Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Faithful Soldier, Prompted

Short Story by Saladin Ahmed
Read for Escape Pod (Free Text and Audio) and Starship Sofa (Audio Only) by Rajan Khanna

Ali is a veteran of the great Global Credit Crusades whose wife is dying of a bioengineered disease spread by one side or the other during the war. Ali doesn't know which side is at fault, and it doesn't really matter, his wife is dying. He can't afford the expensive serum she needs to be cured, and soon won't be able to afford even to keep her alive.

Ali has given up all hope when he starts receiving strange prompts on his glitchy cybernetic interface, which usually just spits out demands that he report for uniform inspection or shop at Honest Majoudi’s. He isn't sure whether these are messages from God, or the beginnings of some sort of psychosis, but with no other hope, he sets off for Cairo at the prompts' direction.

Not so much a story of the physical journey as of Ali's need for something to believe in, a man willing to latch onto any hope that presents itself. He starts as a not very religious man and ends up sounding like a crazed fanatic, and noticing this change in himself.

I love the world Ahmed develops, frequently conveying volumes in tidbits of description and trivia about the war. Ali himself is quite the badass when it comes right down to it, but he finds himself powerless to save his wife from collateral bioweapon damage because he can't afford the exorbitantly priced medicine. The best thing is that 90% of the story actually takes place before, after, or between the lines of the actual narrative we read, and this is done quite deftly.

A particularly nice touch is that we still don't know whether the messages were sent by oddly tricky criminals, some godlike AI manipulating people from behind the scenes for reasons bigger than the scope of the story (my favorite), or an actual supernatural entity as Ali comes to believe.

And a note for the many people who miss the point of the ending, this line near the beginning is very significant:

"His thoughts went to her again, to his house behind the jade-and-grey marble fountain"

4 Nanohanced tigers out of 5 need no credit rating.

Originally Published in Apex Magazine #18

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