When Stars Are Scattered

By Spencer Ellsworth

Ahmed is a doctor working in a far flung outpost of humanity. His way was paid for by the leaders of his faith and his atheism is a guarded secret. His encounters with the “kite people” will cause him to doubt his whole worldview however when the aliens start dying and escalating tensions between religious extremists threatens to destroy the colony’s peace. “When Stars Are Scattered” is a moving story about alien contact, religious intolerance, and the redemptive power of the divine channeled through the spirit. Whether that spirit is human or alien.

The author would very much like to thank Khaalidah Mohammed-Ali for her support & suggestions on this story.

The alien lay dead on the sickbed. Mucus had crusted around its enormous nostrils. More mucus had oozed from the small flaps, like gills, on its chest, and dried on the thin translucent skin.

The aliens really did look like kites. It was no wonder no one in the colony could remember the scientific name. A tiny triangular head, all nose and wide ears with pinpricks for black eyes, crested an enormous square, paper-thin body like one wide wing.

“Time of death: zero forty-three.” Ahmed rubbed his eyes and looked around. The sickroom was unusually quiet; just the deep, humming sound of kites breathing and the faint pings from the monitors. “I’m going to move him for the autopsy. I want to look at that second breathing apparatus.”

The imam said, without looking up, “It can wait.” The harsh light of the clinic illuminated the worry creases in his thin face. “I have to know what is killing the kites. To figure it out properly, you need to be rested.” The imam traced a finger along the delicate bones that framed the one huge flap of kite skin.

“I know what killed him,” Ahmed said. “Virus. Could be a new strain of flu, could be something that jumped out of the goats or the pigs, but it’s nothing world-shattering.”

“It could be genocide.”

Ahmed forced himself to exhale slowly. Damn, did this guy ever love the word genocide. “I will know more after the autopsy. Man-made diseases can be fought just like natural ones.”

“Inshallah, Doctor. Take your time. I need to know for sure.” He looked down at his hands. “So few Muslims on this world. So few voices raised in truth, and the kites listen to ours. If only God would tell us what to do.” He stood straight and headed for the door.

Ahmed walked to the exam room, next door to the sickroom, and sat down. “Hell, damn, hell.” He reached for the flask of whiskey in his coat pocket, before he remembered that he was still on the job. He poured more water over the overused grounds in the coffee maker and watched, dazed, as it percolated.

Ahmed suspected that he had already burned through his month’s ration of coffee. This part of the planet Isach was a barren place, far from the communities clinging to arable land along the coasts. No one here but Nova Christos homesteaders, stuck on worthless land, and this community of opposites, the Muslim missionaries who came to “guide” the kites, their new converts.

Anywhere on this planet—anywhere in this sector of space—Muslims were a tiny minority. Ten years ago, when this section of the planet was opened to homesteading, there had been a rare couple of Muslims among the flood of those who wanted to make a new life on arid plains. That couple had, with one Qur’an and a little kindness to the kites, changed everything.

Now, the kites just happened to eat the cash crops the Nova Christos homesteaders depended on. So the Christians killed them like pests, and the Muslims brought them to prayers. The territorial authorities argued that the kites weren’t fully sentient, and the Islamic Confederation was mired in political games of their own.

The worst part was, he’d fallen right into this.

The Islamic Confederation paid his student loans, in exchange for service as a doctor in these colonies. Ahmed had jumped on the offer, even though he had been an atheist since he turned twelve. He had expected a backwater. He hadn’t expected a bloody religious war in the making. When was it appropriate to ask for a transfer? Second day?

The nurse walked into the exam room from the sickroom on the other side of the partition, navigating around the examination bed. Her face fell, a familiar expression of sadness. “Another one dead. Did you know his name?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t even remember yours,” Ahmed said. His hand trembled as he sucked down the watery, bitter coffee.

“I’m Adéla,” she said. “I told you twice.” She smiled weakly, as if to say she understood. “In case you missed it this time, that handsome, worried imam who just left was my husband. This last month has been hell for him.”

“This kite that just died—I’m going to do an autopsy on him,” Ahmed said. “You flash-sterilize everything?”

“Yes. I need you to look at one of the living kites…” She was staring at him, up and down, reassessing Ahmed. “In the morning, when you’re not so tired.”

“Why?”

“He’s unusually old. Older than the others by several years. I thought the virus would have gotten him by now, but he’s doing well, mashallah.”

“Bring him in to the exam room. Anything irregular is worth a look.”

Ahmed hadn’t seen a kite healthy enough to move around yet. Most of them lay in bed, wheezing, secreting mucus, too weak to wipe it on their skin flaps.

This one flopped into the exam room determinedly, pivoting on two tiny toes at the lower corners of his body. His head perched on a thin stick of a spine, while the rest of him could have been a draped blanket. His papery frame sagged and he clung to the wall with two little clawed fingers at the top corners of his baggy skin, then he swung his body outward and grabbed the edge of the examination table.

They really couldn’t walk, couldn’t move without a strong wind. They blew across the plains of Isach, endless flocks, living on the updrafts, mating in the sky, only coming down to eat.

He saw Ahmed and gave a hideous, sharp-toothed, mucus-coated smile that could not have been a natural expression. “Salaam alaykum,” he chirped and again, in Standard, “Friend?”

“Ibrahim, this is Dr. el-Mahy,” Adéla said in Arabic. “Ibrahim is, like his namesake, a father of many nations. Twenty-four children.”

“Friend?”

Adéla looked from Ibrahim to Ahmed. “Are you going to answer him?” When Ahmed didn’t answer, she said. “They place a lot of stock in friends.” After a moment, she added “Also, I think it’s the only word they know in Standard.”

Ahmed reached for a syringe. “Can you tell him that I want to draw his blood?”

“He understands Arabic. Tell him yourself.”

Those little black eyes were making him shiver. Ahmed spoke his best, patchy Arabic, “This will hurt, but it will maybe heal you.”

“Naam, sadeaki.” Ibrahim tilted his head, giving Ahmed access to the flat, webbed neck that displayed a number of blue veins. Ahmed took the blood from the kite’s veins. It was a very familiar, Earthly dark red. “Thank you.”

“Friend, sadeaki, allahu akbar, inshallah.”

The little thing babbled in Arabic through the whole blood draw, clinging to the table and occasionally shaking, snapping the flaps of his body. When Ahmed withdrew the needle, he looked at Adéla and squeaked out a long, loud string of Arabic.

“What was that?” Ahmed asked.

“A joke,” she said. “Kind of. He says that his blood is a little overripe. Because he’s old.” She frowned. “Ibrahim, you are funnier when you’re not trying to be funny.”

Ahmed put the vials next to his microscope slides.

“So,” Adéla said. “I have to know—what did they tell you about this assignment?”

“Not enough,” Ahmed answered.

“Well.” That left her at a loss for words. She stroked Ibrahim’s enormous snout. The old kite muttered more in Arabic. Ahmed caught the word “jihad.” He supposed everything must look like “the struggle” right now to the kites.

“Let me take a look at your nose and ears, too, Ibrahim.” Ahmed said. “Might help.” He bent down.

Ibrahim leaned close, and his nose moved, making that peculiar deep rumbling sniff. “Friend…” Ahmed met Ibrahim’s eyes, dark, deep wells—and not so dark. Ahmed thought he saw clouds billowing across that gaze, heard a high wind—

Darkness swallowed everything.

He soared; he rose above clouds. The sun should have burned, should have blinded, but it held him, warmed him, danced around him in a graceful pattern.

The light formed words, gracefully swooping, curving words in Arabic. He could almost read them—

Darkness again.

He dreamed he was a little child, holding his mother’s hand. She showed him how to bow, how to sink to his knees, and how to get up again. “We praise God five times a day,” she whispered. “It is to remember what God has done for us.”

“What has God done for us?” Ahmed asked.

“Oh, my dear,” his mother said. She pointed above them, and Ahmed became aware that air was rushing around him, lifting him, pushing him into the air. “He taught us to fly.”

He woke cold despite the thick blanket. The tiny room, nearly filled by his bed, was bright with sunlight streaming through the dirty window.

“Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, ash-hadu alla ilaha…” The call to prayer echoed faintly through the air, magnified. Ahmed looked at the small clock on his bedstand. Thirteen-thirteen. Friday.

“Shit!” Ahmed scrambled out of bed. He was still in his scrubs. He bolted through the curtain that marked off his bed from the rest of his small house—“Ahhh!” Ahmed was too late to stop himself. He crashed into Adéla, and a much younger girl. All three of them fell to the floor. A cup of coffee spun around in the air, and came down on the younger girl, drenching her.

Ahmed grabbed the girl by her hand, pulled her up. “Are you burned? Adéla, in my bag…”

“Not burned. It was lukewarm already,” Adéla said.

The little girl wiped it out of her eyes. She was a younger version of Adéla, about thirteen. She pinched the fabric of her blue, white-fringed dress and held it away from her body…her obviously new dress, that had come in on the shipment with Ahmed. Shit.

“Well,” Adéla said. “Salaam alaykum to you too. It’s okay, Sofia.” Adéla raised her daughter up by the hand. “It’s okay.”

Ahmed opened his mouth, and shut it again. By her face, he was sure that Sofia would have gladly traded a new doctor for the new dress.

“I’ll get the stain out, habibi,” Adéla said, and exhaled. “Somehow.”

Sofia finally said, in a very small voice, “Pablo would have done something to it anyway.”

I’m so sorry. The words weren’t much, so Ahmed didn’t say them. Adéla hugged her daughter, heedless of the coffee. She had none of the haggard look of last night—she wore makeup, a soft purple hijab, nice pants, and was rather pretty in this light. “Doctor, this is Khadija Sofia, the better version of me. Sofia, this is Ahmed.”

Sofia said, “Salaam alaykum.” And then, a little more cheerfully, “Mamí thought you had dropped dead last night. We’ve been checking your vitals.” She was remarkably polite given that heartbroken stare.

Adéla added, “If I had known you were that exhausted last night, I would have sent you to bed.”

“I was about to do an autopsy, and I cut the kite and I felt—” Felt the presence of God? “What was that?”

“Ah. You too.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know,” she said, voice a reverent whisper. “It just happens sometimes, around the kites.”

“Huh,” Ahmed said. “Maybe a pheromone or something. Subtle smells can do that.”

“Smell.” She gave him a look like he was a child that had amused her. “It just happens. There’s more coffee on the stove. Drink! I came to invite you to jumua.”

“Someone needs to be at the clinic.”

“I’ll do it,” Sofia said.

Ahmed opened his mouth to say, No, and Adéla chimed in, “This is your first jumua with us. Don’t worry. My husband hates long sermons.”

“All sermons are long,” Ahmed said, and a moment later, cursed himself for being obvious. They’d said it in the briefings. You will compose yourself as a true, faithful Muslim in all things. We will check the reports to ensure you are good representatives of your faith.

“All right, if that’s how you feel.” She laughed and went toward the door.

“No, I’ll come. Just let me clean up.” On a Nova Christos world it wouldn’t be enough to avoid pork, booze, and loose women; they wanted a Qur’an-quoting, happy member of the ummah, who would help resolve disputes and argue the meaning of scripture.

Ugh.

She and Sofia went out the door. Ahmed changed into the pants, shirt, and jacket he’d packed out. He reached into the crumpled lab coat and grabbed the flask of whiskey, splashed a bit of it into a fresh cup of coffee and gulped the mixture with a deep, satisfied sigh.

He stepped outside. The hot, dry air of Isach blasted his face.

A few rugged, bare hills lay on the far horizon to Ahmed’s left. In the other direction, flatland stretched to infinity, marked by red scrubby grass. A brown river ran through the vista, dotted with small, white-barked trees. Corrugated metal buildings clustered on the cleared land around them. A field of corn waved in the wind, the only patch of green against the red and brown.

It was an especially godforsaken place to inspire so much debate about the guy.

Kites rose out of the cornfield, sweeping up toward the sky, like playing cards flying into the air from a child’s hand. Black squares, one after another, lost in the blue.

“They eat the bugs in our crops, and in return, we feed them,” Adéla said.

“Handy,” Ahmed said. “Can’t the homesteaders make the same deal?”

“The homesteaders aren’t getting resupply every six months. That’s a big risk to take on a cash crop.”

“They must be able to live with the kites. You’ve found a way.”

“We have the Islamic Confederation to bail us out when things go wrong, Doctor, and believe me, things go wrong. Everyone else within a thousand miles is a former asteroid miner who made just enough money to buy a patch of a real sky and real earth. One bad harvest, and…” She sighed. “I don’t know that it will matter for much longer.”

“Why do you say that?”

She raised a hand, motioning to the kites in the field. “Just two months ago, when a flock roosted here, they looked like a carpet. They would cling to the ground and the wind would lift them like tents. For miles, covering the hills and the plains.”

Ahmed put fingers to his temples. “I need to find a way around—that thing. What happens around them. I can’t afford to lose it in the middle of a procedure again.”

“Odd, that. It doesn’t happen to everyone. I can feel it, but my husband feels nothing around the kites.” She adjusted the hijab over her head, which was threatening to unfurl in the wind.

“Pheromones,” Ahmed said.

She gave a groan. “Allah, I see that you have brought me another man who knows everything.”

“I’m sorry,” Ahmed said.

“Well, mashallah. He knows how to apologize.” She gave him a broad smile. “I am only giving you a hard time. You are the doctor.”

She was a bit guarded. He hated that. “Yes, well, if something is important, I want you just to say it. Don’t worry what I will think. I need your help, and I appreciate the good nursing.” He added, “I apologize again if I devalued your opinion.”

She actually blushed. “I…well thank you.”

“Say exactly what you’re thinking.” Even if it was religious nonsense, it didn’t pay to ignore a nurse.

The mosque was one of the only buildings in the settlement that had no artificial elements. Light stone the color of the distant hills was chinked with brown, clay-ridden concrete. It was a perfect octagon, washed out by the brilliant sun, and a smaller octagon at the center of the roof made up the minaret. Over the roar of the wind, the call to prayer sounded, lyrical and soft.

Inside the mosque, homespun wool prayer rugs covered the swept-dirt floor, and woven grass hanging proclaimed Qur’anic verses in swooping black Arabic. The riches of the mosque were a sharp contrast to the poor colony outside. Ahmed supposed that the only mosque on the continent, maybe the whole planet, had some kind of duty to impress.

People recognized him even before Ahmed removed his shoes. A thin, bearded man stood up and grasped Ahmed’s hand, and several of his compatriots followed. “Salaam alaykum, Doctor. It is so good to have you here. Rahman was saying how much he wished we’d had a better doctor a few months ago.”

“Why months ago?”

“We found an entire tribe with holes torn through their bodies. Very sad.”

The man identified as Rahman grasped Ahmed’s hand. “Lucky they didn’t live long.”

Another man grasped his hand. “God has surely sent you here.” His eyes glistened. “We were taking kites with us on hajj next year, all the way to Earth. And now those who were to go are dead, all in the last month. This virus is a part of the war, you can be sure. We will see some justice in time, inshallah.”

“Sorry.” Ahmed pulled away and excused himself to a basin for ablutions, washing himself as much to keep people away as to keep up appearances. When he was done, Ahmed pulled a prayer rug from the wall, rolled it out, and sat, trying not to show his irritation. He noticed Adéla doing the same, in the back of the mosque with the women. It felt wrong. He wanted nothing more than to throw down the rug and run. There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. And you’re all goddamn nuts.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2017/04/05/when-stars-are-scattered/

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