Ken Liu mashes together so many things in his new story "The Clockwork Soldier," over at Clarkesworld: a Scheherazade riff, a Zork-style text adventure, a strange fairy tale, and a Philip K. Dick-inspired tale of android sentience. And he makes it all come together beautifully.
Top image: Waldemar Kazak.
In "Clockwork Soldier," we start out by discovering that a bounty hunter has let her prey go, for the first time ever. Why did this happen? We go back in time and discover this has to do with a text adventure "game" the boy, Ryder, was programming into the bounty hunter's computer. Which touches on the tricky subject of android rights, in a way that turns out to be close to home.
You think you know where this story is going, but you really don't, even though you've already seen how it ends.
Here's the opening:
"Go," Alex said. "If you remember to keep a low profile, neither your father nor his enemies will ever find you here."
The ship had landed in the middle of the jungle, miles away from the closest settlement. Alara was a backwater, barely inhabited, and insignificant to galactic politics. It would take days, perhaps weeks, to walk out of here, stumble into a few colonists, and pretend to be near starvation. Enough time to make up any backstory and make it believable.
Ryder flexed his slender arms and stretched, the movements graceful, dancelike. The strict manner in which he had been bound during the ship's last jump through hyperspace didn't seem to have any lasting ill effects.
He gave Alex a long, appraising look. "What will you tell my father?"
She shrugged. "I'll give him his money back."
"You've never failed before, have you?"
"There's always a first time. I'm human. I'm not perfect." She began to climb back into the ship.
She stopped halfway up the ladder and looked down at him.
"You don't want to be sure?" he asked, that characteristic smirk playing at the corners of his delicate mouth again. "Don't you want to ask to see me as I really am?"
She considered this. "No. I've already decided to believe you. Trying to make sure can only make things worse. If I find out that you're telling the truth, then I will have ruined this moment, when I can still believe I'm capable of being decent, of trust. If I find out you're lying, then I'll have to consider myself a fool."
"So, again you choose faith before knowledge."
This time, she didn't stop climbing. When she was at the airlock door, she turned around. "Faith is just another name for self-knowledge. You've succeeded, Scheherazade. When you tell your own story, you seize life. Now it's my turn to tell myself a good story, about myself. I know enough. Goodbye."
Ryder watched as the ship rose, shrank, and disappeared into the evening sky. "Thank you," he whispered.
Then he set off into the dark jungle, just another wanderer, a lonely will etching his way across the wilderness.
Read the rest over at Clarkesworld.