This scene is dedicated to Waterstone's, the national UK bookselling chain. Waterstone's is a chain of stores, but each one has the feel of a great independent store, with tons of personality, great stock (especially audiobooks!), and knowledgeable staff. Of particular note is the Manchester Deansgate store, which has an outstanding sf section.
Lu didn't know where to go. Boss Wing's dormitories were out of the question, of course. And while he knew a dozen Internet cafes in Shenzhen where he could sit and log on to the game, he didn't really want to be playing just then. Not with everyone else in jail.
But he had to sit down. He'd been hit hard in the head and on the shoulder and he was very dizzy. He'd thrown up once already, holding onto a bus-stop pole and leaning over the gutter, earning a disapproving cluck from an old woman who walked past hauling a huge barrow full of electronic waste.
He had thought of texting Matthew and the others, to find out if the police had them in custody, but he was afraid that the police would track him back if he did, using the phone network to locate him and pick him up.
It had all felt so wonderful. They'd stood up from their computers, chanting angrily, the war-chants from the games, which Boss Wing and his goons never played, and so it had all been totally perplexing to them. Their faces had gone from puzzlement to anger to fear as all the boys in the room stood together and marched out of the cafe, blocking the doorways so that no one could come in.
And there had been girls, and old grannies, and young men stopping to admire them as they stood, shoulder to shoulder, chanting bravely at the cowardly goons from Boss Wing's factory, goons who'd been so tough just a few minutes before, willing to slap you in the head if you talked too much, ready to dock your pay, too. Ever since they'd tried to go out on their own, life had gotten steadily worse. Boss Wing had a huge operation, with plenty of in-game muscle to stand guard against rich players who hunted the gold farmers for sport, but he was cruel and cheap and you were lucky if you saw half the wages you'd earned after all the fines for “breaking rules” had been charged against your salary.
Their phones rang and buzzed with photos from other Boss Wing factories where the workers had gone out too, and there were wars in Mushroom Kingdom as the Webblies kept anyone else from working their zone. And the police came and they'd stayed brave, Matthew and Ping and all his friends. They were workers, they were warriors, they were an army and their cause was just. They would not be intimidated.
And then the gas came. And then the clubs started swinging. And then the screams had started. And then Lu had run, run through the stinging clouds of gas and the chaos of battle -- so like and so unlike the million battles he'd fought in the games -- and he'd thrown up and now --
Now he had no idea where to go.
And then his phone rang. The number was blanked out, which made his pulse hammer in his throat. Did the secret police blank out the number when they called you? But if the secret police knew he existed and had his phone number, they could just pick him up where he stood, using the phone's damned tracking function.
It wasn't the police. With trepidation, he slid his finger over the talk button on the screen.
“Wei?” he said, cautiously.
“Lu? Is that you?” The call had the weird, echoey sound of a cheap net-calling service, the digital fuzz of packets that travelled third class on the global network. The accent was difficult, too, thick-tongued and off-kilter. He knew the sound and he knew the voice.
“Wei-Dong in America?” He hadn't heard from the strange gweilo since they'd gone to Boss Wing and Ping had had to kick him out of the guild. Boss Wing didn't allow them to raid with outside people, or even talk to them in game. He had spyware on all his PCs that told him when you broke those rules, and you lost a day's wages for the first offense, a week's wages for the second.
“Lu, it's me! Look, did I just see you and Ping getting beaten up by the cops?”
“I don't know, did you?” The disorientation from his head wound was fierce, and he wondered if he was really having this conversation. It was very strange.
“I -- I just saw you getting beaten up on a video from Shenzhen. I think I did. Was it you?”
“We just got beaten up,” he said. “I'm hurt.”
“Are you badly hurt? I couldn't reach Ping, so I tried you.” He was excited, his voice tight. “What happened?”
Lu was still grappling with the idea that the gweilo had just called him from thousands of kilometers away. “You saw me on the Internet in America?”
“Every gamer in the world saw you, Lu! You couldn't have timed it better! After dinner is the busiest time on the servers, and the word went around like nothing I've ever seen before. Everyone in every game was chatting about it, passing around links to the video streams and the photos. It was even on the real news! My neighbor banged on my wall and asked me if I knew anything about it. It was incredible!”
“You saw me getting beaten up on the Internet?”
“Dude, everyone saw you getting beaten up on the Internet.”
Lu didn't know what to say. “Did I look good?”
Wei-Dong laughed like a hyena. “You looked great!”
A dam broke, Lu laughed and laughed and laughed, as all the tension flooded out of him. He finally stopped, knowing that if he didn't he'd throw up again. He was by the train station now, in the heavy foot-traffic, all kinds of people moving purposefully around him as he stood still, a woozy island in the rushing stream. He backed up to a stairwell in front of a beauty parlor and sank to his haunches, squatting and holding the phone to his head.
“Why are you calling me?”
There was an uncomfortable silence on the line, broken by soft digital flanging. “I wanted to help you,” he said at last. “Help the Webblies.”
“You know about the Webblies?” Lu had half-believed that Matthew had made them up, a fantasy army of thousands of imaginary friends who would fight for them.
“Know about them? Lu, they're the ass-kickingest guild in the world! No one can beat them! Coca-Cola Games is sending us three memos a day about them!”
“Why does Coca-Cola send you memos?”
“Oh.” More silence. “Didn't I tell you? I'm working for them now. I'm a Turk.”
“Oh,” said Lu. He knew about the Turks, but he never really thought about what kind of people would work in ten second increments making up dialog for non-player characters or figuring out what happened when you shot an office chair with a blunderbuss. “That must be interesting.”
Wei-Dong made a wet noise. “It's miserable,” he said. “I run four different sessions at once, and I'm barely earning enough to pay the rent. And they make so much money off of us! Last month, they announced quarterly profits and games with Turks are earning 30 percent more than the ones without. They're hiring more Turks as fast as they can -- it's all over the board here. But our wages aren't going up. So I've been thinking of the Webblies, you know...” He trailed off. “Like maybe you guys can help us if we help you? We all play for our money, right? So why shouldn't we be on the same side.”
“Sounds right to me,” Lu said. He was still trying to comprehend the fact that the Webblies were apparently famous with American teenagers. “Wait,” he said, playing back Wei-Dong's accented, ungrammatical speech. “You're paying rent?”
“Yeah,” Wei-Dong said. “Yeah! Living on my own now. It's great! I have a crappy room in a, not sure what you call it, a hotel, kind of. But for people who don't have any money. But I can get wireless here and I've got four machines and there's plenty of stuff I can walk to, at least compared to home --” He began to babble about his favorite restaurants and the clubs that had all-ages nights and a million tiny irrelevant details about Los Angeles, which might as well have been the Mushroom Kingdom for all that it mattered to Lu. He let it wash over him and tried to think of places he could go to recuperate. He fleetingly wished for his mother, who always knew some kind of traditional Chinese remedy for his ailments. They often didn't work, but sometimes they did, and his mother's gentle application of them worked their own magic.
He was suddenly, nauseously, overwhelmingly homesick. “Wei-Dong,” he said, interrupting the virtual tour of Los Angeles. “I need to think now. I don't know what to do. I'm hurt, I'm on the street, and I can't call anyone in case the police trace the call. What do I do?”
“Oh. Well. I don't know exactly. I was hoping that you'd know what I should do, to tell you the truth. I want to get involved!”
“I think I want to get uninvolved.” Lu's homesickness was turning to anger. Who was this boy to call him from the other side of the world, demanding to “get involved?” Didn't he have enough problems of his own? “What can you do for me from there? What is any of this -- this garbage worth? How will everyone going to jail make my life better? How will having my head beaten in help make things better? How?”
“I don't know.” Wei-Dong's voice was small and hurt. Lu struggled to control his anger. The gweilo wanted to help. It wasn't his fault he didn't know how to help. Lu didn't know how to help, either.
“I don't know either,” Lu said. “Why don't you think about how to help and call me back. I need to find somewhere to rest, maybe a nurse or a doctor. OK?”
“Sure,” the gweilo said. “Sure. Of course. I'll call you back soon, don't worry.”
Every time a Hong Kong train came into the Shenzhen Railway Station, it disgorged a massive crowd of people: Hong Kong people in sharp business styles, rich kids, foreigners, and workers from Shenzhen returning from contracts abroad, clutching backpacks. The dense group got broken up by the taxi-rank and the shopping mall, and emerged as a diffuse cloud onto the street where Lu had been talking. Now he worked his way back through this crowd, listening to snatches of hundreds of conversations about business, manufacturing -- and gold farming.
It was on everyone's lips, talk about the strike, about the police action, about the farmers. Of course most people in China had heard of gold farming and all the stories about the money you could make by just playing video games, but you never heard this kind of business-person talking about it. Not smart, fancy people with obvious wealth and power, the kind of people who skipped back and forth between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, talking rapidly into their earwigs, telling other people what to do.
What had the gweilo said? Everyone saw you getting beaten up on the Internet! Were these people looking closely at him? Now it seemed they were. Of course, he was bloody, staring, red-eyed. Why wouldn't they stare at him? But maybe --
“You're one of them, aren't you?” She was 22 or 23, with perfect fingernails on the hand she rested on his arm, coming on him from behind. He gave an involuntary squeak and jump, and she giggled a little. “You must be,” she said. She held up her phone. “I watched the video five times on the train. You should see the commentary. So ugly!”
He knew about this. Any time something that made the government look bad managed to find its way online, there was an army of commenters who'd tweet and post and comment about how the government was in the right, how the story was all wrong, how the people in it were guilty of all kinds of terrible things. Lu knew he shouldn't believe any of it, but it was impossible to read it all without feeling a little niggle of doubt, then a little more, and then, like an ice-cube on a bruise, the outrage he'd felt at first would go numb.
The thought that he, himself, was at the center of one of these smear-storms made him feel like he was going to throw up again. The girl must have seen this, for she gave his arm a little squeeze. “Oh, don't look so serious. You looked great on the video. I'm sure no one believes all that rubbish!” She pursed her lips. “Well, of course, that's not true. I'm sure lots of people believe it. But they're fools. And so many more were inspired, I'm sure. I'm Jie.”
“Lu,” Lu said, after trying and failing to come up with an alias. He was not cut out to be a fugitive. “It was nice to meet you,” he said, and shrugged her hand off and set off deeper into the crowd.
She grabbed his arm again. “Oh, please stop. We need to talk. Please?”
He stopped. He didn't have much experience with girls, but something about her voice made him want to stay. “Why do we need to talk?”
“I want to get your story,” she said. “For my show.”
She leaned in close -- so close he could smell her perfume -- and whispered, “I'm Jiandi,” she said.
He looked at her blankly.
She shook her head. “Jiandi,” she hissed. “Jiandi! From the Factory Girl Show!”
He shrugged. “What kind of show?”
“Every night!” she said. “At 9PM! Twelve million factory workers listen to me! They phone me with their problems. We go out over the net, audio, through the, uh,” she dropped her voice, “the Falun Gong proxies.”
“Oh,” he said, and began to move away.
“It's not religious,” she said. “I just help them with their problems. The --” she dropped her voice “proxies are just how we get the show into the factories. They try to block me because we tell the truth about the work conditions -- the girls who are sexually pressured by their bosses, the marketing rip-offs, the wage rip offs, lock-ins --”
“OK,” he said. “I get the picture. Thank you but no.”
“Come on,” she said and looked deep into his eyes. Hers were dark and lined with thin, precise green eye-pencil, and her eyebrows were shaped into surprised, sophisticated arches. “You look like you need a place to clean up, and maybe a meal. I can get that for you.”
“Lu, I'm famous! I have advertisers who pay a lot to sponsor my show. I have millions of supporters all over Shenzhen, even in Guangzhou and Dongguan. Even in Shanghai and Beijing! I'm a hero to them, Lu. I can put your story into the ears of every worker in the Pearl River Delta like that!” She snapped her fingers in front of his nose, making him blink and start back again. She laughed. “You're cute,” she said. “Come on, it'll be wonderful.”
“Where do we go?” he said, cautiously.
“Oh, I have a place,” she said.
She grabbed his hand -- her fingers were dry and cool, and touched with cold spots where the rings she wore met his skin. She led him away through the crowd, which seemed to part magically before her. It had all become like a dream now, with the pain crowding Lu's vision into a hazy-edged tunnel. He wondered if she'd have something for the pain. He wondered if she knew any traditional medicine, if she'd mix him up a bitter tea with complicated scents and small bits of hard things floating in it. All this he wondered, and the streets and sidewalks slipped past beneath their feet like magic. You could automatically follow your guildies in game, just click on them and select follow, and the whole guild could do that when there was a lot of distance to cover, so that only one player had to pay attention on the long march across the world, while the others relaxed and smoked and ate and used the toilet, while their characters trailed like a string of pack-animals behind the leader.
That's what this felt like, like he was a character whose player had stepped out for a cigarette and a piss-break and the character bumped along mindlessly behind the leader.
“Do you live here?” he said as they reached the lobby of a tall apartment building. It was a “handshake building,” so close to the building next to it that the tenants could lean out their windows and shake hands with their neighbors across the lane. The lobby smelled of cooking and sweat, but it was clean and there was a working intercom and lock at the door.
“No,” she said. “I do some of my shows from here. There are two or three of them, to confuse the jingcha.” He thought it was funny to hear her use the gamer clan term for police. She saw it, and said, “Oh yes, the zengfu think I'm very biantai and they'd PK me if they could.” He laughed at this, because it was nearly impenetrable slang -- the government think I'm a pervert so they want to “player-kill” -- destroy -- me if they can. It was one thing to hear a boy with his shirt rolled up over his belly and a cigarette hanging out of his face saying this, another to hear this delicate, preciously made-up girl.
The elevator was broken, so she led him up five flights of stairs, the walls decorated with lavish graffiti: murals of curse-words, scenes of factory life, phone numbers you could call to buy fake identity papers, degrees, certificates. Lu's own dorm room was in a building that Boss Wing rented, and he climbed twice this many stairs every day, but this climb felt like it was going to kill him. On Jie’s floor, there was an old lady squatting by the stairway door, in the hall. She nodded at the two of them.
“Mrs Yun,” Jie said, “I would like you to meet Hui. He is a mechanic who has come to repair my air-conditioner.” The old lady nodded curtly and looked away.
Jie attacked one of the apartment doors with a key ring, opening four different locks with large, elaborate, thick keys and then putting her shoulder into the door, which swung heavily back, clanging against a door-stop with a metallic sound. She motioned him inside and closed the door, shooting the four bolts from the inside and slapping at several light-switches.
The apartment had two big rooms, the living room in which they stood, and a connecting bedroom that he could see from the doorway. There was a little kitchen area against the wall beside them, and the rest of the room was taken up with a sofa and a large desk with chairs on either side of it, covered in a litter of recording gear: a mixer, several large sets of headphones, and a couple of skinny mics on stands. Every centimeter of wall-space was covered in paper: newspaper clippings, letters, drawings -- all liberally sprinkled with stickers, hearts, cute animal doodles.
Jie waved her hand at it: “My studio!” she said, and twirled around. “All my fan-mail and my press.” She ran her fingers lightly over a wall. Peering more closely at it, Lu saw that every letter began “Dear Jiani” and that they were all written in neat, girlish hands. “I have a post-box in Macau. My friends send the letters there and they scan them and email them to me. All right under the zengfu's nose!”
“And the old lady in the hall?”
She flopped down on the sofa, her skirt riding up around her thighs, and kicked her shoes in expert arcs to the mat by the door. “Our building's answer to the bound-foot grannies' detective squad,” she said, and he laughed again at the slang. Back in Nanjing, they'd used this term to talk about the little old ladies who were always snooping around, gossiping about who was doing something evil or wicked. They didn't really have bound feet -- the practice of binding little girls' feet to the point where they grew up unable to walk properly was dead, and he'd never seen a real bound foot outside of a museum, though the grannies would always exclaim over the girls' feet, passing evil remarks if a girl had large feet, cooing if she had small ones -- but they acted all pinched anyway.
“And she'll believe that I'm a repairman? I don't have any tools!”
“Oh, no,” Jie laughed again. It was a pretty sound. Lu could see how she'd be a very popular netshow host. That laugh was infectious. “No, she'll think we're having sex!”
He felt himself turning red and stammering. “Oh -- Uh --”
Now she was howling with laughter, head flung back, hair fanned out over the sofa-cushions. “You should see your face! Look, so long as Grandma Mao out there thinks I'm just a garden-variety slut, she won't suspect that I'm really Jiandi, Scourge of the Politburo and Voice of the Pearl River Delta, all right? Now, get your shoes off and let's have a look at that head-wound.”
He did as he was bade, neatly lining his shoes up by the doorway and stepping gingerly onto the dusty wooden floor. Jia stood and led him by the shoulders to one of the rolling chairs by the desk and pushed him down on it, then leaned over him and stared intently at his scalp. “OK,” she said. “First of all, you need to switch shampoo, you have very greasy hair, it's shameful. Second of all, you appear to have a pigeon's egg growing out of your head, which has got to sting a little. I'll tell you what, I'll get you something cold to hold on it for a few moments, then I want you to go have a shower and clean it out well. It looks like it bled a little, but not much, which is lucky for you, since scalp wounds usually bleed like crazy. Then, once we've got you into a more civilized state, I'll put you on the Internet and make you even more famous. Sound good?”
He opened his mouth to object, but she was already spinning away and digging through the small fridge, crouching, hair falling over her shoulders in a way that Lu couldn't stop staring it. Now she had a bag of frozen Hahaomai chicken dumplings -- he recognized the packaging, it was what they ate for dinner most nights in Boss Wing's dormitory -- and was wrapping it in a tea-towel, and pressing it to his head. It felt like it weighed 500 kilos and had been cooled to absolute zero, but it also made his head stop throbbing almost immediately. He slumped in the chair and closed his eyes and held the dumplings to the spot where the zengfu -- the slang was infectious -- had given him a love-tap. He tracked Jia's movements around him by the sounds she made and the puffs of perfume and hair stuff whenever she passed close. This was not bad, he thought -- a lot better than things had been an hour ago when he'd been crouching in front of the station talking to the gweilo.
“Right,” she said, “take these.” He opened his eyes and saw that she was holding out two chalky pills and a glass of water for him.
“What are they?” he said, narrowing his eyes at the glare of the sunset light streaming in the window. He'd been nearly asleep.
“Poison,” she said. “I've decided to put you out of your misery. Take them.”
He took them.
“The shower's through there,” she said, pointing toward the bedroom. “There's a towel on the toilet-seat, and I found some pajamas that should fit you. We'll rinse out your clothes and put them on the heater to dry while we talk. No offense, Mr Labor Hero, but you smell like something long dead.”
He was blushing again, he could tell, and there was nothing for it but to duck and scurry through the bedroom -- he had a jumbled impression of a narrow bed with a thin blanket crumbled at the bottom, a litter of stuffed animals, and mounds of fake handbags overflowing with clothing and toiletries. Then he was in the bathroom, the sink-lip covered in mysterious pots and potions, all the oddments of a girl which a million billboards hinted at, but which he'd never seen in place, lids askew, powder spilling out. It was all so much less glamorous than it appeared on the billboards, where everything looked like it was slightly wet and glistening, but it was much more exciting.
Every horizontal space in the shower seemed to support some kind of bottle. Lu bought big two liter jugs of shower gel that he could use as shampoo, too, but after squinting at the labels, he found one that appeared to be for bodies and another for hair, and made use of both. The water on his head felt like little sharp stones beating against it, and his shoulder began to throb as he rubbed the shampoo in. After the shower, he cleared the steam off the mirror and craned around to get a look at it, and could just make out the huge, raised bruise there, a club-shaped purple bruised line surrounded by a halo of greeny-yellow swelling.
“There's something you can wear on the bed,” Jia yelled from the other side of the door. He cautiously turned the knob and found that she'd drawn a curtain across the door to the bedroom, leaving him alone in naked semi-darkness. On the bed, neatly folded, a pair of track pants and a t-shirt for an employment bureau, the kind of thing they gave out to the people who stood in front of them all day long, paid for every person they brought in to apply for a job. It was a tight fit, but he got it on, and balled up his clothes, which really did stink, and peeked around the curtain.
“Come on out here, beautiful!” she said, as he stepped out, his bare feet on the dusty tile. She leaned in and sniffed at him with a delicate little sniffle. “Mmmm, you chose the dang-gui shampoo. Very good. Very good for ladies' reproductive issues.” She patted his stomach. “You'll have a little baby there in no time!”
He now felt like he would faint from embarrassment, literally, the room spinning around him.
She must have seen it in his face, for she stopped laughing and gave his hand a squeeze. “Don't worry,” she said. “It's only teasing. Dang-gui is good for everything. Your mother must have given it to you.” And yes, he realized now, that was where he knew that smell from -- he remembered wishing that his mother was there to give him some herbs, and that wish must have guided his hand among the many bottles in her shower.
“Do you live here?” he said.
“In this pit?” She made a face. “No, no! This is just one of my studios. It helps to have a lot of places where I can work. Makes life harder for the zengfu.”
“But the clothes, the bed?”
“Just a few things I leave for the nights when I work late. My show can go all night, sometimes, depending on how many callers I have.” She smiled again. She had dimples. He hadn't ever noticed a girl's dimples before. The head injury was making him feel woozy. Or maybe it was love.
“And now we talk to you about what you've seen,” she said. “My show starts in --” she looked at the face of her phone -- “12 minutes. Just enough time for you to have a drink and get comfortable.” She fished in her fridge and brought out a water filter jug and filled a glass from a small rack next to the tiny sink. He took it and drank it greedily and she fetched him the filter, setting it down on one side of the desk before settling into the chair on the other side.
She began to click and type and furrow her brow in an adorable way, slipping on a set of huge headphones, positioning a mic. She waved to him and he settled into the opposite chair, refilling his glass.
“What kind of show is this again?”
“You are such a boy!” she said, looking up from her screen, fingers still punishing her keyboard with insectile clicks from her manicured fingernails.
He looked down at himself. “I suppose I am,” he said.
“What I mean is, if you were a girl, you'd know all about this. Every factory girl listens to me, believe it. I start broadcasting after dinner, and they all log in and call in and chat and phone and tell me all their troubles and I tell them what they need to hear. Mostly, it comes down to this: if your boss wants to screw you, find another job, or be prepared to be screwed in more ways than one. If your boyfriend is a deadbeat who won't work and borrows money from you, get a new boyfriend, even if he is the 'love of your life.' If your girlfriends are talking trash about you, confront them, have a good cry, and start over. If your girlfriend is screwing your boyfriend, get rid of both of them. If you are screwing your girlfriend's boyfriend, stop -- dump him, confess to her, and don't do it again.” She was ticking these off on her fingers like a shopping list.
“It sounds a little repetitive,” he said. He wondered if she was making it up, or possibly delusional. Could there really be a show that every factory girl listened to that he'd never heard of? He thought of how little the factory girls in Shilong New Town had talked to him when he worked as a security guard and decided that yes, it was totally possible.
“It's very repetitive, but we all like it that way, my girls and me. Some problems are universal. Some things you just can't say too often. Anyway, that's not all there is to it. We have variety! We have you!”
“Me,” he said. “You're going to put me on a show with all these girls on it? Why? Won't that make the police want to get me even more?”
“Darling, the police already want you. Remember the video. Your face is everywhere. The more famous you are, the harder it will be for them to arrest you. Trust me.”
“How can you be sure? Have you ever done this before?”
“Every day,” she said, eyes wide. “I'm my own case study. The police have been after me for two years now, and I've stayed out of their clutches. I do it by being too popular to catch!”
“I don't think I understand how that works,” he said.
She looked at the face of her phone. “We've only got a minute. Here, quickly, I'll explain: if you're a fugitive, being poor is hard. Even harder than for non-fugitives. It's expensive being on the run. You need lots of places to live. Lots of different phones that you can abandon. You need to be able to pay li --” bribes -- “and you need to be able to move fast. Being famous means that you have access to money and favors from a lot of different people. My listeners keep me going, either through direct donations or through my advertisers.”
“You have ads? Who would buy an ad on a fugitive's radio show?”
She shrugged. “The Taiwanese,” she said. The island of Taiwan had considered itself separate from China since 1949 but China had never stopped laying claim to it -- without much success. “Falun Gong, sometimes.” She saw the look of shock on his face. “Don't worry, I'm not religious. But I'll take their money. They don't care if I make fun of them on the show, so long as I run their ads, too.”
He shook his head. “It's all too strange,” he said.
She held up her hand for silence and swung down a little mic from one of the headphones' earpieces. “Hello, girls!” she called into the mic, clicking her mouse. “It's your best friend here, Sister Jiandi, the friend you can always rely on, the friend who will never let you down, the friend you can confide all your secrets in -- provided you don't mind eight million factory girls finding out about it!” She giggled at her own joke. “Oh, sisters, it's going to be a good night, I can tell! I have a special surprise for you a little later, but first, let's talk! Tonight I'm using Amazon France chat, chat.amazon.fr, so go and sign up now. You'll get me at jiandi88888. Remember to use a couple of the latest FLG proxies before you make the call -- and it looks like the translation services at Yahoo.ru and 123india.in are both unblocked at the moment, which should make it easier to sign up. Well, what are you waiting for? Get signed up!”
She clicked something and he heard a blaring ad for Falun Gong start in his headphone and he slipped one off the side of his head. Jie swung her mic away and pointed a finger at him. “Feeling the magic yet?”
“This is it? This is your big show?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “We'll probably have to switch chats three or four times tonight, as they update the firewall. It's fun! Wait, you'll see.” In his ear, the ad was wrapping up and he slipped the other headphone back into place.
“Talk to me,” Jie said, her voice full of warmth. It took him a moment to realize she was talking into her mic, to her audience, not to him. Her fingers were working the keyboard and mouse.
“Yes, darling, hello. You're live. Talk, talk! We've only got all night!”
“Oh, um --” The voice was female, with a strong Henan accent, and it was scared.
“It's OK, sweetie, my heart, it's OK. Tell me.” Jie's voice was a coo, a purr, a seduction. Her eyes were moist, her lips pursed in a gesture of pure caring. Lu wanted to tell her his secrets.
“It's just that --” The voice stopped. Crying noises. In the background, the sounds of a busy factory dorm, girlish calls and laughter and conversation. Jie made soothing shhh shhh sounds. “It's my boss,” the girl said. “He was so nice to me at first. He said he was taking an interest in me because we are both from Henan. He said that he would protect me. Show me around the city. We went to nice places. A restaurant in the stock exchange. He took me to the Windows on the World park and we dressed up like ancient warriors.”
“And he wanted something in return, didn't he?”
“I knew he would. I listen to your show. But I thought it would be different for me. I thought he was different. But he --” She broke off. “After he kissed me, he told me he wanted to do more. Everything. He told me I owed it to him. That I'd understood that when I accepted his invitation, and that I would be cheating him if I didn't --” She began to cry.
Jie made a face, twirled her finger in an impatient gesture. Lu was horrified by her callousness. But when the crying stopped, her voice was again full of compassion and understanding.
“Oh, sweet child, you've been done badly, haven't you? Well, of course you knew it would happen, but the heart and the head don't always agree with each other, do they? The question isn't whether you acted like a fool -- because you did, you acted like a perfect fool -- the question is what you can do about it now. Am I right?”
“Yes.” The voice was so tiny and soft he could barely hear it. He pictured a girl shrunk to the size of a mouse, trembling in fear.
“Well, that's simple. Not easy, but simple. Forfeit your last eight weeks' wages and walk out of the factory first thing tomorrow morning. Go down to a job-broker on Xi Li street and find something -- anything -- that can get you started again. Then you call your boss's wife -- is he married?”
“Yes.” The voice was a little bigger now.
“Call his wife and tell her everything. Tell her what he did, what he said, what you said back. Tell her you're sorry, and tell her you're sorry her husband is such a sack of rotten, stinking garbage. Tell her you walked away on the pay he was holding back, and that you've left your job. And then you start to work again. And no matter what your new boss says or does, don't go out with him. Do you understand?”
“Call his wife --”
“Call his wife, walk away from your pay, and start over. There's nothing else that will work. You can't talk to this man. He has raped you -- that's what it is, you know, when someone in power coerces you into sex, it's rape, just rape -- and he'll do it again and again and again. He'll do it to the other girls in the factory. You tell as many as you can why you're leaving. In fact, you tell me what factory you work in and the name of your boss, right now, and then millions and millions of girls will know about it, too. They'll steer clear of this dog, and maybe you'll save a few souls with your bravery. What do you say?”
“You want me to name my boss? Now? But I thought this was confidential --”
“You don't have to. But do you want another girl to go through what you just went through? What do you think would have happened if you had heard another girl speak his name on this show, last month, before you went out with him. What will you do? Will you save your sisters from the pain you're in? Or will you protect your bruised ego and let the next girl suffer, and the next?” She waited a moment. The girl on the phone said nothing, though the sounds of people moving around the dorm could still be faintly heard. Lu imagined her under her blanket on her bunk, hand over the mouthpiece of her phone, whispering her secrets to millions of girls. What a strange world. “Well?”
“I'll do it,” the girl said.
“What's that? Say it loud!”
“I'll do it!” the girl said, and let out a little laugh, and the laugh was echoed by the girlish voices near her, as the girls in her dorm realized that the confession they'd been listening into on their computers and phones and radios had been emanating from a bunk in their midst. There was a squeal of feedback as one of the radios got too close to the phone, and Jie's fingers clicked at the keyboard, squelching the feedback but somehow leaving the other squeals, the girlish squeals. They were cheering her, the girls in the dorm, cheering her and chanting her name, her real name, now on the radio, but it didn't matter, because the girl was laughing harder than ever.
“It's Bau Peixiong,” she said, laughing. “Bau Peixiong at the HuaXia sports factory.” She laughed, a liberated sound.
“OK, OK, girls,” Jie said into her mic, in a commanding tone. The voices quieted. “Now, your sister has just made a sacrifice for all of you, so you need to help her. She needs money -- your pig of a boss won't give her the eight weeks' pay he's holding onto, especially not after she calls his wife. She needs help packing, help finding a job. Someone there is thinking of changing jobs, someone there knows where there's a job for this girl. Tell her. Help her move out. Help her find the new job. This is your duty to your sister. Promise me!”
From the phone, a babble of girls saying, “I promise! I promise!”
“Very good,” Jie said. “Now, stay tuned friends, for soon I will be unveiling a wonderful surprise!” A mouseclick and then there was another ad, this time for a company that provided fake credentials for people looking for work, guaranteed to pass database lookups. Both of them slipped their headphones off and Jie drained her water-glass, a little trickle sliding down her chin and throat. Lu suppressed a groan. She was so beautiful, and all that power and confidence --
“That was a pretty good opener, wasn't it?” she said, raising her eyebrows at him.
“Is it like this all the time?”
“Oh, that was a particularly good one. But yes, most nights it goes like that. Six or seven hours' worth of it. You still think it'd get repetitious?”
“I can see how that would stay interesting.”
“After all, you kill the same monsters over and over again all night long, don't you? That must be pretty dull.”
He considered this. “Not really,” he said. “It's the teamwork, I guess. All of us working together, and it's not really the same every time -- the games vary the monster-spawning a lot. Sometimes you get really good drops, too -- that can be very exciting! You're going down a corridor you've cleared a dozen times, and you discover that this time it's filled with 200 vampires and then one of them drops an epic sword, and it's not boring at all anymore.” He shrugged. “My guildie Matthew says it's intermittent reinforcement.”
She held up a finger and said, “Hold on to that,” and clicked and started talking into her mic again, taking a call from another factory girl, this one more angry than sad. “I had a friend who was selling franchises for a line of herbal remedies,” she said, and Jie rolled her eyes.
“Go on,” she said. “Sounds like a great opportunity.” The sarcasm in her voice was unmistakable.
“That's what I thought,” the girl said. She sounded like she wanted to punch something. “At first I thought it was about selling the herbal remedies, and I liked that, because my mother always gave me herbs when I was sick as a girl, and I thought that a lot of the girls here would want to buy the remedies too because they missed home.”
“Yes,” Jie said. “Who wouldn't want to remember her mommy?”
“Exactly! Just what I thought. And my friend told me about how much money I could make, but not from selling the herbs! She said that selling the herbs would be my 'downliners' job, and that I would manage them. I would be a boss!”
“Who wouldn't want to be a boss?”
“Right! She said that she was recruiting me to be in the top layer of the organization, and that I would then go and recruit two of my friends to be my salespeople. They'd each pay me for the right to sign up more downliners, and that all the downliners would buy herbs from me and then I would get a share of all their profits. She showed me how if my two downliners signed up two more, and each of them signed up two more, and so on, that I would have hundreds of downliners working for me in just a few days! And if I only got a few RMB from each one, I'd be making thousands every month, just for signing up two people.”
“A very generous friend,” Jie said, and though she sounded like she was joking, she wasn't smiling.
“Yes, yes! That's what I thought. And all I needed to do was pay her one small fee for the right to sell downline, and she would supply me with herbs and sales kits and everything else I needed. She said that she was signing me up because I was Fujianese, like her, and she wanted to take care of me. She said I should find girls who were still back in the village, girls I'd gone to school with, and call them and sign them up, because they needed to make money.”
“Why would girls in the village need herbal remedies? Wouldn't they have their mothers?”
That stopped the angry, fast-talking girl. “I didn't think of that,” she said, at last. “It seemed like I was going to be a hero for everyone, and like I would escape from the factory and get rich. My friend said she was going to quit in a few weeks and get her own apartment. I thought about moving out of the dorm, having money to send home --”
“You dreamed about money and all that it could buy you, but you didn't devote the same attention to figuring out whether this thing could possibly work, right?”
Another silence. “Yes,” she said. “I have to say that this is true.”
“It started OK. I sold a few downlines, but they were having trouble making their downline commitments. And then my friend, she started to ask me for her percentage of my income. When I told her I wasn't receiving the income my downliners owed me, she changed.”
“Go on.” Jie's eyes were fixed on the wall behind Lu's head. She was in another world, it seemed, picturing the girl and her problem.
“She got angry. She said that I had made a commitment to her, and that she had made commitments to her uplines based on this, and that I would have to pay her so that she could pay the people she owed. She made me feel like I'd betrayed her, betrayed the incredible opportunity. She said I was just a simple girl from a village, not fit to be a business-woman. She called me all day, over and over, screaming, 'Where's my money?'”
“So what did you do?”
“I finally went to her. I cried. I told her I didn't know what to do. And she told me that I knew, but that I didn't have the courage to do it. She told me I had to go to my downliners, get tough on them, get the money out of them. And if they wouldn't pay, I'd have to get the money some other way: from my parents, my friends, my savings. I could get new downliners next month.”
“And so you called up your downliners?”
“I did.” She drew in a heaving breath. “At first, I was gentle and kind to them, but my friend called me over and over again, and I got angry. Angry at them, not at her. It was their fault that I was having to spend all this time and energy, that I couldn't sleep or eat. And so I got meaner. I threatened them, begged them, shouted at them. These two girls, they were my old friends. I'd known them since we were little babies. I knew their secrets. I threatened to call my friend's father and tell him that she had let a boy take naked pictures of her when she was 15. I threatened to tell my other friend's sister that she had kissed her boyfriend.”
“Did they pay what they owed you?”
“At first. The first month, they paid. The next month, though, I had to call them and shout at them some more. It was like I was sitting above myself, watching a crazy stranger say these terrible things to my old, old friends. But they paid again. And then, in the third month --” She stopped abruptly. The silence swelled. Lu felt it getting thicker, staticky.
“Then one friend ate rat poison.” Her voice was a tiny, far-away whisper. More silence. “I had told her that I would go to her father and -- and --” Silence. “It was how her mother had committed suicide when we were both small. The same kind of poison. Her father was a hard man, an Old One Hundred Names who had lived through the Cultural Revolution. He has no mercy on him. When she couldn't get the money, she stole it. Got caught. He was going to find out. And if he didn't, I would tell him about the photos she'd taken. And she couldn't face that. I drove her to kill herself. It was me. I killed her.”
“She killed herself,” Jie said, her voice full of compassion. “It's the women's disease in China. We're the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men. You can't take the blame for this.” She paused. “Not all of it.”
“That's not all,” the girl said, all the anger gone out of her voice now, nothing left behind but distilled despair.
“Of course not,” Jie said. “You still owe for this month. And next month, and the month after.”
“My friend, the one who brought me into this, she knows... things... about me. The kind of things I knew about my friends. Things that could cost me my job, my home, my boyfriend...”
“Of course. That's how cuanxiao works.” Lu had heard the term before. “Network sales,” is what it meant. There was always someone trying to sell you something as part of a cuanxiao scheme. He used to laugh at it. Now it seemed a lot more serious. “And somewhere, upline from here, there's someone else in the cuanxiao, who has something on her. And there are preachers who can convince you that you'll make a fortune with cuanxiao, and that you just need to inspire your family and friends.”
“You know him? Mr Lee. My friend took me to a meeting. Mr Lee seemed like he was on fire, and he made me so sure that I would become rich if only --”
“I don't know Mr Lee. But there are hundreds of Mr Lees in Guandong province. You know what we call them? Pharoahs, like the Egyptian kings they buried in pyramids. That's because they sit on top of a pyramid of fools like you. Beneath the pharoah, there's a pair of downliners, and beneath them, two pairs, and beneath them, two more pairs, and so on, all passing money up the power to some feudal idiot from the countryside who knows how to talk a good line and has never worked a day in his life. Did you ever study math?”
“I got a gold medal in our canton's Math Olympiad!”
“That's very good! Math is useful in this world. Let's do a little math. If each level of the pyramid has double the number of members of the previous level, how many members are there on the 10th level of the pyramid?”
“What? Oh. Um. 2 to the 10. That's --” 1024 Lu thought to himself. “1024, right?”
“Exactly. How many on the 30th level?”
Lu pulled out his phone, used the calculator, did some figuring.
“Oh, just guess.”
“It's big. A hundred thousand? No! About five hundred thousand.”
“You should give your medal back, sister. It's over a billion.” Jie tapped some numbers into her keyboard. “1,073,741,824 to be precise. There's 1.6 billion people in China. Your herb salespeople were supposed to recruit new downliners every two weeks. At that rate --” She typed some more. “It would be just over a year before every person in China was working in your pyramid, even the tiny babies and the oldest grannies.”
“You know about network selling, you must have. What year are you?” Meaning, how many years since you left the village?
“Four,” the girl admitted. “I did know it. Of course. But I thought this was different. I thought because there was a real product and because it was only two people at a time --”
“I don't think you thought about any of that, sister. I think you thought about having a big apartment and a lot of money. Isn't that right?”
“There was money, though! It was working for weeks! My friend had made so much --”
“What level of the pyramid was she on? 10? 20? When you're stealing from the new people to pay the old people, it's a good deal for the old people. Not so good for the new people. People like you or your downliners.”
“I'm a fool,” the girl said. “I'm a monster! I destroyed my friends' lives!” She was sobbing now, screaming out the confession for millions of people to hear.
“It's true,” Jie said, mildly. “You're a fool and a monster, just like thousands of other people. Now what are you going to do about it?”
“What can I do?”
“You can stop snivelling and pull yourself together. Your friend, the one who recruited you? Someone's holding something over her, the way that she was holding something over you. Sit down with her, and do whatever it takes to get her out. The most evil thing about these pyramids is that they turn friend against friend, make us betray the people we love to keep from being betrayed ourselves. Even if you're one of the lucky few at the top who makes some money from it, you pay the price of your integrity, your friendships and your soul. The only way to win is not to play.”
“But, but, but! Listen, foolish girl! You called me tonight because your soul is stained with the evil that you did. Did you think I would just tell you that it's all right, you did what you had to do, no blame on you? No! You know me, I'm Jiandi. I don't grant absolution. I tell you what you must do to pay for your crimes. You don't get to confess, feel better and walk away. You have to do the hard work now -- you have to set things to right, help your friends, restore your integrity and conscience. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you.” Quiet, meek.
“Say it louder.” She snapped it like a general giving an order.
“I hear you!”
“I HEAR YOU!”
“Good!” She laughed and rubbed at one ear. “I think they heard you in Macau! Good girl. Go and do right now!”
And she clicked something and another ad rolled in Lu's headphones. He took them off, found that his eyes were moist with tears. “That poor girl,” he said.
“There's thousands more like her,” Jie said. “It's a sickness, like gambling. It comes from not understanding numbers. They all win their little math medals, but they don't believe in the numbers. Now, you were about to tell me about some kind of reinforcement.”
“Intermittent reinforcement,” he said. “My friend Matthew, he leads our guild, he told me about it. It comes from experiments with rats. Imagine that you have a rat who gets some food every time he pushes a lever. How often do you think he pushes the lever?”
“As often as he's hungry, I suppose. I kept mice once -- they knew when it was time for food and they'd rush over to the corner of the cage that I dropped their seeds and cheese into.”
“Right. Now, what about a lever that gives food every fifth time they press the lever?”
“I don't know -- less?”
“About the same, actually, After a while, the rats figure out that they need five presses for a food pellet and every time they want feeding, they wander over and hit it five times. Now, what about a lever that gives food out at random? Sometimes one press, sometimes one hundred presses?”
“They'd give up, right?”
“Wrong! They press it like crazy, All day and all night. It's like someone who wins a little money in the lottery one week and then plays every week afterward, forever. The uncertainty drives them crazy, it's the most addictive system of all. Matthew says it's the most important part of game design -- one day you manage to kill a really hard NPC with a lucky swing, and it drops some incredibly epic item, and you make more money in ten seconds than you made all week, and you have to keep going back to that spot, looking for a monster like it, thinking it'll happen again.”
“But it's random, right?”
“I'm not sure,” he said. “Matthew says it is. I sometimes think that the game company deliberately messes up the odds so that when you're just about to quit, you get another jackpot.” He shrugged. “That's what I'd do, anyway.”
“If it's random, it shouldn't make any difference what you do and where you play. If you flip a coin ten times and it comes up heads ten times in a row, you've got exactly the same chance of it coming up heads an eleventh time than if it had come up all tails, or half and half.”
“Matthew says stuff like that all the time. He says that although it may be unlikely that you'll get ten heads in a row, each flip has exactly the same chance.”
“Matthew sounds like he knows his math.”
“He does. You should meet him sometime.” He swallowed. “If he ever gets out of jail, that is.”
“Oh, we'll have to do something about that.”
She handled six more calls, running the show for another two hours, breaking for commercials and promising all her listeners the most exciting event of their lifetime if they just hung in. At first, Lu listened attentively, but his head hurt and he was so tired, and eventually he slumped in his seat and dozed, drifting in and out of dreams as he listened to Jie berating the foolish factory girls of South China.
He woke to a sprinkle of ice-water on his face, gasped and sat up, opening his eyes just in time to see Jie dancing back away from him, laughing, her face glowing with excitement. “I love doing this show!” she said. “You're up next, handsome!”
He looked at his phone and realized that he'd dozed for an hour more, and that it was well past supper time. His stomach rumbled. Jie had taken off her shoes and socks and unbuttoned the top two buttons on her red blouse. Her hair was down and her makeup was smudged. She looked like she was having the time of her life.
“Wha?” his head throbbed and it tasted like something had used his mouth for a toilet.
“Come on,” she said, and moved close again, snapping his headphones on. “It's coming up on 8PM. This is when my listenership peaks. They're back from dinner, they're finished gossiping, and they're all sitting on their beds, tuning in on their computers and phones and radios. And I've been hyping you for hours. Every pretty girl in the Pearl River Delta is waiting to meet you, are you ready?”
“I -- I --” He suddenly couldn't find his tongue. “Yes!” he managed.
“Get your headset on,” she called, dashing around to her side of the desk and pouncing on her seat. “We're live in 10, 9, 8...”
He fumbled with his headset, swung the mic down, reached for the water glass and gulped down too much, choked, tried to keep it in, choked more, spilled water all down his front. Jie laughed aloud, gulping it down as she spoke into her mic.
“We're back, we're back, we're back, and now sisters, I have the special surprise I've been promising you all night! A knight of the people, a hero of the factory, a killer who has hunted pirates in space and dragons in the hills, a professional gold-farmer named --” She broke off. “What name shall I call you by, hero?”
“Oh!” He thought for a second. “Tank,” he said. “It's the kind of player I am, the tank.”
“A tank!” She giggled. "That's just perfect. Oh, sisters, if only you could see this big, muscled tank I have sitting here in my studio. Let me tell you about Tank. I was watching a little video this afternoon, and like many of you, I found myself watching something amazing: dozens of boys, lined up outside an Internet cafe, blinking and pale as newborn mice in the daylight. It seemed that they were a different kind of factory boy, the legendary gold farmers of Shenzhen, and they were demanding a better job, better pay, better conditions, and an end to their vicious, greedy bosses. Does that sound familiar, sisters?
“The police arrived, the dirty jingcha, with their helmets and clubs and gas, cowards with their faces hidden and their brutal weapons in hand to fight these boys who only wanted justice. But did the boys flee? No! Did they go back to their jobs and apologize to their bosses? No! The mouse army stood its ground, claimed their workplace as their rightful home, the place their work paid for. And what did the jingcha do? Tell me, Tank, what did they do?”
Lu looked at her like she was crazy. She made urgent hand-gestures at him as the silence stretched. “I, that is, they beat us up!”
"They certainly did! Sisters, download this video now, please! Watch as the jingcha charge the boys of Shenzhen, breaking their heads, gassing them, clubbing them. And now, focus on one brave lad off to the left, right at the 14:22 mark. Strong chin, wide eyes, a little freckles over his nose, hair in disarray. See him stand his ground through the charge with his comrades by his side? See the jingcha with his club who comes upon the boy from behind and hits him in the shoulder, knocking him down? See the club come up again and land on the poor boy's head, the blood that flies from the wound?
“That, sisters, is Tank, the boy sitting across from me, bloodied but unbowed, brave and strong, standing up for the rights of workers --” She dissolved into giggles. Lu giggled too, he couldn't help it. "Oh, sorry, sorry. Look, he's a very nice boy, and not bad to look at, and the jingcha laid into his head and shoulder like they were tenderizing a steak, and all he was doing was insisting that he had the right to work like a person and not an animal. And he's not alone. They call it 'The People's Republic of China,' but the people don't get any say in the way it's run. It's all corruption and exploitation.
“I thought the video was amazing, a real inspiration. And then I saw him, our Tank, wandering dazed and bloody through --” she broke off. “Through a location I will not disclose, so that the jingcha won't know which video footage they need to review. I saw him and I told him I wanted to introduce him to you, my friends, and then he told me the most amazing story I've heard, and you know I hear a lot of amazing stories here every night. A story about a global movement to improve the lot of workers everywhere, and I hope that's the story he'll tell us tonight. So, Tank, darling, start with your injuries. Could you describe them to our friends out there?”
And Lu did, and then he found himself going from there into the story of how he came to be a gold farmer, what life was like for him, the stories Matthew had told him about how Boss Wing had forced him and his friends to go back to work in his factory, talking and talking until the water was gone and his mouth was dry, and mercifully, she called for another commercial.
He sagged into his chair while she got him some more water. “You should see the chat rooms,” she said. “They're all in love with you, 'Tank'. The way you rescued those girls' belongings in Shilong New Town! You're their hero. There are dozens of them who claim that they were there on that day, that they saw you climbing the fence. Listen to this, 'His muscles rippled like iron bands as he clambered up the fence like a mighty jungle creature...'” He snorted water up his sinuses, and Jie gave his bicep a squeeze. “You need to work out some more, Jungle Creature, your muscles have gone all soft!”
“How do you have message boards? Don't they block them?”
“Oh, that's easy,” she said. “We just pick a random blog out there on the net, usually one that no one has posted to in a year or two, and we take over the comment board on one of its posts. Once they block it -- or the server crashes -- we switch to another one. It's easy -- and fun!”
He laughed and shook his head, which set his headache going again. He winced and squeezed his head between his hands. “Sheer genius!”
Now the commercial was ending, and they both sat down quickly in their chairs and swung their mics into place. Lu was getting good at this now, the talk coming to him the way it did when he was chatting with his guildies. He'd always been the storyteller of the bunch.
And the story went on -- he told of how the Webblies had come to him and his guildies in game, had talked to them about the need for solidarity and mutual aid to protect themselves from bosses, from players who hunted gold-farmers, from the game company.
“They want to unite Chinese workers,” Jie said, nodding sagely.
“No!” He surprised himself with his vehemence. “Uniting Chinese workers would be useless. With gold farming, the work can just move to Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, India -- anywhere workers aren't organized. It's the same with all work now -- your job can move in no time at all to anywhere you can build a factory and dock a container ship. There's no such thing as 'Chinese' workers anymore. Just workers! And so the Webblies organize all of us, everywhere!”
“That's a lot of workers,” she said. “How many have you got?”
He hung his head. “Jiandi,” he said. “We can all see the counter, and we all cheer when it goes up by a few hundred, but we're a long way off.”
“Oh, Tank,” she said. “Don't be discouraged. Tens of thousands of people! That's fantastic -- and I'm sure we can get a few members for you. How can my listeners join up?”
“Eh? Oh!” He struggled to remember the procedure for this. “You need to get at least 50 percent of your co-workers to agree to sign up, and then we certify the union for your whole factory.”
“Ay-yah! 50 percent! The big factories have 50,000 workers! How do you do that?”
He shrugged. “I'm not sure,” he said. “We've been mostly signing up small game-factories, there's not many bigger than 200 workers. It has to be possible, though. Trade unions all over the world have organized factories of every size.” He swallowed, understanding how lame he sounded. “Look, this is usually Matthew's side of things. He understands all of it. I'm just the tank, you understand? I stand in the front and soak up all the damage. And you can't talk to Matthew because he's in jail.”
“Ah yes, jail. Tell us about what happened today.”
So he told them the story of the battle, all those millions of girls out there in the towns of Guangdong, and he found himself...transported. Taken away back to the cafe, the shouting, the police and the screams, his voice drifting to his ears from a long way off through the remembered shouts in his ears. When he stopped, he snapped back to reality and found Jie staring at him with wet eyes and parted lips. He looked at his phone. It was nearly midnight.
He shrugged, dry mouthed. “I -- Well, that's it, I suppose.”
“Wow,” Jie breathed, and cued up another commercial. “Are you OK?”
“My head feels like it's being crushed between two heavy rocks,” he said. He shifted his butt in his chair and winced. “And my shoulder's on fire.”
“I've really kept you up,” she said. “We're almost done here, though. You're a really tough bastard, you know that?”
He didn't feel tough. Truth be told, he felt pretty terrible about the fact that he'd gotten away while his guildies had all been locked up. Logically he knew that they wouldn't benefit from him being jailed alongside of them, but that was logic, not feelings.
“OK,” she said. “We're back. What a story! Sisters, didn't I tell you I had something special tonight? Alas, it's nearly time to go -- we all need some sleep before we go back to work in the morning, don't we? Just one more thing: what are we going to do about this?”
Suddenly, she wasn't sleepy and soothing. Her eyes were wide, and she was gripping the edge of her desk tightly. “We come here from our villages looking to do an honest job for decent pay so that we can help our families, so that we can live and survive. What do we get? Slimy perverts who screw us on the job and off! Bastard criminals who destroy anyone who challenges their rackets! Cops who beat us and put us in jail if we dare to challenge the status quo!”
"Sisters, it can't go on! Tank here said there's no such thing as a Chinese worker anymore, just a worker. I hadn't heard of these Webblies of his before tonight, and I don't know if they're any better than your boss or the thief running the network sales rip-off next door, and I don't care. If there are workers around the world organizing for a better deal, I want to be a part of it, and so do you!
"I'll tell you what's going to happen next. Tank and I are going to find the Webblies and we're going to plan something big. Something huge! I don't know what it will be, but it's going to change things. There's millions of us! Anything we do is big.
“I have a confession to make.” Her voice got quieter. "A sin to confess. I do this show because it makes me money. A lot of money. I have to spend a lot to stay ahead of the zengfu, but there's plenty left over. More than you make, I have to confess. It's been a long time since I was as poor as a factory girl. I'm practically rich. Not boss-rich, but rich, you understand?
"But I'm with you. I didn't start this show to get rich. I started it because I was a factory girl and I cared about my sisters. We've been coming to Guangdong Province since Deng Xiaoping changed the rules and made the factories here grow. It's been generations, sisters, and we come, we poor mice from the country, and we are ground up by the factories we slave in. For every Yuan we send home, our bosses put a hundred in their pockets. And when we're done, then what? We become one of the old grannies begging by the road.
“So listen in tomorrow. We're going to find out more about these Webblies, we're going to make a plan, and we're going to bring it to you. In the meantime, don't take any crap off your bosses. Don't let the cops push you or your sisters and brothers around. And be good to each other -- we're all on the same side.”
She clicked her mouse and flipped the lid down on her laptop.
“Whew!” she said. “What a night!”
“Is your show like this every night?”
“Not this good, Tank. You certainly improved things. I'm glad I kidnapped you from the train station.”
“I am too,” he said. He was so tired. “I guess I'll call you tomorrow about the next show? Maybe we could meet in the morning and try to reach the Webblies or find a way to try to call my guildies and see if they're all still in jail?”
“Call me? Don't be stupid, Tank. I'm not letting you out of my sight.”
“It's OK,” he said. “I can find somewhere to sleep.” When he'd first arrived in Shenzhen, he'd spent a couple nights sleeping in parks. He could do that again. It wasn't so bad, if it didn't rain in the night. Had there been clouds that day? He couldn't remember.
“You certainly can -- right through that doorway, right there.” She pointed to the bedroom.
He was suddenly wide awake. “Oh, I couldn't --”
“Shut up and go to bed. You've got a head injury, stupid. And you've just given me hours of great radio show. So you need it and you've earned it. Bed. Now.”
He was too tired to argue. He stumbled a little on the way to bed, and she swept the clothes and toys and handbags from the bed onto the floor just ahead of him. She pulled the sheet over him and kissed him on the forehead as he settled in. “Sleep, Tank,” she whispered in his ear.
He wondered dimly where she would sleep, as she left the room and he heard her typing on her computer again. He fell asleep with the sound of the keys in his ears.
He barely woke when she slid under the covers with him, snuggled up to him and began to snore softly in his ear.
But he was wide awake an hour later when ten police cars pulled up out front of Houhai's buildings, sirens blaring, and a helicopter spotlight bathed the entire building in light as white as daylight. She went rigid beside him under the covers and then practically levitated out of the bed.
“Twenty seconds,” she barked. “Shoes, your phone, anything else you need. We won't come back here.”
Lu felt obscurely proud of how calm he felt as he stood up and, in an unhurried, calm fashion, picked up his shoes -- factory workers' tennis shoes, cheap and ubiquitous -- and laced them up, then pulled on his jacket, then moved efficiently into the living room, where Jie was hosing solvent over all the flat surfaces in the room. The smell was as sharp as his headache, and intensified it.
She nodded once at him, and then nodded at another pressure-bottle of solvent and said, “You do the bathroom and the bedroom.” He did, working quickly. He guessed that this would wipe away anything like a fingerprint or a distinctive kind of dirt. He was done in a minute, or maybe, less, and she was at his elbow with a ziploc baggie full of dust. “Vacuumed out of the seas of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen train,” she said. “Skin cells from a good million people. Spread it evenly, please. Quickly now.”
The dust got up his nose and made him sneeze, and sunk into the creases of his palms, and it was all a little icky, but his head was clear and full of the sirens and the helicopter's thunder. As he scattered the genetic material throughout, he watched Jie popping the drive out of her computer and dropping the slender stick down her cleavage, and that finally broke through his cool. Suddenly, he realized that he'd spent the night sleeping next to this beautiful girl, and he hadn't even kissed her, much less touched those mysterious and intriguing breasts that now warmly embraced an extremely compromising piece of storage media, a sliver of magnetic media that could put them both in jail forever.
She looked around and ticked off a mental checklist on her finger. Then she snapped a decisive nod and said, “All right, let's go.” She led him out into the corridor, which was brightly lit and empty, leaving him feeling very exposed. She pulled a short prybar out of her purse and expertly pried open the steel door on a fuse-panel by the elevators, revealing neat rows of black plastic breaker switches. She fished in her handbag again and came out with a disposable butane lighter, which she lit, applying the flame to a little twist of white vinyl or shiny paper protruding like a pull-tab from an unobtrusive seam in the panel. It sizzled and flashed and a twist of black smoke rose from it and then the paper burned away, the spark disappearing into the panel.
A second later, the entire panel-face erupted in a shower of sparks, smoke and flame. Jie regarded it with satisfaction as black smoke poured out of the plate. Then all the lights went out and the smoke alarms began to toll, a bone-deep dee-dah dee-dah that drowned out the helicopter, the sirens.
She clicked a little red LED light to life and it bathed her face in demonic light. She looked very satisfied with herself. It made Lu feel calm.
“Now what?” he said.
“Now we stroll out with everyone else who'se running away from the fire alarms.”
All through the building, doors were opening, bleary families were emerging, and smoke was billowing, black and acrid. They headed for the staircase, just behind the Bound-Foot Granny who they'd met the day before. In the stairwell, they met hundreds, then thousands more refugees from the building, all carrying armloads of precious possessions, babies, elderly family members.
At the bottom, the police tried to corral them into an orderly group in front of the building, but there were too many people, too much confusion. In the end, it was simple to slip through the police lines and mingle with the crowd of gawkers from nearby buildings who'd turned out to watch.
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022