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The call to prayer sounded from his wrist monitor, and Abdul Hamid-Jones reluctantly pressed the hold button on the haft of his micromanipulator remote and set it down carefully on the laboratory bench. With a martyr's sigh, he consulted the glowing 3-D arrow that seemed to be floating somewhere within his wrist on the little holographic display.
It was a little complicated this afternoon. Mecca was located somewhere underfoot, through the entire bulk of Mars, with an ambiguous east-west orientation, and moreover, since that face of the Earth happened to be turned away at the moment, it was upside-down in Hamid-Jones's frame of reference.
He cast a last despairing glance at the magnified events unfolding on the big bench-mounted screen. The restriction enzymes had done their work, but DNA was leaking all over the place, and if he didn't do something about annealing the loose ends immediately, the carefully prepared plasmid chimera waiting in the wings would be spoiled. He was almost tempted to skip the afternoon devotion, but the door to his cubicle was open, and the overseer, Yezid the Prod -- a man of limited understanding -- had been on the prowl all day.
The insect buzz of the muezzin's voice grew more insistent at his wrist. "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!" it repeated for the last time; "La ilaha illa Allah!" With a muttered "All right," Hamid-Jones drew the monofilm prayer rug out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it to full size. He flexed his wrist a couple of times, making sure that the arrow held steady, then hastily made his silent declaration of intention-- though somewhat guiltily limiting himself to the minimumnumber of rak'as.
"Allahu akbar," he responded with not a moment to spare and sank to his knees in the light Martian gravity, prostrating himself in the direction that, according to the astronomical computer's tiny brain, most nearly approximated that of Mecca.
Halfway through his specified rak'as, he felt a shadow fall across his back. He knew without looking that it was Yezid and was awfully glad that he had not given in to the impulse to evade his religious duties. Yezid had been more foul-tempered than usual of late. Only a few days ago he had had an unfortunate Callistan slave flogged for a minor infraction of department regulations. Not that Hamid-Jones himself was in danger of such treatment; Yezid would hardly dare to touch an assistant to the Clonemaster of the Royal Stables. But it would be deucedly embarrassing to be hauled in front of a religious court and scolded, and it might hinder his advancement.
The shadow went away. Hamid-Jones finished his prayers and scrambled to his feet. He left the rug where it was; his first thought was for the bright twisting shapes of the gene assembly displayed above the lab bench.
He gave a groan. It was ruined. Even from the pseudoimage with its computer-assigned colors, he could see that it was a hopeless tangle. The passenger gene had come unstuck and attached itself to a section of an inverted repeat sequence on the wrong strand of the heteroduplex he had created that morning.
He shuddered to think of the consequences if a clone with a hidden defect ever were allowed to come to foal. He was working with genetic material from the Emir's prize stallion. The Emir tended to take a personal interest in the offspring of his beloved al-Janah, the Winged One.
Knowing that it was hopeless, he punched up the magnification and called for a schema to confirm the bad news. The computer obliged with a color-coded abstraction that showed the sequencing of base pairs on the offending palindrome as a series of little plugs and sockets. The replication fork was busily zipping itself up to the end of the molecule -- a repeat structure gone wild.
Hamid-Jones flushed it all away. He was going to have to do it all over again, from scratch. Wearily he began assembling the components of another plasmid from the DNA fragments he had in storage.
"Ya Abdul, why so serious?" a voice said from the door. "Coming to tea?"
Hamid-Jones looked around. It was Rashid, from the protein assembly section. Like himself, Rashid was descended from mawali, or "client" forebears, and it showed in Rashid's sandy hair and boiled complexion. Hamid-Jones, on the other hand, might almost have passed for a pure-blooded ethnic Arab -- with his hawklike visage, deeper coloring, and fierce dark eyes -- but he was painfully aware of his origins. Like it or not, he was an Anglo-Arab -- forever to be known in the social scheme of things as an 'arab al masta ariba, "one who becomes an Arab." He was not as low on the social scale as the ubiquitous dhimmi, or unbelievers -- who nevertheless enjoyed perfect tolerance as long as they paid the jizza, or head tax, of the unconverted -- but he would never achieve the status of a true Arab of tribal descent, an 'arab al' ariba. He would always have to work harder to get ahead.
"No, I'll skip tea today," he told Rashid somewhat brusquely. "I want to finish this."
He bent over the workbench again, a rather ordinary young man in cheap shirt and trousers, with a headcloth that was carelessly askew. Hamid-Jones's six feet two inches would have been considered tall on Earth, but he had already completed half his growth when his parents had emigrated to the Martian Emirate, and as a consequence he was a head shorter than most of his Marsborn co-workers, and had heavier bones and musculature. Strength, he had often had cause to notice, was not as important in the world as height; it was eye level that counted. There was still a trace of the British Protectorate in his Arabic accent -- another factor setting him apart.
Rashid did not go away, as Hamid-Jones had hoped. He lingered in the doorway, his eyes straying alertly to the screen. "Let it go, whatever it is," he said. "It can't be that important."
Hamid-Jones reached up and switched to a muon-scope view in uninformative shades of gray. He went on working without replying. After a moment, Rashid tried again.
"Who's it for?" he asked slyly. "Not a falcon or saluki for someone in the palace, is it? That would be a terrific plum."
"It's a horse," Hamid-Jones said unwillingly.
"Ah, a horse. Very nice." Rashid's oily gaze shifted to the sealed cryocontainer that Hamid-Jones had neglected to stow out of sight.
"I'm giving it a third lung, like that mutation that cropped up in the Horse Guard stables."
Rashid pounced immediately. "Ah... but you're working with sequestered material, I see. That means..."
Hamid-Jones clammed up. "You'd better get going if you don't want to miss the tea break."
"As you like," Rashid said with a shrug. "Ma'al salaama." He left, the envy plain in his eyes.
Hamid-Jones set doggedly to work once more. Rashid would be spreading gossip in the canteen, but there was nothing he could do about it. The assignment was a plum, and he had no intention of shirking it. The Clonemaster, the esteemed Hassan bin Fahd al-Hejjaj, was grooming him for higher things-- there was no doubt about it. There had been other tests before this one.
It was a great opportunity, but not without its perils. One of Hamid-Jones's predecessors in the job had come to the Emir's personal attention -- unfavorably -- and the story was still told in whispers of how he had been fed alive to the Royal Aviary. Of course the circumstances were hardly comparable; the unfortunate cloning assistant had been guilty not of mere failure, but of stealing sequestered genetic material and selling it to members of the minor aristocracy anxious to improve the breeding of their hunting dogs. But salukis -- the Noble Ones -- were a royal prerogative. They could never be sold, only exchanged or given as gifts -- and that went for their DNA, too. Still, stealing genetic material of treasured animals was a time-honored custom, and it was usually the servants who were caught. Even in the time of the Prophet more than two millennia before, enterprising desert sheiks had schemed to purloin the semen of prize stallions and race it across the sands to waiting mares. That was how the Arabian breed had spread. Nowadays it was done by contraband nucleotides.
It took Hamid-Jones an hour of patient work to put together another plasmid carrying the passenger gene and to tease out an undamaged six-foot strand of the Winged One's DNA from the precious hoard the Clonemaster had entrusted him with. An enucleated egg had already been summoned from the files and was on standby. Now he was ready to prepare the cleavage sites.
He was just about to set the computer to do a search of base pair sequences on the long molecule when he became aware of a growing hum of voices in the main dome outside his cubicle. Doors slammed. There was a gregarious babble, almost like a Thursday night. A chattering group hurried past his door, and he could distinguish calls of "Allah isalmak" and "Take care." It sounded as if the laboratory was emptying out, but it was still a couple of hours till quitting time.
Rashid poked his head inside the door with a big grin. Beyond him, Hamid-Jones could see two of his friends, Ja'far and Feisel, looking flushed and excited.
"Why are you still hanging around?" Rashid demanded. "We're being let off early."
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"A holiday's been declared," Feisel supplied, leaning in past Rashid's shoulder. "Three whole days, starting at sunset. There'll be public feasts and everything. Old Yezid Bent-Stick came round himself to pass the word. Yallah, come on, the place is closed."
"But we've just celebrated Iid al-Fitr. And the Feast of the Sacrifice is still two months off."
"It's a new holiday, I tell you," Feisel said impatiently. "It's been declared by the Vizier at the orders of the Emir himself."
Hamid-Jones scratched his head. "Why? What's it for?"
"Haven't you heard? The Emir is having himself beheaded again."
Copyright © 1989 by Donald Moffitt