“Momma, Aysha’s throwing up.” Hope reported.
Zoe paused in her inventory of foodstuffs. “Did you tell her mother?”
“I found you first.”
Zoe ran cool water over a clean dishtowel an grabbed a mug. “Where is she?”
“In the toilet.”
One of the shared toilets had been identified for the exclusive use of the women passengers. Zoe and Hope found Aysha, ashen faced, sitting on the commode.
While Zoe washed the child’s face and gave her some cool water to rinse her mouth, she asked ”Did you eat anything yesterday that doesn’t usually agree with you? Do you feel hot? Or cold?”
The girl shook her head. She was quite pale, even considering that she had inherited her Father’s Nordic blondness. She whispered,”Thank you.”
“Take a minute til you feel better. Then go back home and lie down. Prolly just a passin’ thing.” She looked at the youngster again. “Might be your period comin’. Have you started your monthlies yet?”
“What’s that?”
“Bout time you talked to your mamma bout that. But basically, when you become a woman and not a little girl, you’ll have a flow pret’well every month. It can make you vomitous and crampy, but there are meds. Ask Nasirah bout that when you start.”
“I was eleven,” said Hope.”We were visitin Mother Serra when I did. She was a Companion and they had a nice ceremony for me.”
“A Companion! My father says they are the lecherous spawn of Shaitan!”
Zoe grimaced. , “Some don’t hold with the profession, but I never met a Companion who wasn’t the picture of gentility and kindness. Mebbee all an act, but they can sure make a person feel special. And safe.”
“Safe,” said Aysha.

Zoe asked Nasirah  about Aysha later when they met in  the galley.
 “I gave her some calcium tablets to settle her stomach. I don’t think it’s anything infectious. The  was bad enough.”
“You don’t know that family well?”
“They were a last minute addition. We thought that Mohammed would arrive too late for his parents to ship with us. We needed at  least six adults to make the trip and the homestead community affordable and Rahim had joined our mosque several months before. The teachers at the local school knew Aysha, but her mother we had rarely met. She was always very quiet―well, you’ve seen how she is.”
“Really under her husband’s thumb. Think he’s violent?”
“Somehow…no. Too proud. But he’s got her pretty cowed.”
“Married at twelve? Not a surprise.”
“You understand, that is not the norm in our community? We are traditional in many ways, but our traditions tell us women stand beside their men, not behind them.”
“Mmmmph. As long as the girl ain’t spreading sickness on the ship. Capt’n would not take that pleasantly..”
“She should be fine later”
River and Hope spun out of the bridge and raced over catwalks and down companionways. No apparent reason, just girl-joy of movement and play-pleasure.
As they whirled across the cargo bay, Hope, her head turned to check River’s position, slammed into the Captain’s solid bulk.
“Hey!” he complained, swinging the girl easily over his shoulder, “There are too many people around for this horseplay! You’re gonna squash a munchkin or ram into a house.” He swatted Hope’s bottom.
“C’mon, time for your lesson anyways” and carried her off.
Watching from her family’s tent door, Aysha’s eyes filled with tears.

When the Captain was satisfied with Hope’s understanding of her lesson, he assigned her an essay on their current novel and sent her on her way with a fond slap to her bottom.
Aysha saw them emerging from the stateroom they had pressed into use as a class room and cringed back into the passage wall at the tap. The Captain nodded as he passed her, then Hope approached more slowly, reading her assignment and thinking about her work. She was startled to be hugged by Aysha, who whispered, “I know, I know.” Then with a frightened glanced at the retreating Captain, she dashed in the opposite direction, passing River.
River gasped  with a look of fear and pain as she passed. She plastered herself against the wall  muttering, ”Captain Daddy? Captain Daddy? Stop. Don’t.”
Hope gaped at her upset friends.

After lunch the next day, Aysha vomited again.  Nashirah again gave her a stomach remedy. But this time she gave Aysha a cursory examination.
She called to the imam’s wife, her sister. The two women took the young girl to an unused stateroom and quiet voices questioned the child. Then tears .
River was in the bridge with Mal and suddenly was pummelling his chest. “Don’t. Not Hope. Stop Daddy, don’t”
“What the sparkling blue blazes are you on about, Tross?” the captain asked, fending off the small but effective fists of a trained assassin.
“Hope. Don’t lose Hope. Twenty three hearts.” And River ran through the ship to crouch outside the stateroom door.

The Captain was confused by all the comings and goings among the women on board. They were talking in low voices, and going silent when any of the men or children approached.
“What’s goin’ on, mei mei?” he asked his wife.
“Right now, woman stuff. We’ll tell you soon enough. “ she said grimly. “Keep the kids out of our hair for a couple of hours, kay?”
The imam had been equally unsuccessful in getting information from the passenger wives. His wife and sister-in-law were stonefaced and had sequestered Aysha, her mother and her tiny sister in a stateroom.

Finally, the two leaders were invited in to the women’s council. Miriam  told the men to sit down.
“Aysha is pregnant.” She said.
The men gaped. “She’s just a little girl. She’s what? Eleven?” said Mal.
“We can assume this was not a consensual relationship? That she was…. coerced?”
“Yes. And it gets worse. It looks like the hundan who did this is Rahim.” Said Zoe.
Mal shot to his feet and started out the door, only to be stopped by Kaylee.
“No capt’n. Stay cool.”
“I’m cool. I’m ice.”
“Yeah? Your plan include a trip out the airlock for Rahim?”
“Gorram right.”
“There are others to consider here. His widow. Two, soon three, children without a father.”
“That last part sounds like a benefit to them.” The captain raged in a quiet voice that was more terrifying than any shouting. “And widow? You agree with me about the penalty for this…filth.”
“Where is Rehab?” asked the imam.
“She went to her tent. She has rejected what Aysha has told us. Apparently the attacks started during her last pregnancy.” said Miriam “When Aysha was eight or nine. Aysha … her father told her this was normal and her duty.”
Aysha and Hope were sitting together, arms entwined. The men looked over at the youngsters.
“It ain’t.” said Mal.”It ain’t and he was wrong to hurt you.”
“Mama called me a whore. She said I was lying. She said I was spreading for …. I don’t even know who she meant!”
The imam reached out for her. She cringed back. He stopped and said, “No one should ever touch you without your permission. You have done nothing wrong. No one will punish you. You are a good girl and we grown-ups are here to protect and comfort you.”
Mal took a deep breath. “River, would you take the girls away? Help Aysha understand that we are going to do everything we can to help her?”
“Yes. Captain. And I was wrong to attack you, I misunderstood what Aysha …”
“’Kay. You done right from what you thought was happenin. Take the girls to the bridge. “

After the children left, the imam said, “Thank you. I don’t think our discussions are going to be fit for young ears.”
Kaylee started to weep and Mal embraced her. ‘We’ll do all we can to stop the hurtin, bao bei.”
“But her mother called her out. Her mother is trashin her and makin her out a gose jiéshù . “
“It will make our decisions harder.” The imam considered.
“The first decision ain’t. He’ s off my boat. Now.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the women.
“I’ll take care of that. Want Jayne’s help?” said Zoe, rising.
The imam looked horrified.
“They say the worst punishment is to turn the 犯罪分子over to the women.” said Mal.
“No. There is law on Lazarus. We should take him there and have a trial”
“We’ll get the same decision. Airlock is cleaner than hangin’.”
“Then what happens to the girls? Can Rehab understand the innocence of her daughter? More practically, with no husband and no skills, how can she support the family?”
Zoe stood by the stateroom door, at parade rest. Kaylee and the imam sat on the bed: the imam cross-legged; she leaning against her husband, who had taken the only chair and sat with one arm around his wife and the other on his knee. The three passenger women sat on the floor, their robes flowing around them.

Nasirah said grimly, “ I hate this but…. it would be dangerous for a child as young as Aysha to give birth. She seems to have been pregnant before her first menses. “
The women nodded.
“That does seem the first step. Sooner the better.” said Kaylee. “Can you do it?”
“Yes. This was not a part of my training that I ever wanted to use, but I can. The infirmary should have everything I need.”
“I can help you.” said Zoe.

The men took a few moments to understand the women’s discussion.
“But…” said the imam. Mal just looked grimmer.
“You don’t get a say in this,” said Kaylee.”We’ll explain it to Aysha and she can have the final word. But it is her body and her decision.”
The imam started to say something. 
“No. “ said his wife. “Incest, rape and pederasty. That is not something any child should have to learn of his parentage. If Aysha agrees, her pregnancy can be over today.”

“So, what about Rehab?” asked Fatima.
“Let’s give her time to get over her shock.” Kaylee suggested.”She ain’t got a lot of choices here. She ain’t been given a lot of choices in her whole entire life, seems like. She gotta be scared.”
“She’s taking it out on her child.”
“We’ll keep ’em apart for a few days.Let her cool down.”
Zoe interjected, “ Whatever happens to that yīng’ér qiángjiān de húndàn, she ain’t gonna have a husband no more. Somethin’ will have to be worked out about that.”

Zoe and Nasirah had gone to talk to Aysha. Fatima and Kaylee went to Rehab, to comfort and counsel her. Miriam had rounded up the children and was keeping them occupied with snacks and cortex vids.

The men looked at each other. “Seems like the women got most of this sitchashun under control. Mebbee we should be talkin’ to the men about what to do with this ang zāng de qiángjiān fàn.”

When Mal had shoved Rahim into an empty bunk, he had stationed Faroud, the builder, to guard the door, a flimsy structure of thin metal struts and bamboo. In spite of his anger, he was cool enough to realize that Rahim would not survive the wrath of his usual choice for such work. Jayne was better at action than careful consideration.

Mal called Sander and Jayne on the intercom to join them at the bunk door. He stood between Jayne and the bunk, while Machmoud spoke.
“Rahim is being held prisoner while we decide what to do about a terrible crime he has committed. Most of you are fathers, and will be angered and disgusted by his actions. But we are here to discuss not our feelings nor to exact revenge but to find justice. Justice for all.”
Faoud, like the other men, had not been told why he was keeping Rahim captive. “He has brought harm to one of the children? Which one?”
“His daughter, Aysha. She is pregnant.”
Mal had been wise to stay near Jayne, who surged towards the door. The other men took a moment to grasp what the imam was implying. Jayne had seen more of the underside of life than these honest family men. Mal needed all the control he possessed to restrain the furious mercenary.
A babble of cursing rose from all three men in a powerful mixture of English, Chinese and Arabic.
“She’s a child herself, a baby! How could he think to touch his own daughter like that!” cried Faoud.
“She is ruined,” howled Sander,” Who will think of her as a suitable wife after this?”
Jayne growled. “She’s a kid. And the victim. Not guilty of anything. Git that inta your head right now.”

The imam waited until the men quietened, although Mal could hear Jayne growling sotto voce like a bear.
“Our thoughts now must be how to handle the situation.  The women are taking care of Aysha and will be helping her mother.
“The Captain’s first thought was to throw Rahim off the ship. Immediately and without a suit.”
Jayne’s growl became louder. Faoud nodded in agreement.
Sander looked confused. “Has he admitted to this crime? Are we only taking the word of the child?”
“We have only spoken to the child and her mother so far.” admitted the imam. “The mother accuses the child of seducing her father.”
Sander looked disgusted.
“You are right, however.” added the imam. “We must have Rahim’s story too, before we make such life changing decisions.”
“Then can we chuck him out the airlock?” demanded Jayne.


About femmefan1946

Retired professional writer and editor. Nominated for an Aurora Award for work on CAN-CON 2014, which concentrates on introducing new and aspiring writers and artists to agents, editors and publishers.
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