This scene is dedicated to Powell's Books, the legendary “City of Books” in Portland, Oregon. Powell's is the largest bookstore in the world, an endless, multi-storey universe of papery smells and towering shelves. They stock new and used books on the same shelves -- something I've always loved -- and every time I've stopped in, they've had a veritable mountain of my books, and they've been incredibly gracious about asking me to sign the store-stock. The clerks are friendly, the stock is fabulous, and there's even a Powell's at the Portland airport, making it just about the best airport bookstore in the world for my money!
Wei-Dong's game-suspension lasted all of 20 minutes. That's how long it took him to fake a migraine, get a study-pass, sneak into the resource center, beat the network filter and log on. It was getting very late back in China, but that was OK, the boys stayed up late when they were working, and they were glad to have him.
Wei-Dong's real name wasn't Wei-Dong, of course. His real name was Leonard Goldberg. He'd chosen Wei-Dong after looking up the meanings of Chinese names and coming up with Strength of the East, which he liked the sound of. This system for picking names worked well for the Chinese kids he knew -- when their parents immigrated to the States, they'd just pick some English name and that was it. Why not? Why was it better to pick a name because your grandfather had it than because you liked the sound of it?
He'd tried to explain this to his parents, but it didn't make much of an impression on them. They were cool with him being interested in other cultures, but that didn't mean he could get out of having a Bar-Mitzvah or that they would call him Wei-Dong. And it didn't mean that they approved of him being up all night with his buds in China, making money.
Wei-Dong knew that this could all be seen as very lame, an outcast kid so desperate to make friends that he abandoned his high school altogether and sucked up to someone in another hemisphere with free labor instead. But it wasn't like that. Wei-Dong had plenty of friends at Ronald Regan Secondary School. Plenty of kids thought that China was the most interesting place in the world, loved the movies and the food and the comics and the games. And there were lots of Chinese kids in school too and while a couple clearly thought he was weird, lots more got it. After all, most of them were into India the way he was into China, so they had that in common.
And so what if he was skipping a class? It was Social Studies, ferchrissakes! They were supposed to be studying China, but Wei-Dong knew about ten times more about the subject than the teacher did. As he whispered in Mandarin into his earwig, he thought that this was like an independent study project. His teachers should be giving him bonus marks.
“Now what?” he said. “What's the mission?”
“We were thinking of running the Walrus's Garden a few more times, now that we've got it fresh in our heads. Maybe we could pick up another vorpal blade.” That's what the guys did when there weren't any paying gweilos -- they went raiding for prestige items. It wasn't the most exciting thing of all, but you never knew what might happen.
“I'm into it,” he said. He had a free period after this one, then lunch, so technically he could play for three hours solid. They'd all be ready to log off and go to bed by then, anyway.
“You're a good gweilo, you know?” Wei-Dong knew Ping was kidding. He didn't care if the guys called him gweilo. It wasn't a racist term, not really, not like “chink” or “slant-eye.” Just a term of affection. And as nicknames went, “Foreign ghost” was actually kind of cool.
So they hit the Garden and ran it and they did pretty well, and they went and put the money in the guild bank and went back for more. Then they did it again. Somewhere in there, the bell rang. Somewhere in there, some of his friends came and talked to him and he muted the earwig and said some things back to them, but he didn't really know what he'd said. Something.
Then, on the third run, the bad thing happened. They were almost to the shore, and they'd banished their mounts. Wei-Dong was prepping the Queen's Air Pocket, dipping into the monster supply of oyster shells he'd built up on the previous runs.
And out they came, a dozen knights on huge, fearsome black steeds, rising out of the water in unison, rending the air with the angry chorus of their mounts and their battle-cries. The water fountained up around them and they fell upon Wei-Dong and his guildies.
He shouted something into his earwig, a warning, and all around him in the resource center, kids looked up from their conversations to stare at him. He'd become a dervish, hammering away at his keyboard and mousing furiously, his eyes fixed on the screen.
The black riders moved with eerie synchrony. Either they were monsters -- monsters such as Wei-Dong had never encountered -- or they were the most practiced, cooperative raiding party he'd ever seen. He had his vorpal blade out now, and his guildies were all fighting as well. In his earwig, they cursed in the Chinese dialects of six different provinces. Under other circumstances, Wei-Dong would have taken notes, but now he was fighting for his life.
Lu had bravely taken the point between the riders and the party, the huge tank standing fast with his mace and broadsword, engaging all twelve of the knights without regard for his own safety. Wei-Dong poured healing spells on him as he attempted to make his own mark on the riders with the vorpal blade, three times as long as he was.
The vorpal blade could do incredible damage, but it wasn't easy to use. Twice, Wei-Dong accidentally sliced into members of his own party, though not badly -- thank God, or he'd never hear the end of it -- but he couldn't get a cut in on the black knights, who were too fast for him.
Then Lu fell, going down on one knee, pierced through the throat by a pike wielded by a rider whose steed's eyes were the icy blue of the Caterpillar's mist. The rider lifted Lu into the air, his feet kicking limply, and another knight beheaded him with a contemptuous swing of his sword. Lu fell in two pieces to the gritty beach sand and in the earwig, he cursed them, using an expression that Wei-Dong had painstakingly translated into “Screw eight generations of your ancestors.”
With Lu down, the rest of them were practically helpless. They fought valiantly, coordinating their attacks, pouring on fire from their magic items and best spells, but the black knights were unbeatable. Before he died, Wei-Dong managed to hit one with the vorpal blade and had the momentary satisfaction of watching the knight stagger and clutch at his chest, but then the fighter closed with him, drawing a pair of short swords that he spun like a magician doing knife tricks. There was no question of parrying him, and seconds later, Wei-Dong was in the sand, watching the knight's spiked boot descend on his face, hearing the crunch of his cheekbones and nose shattering under the weight. Then he was respawning in the distant Lake of Tears, naked and unarmed, and he had to corpse-run to the body of his toon before the bastards got his vorpal blade.
He heard his guildies dying in the earwig, one after another, as he ran, ghostly and ethereal, across the hills and dales of Wonderland. He reached his corpse just in time to watch the knights loot the body, and the bodies of his teammates. He rose up again, helpless and unarmed and made flesh by the body of his toon, vulnerable.
One of the knights sent him a chat-request. He clicked it, silencing the background noises from Shenzhen.
“You farmers aren't welcome here anymore, Comrade,” the voice said. It had an accent he didn't recognize. Maybe Russian? And the speaker was just a kid! “We're patrolling now. You come back again, we'll hunt and kill you again, and again, and again. You understand me, Chinee?” Not just a kid: a girl -- a little girl, threatening him from somewhere in the world.
“Who put you in charge, missy?” he said. “And what makes you think I'm Chinese, anyway?”
There was a nasty laugh. “Missy, huh? I'm in charge because I just kicked your ass, and because I can kick it again, as many times as I need to. And I don't care if you're in China, Vietnam, Indonesia -- it doesn't make a difference. We'll kill you and all the farmers in Wonderland. This game isn't farmable anymore. I'm done talking to you now.” And the black knight decapitated him with contemptuous ease.
He flipped back to the guild channel, ready to tell them about what had just happened, his mind reeling, and that's when he looked up into the face of his father, standing over him, with a look on his face that could curdle milk.
“Get up, Leonard,” he said. “And come with me.”
He wasn't alone. There was Mr Adams, the vice-principal, and the school's rent-a-cop, Officer Turner, and the guidance counsellor, Ms Ramirez. They presented him with the stony faces of Mount Rushmore, faces without a hint of mercy. His father reached over and took the earwig out of his ear, gently, carefully. Then, with exactly the same care, he dropped the earwig to the polished concrete floor of the resource centre and brought his heel down on it, the crunch loud in the perfectly silent room.
Leonard stood up. The room was full of kids pretending not to look at him. They were all looking at him. He followed his father into the hallway and as the door swung shut, he heard, unmistakably, the sound of a hundred giggles in unison.
They boxed him in on the walk to the vice-principal's office, trapping him. Not that he'd run -- he had nowhere to run to, but it still made him feel claustrophobic. This was not good. This was very, very bad.
Here's how bad it was: “You're going to send me to military school?”
“Not military school,” Ms Ramirez said. She said it with that maddening, patronizing guidance-counsellor tone. “The Martindale Academy has no military or martial component. It's merely a very structured, supervised environment. They have a fantastic track record in helping students like you concentrate on grades and pull themselves out of academic troubles. They've got a beautiful campus in a beautiful location, and Martindale boys go on to fill many important --”
And on and on. She'd swallowed the sales brochure like a burrito and now it was rebounding on her. He tuned her out and looked at his father. Benny Rosenbaum wasn't the sort of person you could read easily. The people who worked for him at Rosenbaum Shipping and Logistics called him The Wall, because you couldn't get anything past him, under him, through him, or over him. Not that he was a hardcase, but he couldn't be swayed by emotional arguments: if you tried to approach him with anything less than fully computerized logic, you might as well forget it.
But there were little tells, little ways you could figure out what the weather was like in old Benny. That thing he was doing with his watch strap, working at the catch, that was one of them. So was the little jump in the hinge of his jaw, like he was chewing an invisible wad of gum. Combine those with the fact that he was away from his work in the middle of the day, when he should be making sure that giant steel containers were humming around the globe -- well, for Leonard, it meant that the lava was pretty close to the surface of Mount Benny this afternoon.
He turned to his dad. “Shouldn't we be talking about this as a family, Dad? Why are we doing this here?”
Benny regarded him, fiddled with his watch strap, nodded at the guidance counsellor and made a little “go-on” gesture that betrayed nothing.
“Leonard,” she said. “Leonard, you need to understand just how serious this has become. You're one term paper away from flunking two of your subjects: history and biology. You've gone from being an A student in math, English and social studies to a C-minus. At this rate, you'll have blown the semester by Thanksgiving. Put it this way: you've gone from being in the ninetieth percentile of Ronald Regan Secondary School Sophomores to the twelfth. This is a signal, Leonard, from you to us, and it's signalling, S-O-S, S-O-S.”
“We thought you were on drugs,” his father said, absolutely calm. “We actually tested a hair follicle from your pillow. I had a guy follow you around. Near as I can tell, you smoke a little pot with your friends, but you don't actually see your friends anymore, do you?”
“You tested my hair?”
His father made that go-on gesture of his, an old favorite of his. “And had you followed. Of course we did. We're in charge of you. We're responsible for you. We don't own you, but if you screw up so bad that you end up spending the rest of your life as a bum, it'll be down to us, and we'll have to bail you out. You understand that, Leonard? We're responsible for you, and we'll do whatever we have to in order to make sure you don't screw up your life.”
Leonard bit back a retort. The sinking feeling that had started with the crushing of his earwig had sunk as low as it would go. Now his palms were sweating, his heart was racing, and he had no idea what would come out of his mouth the next time we spoke.
“We used to call this an intervention, when I was your age,” the vice-principal said. He still looked like the real-estate agent he'd been before he switched to teaching, the last time the market had crashed. He was affable, inoffensive, his eyes wide and trustworthy. They called him Babyface Adams in the halls. But Leonard knew about salesmen, knew that no matter how friendly they appeared, they were always on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit. “And we'd do it for drug addicts. But I don't think you're addicted to drugs. I think you're addicted to games.”
“Oh come on,” Leonard said. “There's no such thing. I can show you the research papers. Game addiction? That's just something they thought up to sell newspapers. Dad, come on, you don't really believe this stuff, do you?”
His dad pointedly refused to meet his gaze, directing his attention to the Vice-Principal.
“Leonard, we know you're a very smart young man, but no one is so smart as to never need help. I don't want to argue definitions of addictions with you --”
“Because you'll lose.” Leonard spat it out, surprising himself with the vehemence. Old Babyface smiled his affable, salesman's smile: Oh yes, good sir, you're certainly right there, very clever of you. Now, may I show you something in a mock-Tudor split-level with a three-car garage and an above-ground pool?
“You're a very smart young man, Leonard. It doesn't matter if you're medically addicted, psychologically dependent, or just --” he waved his hands, looking for the right words -- “or if you just spend too darn much time playing games and not enough time in the real world. None of that matters. What matters is that you're in trouble. And we're going to help you with that. Because we care about you and we want to see you succeed.”
It suddenly sank in. Leonard knew how these things went. Somewhere, right now, Officer Turner was cleaning out his locker and loading its contents into a couple of paper Trader Joe's grocery sacks. Somewhere, some secretary was taking his name off of the rolls of each of his classes. Right now, his mother was packing his suitcase back at home, filling it with three or four changes of clothes, a fresh toothbrush -- and nothing else. When he left this room, he'd disappear from Orange County as thoroughly as if he'd been snatched off the street by serial killers.
Only it wouldn't be his mutilated body that would surface in a few months time, decomposed and grisly, an object lesson to all the kiddies of Ronald Reagan High to be on the alert for dangerous strangers. It would be his mutilated personality that would surface, a slack-jawed pod-person who'd been crammed into the happy-well-adjusted-citizen mold that would carry him through an adulthood as a good, trouble-free worker-bee in the hive.
“Dad, come on. You can't just do this to me! I'm your son! I deserve a chance to pull my grades up, don't I? Before you send me off to some brainwashing center?”
“You had your chance to pull your grades up, Leonard,” Ms Ramirez said, and the Vice-Principal nodded vigorously. “You've had all semester. If you plan on graduating and going on to university, this is the time to do something drastic to make sure that happens.”
“It's time to go,” his father said, ostentatiously checking his watch. Honestly, who still wore a watch? He had a phone, Leonard knew, just like all normal people. An old-fashioned wind-up watch was about as useful in this day and age as an ear-trumpet or a suit of chain-mail. He had a whole case full of them -- dozens of them. His father could have all the ridiculous affectations and hobbies he wanted, spend a small fortune on them, and no one wanted to send him off to the nuthouse.
It was so goddamned unfair. He wanted to shout it as they led him out to his father's impeccable little Huawei Darter. He bought new one every year, getting a chunky discount straight from the factory, who loaded his personal car into its own container and craned it into one of Dad's big ships in port in Guangzhou. The car smelled of the black licorice sweets that Dad sucked on, and of the giant steel thermos-cup of coffee that Dad slipped into the cup-holder every morning, refilling through the day at a bunch of diners where they called him by his first name and let him run a tab.
And outside the windows, through the subtle grey tint, the streets of Anaheim whipped past, rows of identical houses branching off of a huge, divided arterial eight-lane road. He'd known these streets all his life, he'd walked them, met the panhandlers that worked the tourist trade, the footsore Disney employees who'd missed the shuttle, hiking the mile to the cast-member parking, the retired weirdos walking their dogs, the other larval Orange County pod-people who were still too young or poor or unlucky to have a car.
The sky was that pure blue that you got in OC, no clouds, a postcard smiley-face sun nearly at noontime high, perfect for tourist shots. Leonard saw it all for the first time, really saw it, because he knew he was seeing it for the last time.
“It's not so bad,” his dad said. “Stop acting like you're going to prison. It's a swanky boarding school, for chrissakes. And not one of those schools where they beat you down in the bathroom or anything. They're practically hippies up there. Your mother and I aren't sending you to the gulag, kid.”
“It doesn't matter what you say, Dad. Just forget it. Here's the facts: you've kidnapped me from my school and you're sending me away to some place where they're supposed to 'fix' me. You haven't given me any say in this. You haven't consulted me. You can say how much you love me, how much it's for my own good, talk and talk and talk, but it won't change those facts. I'm sixteen years old, Dad. I'm as old as Zaidy Shmuel was when he married Bubbie and came to America, you know that?”
“That was during the war --”
“Who cares? He was your grandfather, and he was old enough to start a family. You can bet your ass he wouldn't have stood still for being kidnapped --” His father snorted. “Kidnapped because his hobbies weren't his parents' idea of a good time. God! What the hell is the matter with you? I always knew you were kind of a prick, but --”
His father calmly steered the car to the curb and pulled over, changing three lanes smoothly, with a shoulder-check before each, weaving through the tourist traffic and gardeners' pickup trucks without raising a single horn. He popped the emergency brake with one hand and his seatbelt with the other, twisting in his seat to bring his face right up to Leonard's.
“You are on thin goddamned ice, kid. You can make me the villain if you want to, if you need to, but you know, somewhere in that hormone-addled teenaged brain of yours, that this was your doing. How many times, Leonard? How many times have we talked to you about balance, about keeping your grades up, taking a little time out of your game? How many chances did you get before this?”
Leonard laughed hotly. There were tears of rage behind his eyes, trying to get out. He swallowed hard. “Kidnapped,” he said. “Kidnapped and shipped away because you don't think I'm getting good enough grades in math and English. Like any of it matters -- when was the last time you solved a quadratic equation Dad? Who cares if I get into a good university? What am I going to get a degree in that will help me survive the next twenty years? What did you get your degree in, again, Dad? Oh, that's right, Ancient Languages. Bet that comes up a lot when you're shipping giant containers of plastic garbage from China, huh?”
His father shook his head. Behind them, cars were braking and honking at each other as they maneuvered around the stopped Huawei. “This isn't about me, son. This is about you -- about pissing away your life on some stupid game. At least speaking Latin helps me understand Spanish. What are you going to make of all your hours and years of killing dragons?”
Leonard fumed. He knew the answer to this, somewhere. The games were taking over the world. There was money to be made there. He was learning to work on teams. All this and more, these were the reasons for playing, and none of them were as important as the most important reason: it just felt right, adventuring in-world --
There was a particularly loud shriek of brakes from behind them, and it kept coming, getting louder and louder, and there was a blare of horns, too, and the sound didn't stop, got louder than you could have imagined it getting. He turned his head to look over his shoulder and --
The car seemed to leap into the air, rising up first on its front tires in a reverse-wheelie and then the front wheels spun and the car shot forward ten yards in a second. There was the sound of crumpling metal, his father's curse, and then a clang like temple bells as his head bounced off the dashboard. The world went dark.
≅ SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search)
(web 1993, object numbering 1997, object search 2002 ...) 2023