Ao Laiei does not know what happened to the great revolutionary war hero Uroie Aei since she resurrected him, but she has long intended to find out. Finally, a clue from an unlikely information source--the confusing art of dream-diving--enables her to be present for a surprising strike against an academic aligned with the revolutionary government. Laiei quickly discovers that it is not the physical target she is concerned with, but his field of study, which may unlock the secret of what mysterious deeds the elusive Uroie Aei has been up to since his disappearance. This compelling tale from writer Alter Reiss is a rich look at the world of the Shoesi and the magic that drives Ao Laiei's unique abilities.
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About the Author
Alter S. Reiss is an archaeologist and writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows.
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Recalled to Service
By Alter S. Reiss, Sung Choi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Alter S. Reiss
All rights reserved.
Kitchen Pump Road was crowded with rickshaws and bicycles, glassy-eyed sarosands and an old-model steam lorry, which threw up clouds of black smoke as it bumped against curbs and corners. It was just as it had been in the dream. Laiei sat down with her plate of sunbird and sour mango and took stock of the café. It looked right, but it was hard to tell, because it looked like a thousand other lunch counters all across Shoesi. She hated to rely on something as uncertain as dream-diving, but it seemed that she had found the place.
Behind the counter there was a picture of Uroie Aei. An old one, poorly printed and faded by weather. He wore his peasant hat and scholar's robe — a picture from his campaign against the landlords, when he had first become known as the voice of the Shoesi. While more pictures of Aei wearing the uniform of a revolutionary cadre had been printed, fewer of those survived. Much like the returned Aei himself, the revolutionary pictures had never really found their way into the heart of the Shoesi; his second disappearance had left much less of a mark than the first time he had vanished. Laiei turned away from the picture; she was not there to mull over old failures.
The back doors of the Shoesi Technical and Magical Institute were about a hundred feet away, on the other side of the street, and most of the crowd in the café wore green-and-blue STMI jackets. Students out for an early lunch, talking loudly and excitedly about a thousand things at once. There were a pair of Gardlanders there as well: a man and a woman, pale and clumsy-tall, squawking over their food like confused parrots. There was a government minder with them, a slim girl wearing an old-model combat rifle and watching them with cool contempt.
Twelve years of fighting to get the colonials out, only to let them back in as soon as the smoke had cleared. Laiei looked back down at her plate and stabbed a morsel of sunbird, crisp skin and red meat. The Central Committee doubtless had its reasons, but she didn't have to like it.
Laiei had worn a cadre uniform for most of those twelve years, so it was hard for her not to watch the Gardlanders and prepare to take cover and return fire as soon as their weapons came out. But she wasn't armed, and that wasn't what the dream had shown her. In the dream, she had been looking out of a café, not back toward its shaded depths. It looked like the right café, and she had the right meal. Now all she had to do was watch Kitchen Pump Road.
The steam lorry finally got past the Trien-Lan Temple, and a sarosand put a forelimb down on the back wheel of a bicycle, which led to a screaming fight. STMI's clock tower chimed the hour, and a crowd of students poured out from the academy's back doors, headed across to cafés and markets to get lunch.
Laiei looked down at her sunbird and mangoes for a moment, and missed the explosion entirely.
It wasn't much louder than a firecracker or a boiler's knock. Then there was a sudden pause in the noises of the street, and everyone started shouting at once. A man in an instructor's robe was lying slumped against the back wall of the academy, and two students were on the pavement near him, motionless, bleeding. The twisted remains of a bicycle lay smoking in the street a few feet away. Laiei could see the glint of nails embedded in the rough sandstone of the STMI building. It was just like the bombs they had used during the war.
Most of the people in the street were trying to run away, but some were pushing toward the victims. Laiei dropped a few coins on the table and climbed up onto the wooden awning of the café; otherwise there was no hope of seeing anything past the crowd gathered on the street. There: there was a buff-and-white-patterned sarosand lumbering away from the bombing site, a document case sitting awkwardly in its saddlebag.
It could have been innocent; there were dozens of constructs carrying documents in and out of STMI every day.
She scanned the crowd again. Men and women fleeing the bomb site, others trying to help the victims. There was nothing else to go on, and she remembered seeing that sarosand before the blast — its saddlebag had been empty. She climbed down from the awning, and pushed through the crowds, chasing the sarosand.
Sarosands had lived in the forests of Shoesi five million years before man, in herds so vast that necromancers could get complete skeletons for less than the cost of an ox. The sarosands they brought back were more useful than cattle, either still living or brought back as revenants. As she followed the construct down Kitchen Pump Road, Laiei passed a dozen sarosands pulling carts and carrying loads, some with riders perched between their shoulders, more without.
When the sarosand left Kitchen Pump Road for Grand Highway, Laiei knew that she wouldn't be able to keep up. There were too many other sarosands and heavy lorries there, and they were moving faster than she could run. No more stalling. She pulled off her left glove, and the bones of her hand gleamed in the sun. She gestured and they wrenched loose, rose like hornets.
The pain made spots bloom behind her eyes.
Most of the bones missed; the sarosand was almost out of sight. But three of them — two phalanges from the little finger, and one from the index finger — found their target and held on like burrs.
Laiei recalled the rest, and put her glove back on. Its padded weight gave her hand heft, hid the imbalance between her left and her right hands. It comforted her bones, felt slightly like the flesh that she had lost. Laiei liked the feel of the glove too much, and it had led her astray, caused her to wait too long before pulling it loose. The sarosand was moving, and if she wanted to catch up, she would have to move as well.
Laiei didn't have a petrol carriage, a sarosand, or even a bicycle, and the public omnibuses were slow and unreliable. She fell further and further behind the sarosand, until it reached Revolution Square. When she caught up, it was waiting there, standing in the row of sarosands, horses, and petrol carriages that could always be found outside the government buildings.
Laiei took off her glove and called back the bones that had stuck to the sarosand. There had been a throbbing ache when they were gone, but the fact that one of her bones was still on the move was more of a relief than the others clicking back into place.
If the bomb had been sent by a government office near Revolution Square, following the sarosand back to its source would've earned her a bullet in the back of her head. But while the two bones from her little finger had lodged in the sarosand, the distal phalanx of her middle finger had lodged in the document case. And the document case was still on the move. The sarosand hadn't come from Revolution Square; it had been left there to discourage pursuit.
The case didn't move as quickly once it left the sarosand, but it had a substantial lead. Laiei finally found the leather document case, the last of her finger bones embedded in it, underneath a horse trough outside the Shoesi Capital Railway Station.
There had been pain when her bone had been gone, and a distant nausea. When she called it back into place, and fitted her padded glove back over her hand, all that went away. She once again felt connected to the world, felt the heat of the air, heard the noise of passengers and steam trains in a way that she hadn't when she had been severed from herself.
Unfortunately, the bone had not returned in triumph: The document case was empty. Laiei elbowed her way to a seat on one of the iron benches outside the train station and turned the case over, running her fingers along its seams. It was a simple thing, little more than a leather folder with horn buttons and silk button-loops.
If this were Gardland, the police might have taken the case apart, learned everything that had happened at STMI's back doors from the traces of chemicals and magic left on it. The police in Shoesi were not so well-equipped, but the Shoesi had their own resources. Laiei removed her glove again, ignoring the looks of passersby, and gently caressed the surface of the case, feeling the leather and the creases that time and use had put into it. Leather from cattle, horn from deer, silk from worms. For someone with her talents, it would be easy to connect to those animals, dip into the placid life of the steer or the frantic eating of the silkworm, but she wanted something else.
The case had spent a long time in the company of its owner. It had been a part of him, and some of his life remained in it. Laiei found places where other fingers had touched it. Her spirit reached out for the life that was in the document case.
As a rule, there is not much loyalty in inanimate things. Occasionally there is a yearning to be free, or an inclination toward or against doing the task they have been built to perform. But when an object becomes attuned to a person, it can develop loyalties, loyalties it is entirely incapable of expressing.
The document case was one of those. It knew that it was lost, and it didn't want to be. It wanted to serve its function. She could feel its desire to go back to the STMI campus, to the academic Laiei had seen lying in a pool of his own blood. The case loved that man, and wanted to go back to him.
Laiei soothed the case, assured it that she would take it to him, and forced it to focus on the documents it had held. She saw a torrent of the papers it had carried through the years, which she paged through until she got to the last set of documents, the ones it had held when the bomb had gone off. A sheaf of papers, tied with twine. The squat red characters of an official stamp that read "Restricted Research," and then, in smaller gray print, "Interim report of the scholarly commission: Self-propagating cycles (Part 7/9)."
Laiei started, fell out of the shadowed leather reality of the document case and back into the heat outside the Capital Railway Station. Self-propagating cycles were the key to the most destructive weapons in the world; they would destroy every living thing for miles, depending on the strength of the fields involved. She had left the revolutionary government after the war, so she knew little more than what the censors had allowed the newspapers and radio to say. But the gaps in those accounts told their own story. Gardland and its colonialist allies had detonated self-propagating cycle devices, but for the last ten years, the only free nation to have tested a device was Tarophae.
Given Shoesi's tensions with Tarophae, it seemed the government had decided to pursue its own program. If counter-revolutionary thought had taken control there, perhaps ... Laiei shook her head. She didn't know, she had chosen not to know, and there wasn't any point in trying to figure it out. She had dived into her dreams looking to find something that had slipped away during the war, and the dream had given her this bombing. That the trail led through a thicket of politics didn't mean that she had to give up her search for Uroie Aei. Her skeletal hand caressed the surface of the document case, again called up the bombing: a man dressed as a mendicant grabbing the case as the man who owned it died, quickly tossing it into the bags of the waiting sarosand, fleeing through the streets.
At Revolution Square, someone had come and taken it. A high-house revenant, a corpse that had been brought back and shaped so well that it would fool most people into thinking it was alive. The revenant was well-dressed, in a revolutionary-style shirt and trousers, but tailored — the colonial luxuries creeping back in — and the waiting petrol carriage had been an import from Tarophae. The petrol carriage had taken the case from Revolution Square to the train station, and at the train station the documents had come out, and the case left behind.
This was going to take some work. Laiei closed her eyes, pushed deeper. There was the horse trough; there was the revenant dropping the case, kicking it under. Laiei spread her awareness out. The revenant was walking away. Three steps to where the station guards waited. He showed them a ticket and went in. The guard was an older man, a bullet crease on his forehead. He checked the ticket and looked away; there was no chance that he would remember the revenant, let alone where the revenant was going.
The man might not remember, but the stones of the station, the beams of the roof, the birds' nests and cigarette butts ... Laiei spread her awareness out further. It was dangerous; she could fly so far apart that she wouldn't be able to come back together. And everything had to be convinced to awake and aid her.
There. She had it; the ticket said Maioc Hai.
"Ma'am. Ma'am!" Someone was shaking her shoulder. White glove, black uniform. Police. "You will have to come with us, ma'am." Laiei blinked and looked up. There was a border policeman with his hand on her shoulder; another, with weapon drawn, standing behind one of the combat jeeps Gardland had abandoned at the end of the war, repainted in Shoesi colors.
"The case," she said, willing her tongue to speak again. "It has to go back."
"We will take care of it."
"To its owner; before his funeral fires are lit; it would want to be burned with him."
"It will all be taken care of, ma'am. But you have to come with us."
Laiei let herself be restrained, led away into the jeep.
* * *
"How much," asked the police lieutenant, "did the Gardlanders pay you to set the bomb?" It was the third time he had asked that question. Laiei guessed that the next thing he would do would be to yell or slam the table, try to startle a confession out of her.
"I didn't set the —"
The lieutenant slammed the table. She felt a brief and distant pity for him. He was very young, and the bomb must have been an embarrassment for his division. Embarrassment above translates to pain below.
"— bomb," continued Laiei. "I was working on another project, trying to tie up the loose ends of something that had gone wrong during the war, and —"
"You're awfully calm," said the lieutenant, taking a cigarette from his vest pocket and lighting it. "Almost as though you had this story rehearsed."
Laiei looked up at the cracked plaster of the ceiling, a spreading brown water stain making a pattern like a climbing vine. She had never been in that room, never seen that stain, but the whole scene was as familiar as the ache in her hand. "It's not the first time I've been here," she said.
"Ahhh," exhaled the lieutenant. "Now we make progress. What crimes have you committed before, Ao Laiei? Is that how the Gardlanders drew you in to their plot?"
"It was before the war," she said, trying not to sound like she was showing him up with that answer. The lieutenant was a child, but she was a detainee in his custody; he could very easily have her beaten or shot. "When it was the colonial prison."
She shouldn't have said anything; she could see his anger in the tightening around his eyes, in his sudden jerky draw on his cigarette. She had served in the war and he hadn't; she was a hero, and he couldn't be one. That he had been too young for the war would be a permanent blot on his professional prospects, a grand opportunity which he had missed. It hadn't been wise to remind him of that, but he swallowed it. "Of course," he said. "Your war service. Tell me: Were you working for Gardland back then as well? There were many traitors in the ranks who were never found."
"Ask her," said a voice from behind Laiei, "about her hand."
The lieutenant looked over, annoyed, and some of the color left his face. "Sir," he said, standing to attention, "this is a routine matter; I'm sure —"
"It isn't routine," said the man, coming around to where Laiei could see him. A few years older than Laiei, neat gray hair, tailored suit. Not anyone she knew. "And you are handling it poorly. Ask her about her hand."
The lieutenant turned back to Laiei. "What happened to your hand, madam?" he asked, rage visible in the lines of his face. If she was still in the lieutenant's custody when the man in the suit left, she was going to be hurt.
"It was during the war," she said.
"Yes," said the man, sitting in the seat that the lieutenant had vacated. "During the early years, when a village was suspected of harboring cadres, Gardland troops would burn off the right hands of everyone in that village, until they identified the revolutionaries in their midst. The intent was both to find those they sought, and to force those they mutilated into beggary, to show the consequences of supporting the revolution."
The lieutenant looked down at Laiei's arm and shrugged. "Not every hero of the war is —"
"Director Eshiei was hiding in her village, when the Gardland army came," said the man in the suit. "She was the only one who knew where he could be found. They did not find him."
There was a pause as the lieutenant digested what that meant. "My apologies for the tone I have taken, Miss Ao. Nonetheless, there are questions I must ask, concerning —"
"You must ask?" The man in the suit shook his head. "You are dismissed."
Excerpted from Recalled to Service by Alter S. Reiss, Sung Choi. Copyright © 2016 Alter S. Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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