A soldier's brain implant sends him on a holy quest

Ali once fought on the side of the Free Shi'ah Anti-Crediteers in a war over global credit. But now he just wants to save his dying wife, and figure out the messages he's getting from his glitchy brain implant.

Photo by David Shariatmadari

This is the setup for Nebula-nominated author Saladin Ahmed's short story "The Faithful Soldier, Prompted," in this month's Apex Magazine. Ahmed offers us a glimpse of a future Middle East full of cyborg tigers, soldiers who cope with buggy brain operating systems as well as PTSD, and politics that merge Islamic faith with what seems to be an anti-World Bank movement among the people of Beirut and Cairo. It's an awesome high tech thriller as well as a political thought-experiment.

Here's how the story begins:

If I die on this piece-of-shit road, Lubna's chances die with me. Ali leveled his shotgun at the growling tiger. In the name of God, who needs no credit rating, let me live! Even when he'd been a soldier, Ali hadn't been very religious. But facing death brought the old invocations to mind. The sway of culture, educated Lubna would have called it. If she were here. If she could speak.

The creature stood still on the split cement, watching Ali. Nanohanced tigers had been more or less wiped out in the great hunts before the Global Credit Crusade, or so Ali had heard. I guess this is the shit end of "more or less." More proof, as if he needed it, that traveling the Old Cairo Road on foot was as good as asking to die.

He almost thought he could hear the creature's targeting system whir, but of course he couldn't any more than the tiger could read the vestigial OS prompt that flashed across Ali's supposedly deactivated retscreens.

God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will report for uniform inspection at 0500 hours.

Ali ignored the out-of-date message, kept his gun trained on the creature.

The tiger crouched to spring.

Ali squeezed the trigger, shouted "God is greater than credit!"

The cry of a younger man, from the days when he'd let stupid causes use him. The days before he'd met Lubna.

A sputtering spurt of shot sprayed the creature. The tiger roared, bled, and fled.

For a moment Ali just stood there panting. "Praise be to God," he finally said to no one in particular. I'm coming, beloved. I'm going to get you your serum, and then I'm coming home.

A day later, Ali still walked the Old Cairo Road alone, the wind whipping stinging sand at him, making a mockery of his old army-issued sandmask. As he walked he thought of home–of Free Beirut and his humble house behind the jade-and-grey-marble fountain. At home a medbed hummed quietly, keeping Lubna alive even though she lay dying from the Green Devil, which one side or the other's hover-dustings had infected her with during the GCC. At home Lubna breathed shallowly while Ali's ex-squadmate Fatman Fahrad, the only man in the world he still trusted, stood watch over her.

Yet Ali had left on this madman's errand–left the woman who mattered more to him than anything on Earth's scorched surface. Serum was her only hope. But serum was devastatingly expensive, and Ali was broke. Every bit of money he had made working the hover-docks or doing security for shops had gone to prepay days on Lubna's medbed. And there was less and less work to be had. He'd begun having dreams that made him wake up crying. Dreams of shutting down Lubna's medbed. Of killing himself.

And then the first strange message had appeared behind his eyes.

Like God-alone-knew how many vets, Ali's ostensibly inactive OS still garbled forth a glitchy old prompt from time to time

God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will pick up your new field ablution kit after your debriefing today.

God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will spend your leave-time dinars wisely–at Honest Majoudi's!

But this new message had been unlike anything Ali had ever seen. Blood-freezingly current in its subject matter.

God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will go to the charity-yard of the Western Mosque in Old Cairo. She will live.

Read the rest of the story at Apex Magazine, and check out the rest of Apex's special issue on Arab/Muslim science fiction.