This scene is dedicated to the incomparable Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, California. The Mysterious Galaxy folks have had me in to sign books every time I've been in San Diego for a conference or to teach (the Clarion Writers' Workshop is based at UC San Diego in nearby La Jolla, CA), and every time I show up, they pack the house. This is a store with a loyal following of die-hard fans who know that they'll always be able to get great recommendations and great ideas at the store. In summer 2007, I took my writing class from Clarion down to the store for the midnight launch of the final Harry Potter book and I've never seen such a rollicking, awesomely fun party at a store.
They came for the workers in the game and in the real world, a coordinated assault that left Big Sister Nor's organization in tatters.
On that fateful night, she'd taken up the back room of Headshot, a PC Baang in the Geylang district in Singapore, a neighborhood that throbbed all night long from the roaring sex-trade from the legal brothels and the illegal street-hookers. Any time after dark, the Geylang's streets were choked with people, from adventurous diners eating in the excellent all-night restaurants (almost all of them halal, which always made her smile) to guest workers and Singaporeans on the prowl for illicit thrills to the girls dashing out on their breaks to the all-night supermarkets to do their shopping.
The Geylang was as unbuttoned as Singapore got, one of the few places where you could be “out of bounds” -- doing something that was illegal, immoral, unmentionable, or bad for social harmony -- without attracting too much attention. Headshot strobed all night long with networked poker games, big shoot-em-up tournaments, guestworkers phoning home on the cheap, shouting over the noise-salad of all those games, and, on that night, Big Sister Nor and her clan.
They called themselves the Webblies, which was an obscure little joke that pleased Big Sister Nor an awful lot. Nearly a century ago, a group of workers had formed a union called the Industrial Workers of the World, the first union that said that all workers needed to stick up for each other, that every worker was welcome no matter the color of his skin, no matter if the worker was a woman, no matter if the worker did “skilled” or “unskilled” work. They called themselves the Wobblies.
Information about the Wobblies was just one of the many “out of bounds” subjects that were blocked on the Singaporean Internet, and so of course Big Sister Nor had made it her business to find out more about them. The more she read, the more sense this group from out of history made for the world of right now -- everything that the IWW had done needed doing today, and what's more, it would be easier today than it had been.
Take organizing workers. Back then, you'd have to actually get into the factory or at least stand at its gates to talk to workers about signing a union card and demanding better conditions, higher wages and shorter hours. Now you could reach those same people online, from anywhere in the world. Once they were members, they could talk to all the other members, using the same tools.
She'd decided to call her little group the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, the IWWWW, and that was another of those jokes that pleased her an awful lot. And the IWWWW had grown and grown and grown. Gold farmers were easy pickings: working in terrible conditions all over the world, for terrible wages, hated by the game-runners and the rich players alike. They already understood about working in teams, they'd already formed their own little guilds -- and they were better at using the Internet than their bosses would ever be.
Now, a year later, the IWWWW had over 20,000 members signed up in six countries, paying dues and filling up a fat strike fund that had finally been called into use, in Shenzhen, the last place Big Sister Nor had ever expected to see a walkout.
But they had, they had! The boss, some character named Wing, had declared a lock-in at three of his “factories” -- Internet cafes that he'd taken over to support his burgeoning army of workers -- in order to take advantage of a sploit in Mushroom Kingdom, a Mario-based MMO that had a huge following in Brazil. One of his workers had found a way to triple the gold they took out of one of the dungeons, and he wanted to extract every penny he could before Nintendo-Sun caught on to it.
The next thing she knew, her phone was rattling with urgent messages relayed from her various in-game identities to tell her that the workers had knocked aside the factory management and guards and stormed out, climbing the sides of the buildings or the utility poles and cutting the cafes' network links. They'd formed up out front and begun to chant impromptu slogans -- mostly adapted from their in-game battle-cries. And now they wanted to know what to do.
“It's a wildcat strike,” Big Sister Nor said to her lieutenants, The Mighty Krang and Justbob, the former a small Chinese guy with frosted purple tips in his hair, the latter a Tamil girl in a beautiful, immaculate sari and silk slippers -- a girl who had previously run with one of the most notorious girl-gangs in Asia and spent three years in prison for her trouble. “They've walked out in Shenzhen.” She forwarded the tweets and blips and alerts off her phone, then showed them her screen while they waited for the forwards to land on their devices.
“It's crazy,” The Mighty Krang said, dancing from foot to foot, excitedly. “It's crazy, it's crazy, it's --”
“Wonderful,” Justbob said, planting her palms on his shoulders and bringing him back to the earth. “And overdue. I predicted this. I predicted it from the start. As soon as you start collecting dues for a 'strike fund,' someone's going to go on strike. And la-la, here we are, wildcatting the night away.”
The next step was to head for headquarters, the back room at Headshot, to slam themselves into their chairs and to hit the worlds, spreading the word to all 20,000 members about the first-ever strike. Big Sister Nor went to work on a plan:
1. Spread the word to the rank-and-file
2. Recruit in-world pickets to block the work-site so that Boss Wing couldn't bring in scabs -- replacement workers -- to get the job done
3. Get the strike-leaders on the phone and talk about human-rights lawyers, strike-pay, sleeping quarters for any workers who relied on the factory for dorm-beds
4. Get footage and real-time reports from the strikers out to the human rights wires, get the strike-leaders on interviews with the press
She'd done this before, in real life, on the other side of things, as a wildcat strike leader walking off the line when the bosses at her weaving factory in Taman Makmur announced pay cuts because their big European distributor had cut its orders. It happened every year, but it made her so angry -- the workers didn't get bonuses, sharing in the good fortune when distributors increased their orders, but they were made to share the burden when orders went down. Well, forget it, enough was enough. She'd stood up in the middle of the factory floor and denounced the bosses for the greedy, immoral bastards they were, and when the security moved in to take her, she'd stood proud and strong, ready to be beaten for her insolence.
Instead, her fellow workers had risen to her defense, the young women around her getting to their feet and surrounding her, cheering her, ululating cries shouting around waggling tongues that bounced off the ceiling and filled the room and her heart, making them all brave, so that the security men moved back, and they'd taken over the factory, blocking the gates, shutting it down, and then someone from the Malaysian Union of Textile Employees had been there to get them to sign cards, and someone had made her picket captain and then --
And then it had all come crashing down around them, police vans moving in, the police forming a line and ordering them to disperse, to get back to work, to stop this foolishness before someone got hurt, barking the orders through a bullhorn, glaring at them from beneath their riot helmets, banging their truncheons on their shields, spraying them with teargas.
Their line wavered, disintegrated, retreated. But they reformed in an alley near the factory, amid a gang of staring children, and the women from the MUTE collared the children and sent them running to get milk -- cow's milk, goat's milk, anything they could find, and the MUTE organizers had rinsed their eyes with the milk, holding their faces still while they coughed and gagged. The fat-soluble CS gas rinsed away, leaving them teary but able to see, and the coughs dispersed, and someone produced a bag of charcoal-filter cycling masks, and someone else had a bag of swimming goggles, and the women put them on and pulled their hijabs over their noses, over the masks, so that they looked like some species of snouted animal, and they reformed their line and marched back, chanting their slogans.
The police gassed them again, but this time, the picket captains were able to hold the line, to send brave women forward to grab the smoking cannisters and throw them back over police lines. For a moment, it looked like the police would charge, but the strikers and the organizers had been feeding a photostream to the Internet using mobile phones that tunneled through the national firewall, getting them up on the human rights wires, and so the Ministry of Labour was getting phone calls from the foreign press, and they were on the phone to the Ministry of Justice, and the police withdrew.
The first skirmish was over, and the strikers settled in for a long siege. No one got in or out of the factory without being harangued by hundreds of young women, shoving literature detailing their working conditions and grievances and demands through the windows of their cars and buses. Some replacement workers got in, some picked fights, some turned around and left. A unionized trucker refused to cross their line, and wouldn't take away the load he'd been charged with picking up, so it just sat there on the docks.
The days turned into weeks, and they fed their families as best as they could with the strike pay, which came to a third of what they'd earned in the plant, but the factory owners -- a subsidiary of a Dutch company -- were hurting too. The MUTE organizers explained that the parent company had to release its quarterly statement to its shareholders, who would demand to know why this major factory was sitting idle instead of making money. The organizers offered confident reassurances that when this happened, the workers' demands would be met, the strike settled, and they could get back to work.
So they hung in there, keeping their spirits up on the line, and then --
The factory closed.
Big Sister Nor found out about it one night as she was playing Theater of War VII, a game she'd played since she was a little girl. One of her guildies was a girl whose brother had passed by the factory on his way home from school, and he'd seen them moving the machines out of the plant, driving away in huge lorries.
She'd texted everyone she knew, Get to the factory now, but by the time they got there, the factory was dead, empty, the gates chained shut. No one from the union met them. None of them answered her calls.
And the women she'd called sister, the women who'd saved her when she'd said enough, they all looked to her and said, What do we do now?
And she hadn't known. She'd managed to hold the tears in until she got home, but then they'd flowed, and her parents -- who'd doubted her and harangued her every step of the way -- scolded her for her foolishness, told her it was her fault that all her friends were jobless.
She'd lain in bed that night, miserable, and had been woken by the soft chirp of her phone.
I'm outside. It was Affendi, the MUTE organizer she'd been closest to. Come to the door.
She'd crept outside on cat's feet and barely had time to make out Affendi's outline before she collapsed into Nor's arms. She had been beaten bloody, her eyes blacked, two of her fingers broken, her lips mashed and one of her teeth missing. She managed a mangled smile and whispered, “It's all part of the job.”
The cheap hotel where the four organizers had shared a room was raided just after dinner, the police taking them away. They'd been prepared for this, had lawyers standing by to help them when it happened, but they didn't get to call lawyers. They didn't go to the jailhouse. Instead, they'd been taken to a shantytown behind the main train-station and three policemen had stood guard while a group of private security forces from the plant had taken turns beating them with truncheons and fists and boots, screaming insults at them, calling them whores, tearing at their clothes, beating their breasts and thighs.
It only stopped when one of the women fell unconscious, bleeding from a head-wound, eyelids fluttering. The men had fled then, after taking their money and identity papers, leaving them weeping and hurt. Affendi had managed to hide her spare mobile phone -- a tiny thing the size of a matchbook -- in the elastic of her underpants, and that had enabled her to call the MUTE headquarters for help. Once the ambulance was on its way, she'd come to get Nor.
“They'll probably come for you, too,” she said. “They usually try to make an example of the workers who start trouble.”
“But you told me that they were going to have to give in because of their shareholders --”
Affendi held up a broken hand. “I thought they would. But they decided to leave. We think they're probably going to Indonesia. The new laws there make it much harder to organize the workers. That's how it goes, sometimes.” She shrugged, then winced and sucked air over her teeth. “We thought they'd want to stay put here. The provincial government gave them too much to come here -- tax breaks, new roads, free utilities for five years. But there are new Special Economic Zones in Indonesia that have even better deals.” She shrugged again, winced again. “You may be all right here, of course. Maybe they'll just move on. But I thought you should be given the chance to get somewhere safe with us, if you wanted to.”
Nor shook her head. “I don't understand. Somewhere safe?”
“The union has a safe-house across the provincial line. We can take you there tonight. We can help you find work, get set up. You can help us unionize another factory.”
A light rain fell, pattering off the palms that lined her street and splashing down in wet, fat drops, bringing an earthy smell up from the soil. A fat drop slid off an unseen leaf overhead and spattered on Nor's neck, reminding her that she'd gone out of the house without her hijab, something she almost never did. It seemed to her an omen, like her life was changing in every single way.
“Where are we going?”
“You find out when we get there. I don't know either. That's why it's a safe house -- no one knows where it is unless they have to. MUTE organizers have been murdered, you understand.”
Why didn't you tell me this when all this started? She wanted to say. But her parents had told her. Management had warned them, through bullhorns, that they were risking everything. She'd laughed at them, filled with the feeling of sisterhood and safety, of power. That feeling was gone now.
And she'd gone with Affendi, and she'd worked in a factory that was much like the factory she'd left, and there had been a union fight much like the one she'd fought, but this time, they were better prepared and the workers had called Nor “Big Sister,” a term of endearment that had scared her a little, coming from the mouths of women much older than her, coming from young girls who could never appreciate the danger.
And this time, the owners hadn't fled, the workers had won better conditions, and Big Sister Nor found that she didn't want to make textiles anymore. She found that she had a taste for the fight.
Now there was a young man, someone called Matthew Fong, in Shenzhen, and he was relying on her to help him win his dignity, fair wages, and a safe and secure workplace. And he was doing it in China, where unofficial unions were illegal and where labor organizers sometimes disappeared into prison for years.
The Mighty Krang could speak a beautiful Mandarin as well as his native Cantonese, so he was in charge of giving soundbites to the foreign Chinese press, that network of news-resources serving the hundreds of millions of people of Chinese ancestry living abroad. They were key, because they were intimately connected to the whole sprawling enterprise of imports and exports, and when they spoke, the bureaucrats in Beijing listened. And The Mighty Krang could put on a voice that was so smoothly convincing you'd swear it was a newscaster.
Justbob was in charge of moral support for the strikers, talking to them in broken Cantonese and Singlish and gamer-speak on conference calls, keeping their morale up. She could work three phones and two computers like a human octopus, her attention split across a dozen conversations without losing the thread in any of them.
And Big Sister Nor? She was in-world, in several worlds, rallying Webblies to the site of the Mushroom Kingdom, finding gamers converging from all over Asia -- where it was night -- and from Europe -- where it was day -- and America -- where it was morning. Management had wasted no time moving replacement workers in. There were always desperate subcontractors out in the provinces of China, ten kids in a dead industrial town in Dongbei who'd been lured to computers with pretty talk about getting paid to play. Across a dozen different shards of the same Mushroom Kingdom world, a dozen alternate realities, they came, and Big Sister Nor played general in a skirmish against them, as strikers blocked the entrance to the dungeon and sent a stream of pro-union chats and URLs to them even as they fought them to keep them out of the dungeon.
The battle wasn't much of a fight, not at first. The replacement workers were there to kill dumb non-player characters in a boring, predictable way that wouldn't trigger the Mechanical Turks and bring their operation to the attention of Nintendo-Sun. They were all seasoned gamers, and they were used to teamplay, and many of the Webblies had never fought side-by-side before. But the Webblies were fighting for the movement, and the replacement workers -- they called them “scabs,” another old word from out of history -- were fighting because they didn't know what else to do.
It was a rout. The scabs were sent back to their respawn points by the thousand, unable to return to work until they'd done their corpse runs, and the Webblies raised their swords and shot fireballs into the sky and cheered in a dozen languages.
The news was good from Shenzhen, too, judging from what Justbob was saying into her headsets and typing onto her screens. The strike-line was holding, and while the police were there, they hadn't moved in -- in fact, it sounded like they'd moved to hold back the private factory security!
Silently, Big Sister Nor thanked Matthew Fong for picking a fight that -- seemingly -- they'd be able to win. She shouted up to Ezhil in the front of Headshot, calling for ginseng bubble-tea all around, the ginseng root would give them all a little shot of energy. Couldn't live on caffeine and taurine alone!
“Ezhil!” she shouted a minute later, looking up from her mouse. “Bubble tea!” If she'd been paying attention, she would have noticed the squeak in his voice as he promised right away, right away.
But her attention was fixed on her screens, because that's where it was all suddenly going very wrong indeed. What she'd taken for strikers' victorious fireballs launched into the sky were landing among the players now, inflicting major damage. Just as she was noticing this, a volley of skidding, spiked turtle-shells came sliding in from offscreen, in twelve worlds at once.
She barked the word into her headset in Mandarin, then Cantonese, then Hindi, then English. The cry was taken up by the players and they rallied, forming battle-squares, healers in the middle, tanks on the outside, nimble thieves and scouts spreading out into the mushroom forests, looking for the ambush.
This would work much better if they were a regular guild, all playing on the side of the evil Bowser or of the valiant Princess Peach, because if you were all on the same side, the game would coordinate your movements for you, give you radar for where and how all the other players were moving. But the strikers were from both sides of Mushroom Kingdom's moral coin, and as far as the game was concerned, they were sworn enemies. Their IMs were unintelligible to one another, and the default option for any “opposing” av you clicked on was ATTACK, leading to a lot of accidental skirmishes.
But gold farmers knew all about playing their own game, one that lived on top of the game that the companies wanted them to play. The game's communications tools were powerful and easy, but nothing (apart from the ridiculous “agreement” you had to click every time you started up the game) kept you from using anything you wanted. They favored free chat systems developed to help corporate work-groups collaborate; since these services always had free demo-versions available, hoping to snag some office-person into buying 30,000 licenses for their mega-corp. These systems even allowed them to stream screen-caps from their own computers, and Big Sister Nor saw to it that these were arranged sequentially, forming a huge, panoramic view of the entire battlefield.
She flicked through the battlescenes and the communications hub, fingers flying on the keyboard. They had a Koopa Turbo Hammer in seven of the worlds, a huge, whirling god-hammer that could clobber a score of attackers on a single throw, and she had it brought forward, using the scouts' screencaps to pinpoint the enemies' positions, conferring them to the hammer-throwers, a passel of hulking Kongs with protruding fangs and enormous, hairy chests.
That was seven battles down; in the remaining five, she ordered the Peaches to form up with their umbrellas at the ready, then had two Bowsers “bounce” each of them, sticking to them while doing minimum damage. The Peaches unfurled their umbrellas and sailed into the air, taking their Bowsers with them, to drop behind enemy lines, ready to breathe fire and stomp the opposing forces. This was a devastating attack, one that was only possible if you played the farmers' game, cooperating through a side-channel -- normally, Bowsers and Princess Peaches were on the opposite sides of the Great War that was at the center of the Mushroom Kingdom story.
It should have worked -- the hammers, the Bowsers, the skilled players of a dozen guilds, bristling with armament and armor, spelling and firing and skirmishing.
It should have worked -- but it hadn't.
The mysterious attackers -- she'd branded them “Pinkertons” in her mind, after the strike-breaking goons from the Pinkerton Detective Agency who'd been the old Wobblies' worst enemies -- had seemingly endless numbers, and every attack they launched seemed to do maximum damage. Meanwhile, they were able to pull off incredible dodges and defenses against the strikers' attacks. And their aim! Every fireball, every turtle, every sound-bomb, every flung axe found its target with perfect accuracy.
It was almost as though they were --
That had to be it. They were using aimhacks, dodgehacks, all the prohibited add-on software that the game was supposed to be able to spot and disable. Somehow, they'd gotten past the game's defenses. It didn't matter. The game was always stacked against gold farmers.
“Pull back!” she shouted. “Retreat!” This was going to have to be guerrilla war, jungle war, hiding in the bushes and sniping at them as they'd sniped at her. She'd lure them into the clearing that marked the dungeon's entrance and then they'd slip around them into the mushroom forest, using their superior coordination to trump the hacks and numbers the Pinkertons had on their side. In her headset, she heard the ragged breathing, the curses in six languages, the laughter and shouting of players all over the world, listening to her rap out commands in all the different versions of Mushroom Kingdom that they were fighting in.
She found that she was grinning. This was fun. This was a lot more fun than being tear-gassed.
It had been Big Sister Nor's idea to use the games for organizing. Why risk your neck in the factory or standing at its gates when you could slip right in among the workers, no matter where they were in the world, and talk to them about joining up? Plenty of the MUTE old guard had thought she was crazy, but there was lots of support, too -- especially when Nor showed them that they could reach the Indonesian textile workers who'd inherited her job when her factory had closed up and moved on, simply by logging into Spirals of the Golden Snail, a game that had taken the whole Malay peninsula by storm.
It didn't matter where you fought, it mattered whether you won. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that they could win in-game. The bosses were better at firing teargas at them, but they were better at lobbing fireballs, pulsed energy weapons, photon torpedoes and savage flying fish -- and they always would be. What's more, a striker who lost a skirmish in-game merely had to re-spawn and do a corpse-run, possibly losing a little inventory in the process. A striker who lost a skirmish AFK -- away from keyboard -- might end up dead.
Big Sister Nor lived in perpetual fear of having someone's death on her hands.
The battle was turning again. The Pinkertons had all fallen for her gambit, letting them rush past and back into the mushroom forest, effectively trading places. Now they were digging in the woods, laying little ambushes, fortifying positions and laying down withering fire from all directions. The breathing, gasping, triumphant muttering voices in her head and the hastily clattered in-game chat gave her a feeling like the battle was resting delicately balanced on her fingertips, every shift and change dancing felt as a tremor against the sensitive pads of her fingers.
Big Sister Nor called for her bubble tea again, realizing that a very long time indeed had gone by since she'd first ordered it. This time, no one answered. The skin on the back of her neck prickled and she slipped her headphones off her head. Justbob and The Mighty Krang caught on a second later, removing their earwigs. There was no noise at all from the front of Headshot, none of the normal hyperactive calling of gamer-kids, or the shouts of guestworkers phoning home on cheap earwigs.
Big Sister Nor stood up quietly and quickly and backed up against the wall, motioning to the others to do the same. On her screen, she saw another rally by the Pinkertons, who'd taken advantage of the sudden lack of strategic leadership to capture several of the small striker strongholds. She inched her way toward the door and very, very, very slowly tilted her head to see around the frame, then whipped it back as quick as she could.
RUN, she mouthed to her lieutenants, and they broke for the rear entrance, the escape hatch that Big Sister Nor always made sure of before she holed up to do union work.
On their heels came the Pinkertons, the real world Pinkertons, Malay men in workers' clothes, poor men, men armed with stout sticks and a few chains, men who'd been making their way to the door when Big Sister Nor chanced to look around it.
They shouted after them now, excited and tight voices, like the catcalls of drunken boys on streetcorners when they were feeling the bravery of numbers and hormones and liquor. That was a dangerous sound. It was the sound of fools egging each other on.
Big Sister Nor hit the crashbar on the rear door with both palms, slamming into it with the full weight of her body. The door's gas-lift was broken, so it swung back like a mousetrap, and it was a good thing it did, because it moved so fast that the two Pinkertons waiting to bar their exit didn't have time to get out of the way. One was knocked over on his ass, the other was slammed into the cinderblock wall with a jarring thud that Big Sister Nor felt in her palms.
The door rebounded into her, knocking her back into The Mighty Krang, who caught her, pushed her on, hands on her shoulderblades, breath ragged in her ears.
They were in a dark, narrow, stinking alley behind that connected two of the Lorangs, the small streets that ran off Geylang Road, and it was time to R and G -- to run and gun, what you did when all your other plans collapsed. Big Sister Nor had thought this through far enough to make sure they had a back door, but no farther than that.
The Pinkertons were close behind, but they were all squeezed down into the incredibly narrow confines of the alleyway, and no one could really run or move faster than a desperate shuffle.
But then they broke free into the next Lorang, and Big Sister Nor broke left, hoping to make it far enough up the road to get into sight of the diners at the all-night restaurants.
She didn't make it.
One of the men threw his truncheon at her and it hit her square between her shoulders, knocking the breath from her and causing her to go down on one knee. Justbob twined one hand in her blouse and hauled her to her feet with a sound of tearing cloth, and dragged her on, but they'd lost a step to her fall, and now the men were on them.
Justbob whirled around, snarling, shouting a worldless cry, using the movement as inertia for a wild roundhouse kick that connected with one of the Pinkertons, a man with sleepy eyes and a thick mustache. Justbob's foot caught him in the side, and they all heard the sound of his ribs breaking under the toe of her demure sandal with its fake jewels. The sandal flew on and clattered to the road with the cheap sound of paste gems.
The men hadn't expected that, and there was a moment when they stopped in their tracks, staring at their fallen comrade, and in that instant, Big Sister Nor thought that -- just maybe -- they could get away. But Justbob's chest was heaving, her face contorted in rage, and she leapt at the next man, a fat man in a sweaty sportcoat, thumbs aiming at his eyes, and as she reached him, the man beside him lifted his truncheon and brought it down, glancing off her high, fine cheekbone and then smashing against her collarbone.
Justbob howled like a wounded dog and fell back, landing a hard punch in her attacker's groin as she fell back.
But now the Pinkertons were on them, and their arms were raised, their truncheons held high, and as the first one swung into Big Sister Nor's left breast, she cried out and her mind was filled with Affendi and her broken fingers, her unrecognizably bruised face. Somewhere, just a few tantalizing meters up the Lorang, night people were eating a huge feast of fish and goat in curry, the smells in the air. But that was there. Here, Big Siter Nor was infinitely far from them, and the truncheons rose and fell and she curled up to protect her head, her breasts, her stomach, and in so doing exposed her tender kidneys, her delicate short-ribs, and there she lay, enduring a season in hell that went on for an eternity and a half.
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