, in recognition of the walking dead man he had become. Or error, for that was what he was. A mistake of nature.
“I’m going to teach you how to pray,” the major said when she stopped laughing.
Her gaze sharpened. “You question me?”
“No – no sir.”
For the next half hour, the major ran him through the basics of the formal Islamic prayer. The salat. Recite Surat al-Fatihah when standing – it came back to Tarek with some practice. Bow, and declare the greatness of Allah. Stand, and thank Allah. Prostrate, and glorify Allah. Sit, and call for blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad .
“That is the bare bones,” the major said when they were done. “Good enough for now. I want you to pray, and as you do, open your empathic sense. Face that way.” She pointed to the depths of the forest.
On Your Knees
Tarek wanted to throw up his hands in confusion, but after six years of military school he was too disciplined for that. Instead he lifted his hands in a small, helpless gesture.
“Well?” the major demanded.
Tarek only looked at her blankly.
“What are you waiting for?”
Tarek exhaled loudly. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Doing it to you?” The major shook her head in exasperation. “You know what? Get on your knees.”
Her tone had become hard, brooking no disobedience. Tarek’s shoulders sagged. So she did mean to kill him after all. He should feel frightened, or outraged. But all he felt was tired, sad, and almost relieved. He was eighteen years old, and his life since the age of twelve – since he’d come to the United Army empath academy- had been brutal and ugly. Death would be a welcome relief. To experience silence, stillness, peace. Not to have to feel the visceral pain of other men’s terror every day.
He fell to his knees, his head bowed, chin resting on his chest. Eyes closed, he took a breath and let it out. Here, close to the forest floor, the rich, heady smell of decaying leaves was almost physical. There was a floral scent as well, and tang of tree bark. And a faint smell of urine, left behind by some animal. The smell was active, surrounding his head like a cloud, and swimming up his nostrils. For a moment he was dizzy.
Shapes swam behind his eyelids. In his mind he saw the silver sphere of a holoscreen, and upon it played images from his life. The time two Southie gangsters tried to rape his sister Anisa. Tarek saw them grab her and drag her into an alley. He was only ten years old but he pelted into that alley, snatched up a broken shaft of wood, and beat those boys until they crawled away, bleeding and crying.
And years earlier, when their mother had died while giving birth to Ghanima. Standing in the crowded hospital waiting room, he didn’t have to be told when Mama died. He felt it like a punch to the gut. He already knew.
Both Anisa and Ghanima had died of the plague when Tarek was eleven. So what was it all for?
Thinking of these things, he waited for the shot that would end it all.
To his amazement, the major did not draw her pistol and blast a hole in his head. Her voice came from very near: “Open your eyes.”
He opened his eyes. The major was there on her knees beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Your life,” she said, “revolves around death. Your heart has sickened and rotted like a banana on the ground. I can feel the despair. At the same time, your abilities have grown dangerously powerful, though I don’t think you realize it. Here, in this place,” – she waved at the immense trees all around them- “I want you to use your talent for something different. Don’t argue with me. Do what I say.”
“Okay.” Why not? What did he have to lose?
“Put your hands in the earth. Sink your fingers in deep. Open your empathic sense.”
“Open it to what? There’s no one here.”
“Don’t argue. Just open it, as wide as you can, to whatever comes.”
Tarek looked at the ground. Leaves of all kinds covered every centimeter of the forest floor, as well as tiny yellow flowers. Through the grass grew patches of sharp-bladed grass, and tall ferns, broken up by fallen logs and branches. In among the leaves, insects crawled. A long line of ants. Tiny white insects he could barely see. A massive horned beetle, orange with black spots.
Tarek plunged his hands into the leaves with a vengeance, digging his fingertips into the soil below the thick mulch. It was moist and thick. He threw his empathic gates open wide. He had never done this before. When he interrogated prisoners he focused his empathic sense on the condemned man before him. Now, however, he opened himself like a blind man who has just been granted vision and wants to see everything, turning all around. Except that Tarek did not turn. He was perfectly still, hunched over with his fingers sunk into the soil like anchors, letting his empathic sense do the looking for him.
The overwhelming sensory impression of life nearly knocked him over. He’d never experienced anything like it. Sheer life, like an ocean wave washing over him. Or what he imagined an ocean wave to be, since he’d never seen one. There was the horned beetle crawling across the leaves, unintelligent but obstinate, focused on its goal. The ants, each a tiny piece of the whole, like atoms in a molecule. The grass – bloody crab, the grass possessed intent! Seeking sun and water, each blade struggling to dominate those around it. The ferns, light and laughing, or so it felt to him.
And the trees. Good God, the trees! They were conscious, though not in the same way as a human. Rather, they were aware as a dreamer in a deep sleep is aware. Tarek sensed the rich sap beneath their skins, the unstoppable roots that penetrated even through stone. The crowns in the bright sun. The trees possessed dim thoughts of the animals and birds that lived on and among them.
It went on. The birds, quick and intelligent, judgmental and anxious… A family of monkeys that he had not seen but sensed now, for they were like human children, completely aware, not understanding all they saw, but mischievous, wondering, and quick tempered. Rodents, burrowing creatures, a family of thick bellied forest pigs, a single stag deer… And -this made his breath catch- a tiger. The creature was awake but relaxed, grooming itself, for it had recently eaten. It radiated contentment, power, and ruthless courage, though it was troubled by an ache in one knee.
All within a hundred meters of this spot.
Nowhere among them could be found the tiniest sliver of hatred, greed, or rage. Fear, yes. Fear was a common thread among the higher order creatures, with the exception of the tiger. Not terror. Just a low level nervousness that ran like blood through their veins. But no evil, nor the possibility of such a thing.
Tarek began to weep. The tears pattered softly onto the leaves. He did not have words to express what he felt.
The major took his face in strong, calloused hands. He opened his eyes and met her gaze. Her pupils were as deep and black as this forest itself must be at night.
“Who are you?” Tarek gasped. “What do you want from me?”
“Do you understand? Do you see that life so much more than what you have experienced in your destitute childhood and at that miserable academy? Life is beautiful and sacred. It is rich, aware, and holy. It’s worth holding on to and fighting for. Allah put us here for a reason. All this is a testament to His greatness. Do you see that?”
“I… I don’t know. Maybe.”
“When I asked you,” the major said softly, “if you remembered me, I did not mean from the academy.”
“Do you know my full name?”
“Of course. You’re Major Saba Darwish.”
“Darwish was my married name. I kept it after my husband was killed, Allah yarhamuh. My maiden name is Othman.”
Othman? For a moment Tarek’s thoughts were as gummy as tree sap. He stared at the major. Then his mouth fell open. Saba Darwish’s face was lean and hard, her hair cut as short as a man’s. The big E on her forehead. But take away that E, let her hair grow long, add a little fat to her face, and take away twenty years… and she would be his mother. Or, more accurately, his mother’s twin.
She smiled. “We have a problem.”
“But… why did you never tell me?”
“I am more useful to you this way. The problem is that you are developing telepathic abilities. Your latest test results show it clearly. I altered the results, but although your ability is latent, it’s growing, and I fear that you don’t have the ability to mask it as I do.”
“You mean you -”
“It runs in our family.”
“You said the UA kills telepaths. That means my brother Shayban – ”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I was a junior officer back then, there was nothing I could do.”
Tarek tipped his head back and looked up at the forest canopy. A loud hooting call echoed through the trees and was answered by another. Somehow Tarek knew they were monkeys. Birds sang. In the distance there was the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. Through the occasional gaps in the trees he saw Besar, directly overhead now, massive and purple. He could not see Kecil. Poor Shayban. They had all been so proud of him.
“Why do they kill telepaths?”
The major took his elbow and they stood. “All is not as it appears in the UA. There are secrets the leadership wishes to keep at all costs. They cannot risk a telepath learning these secrets.”
A Secret Group
“What will happen to me?”
“I have made arrangements for you to be transferred out of the academy and onto a ship.”
“A ship. You mean a starship?” The thought made his eyes go wide. Long ago, when the academy had first recruited him, he’d harbored fantasies of serving on a starship. But he had long ago given up those fantasies as infantile dreams.
“Yes. It is captained by someone I trust. He’s related to us. His name is Yasin Rahman.”
Tarek’s eyes went even wider. “The hero of Breena Five? That Yasin Rahman?”
The major nodded. “His brother was your mother’s grandfather. Rahman alone will know of your abilities. Just as importantly, there is someone among his crew who thinks as we do.”
“What do you mean? We who?”
“I belong to a secret group. Organization is a bit strong of a word. People who believe that this war must end, and who know that we have been lied to about some things. If command knew this about me, they would execute me, do you understand?”
Tarek nodded solemnly, though he did not in fact understand.
“So as I say, there is someone among Rahman’s crew who belongs to the same group. I want you to get to know him. His name is Ammar Abuzaid.”
“What am I supposed to say to him?”
“I’ll give you a sentence to say. A passcode of sorts. But first there is something you must do, right here and now, to properly understand the passcode.”
Tarek felt confused and anxious. What was the major drawing him into? He wasn’t looking to become part of some conspiracy. On the other hand, his life at the academy was a dead-end. He couldn’t stay in a place that was driving him to suicide. And if what the major said about his incipient telepathic ability was true, his life was in danger if he remained.
As if reading his mind -was she?- the major squeezed his shoulder and said, “Tutu. Trust me. There are no other options. I’m risking a lot to do this for you.”
“What is the thing you want me to do?”
Auntie Saba smiled. “I want you to pray.”
The smile transformed her face and Tarek suddenly remembered a day when he’d been seven years old and had come home and recited Surat Al-Fatihah for his mom, having learned it in school. She’d smiled in exactly the same way. The woman before him wasn’t just a major and fellow empath. She was his Auntie Saba, his mother’s twin. Looking at her was like looking at his mother if she had survived. How could he not trust her?
Tarek nodded. “Whatever you want.”
Holo Qiblah Compass
Auntie Saba led him to one of the biggest and oldest trees in the forest. Its trunk was three times the width of the hovercar they’d driven, and its crown was lost in the foliage above. Saba took from her coat pocket a small round device. “Do you know what this is?”
“No, it’s a holo qiblah compass. It points the way to Old Earth, on which is located the city of Makkah, and the sacred mosque toward which we face in prayer.” She opened it and pressed a button, and a shining image of Old Earth appeared in the air three feet ahead of them, with an arrow pointing at it. Below it appeared the words,
Salat Al-Asr. 1 hr 9 minutes remaining
“That’s the direction of prayer. It works anywhere on NewMalaysia. If you travel offworld, just hold it up to a viewport where it can see the sky. It will map the stars and figure out the direction of Old Earth.” She closed it and handed the device to Tarek. “This belonged to your grandfather. I want you to have it.”
Smiling at his stuttered thanks, his aunt removed her coat, revealing muscled shoulders and arms, and laid it on the ground to serve as a prayer rug. “Pray as I just taught you. As you do, open yourself to this tree.” She reached out and caressed the trunk of the massive tree. “Feel what the tree feels, and read its thoughts if you can.”
“Its thoughts?” Tarek looked at his aunt as if she’d lost her mind. Not for the first time today.
“Just do it.”
If a Tree Prays in the Forest
He raised his hands, said, “Allahu Akbar,” and commenced the prayer.
He tried to focus on the prayer as his aunt had taught him, as if he were standing directly before Allah, asking for guidance and pleading forgiveness. At the same time he portioned part of his mind to listen to the tree, though it was far more than the simple hearing that others did with their ears. When he focused his empathic sense on someone full bore, it was almost as if he was that person, emotionally.
At first he perceived nothing from the tree but the same dim and dreamy awareness that he’d sensed before. As he continued to pray, however, he perceived to his astonishment that the tree had become aware of him. As he listened to the tree, it was somehow turning its attention to him. Soon he became aware of a flow of energy within the tree. It ran up and down the trunks, and along the limbs, and to the leaves and tiniest twigs, like blood in a circulatory system. But it was not a physical thing, not the water that traveled through the limbs, or the sugars generated by the sun. It was the tree’s attention and will, which it directed and shifted constantly.
Now, as he moved within the prayer, the tree matched him. When he bowed, the tree bowed. It was not physical – the tree did not bend its trunk – but came in the form of the flow of internal energy. The energy was directed in a way that, to Tarek’s empathic sense, felt like a bow. When he prostrated and glorified Allah, he “heard” the tree glorifying Allah in its own way. At the end of the prayer, when he turned his head right and left, offering salam on each side, he perceived the tree doing the same, but in this case his empathic sense told him that it was not a generalized salam. The tree was offering salam to someone or something specific, something that Tarek could not see.
Stunned and a little frightened, he broke the connection and stood.
Auntie Saba stood still, watching him. “How was it?”
“I – I don’t know how to say this.”
“The tree prayed with me.”
Saba nodded. “It’s time I tell you the passcode that you will speak -in private- when you meet Ammar Abuzaid. It’s an ayah from the Quran. Repeat it after me.” She recited the ayah several times, until Tarek had memorized it, then she translated:
“All that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth glorifies Allah, for He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.”
Tarek stared at the major. “You mean it’s literal?”
“I am not a Quranic scholar. But…” She let the sentence hang unfinished.
“The tree prayed with me.”
“Indeed, the tree prayed with you. The tree, in its way, praises Allah the Most High. Understand, Tutu, this is something very few humans can perceive. I think even you could not have perceived it as you did if you were only an empath. But you are an empath and a telepath. There is an entire universe that is open to you, beyond the senses of ordinary humans.”
She tapped the E on his forehead. “I heard what you were thinking earlier. E for egoist and error. No, Tutu. E for endure, for that is what you will do. And E for evolve. We empaths and telepaths are not subhumans, or pieces of bone as you young people say. Just the opposite. We are superhuman. We are the future.”
Life is Good
“I can’t believe you read me so easily.”
“I will teach you to hide your abilities.” She took him by the arm and led him to the car. “Come. We have much to do. I hope you didn’t leave anything important behind at the academy, because you’re never going back there.”
As they began the long drive out of the forest, Tarek felt like a part of the tree’s soul was coming with him. He would never forget the feeling of being linked to the tree. He hoped that he would always remember what he had learned this day, that there was more to life than the ugliness he had seen so far, and that all things, in one way or another, served Allah the Most High.
Rolling down the window without being told, he let the scents of the forest wash over him. He stuck his head out of the window and let the wind whip about his face. A tentative, unfamiliar thought came to him and he latched onto it like a man thrown overboard in an ocean storm grasps the life ring: Life is good. It was a frightening thought, because what if he was wrong? But at this moment… life was good. On impulse, he hooted like a monkey, and from somewhere in the distance, a troop of monkeys answered. Tarek did something he had not done in many years. He laughed.
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 12: Seven Skies
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.