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.
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.”
“Her political connections notwithstanding,” said the lieutenant, “there are still—”
The man, who had laid his files down on the interrogation room desk, looked up from them to the lieutenant. “What exactly do you think happened?” he asked. “Is it your belief that Miss Ao arranged the bomb, chose a location where she could watch the devastation, and then went haring off in pursuit of a document case?”
“There were classified documents in that—”
“Which are gone. What do you think happened to them?”
“I have said that you were dismissed,” said the man in the suit.
This time, the police lieutenant gave a stiff salute and left the room.
“I hope that you have not suffered too much unpleasantness,” said the man, not looking up from his documents, “but such things are natural, in the course of an investigation as pressing as this one.”
“Of course,” said Laiei.
The man looked up, and there was a clarity in his eyes that Laiei had not expected to see. She did not know what his position was, or if he even had any official title. But this was a man who held power, who knew power. “You were, I assume, searching for the trail of Uroie Aei,” he said.
Laiei nodded, mute.
“I advise you, as a concerned friend to veterans such as yourself: Give it up.”
Laiei shook her head. She had feared it would come to this. The dream had given her the first chance she’d had in years, and she had not been able to—
“Do not misunderstand,” he said, giving her a faint smile. “You are not being warned away because you have gotten too close to a secret of the state. Your service during the revolution gave you access to secrets more important than anything you might have touched upon here, and your discretion has been sufficiently proven. If you wish to continue on this path, there will be no action taken against you.”
He gave her a quick, sad smile. “But it would be unwise. This is not a threat couched in non-threatening terms—it is advice that I hope that you hear. You are wasting your abilities. Since the war ended, you have drifted aimlessly, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing. You dive into dreams looking for something that does not exist, and your talents are great enough that they give you something significant, but it does not pertain to your search. Search for something real—something significant—instead, and you will find it.”
“He was dead, and I raised him up,” said Laiei. “I have a responsibility—”
“During the war,” said the man, “all of us failed at one responsibility or another. Raising Uroie Aei was an admirable effort, but it failed. Let that failure go, Ao Laiei; there is work that needs to be done, and your people need your skills.”
He had said that he wasn’t warning her away, but there was a warning there. Shoesi’s freedom had been won by arms and blood, but there was a constant crushing pressure by the colonial powers to accept this compromise or that. The Tarophae might have won their own freedom from the colonialists, but they also sought to impose their will on Shoesi in a thousand small ways, from trade arrangements to the terms of military cooperation to the gauge of Shoesi railway tracks. If Shoesi wished to remain free, rather than fall back into the grips of the colonialists or become a province of Tarophae, there was more work to be done than there were people to do it, and she was not shouldering her burden.
It would have been the simplest thing in the world to have her tortured, in the hopes of shaking loose something about the bombing, or to have her executed, to demonstrate that the attack was being taken seriously. Laiei was being sheltered from above. But the longer she went without being productive, the less she could rely on that shelter.
“If I had failed,” she said, “if Uroie Aei had never been properly raised, and if his disappearance was caused by the resurrection failing—I could give it up. But the spells did not fail. The revenant still lives.”
The man sighed. “Perhaps,” he said. “You are, after all, an expert in your field. And, as I’ve said, you are free to pursue whatever interests you choose. Now, let us turn our attention to this bombing. The accounts we have from the other witnesses are confused and incomplete, and I hope that your observations will be able to help us.”
Whether or not they were any help, the man certainly extracted a complete account from Laiei, going over each detail dozens of times, teasing out every bit of information that she had, every recollection of those confused seconds between the time the bomb was detonated and when she left Kitchen Pump Road. But despite that intense interest in the bombing, he was much less interested in what had happened afterward.
When Laiei pushed him on that, he shook his head. “I do not doubt that the documents were stolen as you describe. As is proper, border police units are in search of them. However, you know what we were seeking, and you know who wishes us never to find it. This was a crippling attack by Gardland on our self-replicating cycle program. They wish to hold the threat of annihilation over our heads without being threatened in return, so they have done this thing. The documents were stolen to see how far we have come, nothing more. We have not given up looking for the Gardland agents who conducted that end of the operation, but I am far more interested in protecting ourselves from further attacks than in tracking down agents who have finished their work.”
Laiei nodded, took a sip from the glass of water that had been brought for her. “The document case,” she said. “It is evidence, I know, but it wants to be back with its owner. If you could—”
“Of course,” said the man, with a smile. “It will be seen to.”
It wouldn’t. She was being sheltered from above, but the document case didn’t have any allies in the hierarchy. If she had the authority, she might be able to see it through to where it wanted to be, but there was nobody above her who would care. It was just a thing, after all.
When her interview was over, a pair of uniformed officers showed Laiei out of the police headquarters, and she was once again on the streets of Shoesi. The sun had set, and the evening vendors were out with their lanterns and silk balloons, selling boiled shrimp and transistor radios, bricks of tobacco and colored scarves. It was like passing from the land of the dead to the land of the living; there were hundreds behind the walls of the police headquarters who had left their lives as carelessly, as foolishly as she had, and unlike her, they would never be allowed to return.
There were times on the front when she would call soldiers back after they had been shattered by Gardland bullets. They would stand, take up their weapons again, and be shattered again by the same Gardlander emplacement. The man in the suit had spared her from the land of the dead, but she was going to take up her weapons again, and head back in the same direction. Laiei made her way to the train station. The revenant who stole the documents had bought a train ticket to Maioc Hai, a village in the northern tablelands.
The man who had interviewed her in the central police station had not given his name. That had not been an accident. If she had still been in the game of government—if she hadn’t left the revolution in other hands—she could have found out who he was, and repaid him for saving her from the fate of a common prisoner. As it was, the favor was not for her, and the debt was not owed by her; she was a counter, not a player.
Whoever the man was, he had been sure that the theft was incidental, but he was wrong. It had all gone too smoothly. The theft had been better planned than the murder, more carefully executed. The professor had been killed so that the documents he was carrying could be stolen. Laiei returned to the central station, bought her ticket to Maioc Hai, and boarded the train just as it was leaving the station. It was unwise to keep following the trail, but she couldn’t let it go. Dream-diving was unreliable and dangerous, but it had given her something real. Whatever it was, she would follow it through.
During the early stages of the war, the Omarei and Demsen tribesmen had sided with Gardland, which meant that the tablelands had been closed to the revolutionaries. As the atrocities committed by the Gardlanders became more frequent and less carefully targeted, that support had melted away. The cadres had pursued their advantage, harassing the Gardlanders in the tablelands, forcing them back into their bases. Even so, by the time of the armistice, the revolutionary cadres hadn’t liberated Maioc Hai, or captured the sprawling complex near it that the Gardlanders called Fort Triumph.
It could have been that the revenant was using Maioc Hai in the same way that it had used Revolution Square: as a blind, to frighten off any pursuers. The minefield maps that had been granted by the treaty were incomplete, and there were many anti-personnel devices that had not been safely deactivated. When the war ended, Fort Triumph was given back to the forest, which had swallowed it up. A dangerous, poisonous place.
The train up to Maioc Hai was an old colonial line, and it took the whole night to cover the distance that a steam lorry could have covered in an afternoon. The leather of the seats and the wood of the furnishings, worn smooth by the touch of many bodies, lulled Laiei to sleep. They were old things, comfortable in their long-established roles. Despite everything that was troubling her, Laiei could not but sleep peacefully amidst the slumbering fittings of the passenger carriage.
When she awoke and left the train, it was as though she had stepped back in time. The villagers of Maioc Hai wore peasant hats and traditional revolutionary shirts and trousers, not the tailored mockeries of the capital. The radios hung up outside of the restaurants were the same scavenged Gardland issue or heavy Tarophae sets as they had used during the war and before, and the music was the official revolutionary channel, not the mixed babble of the city.
Laiei had a sudden great temptation to leave the chase behind and join a farming collective near Maioc Hai. There would be no trouble finding a collective that needed workers; the land had been underused since it had been purged of the Omarei and Demsen. It was a pleasant thought, but she couldn’t take it seriously. She was not what she was before the war, and while she might be able to make herself into a farmer again, now wasn’t the time. Perhaps after she had finished everything she had left undone.
The revenant had been going somewhere with those documents, and Laiei knew where. There was a sarosand dealer not far from the train station. After a bit of bargaining, she was up on a pre-war mount, its fur a moth-eaten brown. Made for rural work, slow-moving and hard-jointed, but strong.
It had been many years since Laiei had gone out on a jungle patrol, but she fell into the routine effortlessly. It was like falling back asleep when she was still bone tired. A toss of the head, a look around, and she was back in the same dream, once again riding a sarosand in hostile territory, thinking twice about every step, looking twice at every shadow.
It helped that the tablelands had changed so little. The forests were the same, and the trails wound around and doubled back just like they had during the war. The city had changed, and even in Maioc Hai, there had been traces of modernity. But trees and vines had stayed the same, and there was nothing contemporary in the plodding tramp of the sarosand.
The Shoesi troops had never been well-supplied during the war, but they had usually had packs: three days of rice, dried pepper flake, and fish sauce. Laiei had brought along a canteen before heading into the jungle, but had not stopped for supplies, and now she regretted it: the last thing she had eaten was the sunbird dish at the café, and hunger had caught up with her.
So had the war. Up ahead, a Gardland glider circled Fort Triumph’s perimeter, just as they always had. Laiei stopped, frozen in place. Those gliders were filled with needle-rains, and crawlers, and burners, and bombs, and they could stay up for a long time—days, weeks. But she hadn’t seen one for years. The revolutionaries had won the war, The Shoesi flag been raised over Fort Triumph, the Gardlanders driven back across the sea. Laiei looked up again at the glider, willed it not to exist. It remained, circling slowly overhead, turrets twitching.
The sarosand caught her panic, and bolted back into the jungle. Laiei had to hold fast to keep from being thrown loose. It took five careless steps before a circler mine popped up and knocked her down. The last thing she saw, as unconsciousness came like night, was her sarosand bolting off into the forest. There was nothing she could do to help it.
When Laiei awoke, she was not in a Gardland prison or chained to a barracks bed. That is to say, the prison she was in didn’t smell like Gardlanders, didn’t have the look of Gardland to it. But it was a prison, and based on where she’d fallen, she assumed it was one that Gardland had built in their Fort Triumph complex.
It wasn’t just that the Gardlanders were gone. There was the smell of mildew in the air, a creep of mold where water dripped onto the porcelain sink, and the food on the tray near the bars of the prison was rice with banana, not Gardland rations. She went over and started eating before rational thought caught up with her, which was when she noticed what had been done to her hand.
The bones were still there; she could feel them. But the whole hand had been encased in concrete. It would take a stone-wizard hours to break her loose, and she had no skills in that direction. She was trapped—there would be no sending her bones out between the bars, no fiddling with the locks. For a moment, the panic that had seized her on seeing the glider threatened to return.
It was not a Gardlander prison. The Gardlanders were gone, long gone. She ate the rice, drank metallic water from the sink, and waited, sitting on the flat wooden bunk.
After a time, a revenant came to the cell door. It was a young woman, wearing the uniform of a colonial maid. There had been thousands of those revenants in Shoesi before the war; the Gardlander elite had found women brought back from the dead more trustworthy than living servants, and more obedient. More expensive, of course, but the expense was part of the charm—a way to show that one was truly a lord in exile.
The revolution had put a stop to that. Shoesi women were now worth more alive than dead. Most of the revenant maids had been sent to funeral pyres, but a few survived, laboring in isolated farms and back-alley brothels. Laiei reached out with her talent, gave the twist that would tell the revenant to free her.
The woman bowed. “I am afraid that I cannot comply with your wishes, madam,” it said, with a light, musical voice. Everything about her was flawless, and she was defended against necromantic tampering. During the colonial administration, that maid would have been worth a fortune. It unlocked the door and gestured toward the corridor beyond. “If you will proceed this way, the commandant will see you now. I urge you not to consider fleeing, as I am authorized to use force to prevent your escape.”
The maid didn’t carry any weapons, but it didn’t need to; no simple revenant could have refused Laiei’s command. When they were putting together something like that maid, they could have worked anything from superhuman strength to poison darts to embedded firearms into her bones. She was a masterpiece, and if she had been assigned to shepherd Laiei, Laiei would be made to follow.
“My mount,” she said, as she rose from her bunk. “Is it safe?”
“It has been recovered,” said the maid, “and it has been added to our vehicle pool. You need not worry about it.”
Laiei did worry about it, but there was nothing she could do. Just as there was nothing she could do for that document folder, and nothing she could do for herself.
The maid remained three steps behind Laiei for the whole walk through Fort Triumph. It was largely abandoned: barrack rooms slept empty; command centers were dead monitors and empty chairs. But the service revenants were still there, moving silently through their tasks, and combat automata still waited in their racks, their weapons all clean plastic and gleaming steel.
Toward the end of the war, those automata had done most of the fighting on the Gardlander side. Laiei had sat on a committee that had seen how many cadre deaths those automata were causing. On average, there were fifteen dead revolutionaries for every destroyed reaver, and fifty for every tracker. The committee had concluded that was good enough, and they were right; Gardland had been less willing to lose a tracker than the revolution had been to lose fifty men and women, and Gardland had lost. The stockpiles of death weren’t any less chilling for it having been a failed strategy: There was a dead village in each visored face, a shattered family in every steel claw.
“Turn left at this intersection, please, madam,” said the maid from behind. Laiei obeyed. If she had known the layout, she might have been able to lose her shepherd by dodging around a corner, but she didn’t, and there was no way she could turn and fight without being cut down.
“Through this door, please,” it said, and she went through.
Inside, the office had the comforting disorder of something alive. Papers and bamboo tea bowls, an over-full trash bucket, and a cat batting at crumpled paper. There was a man sitting behind the desk with the copy of the “Interim report of the scholarly commission: Self-propagating cycles (Part 7/9)” open in front of him.
The man looked up as Laiei came in, and smiled at her. It was Uroie Aei, wearing the uniform of a Gardland officer. “Miss Ao!” he said, cheerfully. “What on earth brought you to that café?”
Aei was sitting on the chair behind the desk; there were two others in front of it. Laiei chose one, sat down. “Dream-diving,” she said. “Are you a Gardland agent?”
“Dream-diving,” he said. He smiled again, the impish smile that had drawn so many to him. “Very odd that your dreams should choose that route, though I suppose we’ll understand dream-diving only when we understand dreams. Not that it’s of personal relevance, you understand—those of us who were dead never dream.”
The kitten had retreated under the desk when Laiei sat down. Now it peeked out from beneath the back of the desk and swatted at Laiei’s feet.
“And you may put your mind at rest as far as the uniform goes,” Aei continued. “My own garments rotted off me with the damp, while the Gardland uniforms that had been left behind remained pristine, thanks to preparatory treatments.” He smiled again. “A clever people, who left a great deal behind.”
“This does not entirely put my mind at ease,” said Laiei, looking closely at the face opposite her. It was Uroie Aei. He had the same expressive features, the same manner of talking. There could be no mistake. As close as she looked, there was no clue in his face as to what had gone wrong with her working.
“If you’re worried about secondary effects of the enchantment on the uniforms, you needn’t,” said Aei. He picked up the document that he had been reading. “I am, in my own way, a self-propagating cycle. The devices are built around magical effects that create additional effects, and I too am a product of magic who can work magic. I have checked the spells thoroughly; there is no harm in them.”
“That was not my concern,” said Laiei. She raised her feet to where the kitten could not get at them, sat cross-legged on the chair. “Uroie Aei would not wear a Gardland uniform.”
“Ah,” said Aei, and for a moment, his face showed an abiding sadness. “Yes, I suppose he would not have. And I suppose that concerns in that direction might be seen as justified.”
He put the papers down on the desk and stood. “If you will walk with me a bit, perhaps I can explain, and perhaps your feet will not be so viciously savaged—the defenses of this facility are sufficient that little Static has had few opportunities to play with anything besides me.”
He walked out into the halls of Fort Triumph. Laiei followed. “You see,” he said, “really, there is no such thing as necromancy.”
“Said the revenant to the necromancer,” replied Laiei.
Aei laughed, a snorting fit that left him almost out of breath—he was, despite whatever had gone wrong, her best work. Out of breath, of all things! “Well put,” he replied. “But no. I do not mean that necromancers cannot give life to the inanimate. What I mean is, necromancers cannot return life to the dead. What is dead is gone; the life that is given is only what the caster puts in.”
“No,” said Laiei.
“Yes,” replied Aei. “I am not Uroie Aei; Uroie Aei is dead. I am your idea of Uroie Aei, imposed on lifeless flesh.” He shrugged. “There are similarities, naturally. But I have read what Aei wrote, and there are things in those writings which I fundamentally cannot agree with, let alone have written.”
“He was a universalist, Miss Ao. He had a sympathy for Gardlanders which I have not been given.”
“You wouldn’t be the only one purged of those sympathies by the war,” said Laiei. Maybe that’s what had happened: The war had broken him like it had broken so many others, and he had found a way to excuse the changes it had made in him.
Aei gave a short laugh. “Very good,” he said. “But no. The war did not reveal to me any darkness in Gardland that I had not previously seen. My wife died at the hands of the pro-colonialist militia well before the war, and I was assassinated by a revolutionary cadre for speaking out against the earliest purges.”
“How do you know that?” she asked. “I never knew how you died.”
“How did dream-diving bring you to where that bomb was due to explode?” he replied. “I do not deny there is magic, and I do not deny that you possess it. I do not know if my memory of my death is accurate, but that is what I recall. As I said, I am your idea of Uroie Aei, and your idea included a man who knew how he died.”
Laiei shook her head. “No. No, I don’t understand.”
“Think of it this way,” said Aei. “If I were a mathematician, and you did not understand mathematics, I might have come back as a lightning calculator, or a man obsessed with squaring the circle—I would be able to do things you could not, but it would come from your idea of a mathematician. You believed that Uroie Aei would know certain things, so I know them.”
“It was your body,” said Laiei. “Not my idea of your body. The magic woke you.”
“Undoubtedly,” replied Aei. “But the fact that you gave me life does not mean that I am back from the dead. Had you willed it, you could have made a cabinet think it was Uroie Aei. You could have given the life I wear to a document case.”
That stung, and despite the fact that he was walking ahead of her and not looking back, Aei knew that he had hit home. “Poor thing,” he said, softly. “It had no desires, no intention—it was just a piece of leather stitched together to hold papers. Now, there is loss there, a mourning for a friend it never had, and a place in the world it cannot get back. You have given a thing life, only to give it an eternity of pain.”
Laiei shook her head, trying to deny it, but no words came. “How do you know?” she said finally. “About the case; how do you know how—”
“As I said,” he replied, taking a key from his belt and unlocking one of the doors along the hallway. It led into a store-room, cramped with crates and ammunition boxes. “Uroie Aei was a universalist. The man you made is a particularlist. I know my people, and I love them with a fierce love. This ties them to me.”
“Your people,” said Laiei slowly. “The man at the police—”
“No.” Aei found the box he was looking for, tucked it under his arm, and continued. “No, you misunderstand. My speeches to the Shoesi always failed to connect, whereas Aei’s electrified them. There were those who cheered because they knew they were supposed to cheer, and because the words were well-written. But there was no connection, because they were not my people.”
He looked back at Laiei for the first time since they’d left his office, and there was nothing but pain on his fine face. “I tried, Miss Ao,” he said. “I tried to make them my people, but they were not.” Then he shrugged. “I cannot help being what I am, and in the end, the Shoesi are not my people.”
“Then who is? The dead?” said Laiei.
“Yes! Very good! You’re almost there. It is not the dead, though—the dead are dead, and are nobody’s people—but the constructs and revenants, the things which have been given life despite not wishing for it, the tools that have been given the capacity to think, and then used without thought. They are my people, and I will do what is best for them.”
They had left the building where Laiei had been imprisoned, and exited to a yard, where the vegetation had been stamped down so thoroughly that there was nothing but red-brown mud, and on it, a device of steel and bone made from fragments of Gardland walking tanks and Tarophae transports, connected by endless sheaves and loops of wires.
“The whole reason you find yourself in this mess is that the men involved in the project feared that they were being watched, and that their household revenants could have been compromised by a foreign power, so they took to meeting in empty classrooms and sealed bunkers. If they had kept their faith in their revenant tools, I would have learned what I needed to know without having to resort to that bombing, and several ants’ nests would not have been kicked. But there is no unkicking nests, I suppose.”
There were another two maids in the courtyard with heavy rifles, and a squad of labor revenants who swung into action as Aei approached. The labor revenants moved in perfect synchronicity, like the chorus of an opera. Laiei reached out with her power, expecting to find them controlled by a single mind, but it wasn’t that; the life they had been given was not the usual sort of thing that necromancers would give. It was closer to the life of bees, or of ants. She didn’t know if Aei was right in every particular, but it seemed that he had been able to raise human corpses into something other than human life.
“This device,” asked Laiei, quietly. “It is . . .”
“It is built on the principle of self-replicating cycles, yes,” said Aei. “As I’ve said, my people are those who have been called to life. I know them, and I know their enemy, and this weapon is entirely suited to that war. When detonated, the device will destroy every living thing for seven hundred miles in every direction. Those upon whom life has been imposed will be both unharmed and free.”
The number staggered her—that would be all of Shoesi, at least two Tarophae provinces, the better part of New Diroc, and all the coastal islands. “You can’t,” she said. “There is too much of Uroie Aei in you for you to be capable of pressing that button.”
“I’ve pressed it more than a dozen times,” he replied, climbing up onto the device. “Nothing happened, because the trigger mechanism is a complicated bit of work. Still, I think I have the right of it now; some clever people wrote that report.”
Laiei lunged forward, her arm coming up, but a maid was there, holding it in place. It was just reflex, anyway; she could not send her bones through the concrete. “What about Static?” she yelled, as Aei appeared again on top of the device, grease stains on his cheek and shoulder.
“Static? Oh, of course, the kitten.” He gave her a short smile. “I suppose I could say that the only reason that I am fond of cats is that you thought Uroie Aei was fond of cats, but that’s irrelevant—I like having them around, and hate to see them hurt. In any event, there is an exclusion zone. The device will not affect anything within a half mile. Everything beyond that will die.”
He walked away from the device carrying a detonator, the wires unspooling behind him. For a moment, Laiei was back in the war—she had used detonators like that dozens of times. “Perhaps that’s why your dreams led you here,” continued Aei. “Your talent reached out, and found you both the solution to your problem, and a place of safety. I certainly have no regrets on that score—it will be good to have some company which is not subject to my will.”
“No,” said Laiei. There had been times when she needed to send her bones out even though she had been wearing gloves. She tried again, willing them out through the concrete, but nothing happened. One hand was bound in that stone glove, held by a revenant maid. The other was free, bound in nothing but flesh.
She raised it up, willed the bones to fly, willed the power to flow through that hand the way it had flown through the other since the Gardlanders had burned her.
For a moment, nothing happened. Aei turned toward her, intelligent curiosity on his face. And then the power came, pulled her hand apart. Aei became a hill where flowers were suddenly in bloom, a man hit by a nail bomb, as all the bones of her hand burst into and through him. He fell down dead, again dead, the life she had given him gone, as gone as the life he had been born with.
Laiei collapsed down to her knees, vomited. She felt the pain from her hand, and saw the ruin of it, the tatters of muscle and skin, the shredded tendons and veins, the arteries pulsing blood. “Help me,” she said, turning to the maid, who stood expressionless. Uroie Aei’s control would have been broken; the maid would be just another revenant. Laiei raised her hand and the bones flew back into place. Underneath the sharper pains, the ache there was the same as in the hand encased in stone. Another wave of nausea, but there was nothing left inside; she curled up in the pain. “Help me,” she said, again, and then she was gone.
When Laiei awoke, she was in the hospital at Fort Triumph, surrounded by empty beds with paper on them, medicine cabinets coated in dust, spiderwebs in all the corners. “Will there be anything else, madam?” asked the maid, who was standing beside her bed.
Laiei looked at her wrist, the joint between the flesh of her arm and the bone of her hand. It was wrapped in gauze, some of it stained red, but looked stable. She raised her arm, considered. “Can you get this glove off me?” she asked, holding up the hand encased in concrete.
The maid curtseyed. “I am afraid not, madam,” she replied. “I do not know how.”
“Of course,” said Laiei, and slowly sat up. She had a pounding headache, and the world swooped and whirled at the edges of her vision. When she got back to Maioc Hai, she would have to go to the rural clinic. “Bring me my sarosand, please,” she said.
The maid curtseyed again, said, “Of course, madam. Your pleasure, madam,” and then turned and left, hips swaying with the rhythm intended by the necromancer who had first raised her. She hadn’t walked that way under Aei’s command. She was, once again, what she had been made to be.
Staggering slightly, Laiei walked out through the deserted corridors of Fort Triumph, following the trail of spattered blood that led back to the courtyard where she had killed Uroie Aei. His body was still there, sprawled against the device he had built. She might be able to bring him back, though it wouldn’t be easy.
Maybe it was true that necromancy was nothing more than giving life to the inanimate. But it didn’t feel true. Laiei was sure that she could not make a cabinet think that it was Uroie Aei. Perhaps that was part of her nature—she did not believe she could, so she could not.
She knelt beside Aei’s corpse, wrapped her naked bones around his stiffened hand. “It is easier to love things than to love people,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”
Her power reached out, and she felt Aei’s life. The years in the village, the years in the city, friends and family, joys and struggles, and the constant pulsing spirit of the man. Then the return: the years in the jungle, learning necromancy and science, the joy of work toward a purpose. They were not the same person, but they came from the same person; there was a commonality of spirit there. If she brought him back, she might get closer. But no; the Aei she had killed had not wanted to be Uroie Aei, and she could not deny that request.
She looked down at her hands, one bone, one stone. It seemed like she was becoming a revenant herself, life leaving her in bits and pieces. Her hands hurt, but not badly, and having both available for work would be helpful. Laiei half-shrugged and stood up. The maid was standing at the edge of the field with her sarosand. She went over to it, checked the straps, and mounted.
Laiei considered the trail ahead. This was her last chance to join a rural farming collective, or to use her talents on a sarosand line, or in a hospital on a military post. Uroie Aei had built an ugly, inelegant thing, for an ugly, inelegant purpose. But it was too useful a tool to be set aside when the need was so great. If she told the revolutionary authorities what she had done, she would be too useful a tool to be set aside.
No point in thinking about it more. Laiei guided the sarosand around a mine, and headed back to Maioc Hai, to radio for a special team to take charge of the self-propagating cycle device. She could no more moulder away on a farm than she could leave Aei’s device to stand a long quiet watch in the ruins of Fort Triumph. She was what the war had made her, what Uroie Aei had made her, and what she had made herself. Laiei knew her people, and her duty to them.
If nothing else, the Central Committee would consider the device that Aei had made a fair exchange for a document folder, and let her send it from an evidence locker to a funeral pyre.
“Recalled to Service” copyright © 2016 by Alter S. Reiss
Art copyright © 2016 by Sung Choi