The Fleet of the Great Hajj

Only one more day until we find out whether my alternate history short story “Treasure Fleet” has won a Sidewise Award!

Here’s an excerpt of the rough draft of the story (it’s better in the anthology), answering the question “in a war with the Arabs, how would a Chinese emperor best make the Hajj?” Tell me your answer in the comments, and if you want to know my answer, read on.



Chinese voyages of exploration in 1421-23 according to Gavin Menzies

“Holy Brilliance,” said Admiral Feng Aosiman ben Ali, “it is only my devotion to God, who calls suicide a sin, and to His Emperor Under Heaven that I do not kill myself in atonement for my incompetence.”

“So,” said the Imam-Emperor, “bad news, then.”

“See the leg I humbly had removed to show my devotion and atonement.” The Admiral of the Great Fleet of Western Jihad clumped forward and, indeed, his left leg below the knee had been replaced with a peg of hardwood. And yes, the gold-and-lacquer box in his arms was long and rather narrow.

The Imam-Emperor flicked a hand and his servants carried the gift away to put with the others. “The news,” he said, “must be very bad. Speak it to us.”

“The infidel Arabs block gulf of Oman and the gulf of Aden,” said Feng. “Our fleets and armies are unmatched in numbers and power. Our understanding of war and its ways far outstrip theirs. And yet the Arabian Desert and the Red Sea are…not as conducive to our victory as one might suppose.”

The Imam-Emperor might have applauded. For a man used to shouting orders to panicking captains, that was quite excellent diplomatic language. Still…”You last told us this fight was not impossible,” he said, “only expensive. Were you lying or misinformed or foolish to say so?” An admission of any of the three would give him grounds to have Feng executed.

“Victory remains possible,” said the Admiral, “but the expense will be greater than even my most…pessimistic predictions.”

The lips of the Imam-Emperor thinned. The word in the court was not “pessimistic” but “treasonous.” How could the very admiral of the Jihad Fleet doubt in his mission to return control of Mecca to true Islam and God’s Empire under Heaven?

“I humbly maintain,” the admiral was saying, “that it would be cheaper to build our own Mecca. Even ten times the size of the original, plated in gold and built atop Tien Shan peak, it would cost less than beating back the Arabs from their homeland.”

“Our amusement at your obvious joke outweighs our anger,” said the Imam-Emperor, “slightly. We hope you have a serious suggestion.”

The admiral bowed low. “I do, your holiness. The gross military term is ‘outflanking.'”

“Another land campaign? We grow impatient with your humor.”

Central Asia and East Africa were full of half-civilized Sunni partisans. Sending Chinese troops into that meat grinder again might very well convince the high aristocracy that the Emperor had lost God’s mandate.

“Your holy brilliance, I am an Admiral, not a general.” And not an utter fool, his choice of words implied. “I suggest finding an alternate passage to Mecca by sea.”

The Imam-Emperor sat back. “We are listening.”

Admiral Feng gestured, and one of his servants produced a large scroll-box. When pulled straight, the map on the silk was plain to the eye of the Imam-Emperor. So was the red line trailing down the Malay Peninsula to Rope Island and the Great Southern Island. That was the standard trade route for sugarcane, coffee, and the rare perfumes of the red desert. What wasn’t standard was the way the red line continued. Due east.

“The world,” said the Admiral “is round. There are large islands west of the Great Southern, perhaps the beginning of a chain. I believe that if we take on enough supplies at our established ports and island-hop carefully from there, we can cross the Great Flat Ocean and make landfall in the Far West. From there, we can sail through the Mediterranean.”

“Catching the Arabs in our pincer, you suggest.” The Imam-Emperor took on a dubious expression. “We cannot expect a handful of half-starved sailors to be of much use in a battle.”

“Your holy brilliance is entirely correct,” said Feng, “but it was my humble plan to make more than one voyage. It might take years to establish a reliable course, set up way stations, win over the Far Western locals, and make all the other necessary preparations to wage successful war.”

The Imam-Emperor leaned forward. “So your plan might win back Mecca for my son or my grandson?”

“Your holy brilliance, my humble and unworthy plan will win Mecca back for God.”

The Imam-Emperor almost laughed. Very few of his ministers were so entertaining. “Very well. You will have your,” he considered “Your Great Hajj Fleet.”

The admiral bowed.

“And to ensure your plans are carried out properly,” said the Imam-Emperor, “you will command this fleet personally.”

The bow froze. Continued with a noticeable tremor. “As your holy brilliance commands.”

“So let it be known,” announced the chamberlain and Admiral Feng stumped out of the throne room on his pegleg. The Imam-Emperor smiled.

The admiral was popular and powerful. Not the sort one could casually have assassinated.

Now though, with Admiral Feng Aosiman ben Ali as good as dead, the Imam-Emperor was free to choose a replacement to lead the Jihad Fleet.

And who knew, perhaps the crazy transpacific voyage idea would actually work.

Either way, Mecca would again belong to the Emperor of China and Imam of all Islam.


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