This scene is dedicated to London's Clerkenwell Tales, located around the corner from my office in Clerkenwell, a wonderful and eclectic neighborhood in central London. Peter Ho, the owner, is a veteran of Waterstone's, and has opened up exactly the kind of small, expertly curated neighborhood store that every bookish person yearns to have in the vicinity. Peter makes a point of stocking small handmade editions from local printers, and as a result, I'm forever dropping in to say hello over my lunch break and leaving with an armload of exquisite and gorgeous books. It's lethal. In a good way.
Ashok did his best thinking on paper, big sheets of it. He knew that it was ridiculous. The smart thing to do would be to keep all the files digital, encrypted on a shared drive on the net where all the Webblies could get at it. But the numbers made so much more sense when they were written neatly on flip-chart paper and tacked up all around the walls of his “war-room” -- the back room at Mrs Dibyendu's cafe, rented by Mala out of the army's wages from Mr Bannerjee.
Oh yes, Mala was still drawing wages from Mr Bannerjee and her soldiers were still fighting the missions he sent them on. But afterwards, in their own time, they fought their own missions, in Mrs Dibyendu's shop. Mrs Dibyendu was lavishly welcoming to them, grateful for the business in her shop, which had been in danger of drying up and blowing away. Idiot nephew had been sent back to Uttar Pradesh to live with his parents, limping home with his tail between his legs and leaving Mrs Dibyendu to tend her increasingly empty shop on her own.
Mrs Dibyendu didn't mind the big sheets of paper. She loved Ashok, smartly dressed and well turned out, and clearly thought that he and Yasmin had something going on. Ashok tried gently to disabuse her of this, but she wasn't having any of it. She brought him sweet chai all day and all night, as he labored over his sheets.
“Ashok,” Mala called, limping toward him through the empty cafe, leaning on the trestle-tables that supported the long rows of gasping PCs.
He stood up from the table, wiping the chai from his chin with his hand, wiping his hand on his trousers. Mala made him nervous. He'd visited her in the hospital, with Yasmin, and sat by her bed while she refused to look at either of them. He'd picked her up when she was discharged, and she'd fixed him with that burning look, like a holy woman, and she'd nodded once at him, and asked him how her Army could help.
“Mala,” he said. “You're early.”
“Not much fighting today,” she said, shrugging. “Fighting Webblies is like fighting children. Badly organized children. We knocked over twenty jobsites before lunch and I had to call a break. The Army was getting bored. I've got them on training exercises, fighting battles against each other.”
“You're the commander, General Robotwallah, I'm sure you know best.”
She had a very pretty smile, Mala did, though you rarely got to see it. Mostly you saw her ugly smiles, smiles that seemed to have too many sharp teeth in them. But her pretty smile was like the sun. It changed the whole room, made your heart glow. He understood how a girl like this could command an Army. He stared at the pretty smile for a minute and his tongue went dry and thick in his mouth.
“I want to talk to you, Ashok. You're sitting here with your paper and your figures, and you keep telling us to wait, wait a little, and you'll explain everything. It's been months, Ashok, and still you say wait, explain. I'm tired of waiting. The Army is tired of waiting. Being double agents was amusing for a little while, and it's fun to fight real Pinkertons at night, but they're not going to wait around forever.”
Ashok held his hands out in a placating gesture that often worked on Mala. She needed to know that she was the boss. “Look, it's not a simple matter. If we're going to take on four virtual worlds at once, everything has to run like clockwork, each piece firing after the other. In the meantime --”
She waved at him dismissively. “In the meantime, Bannerjee grows more and more suspicious. The man is an idiot, not a moron. He will eventually figure out that something is going wrong. Or his masters will. And then --”
“And then we'll have to placate him, or misdirect him. General, this is a confidence game, a scam, running on four virtual worlds and twenty real nations, with hundreds of confederates. Confidence games require planning and cunning. It's not enough to go in, guns blazing --”
“You think we don't understand planning? You think we don't understand cunning? Ashok, you have never fought. You should fight. It would help you understand this business you've gotten into. You think that we're thugs, idiot muscle. Running a battle requires as much skill as anything you do -- I don't have a fine education, I am just a girl from the village, I am just a Dharavi rat, but I am smart Ashok, and don't you ever forget it.”
The worst part was, she was right. He did often think of her as a thug. “Mala, I want to play, but playing would take me away from planning.”
“You can't plan if you don't play. I'm the general, and I'm ordering it. You'll join the junior platoon on maneuvers tomorrow at 10AM. There's skirmishing, then theory, then a couple of battles overseen by the senior platoon when they arrive. It will be good for you. They will rag you some, because you are new, but that will be good for you, too.”
That look in her eyes, the fiery one, told him that he didn't dare disagree. “Yes, General,” he said.
“And you will explain this business to me, now. You will learn my world, I will learn yours.”
“I know, I know. I came in and shouted at you because you were taking too long and now I insist that you take longer.” She gave him that smile. She wasn't pretty -- her features were too sharp for pretty -- but she was beautiful when she smiled. She was going to be a heart-breaker when she grew up. If she grew up.
“Chai!” she called to Mrs Dibyendu, who brought it round quickly, averting her eyes from Mala.
“All right, let's start with the basic theory of the scam. Who is easiest to trick?”
“A fool,” she said at once.
“Wrong,” he said. “Fools are often suspicious, because they've been taken advantage of. The easiest person to trick is a successful person, the more successful the better. Why is that?”
Mala thought. “They have more money, so it's worth tricking them?”
Ashok waggled his chin. “No, sorry -- by that reasoning, they should be more suspicious, not less.”
Mala scraped a chair over the floor and sat down and made a face at him. “I give up, tell me.”
"It's because if a man is successful at doing one thing, he's apt to assume that he'll be successful at anything. He believes he's a Brahmin, divinely gifted with the wisdom and strength of character to succeed. He can't bear the thought that he just got lucky, or that his parents just got lucky and left him a pile of Rupees. He can't stand the thought that understanding physics or computers or cameras doesn't make him an expert on economics or beekeeping or cookery.
"And his intelligence and his pride work together to make him easier to trick. His pride, naturally, but his intelligence, too: he's smart enough to understand that there are lots of ways to get rich. If you tell him a complex tale about how some market works and can be tricked, he can follow along over rough territory that would lose a dumber man.
“And there's a third reason that successful men are easier to trick than fools: they dread being shown up as a fool. When you trick them, you can trick them again, make them believe that the scheme fell through. They don't want to go to the police or tell their friends, because if word gets out that some mighty and powerful man was tricked, he stands to lose his reputation, without which he cannot recover his fortune.”
Mala waggled her chin. “It all makes sense, I suppose.”
“It does,” Ashok said.
“I am a successful and powerful person,” she said. Her eyes were cat-slits.
“You are,” Ashok said, more cautiously.
“So I would be easier to fool than any of the fools in my army?”
Ashok laughed. “You are so sharp, General, it's a wonder you don't cut yourself. Yes, it's possible that all of this is a giant triple-twist bluff, aimed at fooling you. But what would I want to fool you for? As rich as your Army has made you, you must know that I could be just as rich by working as a junior lecturer in economics at IIT. But General, at the end of the day, you either trust me or you don't. I can't prove to you that you're inside the scheme rather than its target. If you want out, that's fine. It will hurt the plan, but it won't be its death. There's a lot of people involved here.”
Mala smiled her sunny smile. “You are a clever man,” she said. “And for now, I will trust you. Go on.”
“Let's step back a little. Do you want to learn some history?”
“Will it help me understand why you're taking so long?”
“I think so,” he said. “I think it's a bloody good story, in any case.”
She made a go-on gesture and sipped her chai, her back very erect, her bearing regal.
"Back in the 1930s, the biggest confidence jobs were called 'The Big Store.' They were little stage plays in which there was only one audience-member, the 'mark' or victim. Everyone else was in the play. The mark would meet a 'roper' on a train, who would feel him out to see if he had any money. He'd sometimes give him a little taste of the money to be made -- maybe they'd share some mysterious 'found' money that he'd planted. That sort of thing makes the mark trust you more, and also puts him in your power, because now you know that he's willing to cheat a little.
"Once the train pulled into the strange city and the mark got off, every single person he met or talked with would be part of the trick. If the mark was good at finance, the roper would hand him off to a partner, the 'inside man' who would tell him about a scam he had for winning horse races; if the mark was good at horse races, the scam would be about fixing the stock market -- in other words, whatever the mark knew the least about, that was the center of the game.
"The mark would be shown a betting parlor or a stock-broker's office filled with bustling, active people -- so many people that it was impossible to believe that they could all be part of a scam. Then he'd have the deal explained to him: the brokerage house or betting parlor got its figures from a telegraph office -- this was before computers -- that would phone in the results. The mark would then be shown the 'telegraph office' -- another totally fake business -- and meet a 'friend' of the inside man who was willing to delay the results by a few minutes, giving them to the roper and the market just quick enough to let them get their bets or buys down. They'd know the winners before the office did, so they'd be betting on a sure thing.
"And they'd try it -- and it would work! The mark could put a few dollars down and walk away with a few hundred. It was an eye-popping experience, a real thrill. The mark's imagination would start to work on him. If he could turn a few dollars into hundreds, imagine what he could do if he could put down all his money, along with whatever money he could steal from his business, his family, his friends -- everyone. It wouldn't even be stealing, because he'd be able to pay everyone back once he won big. And he'd go and get all the money he could lay hands on, and he'd lay his bet and he'd lose!
"And it would be his fault. The inside man wouldn't be able to believe it, he'd said, 'Bet on this horse in the first race,' not 'Bet on this horse for first place' or some similar misunderstanding. The mark's bad hearing had cost them everything, all of them. There is a giant scene, and before you know it, the police are there, ready to arrest everyone. Someone shoots the policeman, there's blood and screaming, the place empties out, and the mark counts himself lucky to have escaped with his life. Of course, all the blood and shooting are fakes, too -- so is the policeman. He's got a little blood in a bag in his mouth; they called it a 'cackle-bladder': a fine word, no?
"Now, at this stage, it may be that the mark is completely, totally broke, not one paisa to his name. If that's the case, he gets away and never hears from the roper or the inside man again. He spends the rest of his life broke and broken, hating himself for having misheard the instruction at the critical moment. And he never, ever tells anyone, because if he did, it would expose this great man for a fool.
“But if there's any chance he can get more money -- a friend he hasn't cleaned out, a company bank account he can access -- they may contact him again and offer him the chance to 'get even'. You can bet he will -- after all, he's a king among men, destined to rule, who made his fortune because he's better than everyone else. Why wouldn't he play again, since the only reason he lost last time was that he misheard an instruction. Surely that won't happen again!”
“But it does,” she said. Her eyes were shining.
“Oh yes, indeed. And again, and again --”
“And again. until he's been bled dry.”
“You've learned the first lesson,” Ashok said. “Now, onto advanced subjects. You know how a pyramid scheme works, yes?”
She waved dismissively. “Of course.”
“Now, the pyramid scheme is just a kind of skeleton, and like a skeleton, you can hang a lot of different bodies off of it. It can look like a plan to sell soap, or a plan to sell vitamins, or something else altogether. But the important thing is, whatever it's selling, it has to seem like a good deal. Think back on the big store -- how do you make something seem like a good deal?”
Mala thought carefully. Ashok could practically see the gears spinning in her head. Wah! She was smart, this Dharavi girl!
“OK,” she said. “OK -- it should be something the mark doesn't know much about.”
“Got it in one!” Ashok said. “If the mark is smart and accomplished, she'll assume that she knows everything about everything. Dangle some bait for her that she doesn't really understand and she'll come along. But there's a way to make even familiar subjects unfamiliar. Here, look at this.” He typed at the disused computer on a corner of his desk, googled an image of a craps table at a casino.
“This is a gambling game, craps. They play it with dice.”
“I've seen men playing it in the street,” Mala said.
“This is the casino version. See all the lines and markings?”
"These marks represent different bets -- double if it comes up this way, triple if it comes up that way. The bets can get very, very complicated.
“Now, dice aren't that complicated. There are only 36 ways that a roll can come up: one-one, one-two, one-three, and so on, all that way up to six-six. It should be easy to tell whether a bet is any good: take the chance of rolling two sixes, twice in a row: the odds are 36 times 36 to one. If the bet pays less than those odds, then you will eventually lose money. If the bet pays more than those odds, then you will eventually win money.”
Mala shook her head. “I don't really understand.”
“Imagine flipping a coin.” He took out his wallet and opened a flap and pulled out an old brass Chinese coin, pierced in the center with a square. "One side is heads, one side is tails. Assuming the coin is 'fair' -- that is, assuming that both sides of the coin weigh the same and have the same wind resistance, then the chances of a coin landing with either face showing are 50-50, or 1-in-1, or just 'even'.
"Now we play a fair game. I toss the coin, you call out which side you think it'll land on. If you guess right, you double your bet; if not, I take your money. If we play this game long enough, we'll both have the same amount of money as we started with -- it's a boring game.
“But what if instead I paid you triple if it landed on heads, provided you took the heads-bet? All you need to do is keep putting money on heads, and eventually you'll end up with all my money: when it comes up tails, I win a little; when it comes up heads, you win a lot. Over time, you'll take it all. So if I offered you this proposition, you should take it.”
“All right,” Mala said.
“But what if it was a very complicated bet? What if there were two coins, and the payout depended on a long list of factors; I'll pay you triple for any double-head or double-tails, provided that it isn't the same outcome as the last time, unless it is the third duplicate outcome. Is that a good bet or a bad one?”
“I don't know either -- I'd have to calculate the odds with pen and paper. But what about this: what if I'll pay you 300 to one if you win according to the rules I just set up. You lay down ten rupees and win, I'll give you 3,000 back?”
Mala cocked her head. “I'd probably take the bet.”
“Most people would. It's a fantastic cocktail: mix one part confusing rules and one part high odds, and people will lay down their money all day. Now, tell me this: would you bet ten rupees on rolling the dice double-sixes, thirty times in a row?”
“No!” Mala said. “That's practically impossible.”
Ashok spread his hands. “And now you have the second lesson: everyone has some intuition about odds, even if they are, excuse me, a girl who has never studied statistics.” Mala colored, but she held her tongue. It was true, after all. “Most people won't bet on nearly impossible things, not even if you give brilliant odds. But you can disguise the nearly impossible by making it do a lot of acrobatics -- making the rules of the game very complicated -- and then lots of people, even smart people, will place bets on propositions that are every bit as unlikely as thirty double-sixes in a row. In fact, smart people are especially likely to place those bets --”
Mala held up her hand. “Because they're so smart they think they know everything.”
Ashok clapped. “Star pupil! You should have been a con-artist or an economist, if only you weren't such a fine General, General.” She grinned. Ashok knew that she loved to hear how good a general she was. He didn't blame her: if he was a Dharavi girl who'd outsmarted the slum and made a life, he'd be a little insecure too. It was just one more thing to like about Mala and her scowling, hard brilliance. “Now, my star pupil, put it all together for me.”
She began to recite, counting off on her fingers, like a schoolgirl recounting a lesson. "To make a Ponzi scheme that works, that really works, you need to have
who are surrounded by con-artists
who are given a chance to bet on something complicated
in a way that they're not good at understanding."
Ashok clapped and Mala gave a small, ironic bow from her seat.
“So that is what I am doing back here. Devising the scheme that will take the economies of four entire worlds hostage, make them ours to smash as we see fit. In order to do that, I need to do some very fine work.”
Mala pointed at a chart that was dense with scribbled equations and notations. “Explain,” she commanded.
“That is an entirely different sort of lesson,” Ashok said. “For a different day. Or perhaps a year.”
Mala's eyes narrowed.
“My dear general,” Ashok said, laying it on so thick that they both knew he was doing it, and he saw the corners of Mala's lips tremble as they tried to hold back her smile, “If I asked you to explain the order of battle to me, you could do two things: either you could confer some useful, philosophical principles for commanding a force; or you could vomit up a lifetime's statistics and specifics about every weapon, every character class, every technique and tip. The chances are that I'd never memorize a tenth of what you had to tell me. I don't have the background for it. And, having memorized it, I would never be able to put it to use because I wouldn't have had the hard labor that you've put in -- jai ho! -- and so I won't have the skeleton in my mind on which I might lay the flesh of your teaching, my guru.” He checked to see if he'd laid it on too thickly, decided he hadn't, grinned and namasted to her, just to ice the biscuit.
Mala nodded regally, keeping her straight face on for as long as she could, but as she left the room, hobbling on her cane, he was sure he heard a girlish peal of giggles from her.
Matthew's first plate of dumplings tasted so good he almost choked on the saliva that flooded his mouth. After two months in the labor camp, eating chicken's feet and rice and never enough of either, freezing at night and broiling during the day, he thought that he had perfectly reconstructed the taste of dumplings in his mind. On days when he was digging, each bite of the shovel's tip into the earth was like the moment that his teeth pierced a dumpling's skin, letting the steam and oil escape, the meat inside releasing an aroma that wafted up into his nostrils. On days when he was hammering, the round stones were the tender dumplings in a mountain, the worn ground was the squeaking styrofoam tray. Dumplings danced in his thoughts as he lay on the floor between two other prisoners; they were in his mind when he rose in the morning. The only time he didn't think about dumplings was when he was eating chicken's feet and rice, because they were so awful that they alone had the power to drive the ghost of dumplings from his imagination.
Those were the times he thought about what he was going to do when he got out of jail. What he was going to do in the game. What the Webblies were planning, and how he would play his part in that plan.
The prison official that released him assumed that he was one of the millions of illegal workers with forged papers who'd gone to Canton, to the Pearl River Delta, to seek his fortune. He was half-way through a stern, barked lecture about staying out of trouble and going back to his village in Gui-Zhou or Sichuan or whatever impoverished backwater he hailed from, before the man actually looked down at his records and saw that Matthew was, indeed, Cantonese -- and that he would shortly be transported, at government expense, back to Shenzhen. The man had fallen silent, and Matthew, overcome with the comedy of the moment, couldn't help but thank him profusely -- in Cantonese.
There were dumplings on the train, sold by grim men and women with deep lines cut into their faces by years and worry and hunger and misery. This was the provinces, the outer territories, the mysterious China that had sent millions of girls and boys to Canton to earn their fortunes in the Pearl River Delta. Matthew knew all their strange accents, he spoke their strange Mandarin language, but he was Cantonese, and this was not his people.
Those were not his dumplings.
It wasn't until he debarked at the outskirts of Shenzhen and transferred to a metro subway that he started to feel at home. It wasn't until then that he started to think about dumplings. The girls on the metro were as he remembered them, beautiful and polished and laughing and well fed. Skulking in the doorway of the train, watching his reflection in the dark glass, he saw what an awful skeleton-person he'd become. He had been a young man when he went in, a boy, really. Now he looked five years older, and he was shifty and sunken, and there was a scrub of wispy beard on his cheeks, accentuating their hollowness. He looked like one of the mass of criminals and grifters and scumbags who hung around the train station and the street corners -- tough and desperate as a sewer rat. Unpredictable.
Why not? Sewer rats got lots of dumplings. They had sharp teeth and sharp wits. They were fast. Matthew grinned at his reflection and the girls on the train gave him a wide berth when they pulled into the next station.
Lu met him at Guo Mao station, up on the street level, where the men and women in brisk suits with brisk walks came and went from the stock exchange, a perfect crowd of people to get lost in. Lu took both of his hands in a long, soulful, silent shake and led them away toward the stock exchange, where the identity counterfeiters were.
These people kept Shenzhen and all of Guandong province running. They could make you any papers you needed: working permits allowing a farm girl to move from Xi'an to Shenzhen and make iPods; papers saying you were a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer; driver's licenses, vendor's licenses -- even pilot's licenses, according to the card one of them gave him. They were old ladies, the friendly face of criminal empires run by hard men with perpetual cigarettes and dandruff on the shoulders of their dark suits.
They walked in silence through the shouting grabbing crowds, the flurries of cards advertising fake documents shoved in their hands by grannies on all sides of them. Lu stopped in front of one granny and bent and whispered in her ear. She nodded once and went back to waving her cards, but she must have signalled a confederate somehow, because a moment later, a young man got up off a bench and wandered into a gigantic electronics mall and they followed him, threading their way through stall after stall of parts for mobile phones -- keyboards, screens, dialpads, diodes -- up an escalator to another floor of parts, up another escalator and another floor, and one more to a floor that was completely deserted. Even the electrical outlets were empty, bare wires dangling from the receptacles, waiting to be hooked up to plugs.
The boy was 100 meters ahead of them, and they trailed after him, slipping into a hallway that led toward the emergency stairs. A little side door was slightly ajar and Lu pushed it open. The boy wasn't there -- he must have taken the stairs -- but there was another boy, younger than Lu or Matthew, sitting in front of a computer, intently playing Mushroom Kingdom. Matthew smiled -- it was always so strange to see a Chinese person playing a game just for the fun of it, rather than as a job. He looked up and nodded at the two of them. Wordlessly, Lu passed him a bundle that the boy counted carefully, mixed Hong Kong dollars and Chinese renminbi. He made the money disappear with a nimble-fingered gesture, then pointed at a stool in a corner of the room with a white screen behind it. Matthew sat -- still without a word -- and saw that there was a little webcam positioned on the boy’s desk, pointing at him. He composed his features in an expression of embarrassed seriousness, the kind of horrible facial expression that all ID carried, and the boy clicked his mouse and gestured at the door. “One hour,” he said.
Lu held the door for Matthew and led him down the fire-stairs, back into the mall, back onto the street, back among the counterfeiters, and a short way to a noodle stall that was thronged with people, and that's when Matthew's mouth began to generate so much saliva that he had to surreptitiously blot the corners of his lips on the sleeve of his cheap cotton jacket.
Moment later, he was eating. And eating. And eating. The first bowl was pork. Then beef. Then prawn. Then some Shanghai dumplings, filled with pork. And still he ate. His stomach stretched and the waistband of his jeans pinched him, and he undid the top button and ate some more. Lu goggled at him all the while, fetching more bowls of dumplings as needed, bringing back chili sauce and napkins. He sent and received some texts, and Matthew looked up from his work of eating at those moments to watch Lu's fierce concentration as he tapped on his phone's keypad.
“Who is she?” Matthew asked, as he leaned back and allowed the latest layer of dumplings to settle in his stomach.
Lu ducked his head and blushed. “A friend. She's great. She organized, you know --” He waved his chopsticks in the direction of the counterfeiters' market. “She's -- I don't know what I would have done without her. She's why I'm not in jail.”
Matthew smiled wryly. “You'd have gotten out by now.” He plucked at his loose shirt. “Though you might be a few sizes smaller.”
Lu showed Matthew a picture of a South China girl on his phone. She looked like the perfect model of South China womanhood -- fashionable clothes and hair, a carefully made up double-eyelid, an expression of mischief and, what, power? That sense of being on top of her world and the world in general. Matthew nodded appreciatively. “Lucky Lu,” he said.
Lu dropped his voice. “She's amazing,” he whispered. “She got me papers, cancelled my phone, let the number go dead, then scooped it up again with a different identity, then forwarded it through a --” he looked around dramatically and pitched his voice even lower -- “Falun Gong switchboard in Macau, then back to this phone. That's why you were able to call me. It's incredible -- I'm still in touch with everyone, but it's all through so many blinds that the zengfu have no idea where I am or how to trace me.”
“How does she know all this?” Matthew asked, gently, the dumplings settling like rocks in his stomach. He was a dead man. “How do you know she isn't police herself?”
“She can't be,” Lu said. “You'll see why, once we meet up with her. This much I'm sure of.”
But Matthew couldn't shake the knowledge that this girl would be taking him back to prison. In prison, everyone had been an informant. If you informed on your fellow prisoners, you got more food, more sleep, lighter duty. The best informants were like little bosses, and the other prisoners courted their favor like they were on the outside, giving them the equivalent of the “3 Gs” -- golf, girls and gambling -- with whatever they could scrape up from the prison's walls. Matthew had never informed and had never been informed upon. He always chose the games he played, and he never played a game he couldn't win.
And so he was numb when he met Jie, who smelled wonderful and had fantastic manners and a twinkling smile. She had his new identity papers, with the right picture, but a different name and identity number, and a fingerprint that he was sure wasn't his own on the back. She chatted amiably as they walked, about inconsequentialities, the weather and the food, football scores and gossip about celebrities, a too-perfect empty-head that made him even more suspicious of this girl and her impeccable acting.
She led them to a small, run-down handshake building in the old Cantonese part of town. This was where Matthew had grown up, the “city-within-a-city” that the Cantonese had been squeezed into as South China ceased to be merely a place and had become a symbol for the New China, the world's factory. Being back in these familiar streets made him even more prickly, giving him the creeping certainty that he would be recognized any second, that some poor boyhood friend of his would be marked by this secret policewoman and sent to prison with him. He steeled himself to keep walking, though with each step he wanted to turn and bolt.
The flat she led them to had once been half of a tiny apartment; now it was reduced to a single, tiny room with piles of girly clothes and shoes, several computers perched on cheap desks, a sink whose rim was covered in cosmetics, and a screened-off area that presumably hid the toilet. The shower was next to the stove and sink, a tiled square in the corner with a drain set into the floor, a shower-head anchored to the wall, a curtain rail bolted to the ceiling.
Once the door was closed, Lu's girlfriend changed demeanour so abruptly, it was as though she had removed a mask. Her face was now animated with keen intelligence, her bearing aggressive and keen. “We need to get you new clothes,” she said. “A shave, a haircut, some money --”
One thing Matthew had learned in prison was the importance of not getting carried along by other people's scripts. A forceful person could do that: write a script, spin it out for you, put you in a role, and before you knew it, you were smuggling sealed packages from one part of the prison to another. Once someone else was writing the script, you were all but helpless.
“Wait,” he said. “Just stop.” She looked at him mildly. Lu was less calm -- Matthew could tell at a glance that he was completely in this woman's power. “Madame, I don't mean to be rude, but who the hell are you, and why should I trust you?”
She laughed. “You want to know if I'm zengfu,” she said. Lu looked scandalized, but she was taking it well. “Of course you do. I've got money, apartments, I know where to get good ID papers --”
“And you're very bossy,” Matthew said.
“I certainly am!” she said. “Now, have you ever heard of Jiandi?”
He had heard that name. He thought about it for a moment, casting his mind back to the distant, dreamlike time before prison. “The radio lady?” he said, slowly. “The one who talks to the factory girls?”
“Yes,” she said. “That's the one.”
“OK,” he said. “I've heard of her.”
Lu grinned. “And now you've met her!”
Matthew thought about this for a moment, staring into the girl's carefully made-up eyes, fringed with long, dark lashes. Finally he said, “No offense, but anyone can claim to be someone who no one has ever seen.”
Lu started to speak, but she held her hand up and silenced him. “He's right,” she said. “Tank, the only reason I'm walking around free, still broadcasting, is that I am a very paranoid lady. Your friend's paranoia is just good sense. Have you ever considered that you've never listened to me broadcasting, Tank? You've been here plenty for the broadcasts, but you've never tuned in. For all you know, I am zengfu, infiltrating your ranks with a giant, elaborate counterfeit that has other cops calling in, pretending to be listeners to a show that never goes any farther than the room I'm sitting in.” Lu's mouth opened and shut, opened and shut. She laughed at him. “Don't worry, I'm no cop. I'm just pointing out that you're a very trusting sort of boy. Maybe too trusting. Your friend here is a little more cautious, that's all. I thoroughly approve.”
Matthew found himself hoping that this girl wasn't a cop for the simple reason that he was starting to like her. Not to mention that if she was a cop, he'd go straight back to jail, but now that his panic was receding, he was able to consider what she would be like as a comrade. He liked the idea.
“OK,” he said. “So, if you're Jiandi, then it should be easy for you to prove it. Just do a show, and I'll tune in and listen to it.”
“How do you know Jiandi isn't a cop?” She had a twinkle in her eye.
“Not even the cops are that devious,” he said. “They couldn't stand to have all those Falun Gong ads and all that seditious talk about the party -- it wouldn't last a week, let alone years and years.”
She nodded. “I think so, too. Lu, do you agree?”
Lu, still miserable looking, nodded glumly.
“Cheer up,” she said. “You get to have a little solo time with your friend!”
They ended up at a new game cafe, far off on the metro line, by the Windows on the World theme-park. Matthew's father had taken him there once, and he'd gotten to dress up in ancient battle-armor, fire arrows at targets while a man with a Cantonese accent dressed like an American Indian gave him pointers. It had been fun, but nothing so nice as the games that Matthew was already playing.
The metro let them off just around the corner from it, in front of a giant, run-down hotel that had been closed the last time Matthew came through here. The game cafe was in the former restaurant, something pirate themed with a huge fake pirate ship on the roof. Inside, it was choked with smoke and the tables had been formed into the usual long stretches with a PC every meter or so. About half of them were occupied, and in one corner of the restaurant there were fifty or sixty gamers who were clearly gold-farmers, working under the watchful eye of an older goon with a hard face and a cigarette in one corner of his mouth. It was incredibly hot inside the cafe, twenty degrees hotter than outside, and it was as dark and dank as a cave. Matthew felt instantly at home.
Lu shoved some folded up bills at the old man behind the counter, an evil-looking, toothless grandfather with a pronounced hump and two missing fingers on one hand. Lu looked back at Matthew, then ordered a plate of dumplings as well. The man drew a styrofoam tray out of a chest freezer, punctured the film on top, and put it in the microwave beside him at the reception desk. “Go,” he croaked, “I'll bring them to you.”
Matthew and Lu sat down at adjacent PCs far from the rest of the crowd, next to a picture window that had been covered over with newspapers. Matthew put his eye up to a rip in the paper and peeked out at the ruins of an elaborate, nautical-themed swimming pool outside, complete with twisting water-slides and fountains, now gone green and scummy. “Nice hotel,” he said.
Lu was mousing his way over to Jiandi's web-page, weaving the connection through a series of proxies, looking up the latest addresses for her stream mirrors, finding one that worked. “I think we'll have 45 minutes at least before anyone notices that this PC is doing something out-of-bounds. I trust that will be plenty of time for you to satisfy your suspicious mind.”
Matthew saw that Lu was really angry, and he swallowed his own anger -- something else he'd had plenty of practice at in prison. “I just want to be safe, Lu. This isn't a game.” Then he heard his own words and grinned. “OK, it is a game. But it's also real life. It has consequences.” He plucked at the shirt that hung loose on his skinny body. “It wouldn't hurt you to be more careful.”
Lu said nothing, but his lips were pursed and white. The old man brought them their dumplings and they ate them in silence. They were miserable dumplings, filled with something that tasted like shredded paper, but they were still better than prison chicken's feet.
Matthew looked at the boy. He was always thoughtful -- a strange thing for a tank to be -- and considerate, and brave. He hadn't been in Matthew's original guild, but when Boss Wing had put him in charge of the whole elite squad, they'd come willingly, seeing in Matthew a strategist who could lead them to victory. And when Matthrew had started whispering to them about the Webblies, Lu had been as excited as anyone. All that seemed so long ago, a different life and different time, before a policeman's baton had knocked him down, before he had gone to prison, before he'd turned into the man he was now. But Matthew was back in the world now, and Lu had been living on his wits for months, and --
“I owe you an apology,” he said, setting down hs chopsticks. “I still don't know if I can trust your friend, but I could have been a little smarter about how I said it. It's been a strange day -- 36 hours ago, I was wearing a prison uniform.”
Lu stared at him, and then a little smile snuck into the corners of his mouth. “It's all right,” he said. “Here, she's starting.” He popped out his earwig, already paired with the computer's sound-system, wiped it on his sleeve, and handed it to Matthew. Matthew screwed it into his ear.
“Hello, sisters,” came the familiar voice. “It's a little early, I know, but this is a short and special broadcast for you lucky ladies who have the day off, are sick in the infirmary, or happen to have snuck headphones into the factory. Hello, hello, hello. Shall we take a phone call or two?”
Lu grinned at Matthew and stood and walked out of the cafe. Matthew touched the earwig, thought about going after him, decided not to. A moment later, Jiandi said, “There we go, hello, hello.”
“Hello Jiandi,” said Lu. Matthew put his eye back up to the gap in the newspaper-covered glass and found himself staring at a grinning Lu, standing behind the building, phone to his head.
“Tank!” she squealed. “How fantastic to hear from you again. It's been ages since you came on my show! Tell me, Tank, what's on your mind today?”
“Justice,” Lu/Tank said. Matthew found himself laughing quietly, and he ducked his head so as not to draw attention. "Justice for working people. We come to Guanddong Province because they say that we will be rich. But when we get here, we have bad working conditions, bad pay, and everything is stacked against us. No one can get real papers to live here, so we all buy fakes, and the police know they can stop us at any time and put us in jail or send us away because we don't have real documents. Our bosses know it, so they lock us in, or beat us, or steal our pay. I have been here for five years now, and I see how it works: the rich get richer, the poor get used up and sent back to the village, ruined. The corrupt government runs on bribes, not justice, and any attempt by working people to organize for a better deal is met with violence and war. The corrupt businessmen buy corrupt policemen who work for corrupt government.
“I've had enough! It's time for working people to organize -- one of us is nothing. Together, we can't be stopped. China's revolutions have come and gone, and still, the few are rich and the many are poor. It's time for a worldwide revolution: workers in China, India, America -- all over -- have to fight together. We will use the Internet because we are better at the Internet than our bosses are. The Internet is shaped like a worker's organization: chaotic, spread out, without a few leaders making all the decisions. We know how to interface with it. Our bosses only understand the Internet when they can make it shaped like them, forcing all our clicks through a few bottlenecks that they can own and control. We can't be controlled. We can't be stopped. We will win!”
Jiandi laughed into the mic, a throaty, sexy sound. "Oh, Tank! So serious! You make us all feel like silly children with your talk!
“But he's right sisters, you know he is. We worry about our little problems, our bosses trying to screw us or cheat us; police chasing us, our networks infected and spied on, but we never ask why, what's the system for?” She drew in a deep breath. “We never ask what we can do.”
A long silence. Matthew clicked on the computer, verified that he was indeed tuned into the Factory Girl Show. He felt an unnameable emotion inside his chest, in his belly. She was what she said she was. Not a cop. Not a spy.
Well, either that or the whole thing was a huge setup, and the police had been running this woman's operation for years now, deceiving millions, just to have this insider. That was an incredibly weird idea. But sometimes the politburo was incredibly weird.
"We'll know what to do. Soon enough, sisters, have no fear. Keep listening -- tune in tonight for our regular show -- and someday very soon we'll tell you what you can do. Wait and wait.
“And you policemen and government bureaucrats and bosses listening now? Be afraid.”
Her voice clicked off, and a cheerful lunatic started saying crazy things about how great Falun Gong was, the traditional junk advertising he'd heard on Jiandi's show before.
He thoughtfully chewed another newspaper dumpling and waited for Lu to make his way back into the cafe. He'd been out of prison for less than two days and his life was a million times more interesting than it had been just a few hours before. And he had dumplings. Things were happening -- big things.
Lu shook his hand again, and the two of them left quickly, heading for the metro entrance. As they ran down the stairs, Lu leaned over and said, quietly, “Wait until you hear what we've got planned.” His voice was tight, excited. Almost gleeful.
“I can't wait,” Matthew said. There was a hopeful feeling bubbling up inside him now. When was the last time he'd felt hopeful? Oh yes. It was when he quit Boss Wing's gold farm, taking his guildies with him, and set up his own business. That hadn't ended well, of course. But the hope had been delicious. It was delicious now.
Justbob had her whole network online. These were the best fighters in the IWWWW, passionate and committed. They'd been fighting off Pinkertons and dodging game-security for a year, and it had made them hard. Some of them had been beaten in real life, just like Justbob and Krang and BSN, and it was quite a badge of honor to replace your user-icon with a picture of your injuries -- an x-ray full of shattered bones, a close up of a grisly row of stitches.
She loved her fighters. And they loved her.
“Hello, pretties,” she cooed into her earwig, adjusting the icepack she'd wedged between her tailbone and the chair. They were operating out of a new cafe now, still in the Geylang, which was the best place to be in Singapore if you wanted to be a little out of bounds without attracting too much police attention. “Ready for the latest word?”
There was a chorus of cheers from all around the world. Justbob spoke Malay, Indonesian, English, Tamil, and a little Mandarin and Hindi, but they tended to do things in English, which everyone spoke a little of. There was a back-channel, of course, a text-chat where people helped out with translations. They had to speak slow, but it worked.
“We are going to take on four worlds, all at the same time: Mushroom Kingdom, Zombie Mecha, Svartalfaheim Warriors, and Magic of Hogwarts.” She watched the backchannel, waited until the translations were all sorted out. "What do I mean by 'take on?' I mean take over. We're going to seize control of the economies of all four worlds: the majority of the gold, prestige items, and power. We're going to do it fast. We're going to be unstoppable: whenever an operation is disrupted, we will have three more standing by. We're going to control the destiny of every boss whose workers toil in those worlds. We're going to rock their corporate masters. We're going to fight off every Pinkerton, either converting them to our cause or beating them so badly that they change careers.
“To do this, we're going to need many thousands of players working in coordination. Mostly that means doing what they do best: making gold. But we also expect heavy resistance once word gets out about what we're up to. We'll need fighters to defend our lines from Pinkertons, of course, but we also need a lot of distraction and interference, all over, including -- no, especially -- in worlds where we're not going for it. We want game management thoroughly confused until its too late. You will need proxies, lots of them, and as many avs as you can level up. That's your number one task right now -- level as many avs as you can, so that you can switch accounts and jump into a new fighter the second an old one gets disconnected.” She watched the backchatter for a second, then added, “Yes, of course, we're working on that now. In a day or so, we'll have prepaid account cards for all of you. They'll need US proxies to run, so make sure you've got a good list of them.”
She watched the chatter for another moment. “Of course, yes, they will try to shut down the proxies, but if they do, there will be howls from their American players. Do you know how many Americans sneak out of their work networks to play during the day using those proxies? If they start blocking proxies, they'll be blocking some of their best customers. And of course, many Mechanical Turks are on school networks, using proxies to log in to their jobs. They can't afford to block all those proxies -- not for long!”
The back-channel erupted. They liked that. It was good strategy, like when you aggroed a boss and then found a shelter that put some low-level baddies between you and it, and provoked a fight where they all fought each other instead of you. Justbob wished she could say more about this, because the deviousness of it all had given her an all-day, all-week, all-month smile when they'd worked it out in one of the high-level cell meetings. But she understood the need for secrecy. It was a sure bet that some of the fighters on this conference were working for the other side; after all, some of their spies were inside the companies, weren't they?
“All right,” she said, “all right. Enough talk-talk. Let's kill something.” Her headphone erupted in ragged cheering and she skirmished with her commanders for a happy hour until The Mighty Krang came and dragged her away so that she could eat dinner.
Big Sister Nor waited until she was seated, with food on her plate -- sizzling cha kway teow and fried Hokkien noodles, smelling like heaven-- before she started speaking. “All right,” she said. “Our man's landing in Shenzhen tomorrow. We've got people who'll help get him out of the port safely, and he says he's got our cargo, no problems there. He's been logging in on the voyage, he says he can get us hundreds of Turks.”
The Mighty Krang waved his chopsticks at her. “Do you believe him?”
Big Sister Nor chewed and swallowed thoughtfully. “I think I do,” she said. “He's all enthusiasm, that one. He's one of those kids who absolutely loves gaming and wanted to be part of the 'magic,' but discovered that he was working every hour God sent, and there were always hidden rules that ended up docking his pay.” The other two nodded vigorously -- they recognized the pattern, it was the template for sweatshops all over the world. “His employers told him to be grateful to have such a wonderful opportunity and didn't he know that there were plenty more who'd have his job if he didn't want it?”
“OK, so he's upset -- what makes you think he can deliver lots of other upset people?”
She shrugged and speared a prawn. “He's a natural networker, a real do-er. You should hear him talk about that shipping container of his! It's a real hotel on the high seas. Very ingenious. And his guildies say he's bloody sociable. A nice guy. The kind of guy you listen to.”
“The kind of guy you follow?” asked Justbob, scratching at her scarred eye-socket. She could forget about the itch and the ache from the side of her face when she was in conference with her warriors, but she lost that precious distraction the rest of the time. And her dreams were full of phantom aches from the ruined socket, and she sometimes woke with tears on her face.
Big Sister Nor said, “That's what I think.”
The Mighty Krang drank some watermelon juice and drew glyphs in the table with the condensation. The waitress -- a pretty Tamil girl -- scowled at him with mock theatricality and wiped it away. All the waitresses had crushes on The Mighty Krang. Even Justbob had to admit that he was pretty. “I don't like the idea,” he said. “This is about, you know, workers.”
Big Sister Nor fixed him with a level stare. “You mean 'he's white, I don't trust him.' He's a worker, too -- even though he works for the game. We're all workers. That's the point of the Webblies. All workers in one big union -- solidarity. Start making differences between workers who deserve the union and workers who don't and the next thing you know, your job will be handed over to the workers you left out of your little private clubhouse. Krang, if you're not clear on this, you're in the wrong place. Absolutely the wrong place. Do I make myself clear?”
This was a different Big Sister Nor than the one they usually knew, the motherly, patient, understanding one. Her voice was brittle and stern, her stare piercing. Krang visibly wilted under its glare. “Fine,” he said, without much conviction. “Sorry.” Justbob felt embarrassed for him, but not sympathetic. He knew better.
They finished the meal in silence. Big Sister Nor's phone buzzed at her. She looked at the face, saw the number, put it back down again. There was a rule: no taking calls during “family dinners” between the three of them. But BSN was visibly anxious to get to this one. She began to eat faster, as fast as she could with her twisted hand.
“Who was it?” Justbob asked.
“China,” she said. “Urgent. Our boy from America.”
Ping didn't like the port. Too many cops. He had good papers, but not even the best papers would stand up long to a cop who actually radioed in the ID and asked about it. The counterfeiters claimed that they used good identities for the fakes, real people who weren't in any kind of trouble, but who knew whether to believe them?
Anyway, it was just crazy. The gweilo was supposed to wait until the ship came into dock, change into a set of clean clothes, pin on ID from his father's company, and just walk out of the port, flashing his identification at anyone who bothered to ask the skinny white kid what he was doing, carrying two heavy cardboard boxes out of the secure region. Once he made it clear of the port, Ping could take him away, make him disappear into the mix of foreigners, merchants, and business-people thronging the region.
Ping had asked around, found a Webbly who's brother had worked as a hauler the year before, gotten information about where Leonard would most likely emerge, and had emailed all that info to Leonard as he trundled across the ocean.
But there weren't supposed to be this many cops, were there? There were hundreds of them, it seemed like, and not just uniforms. There were plenty of especially tall men with brush-cuts and earpieces, dressed like civilians, but moving with far too much coordination and purpose. Ping walked past the entrance twice, the first time conducting an imaginary argument with someone over his phone, trying to exude an aura of distraction that would make him seem harmless. The second time he walked past while staring intently at a tourist map, trying to maintain the show of helplessness. In between, he checked his watch, saw that Leonard was an hour late, sent a message back to Lu and asked him to see if he could email Big Sister Nor and find out what was going on. This was the trickiest moment, since the ship's satellite link was down while it was in dock, and so Leonard's stolen network connection was down with it. Once he was clear of the port, they'd give him a prepaid phone, get him back on the grid, but until then...
He nearly dropped the tourist map when his phone went off. A nearby cop, the tallest man he'd ever seen, looked hard at him and he smiled sheepishly and withdrew his phone and tried to control the shaking in his hands as he touched it to life, hoping the noise hadn't aggroed him.
“Is he with you?” Big Sister Nor's Mandarin was heavily accented, but good. He recognized the voice instantly from many late-night chat sessions and raids.
“Hi!” he said, in a bright, brittle voice, trying to sound like he was talking to a girlfriend or sister. “It's great to hear from you!”
“You haven't seen him yet?”
“That's right!” he said, pasting a fake grin on his face for the benefit of the security man.
“Shit. He was due out hours ago.” Big Sister Nor went quiet. “OK, here's the thing. Whatever happened to him, we need those boxes.” She cursed in some other language. “I should have just had him put the boxes in the container. He wanted to come see you all so badly, though --” She broke off.
“OK!” he said, walking as casually as he could away from the cop. There was a spot, a doorway in front of a closed grocery store down the road. He could go there, sit down, talk this through.
“A lot of cops where you are, huh? Don't answer. Listen, Ping, I need to know -- can you get into the port? If he doesn't make it out?”
He swallowed. “I don't think so,” he whispered. He was almost to his doorway now.
“What if you have to?”
He was a raid leader, a master strategist. He was no Matthew, but still, he understood how to get in and out of tight places. And he'd been a pretty good climber a few years ago, before he'd found gold-farming. Maybe he could go over the fence? He felt like throwing up at the thought. There were so many cameras, so many cops, the fence was so high.
“I'd try,” he said. “But I would almost certainly go to jail.” He'd been held for three days in the local lockup along with most of the strikers and then released. It had been bad enough -- not as bad as Matthew's stories -- and he never wanted to go back. “You have to see this place, Nor, it's like a fortress.”
She sighed. “I know what ports look like,” she said. “OK, tell you what -- you wait another hour, see if you can find him. I'll work on something else here, and call you.”
“OK,” he said.
Casually, he drifted back along the length of the high fence that guarded the port, keenly aware of the cameras drilling into the back of his neck. How many times could he pass by before someone decided to figure out what he was doing there? They should have brought a whole party, half a dozen of the gang who could trade off looking for the stupid gweilo. Ping shook his head in disgust. It had been fun to know Leonard when he was a kid in California and they were five kids in China -- exotic, even. No one else partied with exotic foreigners with bad accents.
It was even exciting when the gweilo had turned into a smuggler for the cause, crossing the ocean with his booty of hard-earned prepaid game-cards that would let them all fly under the game companies' radar.
But it was no longer exciting now that he was about to go to jail because some dumb kid from across the ocean couldn't figure out how to get his ass out of the port of Shenzhen.
It had gone better than Wei-Dong had any right to expect. After they took to the sea, he'd cut the freighter's WiFi like butter and hopped onto their satellite link. It was slow -- too slow for gaming -- but it was OK for messaging and staying in touch with both the Webblies and the cell of Turks he'd pieced together from the best people he knew. He'd let himself out of the container on the first night and climbed up to the top of the stack, trailing his solar rig and water collector behind him, and affixed both to an inconspicuous spot on the outside face of the topmost containers, where no crewmember could spot them. Again, the operation went off without a hitch.
By day three, he was wishing for some trouble. There was only so much time he could spend watching the planning emerge on the Webbly boards, especially since so many of the pieces of the plan were closely guarded secrets, visible only as blank spots in his understanding of where he was going and why he was going there. A thousand times a day, he was struck with the absolute madness of his position -- a smuggler on the high seas, going to make revolution in Asia, at the tender age of 18! It was fabulous and terrifying, depending on what mood he was in.
Mostly that mood was bored.
There was nothing to do, and by day five, he was snaffling up all the traffic on the boat, watching the lovesick crew of six Filipino sailors sending long-distance romantic notes to their pining girlfriends. It was entertaining enough downloading a Tagalog dictionary so he could look up some of the phrases they dropped into the letters, but after a while, that paled too.
And there were still days to go, and the rains had come and filled up his reservoirs, and so he had water to drink and cook with, and so he didn't even have itchy skin or malnutrition to keep him distracted, and so he'd started to do stupid things.
He'd started to sneak around.
Oh, only at night, of course, and at first, only among the containers, where the crew rarely ventured. But there wasn't much to see in the container spaces, just the unbroken, ribbed expanses of containers, radio tagged and painted with huge numbers, stickered over and locked tight.
So then he started to sneak over to the crew's quarters.
He knew what they'd look like. You can book passage on a freighter, take a long, weird holiday drifting from port to port around the world. The travel agents who sell these lonely, no-frills cruises had plenty of online photos and videos and panoramas of the accommodations and common rooms. They looked like institutional rooms everywhere, with big scratched flat-panel displays, worn and stained carpet, sagging sofas, scuffed tables and chairs. The difference being that shipside, all that stuff was bolted down.
But after days stuck inside his little secret fortress of solitude, any change of scenery sounded like a trip to Disneyland and a half. And so that's how he found himself strolling into the ship's kitchen at 2AM ship's time -- they were living on Pacific time, and he'd shifted to Chinese time after they put to sea, so this wasn't much of a hardship. In the fridge, sandwich fixings, Filipino single-serving ice cream cones, pre-made boba tea with huge pearls of tapioca in it, and cans of Starbucks frappucino. He helped himself, snitching it all into a shoulder-bag he'd brought along, scurrying back to his den to scarf it down.
That was the first night. The second night, he ate his snack in the TV room, watching a bootleg DVD of a current-release comedy movie that opened the day he left LA. He kept the sound low, and even used the bathroom outside the common room on the corridor that led to the crew's quarters. He crept around on tiptoe, and muted the TV every time the ship creaked, his heart thundered as his eyes darted to each corner of the room, seeking out a nonexistent hiding spot among the bolted-down furniture.
It was the best night of the trip so far.
So the next night, he had to go further. After having a third pig out and watching a Bollywood science fiction comedy movie about a turbanned robot that attacked Bangalore, only to be vanquished by IT nerds, he snuck down into the engine rooms.
Now this was a change of scenery. The door to the engine room was bolted but not locked, just like all the other doors on the ship that he'd tried. After all, they were in the middle of the damned ocean -- it wasn't like they had to worry about cat-burglars, right? (Present company excepted, of course!).
The big diesel engines were as loud as jets. He found a pair of greasy soundproof earmuffs and slipped them over his ears, cutting the noise down somewhat, but it still vibrated up through the soles of his sneakers, making his bones shake. Everything down here was fresh and gleaming, polished, oiled and painted. He trailed his fingers over the control panels, gauges, shut-off valves, raised his arms to tickle the flexi-hoses that coiled overhead. He'd gamed a couple of maps set in rooms like this, but the experience in real life was something else. He was actually inside the machine, inside an engine so powerful it could move thousands of tons of steel and cargo halfway around the world.
As he slipped his muffs off and carefully re-hung them, he noticed something he really should have spotted on the way in: a little optical sensor by the engine-room door at the top of the steel crinkle-cut nonskid stairs, and beside it, a pin-sized camera ringed with infrared LEDs. Which meant...
Which meant that he had tripped an invisible alarm when he entered the room and broke the beam, and that he'd been recorded ever since he arrived. Which meant...
Which meant he was doomed.
His fingers trembled as he worked the catch on the door and slipped out into the steel shed that guarded the engine-room entrance at the crew end of the deck. He looked left and right, waiting for a spotlight to slice through the pitchy night, waiting for a siren to cut through the roar of the ocean as they sliced it in two with the boat's mighty prow.
It was quiet. It was dark. For now. The ship only had one night watch-officer and one night-pilot, and from his network spying, he knew the duty was an excuse to send email and download pornography, so it may have been that neither of them had noticed the alert -- yet.
He crept back among the containers, moving as fast as he dared, painfully aware of how vividly he would stand out to anyone who even casually glanced down from the ship's bridge atop the superstructure. Once he reached the containers, he slipped onto the narrow walkway that ringed the outside of the ship and took off running, racing for his nest. As he went, he made a mental checklist of the things he would have to do once he got there, reeling in his solar panels and antennas, his water collectors. He'd button down his container as tight as a frog's ass, and they could search for months before they'd get to his -- meanwhile, he'd be in Shenzhen in a couple days. Then it would just be a matter of evading the port security -- who'd be on high alert, once the crew alerted them to the stowaway. Argh. He was such an idiot. It was all going to crash and burn, just because he got bored.
Cursing himself, hyperventilating, running, he skidded out on the deck and faceplanted into the painted, bird-streaked steel. The pain was insane. Blood poured from his nose, which he was sure he'd broken. And now the ship was rocking and pitching hard, and holy crap, look at those clouds streaking across the sky!
This was not going well. He cornered wobbily around the container stack, had a hairy, one-foot-in-the-sky moment as the huge ship rolled beneath him and his hand flailed wildly for the guardrail, then he caught himself and finished the turn, racing to his container. Once there, he scrambled along the runs that marked the course of the life-support tentacles trailing from his box, and he disconnected each one, working with shaking hands. Hugging the flexi-hose, cabling, solar cells and antenna to his chest, he spidered down the container-faces and slipped inside just as another roll sent him sprawling on his ass.
He undogged the hatches on his airtight inner sanctum and let himself in. The ship was rocking hard now, and his kitchen stuff, carelessly left lying around, was rattling back and forth. He ignored it at first, diving for his laptop and punching up the traffic-logs from the ship's network, but after a can of tuna beaned him in the cheek, raising a welt, he set the computer down and velcroed it into place, then gathered up everything that was loose and dumped it into his bolted-down chests. Then he went back to his traffic dumps, looking for anything that sounded like an official notice of his discovery.
The night-time traffic was always light, some telemetry, the flirty emails from the skeleton crew. Tonight was no exception. The file stopped dead at the point that he'd reeled in his antenna, but it probably wouldn't have lasted much longer anyway. The rain was pounding down now, a real frog-strangler, sounding like a barrage of gravel on the steel containers all around him. After a few minutes of this, he found himself wishing he'd taken the earmuffs. A few minutes later and he'd forgotten all about the earmuffs, and he was grabbing for a bag to heave up his stolen food into. The barfing and the rolling didn't stop, just kept going on and on, his stomach empty, trying to turn itself inside-out, slimy puke-smears everywhere in the tiny cabin. He tried to remember what you were supposed to do for sea-sickness. Watch the horizon, right? No horizon in the container, just pitching walls and floor and unsteady light from the battery-powered LED fixtures he'd glued to the ceiling. The shadows jumped and loomed, increasing the disorientation.
It was the most miserable he'd ever been. It seemed like it would never end. At a certain point, he found himself thinking of what it would be like to be crammed in with 10 or 20 other people, in the pitch dark, with no chemical toilet, just a bucket that might overturn on the first pitch and roll. Crammed in and locked in, the door not due to be opened for days yet, and no way to know what might greet you at the other side --
Suddenly, he didn't feel nearly so miserable. He roused himself to look at his computer a little more, but staring at the screen instantly brought back his sea-sickness. He remembered packing some ginger tablets that were supposed to be good for calming the stomach -- he'd read about them on a FAQ page for people going on their first ocean cruise -- and searching for them in the rocking box distracted him for a while. He gobbled two of them with water, noting that the tank was only half full and resolving to save every drop now that his collector was shut down.
He wasn't sure, but it seemed like the storm was letting up. He drank a little more water, checked in with his nausea -- a little better -- and got back to the screen. It was a minor miracle, but there was no report at all of him being spotted, no urgent communique back to corporate HQ about the stowaway. Maybe they hadn't noticed? Maybe they had been focused on the storm?
And there the storm was again, back and even more fierce than it had been. The rocking built, and built, and built. It wasn't sickening anymore -- it was violent. At one point, Wei-Dong found himself hanging on to his bed with both hands and feet, his laptop clamped between his chest and the mattress, as the entire ship rolled to port and hung there, teetering at an angle that felt nearly horizontal, before crashing back and rocking in the other direction. Once, twice more the ship rolled, and Wei-Dong clenched his teeth and fists and eyes and prayed to a nameless god that they wouldn't tip right over and sink to the bottom of the ocean. Container ships didn't go down very often, but they did go down. And not only that -- about half a percent of containers were lost at sea, gone over the side in rough water. His father always took that personally. One percent didn't sound like a lot, but, as Wei-Dong's father liked to remind him, that was 20,000 containers, enough to build a high-rise out of. And the number went up every year, as the seas got rougher and the weather got harder to predict.
All this went through Wei-Dong's head as he clung for dear life to his bolted-down bed, battered from head to toe by loose items that he'd missed when he'd packed everything into his chest. The ship groaned and strained and then there was a deep metallic grating noise that he felt all the way to his balls, and then --
-- the container moved.
It was a long moment and it seemed like everything had gone silent, as the sensation of sliding across the massive deck tunneled through his inner ear and straight into the fear center of his brain. In that moment, he knew that he was about to die. About to sink and sink and sink in a weightless eternity as the pressure of the ocean all around him mounted, until the container imploded and smeared him across its crumpled walls, dissipating in red streamers as the container fell to the bottom of the sea.
And then, the ship righted itself. There were tears in his eyes, and a dampness from his crotch. He'd pissed himself. The rocking slowed, slowed. Stopped. Now the ship was bobbing as normal, and Wei-Dong knew that he would live.
His hidey-hole was a wreck. His clothes, his toys, his survival gear -- all tossed to the four corners. Thankfully, the chemical toilet had stayed put, with its lid dogged down tight. That would have been messy. Puke, water, other spills slicked every available surface. According to his watch, it was 4AM on his personal clock. That made it, uh, 11AM ship's time, which was set to Los Angeles. If he'd done the math right, it was about 6AM in their latitude, which should be just about directly in line with New Zealand. Which meant the sun would be up, and the crew would no doubt be swarming on deck, surveying the damage and securing the remaining containers as best as they could with the ship's little crane and tractors. And that meant that he'd have to stay put, amid the sick and the bad air and the mess, wait until that ship's night or maybe even the next night. And he had no WiFi, either.
He'd brought along some sleeping pills, just in case, as part of his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink first-aid box. He found the sealed plastic chest still bungied to one of the wire shelving units, beside the precious two boxes of prepaid cards, still securely lashed to the frame. As he broke the blisterpack and poured a stingy sip of water into his tin cup, he had a moment's pause: what if they discovered his container while he was drugged senseless?
Well, what if they discovered it while he was wide awake? It's not like he could run away.
What an idiot he was.
He ate the pills, then set about cleaning up his place as best as he could, using old t-shirts as rags. He flipped over the mattress to expose the unpissed-upon side, and wondered when the pills would take effect. And then he found that he was too tired to do another thing except for lying down with his cheek on the bare mattress and falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The pills were supposed to be a “non-drowsy” formula, but he woke feeling like his head was wrapped in foam rubber. Maybe that was the near-death experience. It was now the middle of ship's night, and real night. Theoretically, it would be dark outside, and he could sneak out, survey the damage, maybe rig up his WiFi antenna and find out whether he was about to be arrested when they made port. But when he climbed gingerly out of his inner box and tried to open the door of his container, he discovered that it had been wedged shut. Not just sticky, or bent at the hinge, but properly jammed up against the next container, with several tons of cargo on the other side of the door for him to muscle out of the way. Or not.
He sat down. He had his headlamp on, as the inside of the container was dark as the inside of a can of Coke. It splashed crazy shadows on the walls, the stack of batteries, (he praised his own foresight at using triple layers of steel strapping to keep them in place) the hatch leading to his inner sanctum.
By his reckoning, they were only three days out of Shenzhen, plus or minus whatever course-corrections they'd have to make now that the storm had passed. Theoretically, he could make it. He had the water, the food, the electricity, provided that he rationed all three. But the Webblies would be expecting him to check in before then, and the boredom would drive him loopy.
He thought about trying to saw through the steel container. It was possible -- the container-converter message boards were full of talk about what it took to cut up a container and use it for other purposes. But nothing in his toolkit could manage it. The closest he could come would be to drill a hole in the skin with his cordless drill. He'd used it to assemble his nest, he had a couple spare boxes of high-speed bits in his toolchest. His biggest bit, a small circular saw, would punch a hole as big as his thumb, but only after he'd drilled a guide-hole through the steel. 14 gauge steel, several times thicker than the support-struts he'd drilled out when doing his interior work.
It would make an unholy racket, but he was on the cargo deck, well away from the deckhouse. Assuming no one was patrolling the deck, there was no way he'd be heard over the sound of the sea and the rumble of the diesels. He told himself that it was worth the risk of discovery, since getting a hole would mean getting an antenna out, and therefore getting onto the network and finding out whether he'd be safe once they got to China.
No time like the present. He found the toolchest, inside a bigger, bolted-down box, and recovered the drill. He had a spare charger for it, with an inverter that would run off the battery stack, and he plugged it in and got it charging. He'd need a lot of batteries to get through the ceiling.
Several hours later, he realized that the ceiling might have been a mistake. His shoulders, arms, and chest all burned and ached. He found himself taking more and more frequent breaks, windmilling his arms, but the ache wouldn't subside. His ears hurt too, from the echoey whining racket of the drill, a hundred nightmares of the dentist's chair. He kept an eye on his watch, telling himself he'd just work until the morning shift came on duty, to reduce the risk that the sound would be heard. But it was still an hour away from shift change when the battery on his drill died, and he discovered that the last time he'd switched batteries, he'd neglected to push the dead one all the way into the charger, and now both his batteries were dead.
That was as good an excuse as any to stop. He fingered the dent he'd made in the sheet steel through all his hours of drilling. His fingertip probed it, but barely seemed to sink in at all. He detached a chair from its anchors and dragged it over, stood on it, and put an eye to it, and saw a pinprick of dirty grey light, the first light of dawn, glimmering at the bottom of his drill-hole.
Sleep did not help his arms. If anything, it just made them worse. It took him five minutes just to get to the point where he could lift his arms over his face, working them back and forth. He had a little pot of Tiger Balm, the red, smelly Chinese muscle rub, in his first-aid box, and he worked it into his arms, shoulders, chest and neck, thinking, as he did, This stuff isn't doing anything. A few minutes later, a new burning spread across his skin, a fiery, minty feeling, hot and cold at the same time. It was alarming at first, but a few seconds later, it was incredible, like his muscles were all letting go of their tension at once. He took up his drill, checked his watch -- middle of the first shift, but screw it, the engines were groaning, no one would hear it -- and went to work.
He punched through five minutes later. Five minutes! He'd been so close! He put his eye to the hole again, saw sky, clouds, the shadows of other containers nearby. His wireless antenna awaited. It had a big heavy magnetic base, powerful rare-earth magnets that he'd used to attach it to its earlier spot. They'd worked so well that he'd had to plant both feet on either side of it and heave, like he was pulling up a stubborn carrot. Now he didn't need the base, just the willowy wand of the antenna itself. He disassembled the antenna, reattached it to the bare wire-ends, and then gently, gingerly, fed it through his dime-sized hole.
He had a moment's pause as he fed it up, picturing it sticking up among the even, smooth surfaces of the container-tops, as obvious as a boner at the chalkboard, but he'd been drilling for so long, it seemed crazy to stop now. A voice in his head told him that getting caught was even crazier, but he shut that voice up by telling it to shut up, since getting information on the ship's status would be vital to completing his mission. And then the antenna was up.
He grabbed his laptop and logged into the network and began snaffling up traffic. He could watch it in realtime -- his sniffer would helpfully group intercepted emails, clicks, pages, search terms and IMs into their own reporting panels -- but that was just frustrating, like watching a progress bar creep across the screen.
Instead he went inside his sanctum and made himself a cup of instant ramen noodles, using a little more of his precious electricity and water, and then opened up a can of green tea with soymilk to wash it down. He ate as slowly as he could, trying to savor every bite and tell his stomach that food was OK, despite the rock and roll of the past day. During the meal, he heard footsteps near his container, the grumble of heavy machinery working at the containers, and his mouth went dry at the thought of his antenna sticking up there.
Why had he put it there? Because he couldn't bear the thought of sitting, bored and restless, in his box for days more. Why was he doing any of it? Why was he on his way to China? Why had he left home to be a gamer? Why had he learned Chinese in the first place? Trapped with his own thoughts, he found himself confronting some pretty ugly answers. He hadn't wanted to be like all the other kids. He'd wanted to stand out, be special. Different. To know and understand and be skilled at things that his father didn't know anything about. To triumph. To be a part of something bigger than himself, but to be an important part. To be romantic and special. To care about a justice that his friends didn't even know existed.
It made him all feel sad and pathetic and needy. It made him want to go plug into his laptop and get away from his thoughts.
It worked. What he found on his laptop was nothing short of amazing. First there was a haul of photos emailed from the captain back to the shipping company, showing the cargo deck of the ship looking like a tumbled Jenga tower, containers scattered everywhere, on their sides, on their backs, at crazy angles. It looked as if the entire top layer of boxes had slipped into the ocean, and then several more layers' worth on the port side. He looked more closely. His container was on the starboard side, and the container from the corresponding position on the other side appeared to be gone. He looked up the ship's manifest, found the serial number of the container, matched it to a list of overboard boxes, swallowed. It had been pure random chance that put his box on the starboard side. If he'd gone the other way, he'd be raspberry jam in a crushed tin can at the bottom of the ocean.
He scanned the email traffic for information about the mysterious stowaway, but it looked as though the storm had literally blown any concern over him overboard. The manifest he had listed the value for customs of all the containers on the ship. Most of them were empty, or at least partially empty, as there wasn't much that America had that China needed, except empty containers to fill with more goods to ship to America. Still, the total value of the missing containers went into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He winced. That was going to be a huge insurance bill.
Now it was time to get his email, something that he'd been putting off, because that was even riskier; if the ship's own administrators were wiretapping their own network, they'd see his traffic. Oh, it wouldn't look like email from him to Big Sister Nor and his guildies and the Turks back in America. It'd look like gigantic amounts of random junk, originating on an internal address that didn't correspond to any known machine on the ship. Its destination was unclear -- it hopped immediately into TOR, The Onion Router, which bounced it like a pea in a maraca around the globe's open relays. He was counting on the ship's lax IT security and the fact that the crew were always connecting up new devices like phones and handheld games they picked up in port to help him slide past the eyes of the network. Still, if they were looking for a stowaway, they might think of looking at the network traffic.
He sat at his keyboard, fingers poised, and debated with himself. Deep down, he knew how this debate would end. He could no more stay off the network and away from his friends than he could stay cooped up in the tin can without poking his antenna off the ship.
So he did it. Sent emails, watched the network traffic, held his breath. So far, so good. Then: a rumble and a clatter and a pair of thunderous clangs from above. His heart thudded in his ears and more metallic sounds crashed through the confined space. What was it? He placed the noises, connected them to the pictures he'd seen earlier. The crew had the forklift and tractor out, and the crane swinging, and they were rearranging the containers for stability and trim. He yanked his antenna in and dove for the inner sanctum, dogging his hatch and throwing all loose objects into the lockers before flinging himself over the bed and grabbing hold of the post and clinging to it with fingers and toes as the container rocked and rolled for the second time in 24 hours.
“So where'd you end up?” Ping asked, passing Wei-Dong another parcel of longzai rice and chicken folded in a lotus leaf. Ping had wanted to go to the Pizza Hut, but Wei-Dong had looked so hurt and offended at the suggestion, and had been so insistent on eating something “real” that he'd taken the gweilo to a cafe in the Cantonese quarter, near the handshake buildings. Wei-Dong had loved it from the moment they'd sat down, and had ordered confidently, impressing both Ping and the waiter with his knowledge of South Chinese food.
Wei-Dong chewed, made a face. “On the bloody top of the stack, three high!” he said. “With more containers sandwiched in on every side of me, except the door side, thankfully! But I couldn't climb down the stack with these.” He thumped the dirty, beat up cardboard boxes beside the table. “So I had to transfer the cards to my backpack and then climb up and down that stack, over and over again, until I had it all on the ground. Then I threw down the collapsed cardboard boxes, climbed to the bottom, and boxed everything up again.”
Ping's jaw dropped. “You did all that in the port?” He thought of all the guards he'd seen, all the cameras.
Wei-Dong shook his head. “No,” he said. “I couldn't take the chance. I did it at night, in relays, the night before we got in. And I covered it all in some plastic sheeting I had, which is a good thing because it rained yesterday. There was a lot of water on the deck and some of it leaked through the plastic, but the boxes seem OK. Let's hope the cards are still readable. I figure they must be -- they're in plastic-wrapped boxes inside.”
“But what about the crew seeing you?”
Wei-Dong laughed. “Oh, I was shitting bricks the whole time over that, I promise! I was in full sight of the wheelhouse most of the time, though thankfully there wasn't any moon out. But yeah, that was pretty freaky.”
Ping looked at the gweilo, his skinny arms, the fuzz of pubescent moustache, the shaggy hair, the bad smell. When the boy had finally emerged from the gate, confidently flashing some kind of badge at the guard, Ping had wanted to strangle him for being so late and for looking so relaxed about it. Now, though, he couldn't help but admire his old guildie. He said so.
Wei-Dong actually blushed, and his chest inflated, and he looked so proud that Ping had to say it again. “I'm in awe,” he said. “What a story!”
“I just did what I had to do,” Wei-Dong said with an unconvincing, nonchalant shrug. His Mandarin was better than Ping remembered it. Maybe it was just being face to face rather than over a fuzzy, unreliable net-link, the ability to see the whole body, the whole face.
All of Ping's earlier worry and irritation melted away. He was overcome by a wave of affection for this kid who had travelled thousands of kilometers to be part of the same big guild. “Don't take this the wrong way,” he said, “but I have to tell you this. A few hours ago, I was very upset with you. I thought it was just ego or stupidity, your coming all this way with the boxes. I wanted to strangle you. I thought you were a stupid, spoiled --” He saw the look on Wei-Dong's face, pure heartbreak and stopped, held up his hands. “Wait! What I'm trying to say is, I thought all this, but then I met you and heard your story, and I realized that you want this just as much as I do, and have as much at stake now. That you're a real, a real comrade.” The word was funny, an old communist word that had been leached of color and meaning by ten million hours of revolutionary song-singing in school. But it fit.
And it worked. Wei-Dong's chest swelled up even bigger, like a balloon about to sail away, and his cheeks glowed like red coals. He fumbled for words, but his Chinese seemed to have fled him, so Ping laughed and handed him another lotus leaf, this one filled with seafood.
“Eat!” he said. “Eat!” He checked the time on his phone, read the coded messages there from Big Sister Nor. “You've got 10 minutes to finish and then we have to get to the guild-house for the big call!”
You're in a strange town, or a strange part of town. A little disoriented already, that's key. Maybe it's just a strange time to be out, first thing in the morning in the business district, or very late at night in clubland, or the middle of the day in the suburbs, and no one else is around.
A stranger approaches you. He's well-dressed, smiling. His body-language says, I am a friend, and I'm slightly out of place, too. He's holding something. It's a pane of glass, large, fragile, the size of a road atlas or a Monopoly board. He's struggling with it. It's heavy? Slippery? As he gets closer, he says, with a note of self-awareness at the absurdity of this all, “Can you please hold this for a second?” He sounds a little desperate too, like he's about to drop it.
You take hold of it. Fragile. Large. Heavy. Very awkward.
And, still smiling, the stranger methodically and quickly plunges his hands into your pockets and begins to transfer your keys, wallet and cash into his own pockets. He never breaks eye-contact in the ten or 15 seconds it takes him to accomplish the task, and then he turns on his heel and walks away (he doesn't run, that's important) very quickly, for a dozen steps, and then he breaks into a wind-sprint of a run, powering up like Daffy Duck splitting on Elmer Fudd.
You're still holding onto the pane of glass.
Why are you holding onto that pane of glass?
What else are you going to do with it? Drop it and let it break on the strange pavement? Set it down carefully?
Tell you one thing you're not going to do. You're not going to run with it. Running with a ten kilo slab of sharp-edged glass in your hands is even dumber than taking hold of it in the first place.
“What's at work here?” Big Sister Nor was on the video-conference window, with The Mighty Krang and Justbob to either side of her, heads down on their screens, keeping the back-channel text-chat running while Big Sister Nor lectured. She was speaking Mandarin, then Hindi. The text-chat was alive in three alphabets and five languages, and machine-translations appeared beneath the words. English for Wei-Dong, Chinese for his guildies. There were a couple thousand people logged in direct, and tens of thousands due to check in later when they finished their shifts.
“Dingleberry in K-L says 'Disorientation,'” The Mighty Krang said, without looking up.
Big Sister Nor nodded. “And?”
“'Social Contract,'” said Justbob. “That's MrGreen in Singapore.”
BSN showed her teeth in a hard grin. “Singapore, where they know all about the social contract! Yes, yes! That's just it. A person comes up to you and asks you for help, you help; it's in our instincts, it's in our upbringing. It's what keeps us all civilized.”
And then she told them a story of a group of workers in Phenom Penh, gold farmers who worked for someone who was supposed to be very kindly and good to them, took them out for lunch once a week, brought in good dinners and movies to show when they worked late, but who always seemed to make small... mistakes... in their pay-packets. Not much, and he was always embarrassed when it happened and paid up, and he was even more embarrassed when he “forgot” that it was pay day and was a day, two days, three days late paying them. But he was their friend, their good friend, and they had an unwritten contract with him that said that they were all good friends and you don't call your good friend a thief.
And then he disappeared.
They came to work one day -- three days after pay-day, and they hadn't been paid yet, of course -- and the man who ran the Internet cafe had simply shrugged and said he had no idea where this boss had gone. A few of the workers had even worked through the day, and even the next, because their good friend must be about to show up someday soon! And then their accounts stopped working; all the accounts, all the characters they'd been levelling, the personal characters they used for the big rare-drop raids, everything.
Some of them went home, some of them found other jobs. And eventually, some of them ran into their old boss again. He was running a new gold farm, with new young men working for him. The boss was so apologetic, he even cried and begged their forgiveness; his creditors had called in their loans and he'd had to flee to escape them, but he wanted to make it up to the workers, his friends, whom he'd loved as sons. He'd put them to work as senior members of his new farm, at double their old wages, just give him another chance.
The first pay-day was late. One day. Two days. Three days. Then, the boss didn't come to work at all. Some of the younger, newer workers wanted to work some more, because, after all, the boss was their dear friend. And the old hands, the ones who'd just been taken for a second time, they finally admitted to their fellow workers what they'd known all along: the boss was a crook, and he'd just robbed them all.
“That's how it works. You violate the social contract, the other person doesn't know what to do about it. There's no script for it. There's a moment where time stands still, and in that moment, you can empty out his pockets.”
There were more stories like this, and they made everyone laugh, sprinkles of “kekekekeke” in the chat, but when it was over, Wei-Dong felt his first tremor of doubt.
“What is it?” Jie asked him. She was very beautiful, and from what he could understand, she was a very famous radio person, some kind of local hero for the factory girls. It was clear that Lu was head-over-heels in love with her, and everyone else deferred to her as well. When she turned her attention on him, the whole room turned with her. The room -- a flat in a strange old part of town -- was crowded with people, hot and loud with the fans from the computers.
“It's just,” he said, waved his hands. He was suddenly very tired. He hadn't had a nap or even a shower since sneaking out of the port, and meeting all these people, having the videoconference with Big Sister Nor, it was all so much. His Chinese fled him and he found himself fumbling for the words. He swallowed, thought it through. “Look,” he said. “I want to help all the workers get a better deal, the Turks, the farmers, the factory girls.” They all nodded cautiously. “But is that what we're doing here? Are we going to win any rights by, you know, by being crooks? By ripping people off?”
The group erupted into speech. Apparently he'd opened up an old debate, and the room was breaking into its traditional sides. The Chinese was fast and slangy, and he lost track of it very quickly, and then the magnitude of what he'd done finally, really hit him. Here he was, thousands of miles from home, an illegal immigrant in a country where he stood out like a sore thumb. He was about to get involved in a criminal enterprise -- hell he was already involved in it -- that was supposed to rock the world to its foundations. And he was only 18. He felt two inches tall and as flat as a pancake.
“Wei-Dong,” one of the boys said, in his ear. It was Matthew, who had a funny, leathery, worn look to him, but whose eyes twinkled with intelligence. “Come on, let's get you out of here. They'll be at this for hours.”
He looked Matthew up and down. Technically, they were guildies, but who knew what that meant anymore? What sort of social contract did they really have, these strangers and him?
“Come on,” Matthew said, and his face was kind and caring. “We'll get you somewhere to sleep, find you some clothes.”
That offer was too good to pass up. Matthew led him out of the apartment, out of the building, and out in the streets. The sun had set while they were conferenced in, and the heat had gone out of the air. Matthew led him up and down several maze-like alleys, through some giant housing blocks, and then into another building, this one even more run-down than the last one. They went up nine flights of stairs, and by the time they reached the right floor, Wei-Dong felt like he would collapse. His thighs burned, his chest heaved and ached, and the sweat was coursing down his face and neck and back and butt and thighs.
“I had the same question as you,” Matthew said. “When I got out of jail.”
Wei-Dong willed himself not to edge away from Matthew. The apartment was filled with thin mattresses, covering nearly the entire floor like some kind of crazy, thick carpet. They sat on adjacent beds, shoes off. Wei-Dong must have made some sign of his surprise, because Matthew smiled a sad smile. “I went to jail for going on strike with other Webblies. I'm not a murderer, Wei-Dong.”
Wei-Dong felt himself blushing. He mumbled and apology.
“I had a long talk with Big Sister Nor. Here's what she told me: she said that a traditional strike, where you take your labor away from the bosses and demand a better deal, that it wouldn't work here. That we needed to do that, but that we also needed to be able to show everyone who has us at their mercy that they've overrated their power. When the bosses say, 'We'll beat you up,' or when the police say, 'We'll put you in jail,' or when the game companies say, 'We'll throw you out,” we need to be able to say, 'Oh no you won't!'"
The sheer delight he put into this last phrase made Wei-Dong smile, even though he was so tired he could barely move his face.
He scrubbed at his eyes with the backs of his hands and said, “Look, I think my emotions are on trampolines today. It's been a very big day.” Matthew chuckled. “You understand.”
“I understand. I just wanted to let you know that this isn't just about being a crook. It's about changing the power dynamics in the battle. You're a fighter, you understand that, don't you? I hear you play healers. You know what a raid is like with and without a healer?”
Wei-Dong nodded. “It's a very different fight,” he said. “Different tactics, different feel.”
“A different dynamic. There's math to describe it, you know? I found a research paper on it. It's fascinating. I'll email you a copy. What we're doing here, we're changing the dynamic, the balance of power, for workers everywhere. You'll see.”
Wei-Dong yawned and waved his fist over his mouth weakly.
“You need to sleep,” Matthew said. “Good night, comrade.”
Wei-Dong woke once in the night, and every mattress was filled, and everyone was snoring and breathing and snuffling and scratching. There must have been twenty guys in the room with him, a human carpet of restless energy, cigarette-and-garlic breath, foot-odor, body-odor, and muffled grumbles. It was so utterly unlike the ship, unlike his room in the Cecil Hotel in LA, unlike his parents' home in Orange County... The ground actually felt like it was sloping away for a minute, like the storm-tossed deck of a container ship, and he thought for a wild, disoriented minute that there was an earthquake, and pictured the highrise buildings he'd seen clustered together on the way over crashing into one another like dominoes. Then the land righted itself again and the panic dissipated.
He thought of his mother and knew that he'd have to find a PC and give her a call the next day. They'd exchanged a lot of email while he was on the ship, a lot of reminisces about his dad, and he'd felt closer to her than he had in years.
Thinking of his mother gave him an odd feeling of peace, not the homesick he'd half-expected, and he drifted off again amid the farts and the grunts and the human sounds of the human people he'd put himself among.
Connor's fingerspitzengefuhl was going crazy. Like all the game-runners, he had a sizeable portfolio of game assets and derivatives. It wasn't exactly fair -- betting on the future of game-gold when you got a say in that future put you at a sizeable advantage over the people on the other side of the bets. But screw 'em if they can't take a joke.
Besides, his portfolio was so big and complex that he couldn't manage it himself. Like everyone else, he had a broker, a guy who worked for one of the big houses, a company that had once been an auto-manufacturer before it went bankrupt, got bailed out, wrung out, twisted and financialized until the only thing left of any value in it was the part of the company that had packaged up and sold off the car-loans suckers had taken out on its clunkermobiles.
And his broker loved him, because whenever Connor phoned in an order for a certain complex derivative -- say, a buy-order for $300,000 worth of insurance policies on six-month gatling gun futures from Zombie Mecha -- then it was a good bet that there were going to be a lot fewer gatling guns in Zombie Mecha in six months (or that the gatling gun would get a power-up, maybe depleted uranium ammo that could rip through ten zombies before stopping), driving the price of the guns way, way up. The broker, in turn, could make money on that prediction by letting his best clients in on the deal, buying gatling gun insurance policies, or even gatling gun futures, or futures on gatling gun insurance, raking in fat commissions and getting everyone else rich at the same time.
So Connor had an advantage. So who was complaining? Who did it hurt?
And in turn, Connor's broker liked to call him up with hot tips on other financial instruments he might want to consider, financial instruments that came to him from his other clients, a diverse group of highly placed people who were privy to all sorts of secrets and insider knowledge. Every day this week, the broker, Ira, had called up Connor and had a conversation that went like this:
Ira: “Hey, man, is this a good time?”
Connor (distractedly, locked in battle with his many screens and their many feeds): “I've always got time for you, buddy. You've got my money.”
Ira: “Well, I appreciate it. I'll try to be quick. We've got a new product we're getting behind this week, something that kinda took us by surprise. It's from Mushroom Kingdom, which is weird for us, because Nintendo tends to play all that stuff very close and tight, leaving nothing on the table for the rest of us. But we've got a line on a fully hedged, no-risk package that I wanted to give you first crack at, because we're in limited supply...”
And from there it descended into an indecipherable babble of banker-ese, like a bunch of automated text generated by searching the web for “fully hedged” (meaning, we've got a bet that pays out if you win and another that pays out if you lose, so no matter what, you come out ahead, something that everyone promised and no one ever delivered) and blowing around the text that came up in the search-result snippets, like a verbal whirlwind with “fully hedged” in the middle of it.
The thing was, Connor was really good at speaking banker-ese, and this just didn't add up. The payoff was gigantic, 15 percent in a single quarter, up to 45 percent in the ideal scenario, and that was in a tight market where most people were happy to be taking in one or two percent. This was the kind of promise he associated with crazy, high-risk ventures, not anything “fully hedged.”
He stopped Ira's enthusiastically sputtering explanation, said, “You said no-risk there, buddy?”
Ira drew in a breath. “Did I say that?”
“Well, you know, everything's got a risk. But yeah, I'm putting my own money into this.” He swallowed. “I don't want to pressure you --”
Connor couldn't help himself, he snorted. Ira had many things going for him, but he was a pushy son of a bitch.
“Really!” But he sounded contrite. “OK, let me be straight with you. I didn't believe it myself, either. None of us did. You know what bond salesmen are like, we've seen it all. But there were kids in the office, straight out of school. These kids, they have a lot more time to play than we do --” Connor repressed the snort, but just barely. The last time Ira played a game, it had been World of Warcraft, in the dawn of time. He was a competent, if unimaginative broker, but he was no gamer. That's OK, he also wasn't a pork-farmer, but he could still buy pork-futures. “-- and they were hearing about this stuff from other players. They'd started buying in for themselves, using their monthly bonuses, you know, it's kind of a tradition to treat that bonus money as pennies from heaven and spend it on long-shot bets. Anyway, they started to clean up, and clean up, and clean up.”
“So how do you know it's not tapped out?”
“That's the thing. A couple of the old timers bought into it and you know, they started to clean up too. And then I got in on it --”
“How long ago?”
“Two months ago,” he said, sheepishly. “It's paying a monthly coupon of 16 percent on average. I've started to move my long-term savings into it too.”
“Two months? How many of your other clients have you brought in on this deal?” He felt a curious mixture of anger and elation -- how dare Ira keep this to himself, and how fine that he was about to share it!
“None!” Ira was speaking quickly now. “Look, Connor, all my cards on the table now. You're the best customer I got. Without you, hell, my take home pay'd probably be cut in half. The only reason I haven't brought this to you before now is, you know, there wasn't any more to go around! Any time there was an offer on these things, they'd be snapped up in a second.”
“So what happened? Did all your greedy pals get their fill?”
Ira laughed. “Not hardly! But you know how it goes, as soon as something takes off like these vouchers, there's a lot of people trying to figure out how to make more of them. Turns out there's a bank, one of these offshore ones that's some Dubai prince's private fortune, and the Prince is a doubter. The bank's selling very long bets against these bonds on great terms. They're one-year coupons and they pay off big if the bonds don't crash. So now there's some uncertainty in the pool and some people are flipping, betting that the Prince knows something they don't, buying his paper and selling their bonds. We've gone one better: we've got a floating pool of hedged-off packages that balance out the Prince's bets and these bonds, so no matter what happens, you're in the green. We buy or sell every day based on the rates on each. It's --”
“Virtually risk free. Absolutely.”
Connor's mouth was dry. There was something going on here, something big. His mind was at war with itself. Finance was a game, the biggest game, and the rules were set by the players, not by a designer. Sometimes the rules went crazy and you got a little pocket of insanity, where a small bet could give you unimaginable wins. He knew how this worked. Of course he did. Hadn't he been chasing gold farmers up and down nine worlds, trying to find their own little high-return pockets and turn them inside out? At the same time, there was just no such thing as a free lunch. Something that looked too good to be true probably was too good to be true. All that and all the other sayings he'd grown up with, all that commonsense that his simple parents had gifted him with, them with their small-town house and no mortgage and sensible retirement funds that would have them clipping coupons and going to two-for-one sales for the rest of their lives.
“Twenty grand,” he blurted. It was a lot, but he could handle it. He'd made more than that on his investments in the past 90 days. He could make it up in the next 90 days if --
“Twenty? Are you kidding? Connor, look, this is the kind of thing comes along once in a lifetime! I came to you first, buddy, so you could get in big. Shit, buddy, I'll sell you twenty grand's worth of these things, but I tell you what --”
It made him feel small, even though he knew it was supposed to make him feel small. It was like there were two Connors, a cool, rational one and an emotional one, bitterly fighting over control of his body. Rational won, though it was a hard-fought thing.
“Twenty's all I've got in cash right now,” he lied, emotional Connor winning this small concession. “If I could afford more --”
“Oh!” Ira said, and Connor could hear the toothy smile in his voice. “Connor, pal, I don't do this very often, and I'd appreciate it if you'd keep this to yourself, but how about if I promise you that your normal trades for today will pick up an extra, uh, make it 20 more, for a total of 40 thousand. Would you want to plow that profit into these puppies?”
Connor's mouth went dry. He knew how this worked, but he'd long ago given up on being a part of it. It was the oldest broker-scam in the world: every day, brokers made a number of “off-book” trades, buying stocks and bonds and derivatives on the hunch that they'd go up. Being “off-book” meant that these trades weren't assigned to any particular client's account; the money to buy them came out of the general account for the brokerage house.
At the end of the day, some -- maybe all -- of those trades would have come out ahead. Some -- maybe all -- would have come out behind. And that's when the magic began. By back-dating the books, the broker could assign the shitty trades to shitty customers, cheapskates, or big, locked-in, slow-moving customers, like loosely-managed estates for long-dead people whose wealth was held in trust. The gains could be written to the broker's best customers, like some billionaire that the broker was hoping to do more business with. In this way, every broker got a certain amount of discretion every day in choosing who would make money and who would lose it. It was just a larger version of the barista at the coffee shop slipping her regulars a large instead of a medium every now and again, without charging for the upgrade. The partners who ran the brokerages knew that this was going on, and so did many of the customers. It was impossible to prove that you'd lost money or gained money this way -- unless your broker told you at 9:15 on a Tuesday morning that your account would have an extra $20,000 in it by 5PM.
Ira had just taken a big risk in telling Connor what he was going to do for him. Now that he had this admission, he could, theoretically, have Ira arrested for securities fraud. That is, until and unless he gave Ira the go-ahead, at which point they'd both be guilty, in on it together.
And there rational and emotional Connor wrestled, on the knife-edge between wealth and conspiracy and pointless, gainless honesty. They tumbled onto the conspiracy side. After all, Connor and the broker bent the rules every time Connor ordered a trade on one of Coca Cola Games's futures. This was just the same thing, only moreso.
“Do it,” he said. “Thanks, Ira.”
Ira's breath whooshed out over the phone, and Connor realized that the broker had been holding his breath and waiting on his reply, waiting to find out if he'd gone too far. The salesman really wanted to sell him this package.
Later, in Command Central, Connor watched his feeds and thought about it, and something felt... hinky. Why had Ira been so eager? Because Connor was such a great customer and Ira thought if he made Connor a ton of money, Connor would give it back to him to continue investing, making more and more money for him, and more and more commissions for the broker?
And now that his antennae were up, he started to see all kinds of ghosts in his feeds, little hints of gold and elite items changing hands in funny ways, valued too high or not high enough, all out of whack with the actual value in-game. Of course, who knew what the in-game value of anything could really be? Say the game-runners decided to make the Zombie Mecha gatling guns fire depleted uranium ammo, starting six months from now. The easy calculation had gatling guns shooting up in value in six months, because it would make it possible for the Mechas to wade through giant hordes of zombies without being overpowered. But what if that made the game too easy, and lots of players left? Once your buddies went over to Anthills and Hives and started team-playing huge, warring hive-intelligences, would you want to hang around Zombie Mecha, alone and forlorn, firing your gatling gun at the zombies? Would the zombies stop being fun objectives and start being mere collections of growling pixels?
It took the subtle fingerspitzengefuhl of a fortune-teller to really predict what would happen to the game when you nerfed or buffed one character class or weapon or monster. Every change like this was watched closely by game-runners for weeks, around the clock, and they'd tweak the characteristics of the change from minute to minute, trying to get the game into balance.
The feeds told the story. Out there in gameland, there was a hell of a lot of activity, trades back and forth, and it worried him. He started to ask the other game-runners if they noticed anything out of the ordinary but then something else leapt out of his feeds: there! Gold-farmers!
He'd been looking for them everywhere, and finding them. Gold farming had a number of signatures that you could spot with the right feed. Any time someone logged in from a mysterious Asian IP address, walked to the nearest trading post, stripped off every scrap of armor and bling and sold it, then took all the resulting cash and the entire contents of her guild bank and turned it over to some level one noob on a free trial account that had only started an hour before, who, in turn, turned the money over to a series of several hundred more noobs who quickly scattered and deposited it in their own guild banks, well, that was a sure bet you'd found some gold farmer who was hacking accounts. Hell, half the time you could tell who the farmers were just by looking at the names they gave their guilds: real players either went for the heroic (“Savage Thunder”) or the ironic (“The Nerf Herders”) or the eponymous (“Jim's Raiders”) but they rarely went by “asdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdf2329” or, God help him, 707A55DF0D7E15BBB9FB3BE16562F22C026A882E40164C7B149B15DE7137ED1A.
But as soon as he tweaked his feeds to catch them, the farmers figured out how to dodge them. The guilds got good names, the hacked players started behaving more plausibly -- having half-assed dialogue with the toons they were buffing with all their goods -- and the gangs that converged on any accidental motherlode in the game did a lot of realistic milling about and chatting in broken English. Increasingly, the players were logging in with prepaid cards diverted from the US over American proxies, making them indistinguishable from the lucrative American kid trade, who were apt to start playing by buying some prepaid cards along with their Cokes and gum at the convenience store. Those kids had the attention spans of gnats, and if you knocked them offline after mistaking them for a gold farmer, they left and went straight to a competing world and never again showed up in your game or on your balance sheet.
It was amazing how fast information spread among these creeps. Well, not amazing. After all, information spread among normal players faster than you'd believe too -- it was great, you hardly had to lift a finger or spend a penny on marketing when you released some new elite items or unveiled a new world. The players would talk it up for you, spreading the word at the speed of gossip. And the same jungle telegraph ran through the farmers' underground, he could see it at work.
And there were more of them, a little guild of twenty, all grinding and grinding the same campaign. They were fresh characters, created two days before, and they'd been created by players who knew what they were doing -- it was just the perfect balance between rezzers and tanks and casters, a good mix of AOE and melee weapons. They'd levelled damned fast -- he pulled up some forensics on some of the toons, felt his fingerspitzengefuhl tingle as the game guttered like a flame in a breeze. He'd installed the forensics packages over the howls of protest from the admin team who'd shown him chart after chart about what running the kind of history he wanted to see would do to server performance. He'd gotten his forensics, but only after promising to use them sparingly.
And there it was: the players had levelled each other by going into a PvP -- Player versus Player -- tournament area and repeatedly killing one another. As soon as one of them dinged up a level, he would stand undefended and let the other player kill him quickly. The game gave megapoints for killing a higher level player. Once player two dinged, they switched places, and laddered, one after the other, up to heights that normal players would take forever to attain.
The campaign they were running was simple: scrounging a mix of earth-fairy wings and certain mushroom caps, giving them over to a potion-master who would pay them in gold. It wasn't anything special and it was a little below their levels, but when he charted out the returns in gold and experience per hour, he saw that someone had carelessly created a mission that would pay out nearly triple what the regular campaign was supposed to deliver. He shook his head. How the hell did they figure this stuff out? You'd need to chart every single little finicky mission in the game and there were tens of thousands of missions, created by designers who used software algorithms to spin a basic scenario into hundreds of variants.
And there they were, happily collecting their mushroom caps and killing the brown fairies and plucking their wings. Every now and again they'd happen on a bigger monster that wandered into their aggro zone and they'd dispatch it with cool ease.
His finger trembled over the macro that would suspend their accounts and boot them off the server. It didn't move.
He admired them, that was the problem. They were doing something efficiently, quietly and well, with a minimum of fuss. They understood the game nearly as well as he did, without the benefit of Command Central and its many feeds. He --
He logged in.
He picked an av he'd buffed up to level 43, halfway up the ladder to the maximum, which was 90. Regulus was an elf healer, tall and whip-thin, with a huge rucksack bulging with herbs and potions. He was a nominal member of one of the mid-sized player guilds, one of the ones that would accept even any player for a small fee, which offered training courses, guild-banking, scheduled events, all with the glad sanction of Coca Cola. The right sort of people.
Two months before, the players would have kept on running their mission, blithely ignoring him. But that was one of the tell-tales his feeds looked for to pick out the farmers. Instead, these toons all waved at him and did little emotes, some of which were quite good custom jobs including dance-moves, elaborate mime and other gestures. If his feeds hadn't picked these jokers out as farmers, he'd have pegged them as hardcore players. But they hadn't actually spoken or chatted him anything. They were almost certainly Chinese and English would be hard for them.
> Wanna group?
He offered them a really plum quest, one that had a crazy-high gold and experience reward for a relatively nearby objective: retrieving Dvalinn's runes from a deep cave that they'd have to fight their way into, killing a bunch of gimpy dwarves and a couple of decent bosses on the way. The quest was chained to one that led to a fight with Fenrisulfr, one of the biggest bosses in Svartalfaheim Warriors, a megaboss that you needed a huge party to take down, but which rewarded you with enormous treasure. The whole thing was farmer-bait he'd cooked up specifically for this kind of mission.
After a decent interval -- short, but long enough for the players to be puzzling through a machine-translation of the quest-text -- they gladly joined, sending simple thanks over text.
He pretended he saw nothing weird about their silence as they progressed toward the objective, but in the meantime, he concentrated on observing them closely, trying to picture them around a table in a smoky cafe in China or Vietnam or Cambodia or Malaysia, twenty skinny boys with oily hair and zits, cigarettes in the corners of their mouths, squinting around the curl of smoke. Maybe they were in more than one place, two or even three groups. They almost certainly had some kind of back-channel, be it voice, text, or simply shouting at each other over the table, because they moved with good coordination, but with enough individualism that it seemed unlikely that this was all one guy running twenty bots.
> Where you from?
He had to be aware that they were probably trying to figure out if he was from the game, and if he made things too easy for them, he might tip them off.
One player, an ogre caster with a huge club and a bandoleer of mystic skulls etched with runes, replied
> We're Chinese, hope that's OK with you
This was more frank than he'd expected. Other groups he'd approached with the same gimmick had been much more close-lipped, claiming to come from unlikely places in the midwest like Sioux Falls, places that seemed to have been chosen by randomly clicking on a map of the USA.
> You seem pretty good with English then!
The ogre -- Prince Simon, according to his stats -- emoted a little bow.
> I studied in school. My guildies aren't same good.
Connor thought about who he was pretending to be: a young player in a big American city like LA. What would he say to these people?
> Is it late there?
> Yes, after dinner. We always play after dinner.
> Sounds like a lot of fun! I wish I had a big group of friends who were free after dinner. It's always homework homework homework
Connor's fictional persona was sharpening up for him now, a lonely high-school kid in La Jolla or San Deigo, somewhere on the ocean, somewhere white and middle class and isolated. Somewhere without sidewalks. The kind of kid who might come across a plum quest live Dvalinn's runes and have to go and round up a group of strangers to run it with him.
> It's a good time
the ogre said. A pause.
> My friend wants to know what you're studying?
His persona floated an answer into his head.
> I'm about to graduate. I've applied for civil engineering at a couple of schools. Hope I get in!
The ogre said,
> I was a civil engineer before I left home. I designed bridges, five bridges. For a high-speed train system.
Connor mentally revised his image of the boys into young men, adults.
> When did you leave home?
> 2 years. No more work. I will go home soon though I think. I have a family there. A little son, only 3
The ogre messaged him an image. A grinning Chinese boy in a sailor suit, toothy, holding a drippy ice cream cone like a baton, waving it like a conductor.
Connor's fictional 17 year old didn't have any reaction to the picture, but his 36-year-old self did. A father leaving his son behind, plunging off to find work. Connor hadn't ever had to support someone, but he'd thought about it a lot. In Connor's world, where people's motives were governed by envy and fear, the picture of this baby was seismic, an earthquake shaking things up and making the furnishings fall to the floor and shatter. He struggled to find his character.
> Cute! You must miss him
> A lot. It's like being in the army. I will do this for a few years, then go home.
What a world! Here was this civil engineer, accomplished, in love, a father, living far away, working all day to amass virtual treasures, playing cat-and-mouse with Connor and his people.
> So what advice do you have for someone going into civil engineering?
The ogre emoted a big laugh.
> Don't try to find work in China
Connor emoted a big laugh too -- and led the party to Dvalinn's runes, losing himself in the play even as he struggled to remain clinical and observant. Some of his fellow gamerunners looked over his shoulder now and again, watched them run the mission, made little cutting remarks. Among the gamerunners, the actual game itself was slightly looked down upon, something for the marks to play. The real game, the big game was the game of designing the game, the game of tweaking all the variables in the giant hamster cage that all the suckers were paying to run through.
But Connor never forgot how he came to the game, where his equations had come from: from play, thousands of hours in the worlds, absorbing their physics and reality through his fingers and ears and eyes. As far as he was concerned, you couldn't do your job in the game unless you played it too. He marked the snotty words, noticed who delivered them, and took down his mental estimation of each one by a few pegs.
Now they were in the dungeon, which he'd just slapped together, but which he nevertheless found himself really enjoying. As a raiding guild, the Chinese were superb: coordinated, slick, smart. He had a tendency to think of gold farmers as mindless droids, repeating a task set for them by some boss who showed them how to use the mouse and walked away. But of course the gold farmers played all day, every day, even more than the most hardcore players. They were hardcore players. Hardcore players he'd sworn to eliminate, but he couldn't let himself forget that they were hardcore.
They fought their way through to the big boss, and the team were so good that Connor couldn't help himself -- he reached into the game's guts and buffed the hell out of the boss, upping his level substantially and equipping him with a bunch of special attacks from the library of Nasties that he kept in his private workspace. Now the boss was incredibly intimidating, a challenge that would require flawless play from the whole team.
> Oh no
> What are we going to do?
And the ogre sprang into action, and the players formed two ranks, those with melee attacks in the vanguard, spellcasters, healers, ranged attackers and AOE attackers in the back, seeking out ledges and other high places out of range of the boss, a huge dire wolf with many ranged spells as well as a vicious bite and powerful paws that could lash out and pin a player until the wolf could bring its jaws to bear on him.
The boss had a bunch of smaller fighters, dwarves, who streamed out of the caves leading to the central cavern in great profusion, harassing the back rank and intercepting the major attacks the forward guard assembled. As a healer and rezzer, Connor ran to and fro, looking for safe spots to sit down, meditate, and cast healing energy at the fighters in the fore who were soaking up incredible damage from the big boss and his minions. He lost concentration for a second and two of the dwarves hit him with thrown axes, high and low, and he found himself incapped, sprawled on the cave floor, with more bad guys on the way.
His heart was thundering, that old feeling that reminded him that his body couldn't tell the difference between excitement on screen and danger in the real world, and when another player, one of the Chinese whom he had not spoken with at all, rescued him, he felt a surge of gratitude that was totally genuine, originating in his spine and stomach, not his head.
In the end, 12 of the 20 players were irreversibly killed in the battle, respawned at some distant point too far away to reach them before the battle ended. The boss finally howled, a mighty sound that made stalactites thunder down from the ceiling and shatter into sprays of sharp rock that dealt minor damage to the survivors of their party, damage that they flinched away from anyway, as they were all running in the red. The experience points were incredible -- he dinged up a full level -- and there were several very good drops. He almost reached for his workspace to add a few more to reward his comrades for their skill and bravery, forcibly reminding himself that he was not on their side, that this was research and infiltration.
> You guys are great!
The ogre emoted a bow and a little victory dance, another custom number that was graceful and funny at once.
> You play well. Good luck with your studies.
Connor's fingers hovered over the keys.
> I hope you get to see your family soon
The ogre emoted a quick hug, and it made Connor feel momentarily ashamed of what he did next. But he did it. He added the entire guild to his watchlist, so that every message and move would be logged, machine-translated into English. Every transaction they made -- all the gold they sold or gave away -- would be traced and traced again as part of Connor's efforts to unravel the complex, multi-thousand-party networks that were used to warehouse, convert and distribute game-goods. He had hundreds of accounts in the database already, and at the rate he was going, he'd have thousands by the end of the week -- and it was already Wednesday.
The police raided Jie's studio while she and Lu were out eating dumplings and staring into each others' eyes. It was one of her backup studios, but they'd worked out of it two days in a row, and had been about to work out of it for a third. This was a violation of basic security, but Jie's many apartments were fast filling up with Webblies who had quit their farming jobs in frustration and joined the full-time effort to amass gold and treasure for the plan.
The dumpling shop was run by a young woman who looked after her two year old son and her sister's four year old daughter, but she was nevertheless always cheerful when they came in, if prone to making suggestive remarks about young love and the dangers of early parenthood.
She was just handing them the bill -- Lu once again made a show of reaching for it, though not so fast that Jie coudn't snatch it from him and pay it herself, as she was the one with all the money in the relationship -- when his phone went crazy.
He pulled it out, looked at its face, saw that it was Big Sister Nor, calling from a number that she wasn't supposed to be using for another 24 hours according to protocol. That means that she worried her old number had been compromised, which meant that things were bad. Turning to the wall and covering the receiver with his hand, he answered.
“You've been burned.” It was The Mighty Krang, whose Taiwanese accent was instantly recognizable. “We're watching the webcams in the studio now. Ten cops, tearing the place apart.”
“Shit!” he said it so loudly that the four year old cackled with laughter and dumpling lady scowled at him. Jie slid close to him and put her cheek next to his -- he instantly felt a little better for her company -- and whispered, “What is it?”
“You're all secure, right?”
He thought about it for a second. All their disks were encrypted, and they self-locked after ten minutes of idle time. The police wouldn't be able to read anything off any of the machines. He had two sets of IDs on him, the current one, which was due to be flushed later that day according to normal procedure, and the next set, hidden in a pocket sewn into the inside of his pants-leg. Ditto for his current and next SIMs, one loaded in his current phone and a pouch of new ones in order of planned usage inserted into a slit in his belt. He covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Jie: “The studio's gone.” She sucked air past her teeth. “Are you all buttoned-up?”
She clicked her tongue. “Don't worry about me, I've been doing this for a lot longer than you.” She began to methodically curse under her breath, digging through her purse and switching out IDs and cracking open her phone to swap the SIM. “I had really nice stuff in that place,” she said. “Good clothes. My favorite mic. We are such idiots. Never should have recorded there twice in a row.”
The Mighty Krang must have heard, because he chuckled. “Sounds like you're both OK?”
“Well, Jiandi won't be able to go on the air tonight,” he said.
“Screw that,” Jie said. She took the phone from him. “Tell Big Sister Nor that we're going on air at the usual time tonight. Normal service, no interruptions.”
Lu didn't hear the reply, but he could see from Jie's grimly satisfied expression that The Mighty Krang had praised her. It had been Big Sister Nor's idea to rig all the studios with webcams all the Webblies could access, just in the front rooms. It was a little weird, trying to ignore the all-seeing eye of the webcam screwed in over the door. But when you're sleeping 20 to a room, it's easy to let go of your ideas about privacy -- but all the same, Lu and Jie now sat far apart when broadcasting, and snuck into the bathroom to make out afterward.
And now the webcams had paid off. He took the phone back and listened as The Mighty Krang narrated a play-back of the video, cops breaking the door down, securing the space. Then an evidence team that spliced batteries into the computers' power cables so they could be unplugged without shutting down (Lu was grateful that Big Sister Nor had decreed that all their hardware had to be configured to unmount and re-encrypt the drives when they were idle), took prints and DNA. They already had Lu's DNA, of course, because they'd sniffed out one of Jie's other apartments. But Jie had been way ahead of this: she had a little pocket vacuum cleaner, intended for clearing crumbs and gunk out of keyboards, and she surreptitiously vacuumed out the seats whenever she took a train or a bus, sucking up the random DNA of thousands of people, which she carefully scattered around her apartments when she got in. He'd laughed at the ingenuity of this, and she told him she'd read about it in a novel.
The evidence team brought in a panoramic camera and set it in the middle of the room and the police cleared out momentarily as it swept around in a tight, precise mechanical circle, producing a wraparound high-resolution image of the room. Then the cops swept back in, minus their paper overshoes, and put every scrap of paper and every piece of optical and magnetic media into more bags, and then they destroyed the place.
Working with wrecking bars and wicked little knifes, and starting from the corner under the front door, they methodically smashed every single stick of furniture, every floor tile, every gyprock wall, turning it all into pieces no bigger than playing-cards, heaping it behind them as they went. They worked in near silence, without rushing, and didn't appear to relish the task. This wasn't vandalism, it was absolute annihilation. The policemen had the regulation brushcut short hair, identical blue uniforms, paper face-masks, kevlar gloves. One drew closer and closer to the webcam, spotted it -- a little pinhead with a peel-away adhesive backing stuck up in a dusty corner -- and peeled it away. His face loomed large in it for a moment, his pores, a stray hair poking out of his nostrils, his eyes dead and predatory. Then chaos, and nothing.
“He stamped on it, we think,” The Mighty Krang said. “So much for the webcams. It'll be the first thing they look for next time. Still, saved your ass, didn't it?”
The description had momentarily taken away Lu's breath. All his things, his spare clothes, the comics he'd been reading, a half-chewed pack of energy gum he'd bought the day before, disappeared into the bowels of the implacable authoritarian state. It could have been him.
“We're going to move on to the next safe-house,” he said. “We'll find somewhere to broadcast from tonight.”
“You're bloody right we will,” said Jie, from his side.
They gave the old building a wide berth as they made their way down into the Metro, and consciously forced themselves not to flinch every time a police siren wailed past them. When they came back up to street level, Jie took Lu's hand and said, out of the corner of her mouth, “All right, Tank, what do we do now?”
He shrugged. “I don't know. That was, uh, close.” He swallowed. “Don't be mad if I say something?”
She squeezed his fingers. “Say it.”
“You don't need to do this,” he said. She stopped and looked at him, her face white. Before they'd ever kissed, he always felt a void between them, an invisible force-field he had to push his way through in order to tell her how he felt. Once they'd become a couple, the force-field had thinned, but not vanished, and every time he said or did something stupid, he felt it pushing him away. It was back in force now. He spoke quickly, hoping his words would batter their way through it: “I mean, this is crazy. We're probably all going to go to jail or get killed.” She was still staring at him. “You're just --” He swallowed. “You're good at this stuff, is what I'm trying to say. You could probably broadcast your show for ten more years without getting caught and retire a rich woman. You don't need to throw it away on us.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Did I promise not to get mad?”
He tried a little nervous smile. “Sort of?”
She looked back and forth. “Let's walk,” she said. “We stand out here.” They walked. Her fingers were limp in his hand, and then slipped out. The force-field grew stronger. He felt more afraid than he had when The Mighty Krang had described the action from the studio camera. “You think I'm doing this all for money? I could have more money if I wanted to. I could take dirtier advertisers. I could start a marketing scheme for my girls and ask them to send me money -- there's millions of them, if each one only sent me a few RMB, I'd be so rich I could retire.”
The handshake buildings loomed around them, and she broke off as they found themselves walking single file down a narrow alley between two buildings. She caught up with him and leaned in close, speaking so softly it was almost a whisper. “I could just be another dirty con-artist who comes to South China, steals all she can, and goes back home to the countryside. I'm not doing that. Do you know why?”
He fumbled for the words and she dug her fingernails into his palm. He fell silent.
“It's a rhetorical question,” she said. “I'm doing it because I believe in this. I was telling my girls to fight back against their bosses before you ever played your first game. With or without you, I'll be telling them to fight back. I like your group, I like the way they cross borders so easily, even more easily than I get back and forth from Hong Kong. So I'm supporting your friends, and telling my girls to support them too. The problem you have is a worker's problem, not a Chinese problem, not a gamer's problem. The factory girls are workers and they want a good deal just as much as you and your gamer friends do.”
She was breathing heavily, Lu noticed, angry little snorts through her nose.
He tried to say something, but all that came out was a mumble.
“What?” she said, her fingernails digging in again.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I just didn't want you to get hurt.”
“Oh, Tank,” she said. “You don't need to be my big, strong protector. I've been taking care of myself since I left home and came to South China. It may come as a huge surprise to you, but girls don't need big, strong boys to look after them.”
He was silent for a moment. They were almost at the entrance of the safe house. “Can I just admit that I'm an idiot and we'll leave it at that?”
She pretended to think it over for a moment. “That sounds OK to me,” she said. And she kissed him, a warm, soft kiss that made his feet sweaty and the hairs on his neck stand up. She chewed his lower lip for a moment before letting go, then made a rude gesture at the boys who were calling down at them from a high balcony overhead.
“OK,” she said, “Let's go do a broadcast.”
It had all been so neatly planned. They would wait until after monsoon season with its torrential rains; after Diwali with its religious observances and firecrackers; after Mid-Autumn Festival when so many workers would be back in their villages, where the surveillance was so much less intense. They would wait until the big orders came in for the US Thanksgiving season, when sweaty-palmed retailers hoped to make their years profitable with huge sales on goods made and shipped from the whole Pacific Rim.
That had been a good plan. Everyone liked it. Wei-Dong, the boy who'd crossed the ocean with their prepaid game-cards, had just about wet his pants at the brilliance of it. “You'll have them over a barrel,” he kept repeating. “They'll have to give in, and fast.”
The in-game project was running very well. That Ashok fellow in Mumbai had worked out a very clever plan for signalling the vigor of their various “investment vehicles” and the analysts who watched this were eating it up. They were selling more bad paper than they could print. It had surprised everyone, even Ashok, and they'd actually had to pull some Webblies off sales-duty: it turned out that a surprising number of people would believe any rumor they heard on an investment board or in-game canteen.
The Mighty Krang and Big Sister Nor were likewise very happy with the date and had stuck a metaphorical pin in it, and began to plan. Justbob was fine with this, but she was a warrior and so she understood that the first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack. So while Big Sister Nor and Krang and the other lieutenants in China and Indonesia and Singapore and Vietnam and Cambodia were beavering away making plans for the future, Justbob was leading skirmishers in exercises, huge, world-spanning battles where her warriors ran their armies up against one another by the thousand.
Big Sister Nor hated it, said it was too high-profile, that it would tip off the game-runners that there were armies massing in gamespace, and then they would naturally wonder what the players were massing for and it would all unravel. Justbob thought it was a lot more likely that the gold-farmers and the elaborate cons would tip them off, seeing as how armies were about as common in gamespace as onions were in a stir-fry. She didn't try to tell this to Big Sister Nor, who hardly played games at all any more. Instead, she obediently agreed to take it easy, to be careful, and so on.
And then she sent her armies against one another again.
It wasn't like any other game anyone had ever played. The armies were vast, running to the thousands and growing every day. She drilled them for hours, and the generals and leaders and commandants and whatever they called themselves dreamt up their best strategy and tactics, devised nightmare ambushes and sneaky guerilla wars, and they sharpened their antlers against one another.
As Big Sister Nor's complaints grew more serious, Justbob presented her with statistics on the number of high-level characters the Webblies now had at their disposal, as the skirmishing was a fast way to level up. She had players who controlled five or six absolute top-level toons, each associated with its own prepaid account, each accessed via a different proxy and untraceable to the others. Big Sister Nor warned her again to be careful, and The Mighty Krang took her aside and told her how irresponsible she was to endanger the whole effort with her warring. She took off her eyepatch and scratched at the oozing scars over the ruined socket, a disconcerting trick that never failed to send The Mighty Krang packing with a greenish face.
Justbob tried to keep the smile off her face when Big Sister Nor woke her in the middle of the night to tell her that the plan was dead, and the action had started, right then, in the middle of monsoon season, in the middle of Diwali, with only weeks to go before Mid-Autumn Festival.
“What did it?” she said, as she pulled on a long dress and wound her hijab around her head. She'd spent most of her life in western dress, dressing to shock and for easy getaways, but since she'd gone straight, she'd opted for the more traditional dress. What it lacked in mobility it made up for in coolness, anonymity, and the disorienting effect it had on the men who had once threatened her (though it hadn't stopped the thugs who'd cost her her eye).
“Another strike in Dongguan. This time in Guangzhou. It's big.”
The room was stuffy. These rooms always were. But the September heat had pushed the temperature up to stratospheric heights, so that the cafe smouldered like the caldera of a dyspeptic volcano. The cafe's owner, a scarred old man whom everyone knew to be a front for some heavy gangsters, had sent a technician around with a screwdriver to remove all the cases from the PCs so that the heat could dissipate more readily from the sweating motherboards and those monster-huge graphics cards that bristled with additional fans and glinted with copper heatsinks. This might have been better for the computers, but it made the room even hotter and filled it with a jet-engine roar that was so loud the players couldn't even use noise-cancelling headsets to chat: they had to confine all their communications to text.
The cafe had once catered to gamers from off the street, along with love-sick factory girls who spent long nights chatting with their virtual boyfriends, homesick workers who logged in to spin lies about their wonderful lives in South China for the people back home, as well as the occasional lost tourist who was hoping to get a little online time to keep up with friends and find cheap hotel rooms. But for the past two years, it had exclusively housed an ever-growing cadre of gold-farmers sent there by their bosses, who oversaw a dozen shifting, interlocked businesses that formed and dissolved overnight, every time a little trouble blew their way and it became convenient to roll up the store and disappear like a genie.
The boys in the cafe that night were all young, not a one over 17. All the older boys had been purged the month before, when they'd demanded a break after a 22-hour lock-in to meet a huge order from an upstream supplier. Getting rid of those troublemakers had two nice effects for their bosses: it let them move in a cheaper workforce and it let them avoid paying for all those locked-in hours. There were always more boys who'd play games for a living.
And these boys could play. After a 12-hour shift, they'd hang around and do four or five more hours' worth of raiding for fun. The room was a cauldron in which boys, heat, noise, dumplings and network connections were combined to make a neverending supply of stew of wealth for some mostly invisible older men.
Ruiling knew that there had been some other boys working there before, older boys who'd had some kind of dispute with the bosses. He didn't think about them much but when he did, he pictured slow, greedy fools who didn't want to really work for a living. Lamers whose asses he could kick back to Sichuan province or whatever distant place they'd snuck to the Pearl River Delta from.
Ruiling was a hell of a player. His speciality was PvP -- player versus player -- because he had the knack of watching another player's movements for a few seconds and then building up a near-complete view of that player's idiosyncracies and weak spots. He couldn't explain it -- the knowledge simply shone through at him, like an arrow in the eye-socket. The upshot of this was that no one could level a character faster than Ruiling. He'd simply wander around a game with a Chinese name, talking in Chinese to the players he met. Eventually, one of them -- some rich, fat, stupid westerner who wanted to play vigilante -- would start calling him names and challenge him to a fight. He'd accept. He would kick ass. He'd gain points.
It was amazing how satisfying this was.
Ruiling had just finished twelve hours of this and had ordered in a tray of pork dumplings and doused them in hot Vietnamese rooster red sauce and chopsticked them into his mouth as fast as he could chew, and now he was ready to relax with some after-work play. For this, he always used his own toon, a char he'd started playing with when he was a boy in Gansu. In some ways, this toon was him, so long had he lived with it, lovingly buffing it, training it, dressing it in the rarest of treasures. He had trained up innumerable toons and seen them sold off, but Ruiling was his.
Tonight, Ruiling partied with some other farmers he knew from other parts of China, some of whom he'd known back in his village, some of whom he'd never met. They were a ferocious nightly raiding guild that pulled off the hardest missions in the worlds, the cream of the crop. Word had gotten round and now every night he had an audience of players who'd just been hired on, watching in awe as he kicked fantastic quantities of ass. He loved that, loved answering their questions after he was done playing, helping the whole team get better. And you know, they loved him too, and that was just as great.
They ran Buri's fortress, the palace of a long-departed god, the father of gods, the powerful, elemental force that had birthed Svartalfaheim and the universe in which it lay. It had fearsome guardians, required powerful spells just to reach, and had never been fully run in the history of Svartalfaheim. Just the kind of mission Ruiling loved to try. This would be his sixth crack at it, and he was prepared to raid for six hours straight if that's what it took, and so was the rest of his party.
And then he got Fenrir's Tooth. It was the rarest and most legendary drop in all of Svartalfaheim Warriors, a powerful talisman that would turn any wolf-pack or enthral them to the Tooth's holder. The message boards had been full of talk about it, and several times there'd been fraudulent auctions for it, but no one had ever seen it before.
After Ruiling picked it up -- it had come from an epic battle with an army of Sky Giants, in which the entire raiding party had been killed -- he was so stunned by it that he couldn't speak for a moment. He just pointed at the screen while his mouth opened and shut for a moment.
The players watching him fell silent, too, following his gaze and his finger, slowly realizing what had just happened. A murmur built through the crowd, picking up steam, picking up volume, turning into a roar, a triumphant shout that brought the entire cafe over to see. Over the fans' noise they buzzed excitedly, a hormone-drenched triumphant tribal chest-beating exercise that swept them all up. Every boy imagined what it would be like to go questing with Fenrir's Tooth, able to defeat any force with a flick of the mouse that would send the wolf packs against your enemies. Every boy's heart thudded in his chest.
But there was another sound, getting louder and more insistent. An older voice, raspy with a million cigarettes, a hard voice. “Sit down! Sit down! Back to work! Everyone back to work!”
It was Huang the foreman, shouting with a fearsome Fujianese accent. He was rumored to be an ex-Snakehead, thrown out of the human smuggling gang for killing too many migrants with rough treatment. Usually, he sat lizardlike and motionless in the corner, smoking a succession of cheap Chinese Class-D fake Marlboros, harsh and unfiltered, a lazy curl of smoke giving him a permanent squint on one side of his face. Sometimes players would forget he was there and their shouting and horseplay would get a little out of control and then he would steal up behind them on cat-silent feet and deliver a hard blow to the ear that would send them reeling. It was enough of an object lesson -- “Don't make the Snakehead mad or he'll lay a beating on you that you won't forget” -- that he hardly ever had to repeat it.
Now, though, he was clouting boys left and right, bellowing orders in a loud, hoarse voice. The boys retreated to their computers in a shoving rush, leaving Ruiling alone in his seat, an uncertain smile on his face.
“Boss,” he said, “you see what I've done?” He pointed to his screen.
Huang's face was as impassive as ever. He put a hard, heavy hand on Ruiling's shoulder and leaned in to read the screen, his head wreathed in smoke. Finally, he straightened. “Fenrir's Tooth,” he said. He nodded. “A bonus for you, Ruiling. Very good.”
Ruiling shrank back. “Boss,” he said, respectfully, speaking loudly to be heard over the computer fans. “Boss, that is my character. I am not working now. It's my personal character.”
Huang turned to look at him, his eyes hard and his expression flat. “A bonus,” he said again. “Well done.”
“It's my character,” Ruiling said, speaking more loudly. “No bonus. It's mine! I earned it, personally, on my own time.”
He didn't even see the blow, it was that fast. One minute he was hotly declaring that Fenrir's Tooth was his, the next he was sprawled on his ass on the floor, his head ringing like a gong. The foreman put one foot on his throat.
The man said, “No bonus,” clearly and distinctly, so that everyone around could hear. Then he hawked up a huge mouthful of poisonous green spit from the tar-soaked depths of his blackened lungs and carefully spat in Ruiling's face.
From the age of four, Ruiling had practised wushu, training with a man in the village whom all the adults deferred to. The man had been sent north during the Cultural Revolution, denounced and beaten and starved, but he never broke. He was as gentle and patient as a grandmother, and he was as old as the hills, and he could send an attacker flying through the air with a flick of the wrist; break a board with his old hands, kick you into the next life with one old, gnarled foot. For 12 years, Ruiling had gone three times a week to train with the old man. All the boys had. It was just part of life in the village. He hadn't practised since he came to South China, had all but forgotten that relic of a different China.
But now he remembered every lesson, remembered it deep in his muscles. He gripped the ankle of the foot that was on his throat, twisted just slightly to gain maximum leverage, and applied a small, controlled bit of pressure and threw the foreman into the air, sending him sailing in a perfect, graceful arc that terminated when his head cracked against the side of one of the long trestle-tables, knocking it over and sending a dozen flatscreens tumbling to the ground, the crash audible over the computer fans.
Ruiling stood, carefully, and faced the foreman. The man was groaning on the ground, and Ruiling couldn't keep the small grin off his face. That had felt good. He found that he was standing in a ready stance, weight balanced evenly on each foot, feet spread for stability, body side-on to the man on the ground, presenting a smaller target. His hands were loosely held up, one before the other, ready to catch a punch and lock the arm and throw the attacker, ready to counterstrike high or low. The boys around him were cheering, chanting his name, and Ruiling smiled more broadly.
The foreman picked himself up off the floor, no expression at all on his face, a terrible blankness, and Ruiling felt his first inkling of fear. Something about how the man held himself as he stood, not anything like the stance in the martial arts games he'd played in the village. Something altogether more serious. Ruiling heard a high whining noise and realized it was coming from his own throat.
He lowered his hands slightly, extended one in a friendly, palm up way. “Come on now,” he said. “Let's be adults about this.”
And that's when the foreman reached under the shoulder of his ill-fitting, rumpled, dandruff-speckled suit-jacket and pulled out a cheap little pistol, pointed it at Ruiling, and shot him square in the forehead.
Even before Ruiling hit the ground, one eye open, the other shut, the boys around him began to roar. The foreman had one second to register the sound of a hundred voices rising in anger before the boys boiled over, clambering over one another to reach him. Too late, he tried to tighten his finger on the trigger of the gun he'd carried ever since leaving behind Fujian province all those years before. By then, three boys had fastened themselves to his arm and forced it down so that the gun was aiming into the meat of his old thigh, and the .22 slug he squeezed off drilled itself into the big femur before flattening on the shattered bone, spreading out like a lead coin.
When he opened his mouth to scream, fingers found their way into his cheeks, viciously tearing at them even as other hands twined themselves in his hair, fastened themselves to his feet and his arms, even yanked at his ears. Someone punched him hard in the balls, twice, and he couldn't breathe around the hands in his mouth, couldn't scream as he tumbled down. The gun was wrenched from his hand at the same instant that two fists drilled into his eyes, and then it was dark and painful and infinite, a moment that stretched off into his unconsciousness and then into -- annihilation.
“So now what?” Justbob slurped at her congee, which they'd sent out for, along with strong coffee and a plate of fresh rolls. At 3AM in the Geylang, food choices were slightly limited, but they never went away altogether.
The Mighty Krang pulled up a video, waited for it to buffer, then scrolled it past, fast. “Three of the boys caught the shooting -- the execution -- on their phones. The goon who went down, well, he doesn't look so good.” A shot from inside the dark room, now abandoned, the foreman on his back amid a wreck of broken computers and monitors, motionless, both arms broken at the elbows, face a ruin of jelly and blood. “We assume he's dead, but the strikers aren't letting anyone in.”
“Strikers,” Justbob said, and The Mighty Krang clicked another video. This one took longer to load, some server somewhere groaning under the weight of all the people trying to access it at once. That never happened any more, it had been years since it had happened, and it made Justbob realize how fast this thing must be spreading. The realization scythed through her grogginess, made her eye spring open, the other ruin work behind its patch.
The video loaded. Hundreds of boys, gathered in front of an anonymous multi-story building, the kind of place you pass by the thousand. They'd tied their shirts around their faces, and they were pumping their fists in the air and more people were coming out to join them. Boys, old people, girls --
“Factory girls. Jiandi. She did a special broadcast. Stupid. She nearly got caught, chased out of another safe house. She’s running out of bolt holes. But she got the word out.”
“Did we know?”
Big Sister Nor's face was a thundercloud, ominous and dark. “Of course not. If we'd known, we would have told her not to do it. Chill out. Hold off. We have a schedule, lots of moving parts.”
“The dead boy?”
“There --” Krang said, and pointed his mouse at the edge of the video. A trestle table, set up beside the boys, with the dead boy draped on it. Looking closely, she could see the bullet hole in his forehead, the streak of blood running down the side of his face.
“Aha,” Justbob said. “Well, we're not going to cool anything out now.”
Big Sister Nor said, “We don't know that. There's still a chance --”
“There's no chance,” Justbob said, and her finger stabbed at the screen. “There are thousands of them out there. What's happening in world?”
“It's a disaster,” Krang said. “Every gold-farming operation is in chaos. Webblies are attacking them by the thousands. And it gets worse as the day goes by. They're just waking up in China, so fresh forces should be coming in --”
Justbob swallowed. “That's not a disaster,” she said. “That's battle. And they'll win. And they'll keep on winning. From this moment forward, I'd be surprised to see if any new gold comes onto the markets, in any game. We can change logins as fast as the gamerunners shut down accounts, and what's more, there are plenty of regular players who've been skirmishing with us for the fun of it who'll shout bloody murder if they lose their accounts. We've got the games sewn up.” She kept her face impassive, reached for a cup of tea, sipped it, set it down.
Big Sister Nor stared at her for a long time. They had been friends for a long time, but unlike Krang, Justbob wasn't in worshipful love with Nor. She knew just how human Big Sister Nor could be, had seen her screw up in small and big ways. Big Sister Nor knew it, too and had the strength of character to listen to Justbob even when she was saying things that Nor didn't want to hear.
Krang looked back and forth between the two young women, feeling shut out as always, trying not to let it show, failing. He got up from the table, muttering something about going out for more coffee, and neither woman took any notice.
“You think that we're ready?” Big Sister Nor said after the safe-house door clicked shut.
“I think we have to be,” said Justbob. “The first casualty of any battle...”
“I know, I know,” Big Sister Nor said. “You can stop saying that now.”
When The Mighty Krang came back, he saw immediately how things had gone. He distributed the coffee and got to work.
Mrs Dibyendu's cafe was locked up tight, shutters drawn over the windows and doors.
“Hey!” called Ashok, rapping on the door. “Hey, Mrs Dibyendu! It's Ashok! Hey!” It was nearly 7AM, and Mrs Dibyendu always had the cafe open by 6:30, catching some of the early morning trade as the workers who had jobs outside of Dharavi walked to their bus-stops or the train station. It was unheard of for her to be this late. “Hey!” he called again and used his key-ring to rap on the metal shutter, the sound echoing through the tin frame of the building.
“Go away!” called a male voice. At first Ashok assumed it came from one of the two rooms above the cafe, where Mrs Dibyendu rented to a dozen boarders -- two big families crammed into the small spaces. He craned his neck up, but the windows there were shuttered too.
“Hey!” he banged on the door again, loud in the early morning street.
Someone threw the bolts on the other side of the door and pushed it open so hard it bounced off his toe and the tip of his nose, making both sting. He jumped back out of the way and the door opened again. There was a boy, 17 or 18, with a huge, pitted machete the length of his forearm. The boy was skinny to the point of starvation, bare-chested with ribs that stood out like a xylophone. He stared at Ashok from red-rimmed, stoned eyes, pushed lanky, greasy hair off his forehead with the back of the hand that wasn't holding the machete. He brandished it in Ashok's face.
“Didn't you hear me?” he said. “Are you deaf? Go away!” The machete wobbled in his hand, dancing in the air before his face, so close it made him cross his eyes.
He stepped back and the boy held his arm out further, keeping the machete close to his face.
“Where's Mrs Dibyendu?” Ashok said, keeping his voice as calm as he could, which wasn't very. It cracked.
“She's gone. Back to the village.” The boy smiled a crazy, evil smile. “Cafe is closed.”
“But --” he started. The boy took another step forward, and a wave of alcohol and sweat-smell came with him, a strong smell even amid Dharavi's stew of smells. “I have papers in there,” Ashok said. “They're mine. In the back room.”
There were other stirring sounds from the cafe now, more skinny boys showing up in the doorway. More machetes. “You go now,” the lead boy said, and he spat a stream of pink betel-stained saliva at Ashok's feet, staining the cuffs of his jeans. “You go while you can go.”
Ashok took another step back. “I want to speak to Mrs Dibyendu. I want to speak to the owner!” he said, mustering all the courage he could not to turn on his heel and run. The boys were filing out into the little sheltered area in front of the doorway now. They were smiling.
“The owner?” the boy said. “I'm his representative. You can tell me.”
“I want my papers.”
“My papers,” the boy said. “You want to buy them?”
The other boys were chuckling now, hyena sounds. Predator sounds. All those machetes. Every nerve in Ashok's body screaming go. “I want to speak with the owner. You tell him. I'll be back this afternoon. To talk with him.”
The bravado was unconvincing even to him and to these street hoods it must have sounded like a fart in a windstorm. They laughed louder, and louder still when the boy took another rushing step toward him, swinging the machete, just missing him, blade whistling past him with a terrifying whoosh as he backpedaled another step, bumped into a man carrying a home-made sledgehammer on his way to work, squeaked, actually squeaked, and ran.
Mala's mother answered his knock after a long delay, eyeing him suspiciously. She'd met him on two other occasions, when he'd walked “the General” home from a late battle, and she hadn't liked him either time. Now she glared openly and blocked the doorway. “She's not dressed,” she said. “Give her a moment.”
Mala pushed past her, hair caught in a loose ponytail, her gait an assertive, angry limp. She aimed a perfunctory kiss at her mother's cheek, missing by several centimeters, and gestured brusquely down the stairs. Ashok hurried down, through the lower room with its own family, bustling about and getting ready for work, then down another flight to the factory floor, and then out into the stinging Dharavi air. Someone was burning plastic nearby, the stench stronger than usual, an instant headache of a smell.
“What?” she said, all business.
He told her about the cafe.
“Bannerjee,” she said. “I wondered if he'd try this.” She got out her phone and began sending out texts. Ashok stood beside her, a head taller than her, but feeling somehow smaller than this girl, this ball of talent and anger in girl form. Dharavi was waking now, and the muzzein's call to prayer from the big mosque wafted over the shacks and factories. Livestock sounds -- roosters, goats, a cowbell and a big bovine sneeze. Babies crying. Women struggled past with their water jugs.
He thought about how unreal all this was for most of the people he knew, the union leaders he'd grown up with, his own family. When he talked with them about Webbly business, they mocked the unreality of life in games, but what about the unreality of life in Dharavi? Here were a million people living a life that many others couldn't even conceive of.
“Come on,” she said. “We're meeting at the Hotel U.P..”
When he'd come to Dharavi, the “hotels” on the main road in the Kumbharwada neighborhood had puzzled him, until he found out that “hotel” was just another word for restaurant. The Webblies liked the Hotel U.P., a workers' co-op staffed entirely by women who'd come from villages in the poor state of Uttar Pradesh. It was mutual, the women enjoying the chance to mother these serious children while they spoke in their impenetrable jargon, a blend of Indian English, gamerspeak, Chinese curses, and Hindi, the curious dialect that he thought of as Webbli, as in Hindi.
The Webblies, roused from their beds early in the morning, crowded in sleepily, demanding chai and masala Cokes and dhosas and aloo poories. The ladies who owned the restaurant shuttled pancakes and fried potato popovers to them in great heaps, Mala paying for them from a wad of greasy rupees she kept in a small purse she kept before her. Ashok sat beside her on her left hand, and Yasmin sat on her right, eyes half-lidded. The army had been out late the night before, on a group trip to a little filmi palace in the heart of Dharavi, to see three movies in a row as a reward for a run of genuinely excellent play. Ashok had begged off, even though he'd been training with the army on Mala's orders. He liked the Webblies, but he wasn't quite like them. He wasn't a gamer, and it would ever be thus, no matter how much fighting he did.
“OK,” Mala said. “Options. We can find another cafe. There is the 1000 Palms, where we used to fight --” she nodded at Yasmin, leaving the rest unsaid, when we were still Pinkertons, still against the Webblies. “But Bannerjee has something on the owner there, I've seen it with my own eyes.”
“Bannerjee has something on every cafe in Dharavi,” Sushant said. He had been very adventurous in scouting around for other places for them to play, on Yasmin's orders. Everyone in the army knew that he had a crush on Yasmin, except Yasmin, who was seemingly oblivious to it.
“And what about Mrs Dibyendu?” Yasmin said. “What about her business, all the work she put into it?”
Mala nodded. “I've called her three times. She doesn't answer. Perhaps they scared her, or took her phone off of her. Or...” Again, she didn't need to say it, or she is dead. The stakes were high, Ashok knew. Very high. “And there's something else. The strike has started.”
Ashok jumped a little. What? It was too early -- weeks too early! There was still so much planning to do! He pulled out his phone, realized that he'd left it switched off, powered it up, stared impatiently at the boot-screen, listening to the hubub of soldiers around him. There were dozens of messages waiting for him, from Big Sister Nor and her lieutenants, from the special operatives who'd been working on the scam with him, from the American boy who'd been coordinating with the Mechanical Turks. There had been fighting online and off, through the night, and the Chinese were thronging the streets, running from cops, regrouping. Gamespace was in chaos. And he'd been arguing with drunken thug-boys at the cafe, eating aloo poories and guzzling chai as though it was just another day. His heart began to race.
“We need to get online,” he said. “Urgently.”
Mala broke off an intense discussion of the possibility of getting PCs into a flat somewhere and bringing in a network link to look at him. “Bad as that?”
He held up his phone. “You've seen, you know.”
“I haven't looked since you came to my place. I knew that there was nothing we could do until we found a place to work. It is bad, then.” It wasn't a question.
They were all hanging on him. “They need our help,” he said.
“All right,” Mala said. “All right. So. We go and we take over Mrs Dibyendu's place again. Bannerjee doesn't own it. Everyone in her road knows that. They will take our side. They must.”
Ashok gulped. “Force?” He remembered the boy: drunk, fearless, eyes flat, the sharp machete trembling.
The gaze Mala turned on him was every bit as flat. She could transform like that, in a second, in an instant. She could go from pretty young girl, charismatic, open, clever and laughing to stone-faced General Robotwallah, ferocious and uncompromising. Her flat eyes glittered.
“Force if necessary, always,” she said. “Force. Enough force that they go away and don't come back. Hit them hard, scare them back to their holes.” Around the table, thirty-some Webblies stared at her, their expressions mirrors of hers. She was their general, and before she came into their lives, they had been Dharavi rats, working in factories sorting plastic, going to school for a few hours every day to share books with four other students. Now they were royalty, with more money than their parents earned, jobs and respect. They'd follow her off a cliff. They'd follow her into the Sun.
But Yasmin cleared her throat. “Force if we must,” she said. “But surely no more than is necessary, and not even that if we can help it.”
Mala turned to her, back rigid, neck corded, jaw set. Yasmin met her gaze with calm eyes and then... smiled, a small and sweet and genuine smile. “If the General agrees, of course.”
And Mala melted, the tension going out of her, and she returned Yasmin's smile. Something had changed between them since the night Mala had attacked them, something had changed for the better. Now Yasmin could defuse Mala with a look, a smile, a touch, and the army respected it, treating Yasmin with reverence, sometimes going to her with their grievances.
“Of course,” Mala said. “No more force than is absolutely necessary.” She picked up her cane -- topped with a silver skull, a gift from her troops -- and made a few vicious swipes in the air, executed with the grace of a fencer. He knew that there was a lead weight in the foot of the cane, and he'd seen her knock holes in brick with a swing. Her densely muscled forearms hardly trembled as she wielded the cane. Behind her, one of the ladies who ran the restaurant looked on with heartbreaking sorrow, and Ashok wondered how many young people she'd seen ruined in her village and here in the city.
“We go,” Mala said, and scraped her chair back. Ashok fell in beside her and the army marched down the main road three abreast, causing scooters and motorcycles and goats and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws to part around them. Many times Ashok had seen swaggering gangs of badmashes on the street, had gotten out of their way. Now he was in one, a collection of kids, just kids, the youngest a mere 13, the eldest not yet 20, led by a limping girl with a long neck and hair in a loose ponytail, and around them, people reacted with just the same fear. It swelled Ashok's heart, the power and the fear, and he felt ashamed and exhilarated.
Before the door of Mrs Dibyendu, Mala stooped and pried a rock from the crumbling pavement with her fingers, unmindful of the filth that slimed it. She threw it with incredible accuracy, bowling it like a cricket ball, crash, into the sheet-tin door of the cafe. Immediately, she bent to pick up another rock, prying it loose before the echoes of the first one had died down. Around them, in the narrow street, heads appeared from windows and doorways, and curious pedestrians stopped to look on.
The door banged open and there was the boy who had threatened Ashok earlier, eyes bloodshot and pink even from a safe distance. He held his machete up like a sword, a snarl on his lips. It died as he contemplated the 30 soldiers arrayed before him. Many had produced lengths of wood or iron, or picked up rocks of their own. They stared, unwavering, at the boy.
“What is it?” He was trying for bravado, but it came out with a squeak at the end. The machete trembled.
“Careful,” whispered Ashok, to himself, to Mala, to anyone who would listen. A scared bully was even less predictable than a confident one.
“Mrs Dibyendu asked us to come re-open her cafe for her,” Mala said, gesturing with her phone, held in her free hand. “You can go now.”
“The new owner asked us to watch his cafe,” the boy said, and everyone on the street heard both lies, Mala's and the boy's. Ashok tried to figure out how old the boy was. 14? 15? Young, dumb, drunk and angry and armed.
“Careful,” he whispered again.
Mala pocketed her phone and hefted her rock, eyes never leaving the boy.
“Five,” she said.
He grinned at her and spat a stream of pink, betel saliva toward her feet. She didn't move. No one moved.
He raised the machete, point aimed straight at her. She didn't seem to notice.
Silence rang over the alley. Someone on a motorbike tried to push through the crowd, then stopped, cutting the engine.
The boy's eyes cut left, right, left again. He whistled then, hard and loud, and there was a scrabble of bare feet from the cafe behind him.
“One,” Mala said. and raised the rock, winding up like a cricket bowler again, whole body coiled, and Ashok thought, I have to do something. Have to stop them. It's insane. But his mouth and his hands and his feet had other ideas. He remained frozen in place.
The boy raised his machete across his chest, and the hand that held it trembled even more. Abruptly, Mala threw. The rock flew so fast it made a sizzling sound in the hot, wet morning air, but it didn't smash the boy's head in, but rather dashed itself to pieces against the door-frame behind him, visibly denting it. The boy flinched as shattered rock bounced off his bare face and chest and arm and back, a few stray pieces pinging off the machete.
“Leave,” Mala said. Behind the boy, five more boys, crowding out of the doorway, each with his machete. They raised their arms.
“Fight!” hissed one of the boys, the smallest one. There was something wrong with his head, a web of scar and patchy hair running down the left side as though he'd had his head bashed in or been dragged. Ashok couldn't look away from this little boy. He had a cousin that size, a little boy who liked to play games in the living room and run around with his friends. A little boy with shoes and clear eyes and three meals a day and a mother who would tuck him up every night with a kiss on the forehead.
Mala fixed the boy with her gaze. “Don't fight,” she said. “If you fight, you lose. Get hurt. Run.” The army raised their weapons, made a low rumbling sound that raised to a growl. One of the boys was on his phone, whispering urgently into it. Ashok saw their fear and felt a featherweight of relief, these ones would go, not fight. “Run!” Mala said, and stamped forward. The boys all flinched.
And some of the army snickered at them, a hateful sound that he'd heard a thousand times while in-game, a taunting sound that spread through the ranks like a snake slithering around their feet, and the fear in the boys' faces changed. Became anger.
The moment balanced on a thread as fine as spider's silk, the snickering soldiers, the boiling boys, the machetes, the clubs and sticks, the rocks --
The moment broke. The smallest boy held his machete over his head and charged them, screaming something wordless, howling, really, a sound Ashok had never heard a boy make. He got three steps before two rocks caught him, one in the arm and the second in the face, a spray of blood and a crunch of bone and a tooth that flew high in the air as the boy fell backwards as if poleaxed.
And the moment shattered. Machetes raised, the remaining five boys ran for the army, a crazy look in their faces. Ashok had time to wonder if the little boy lying motionless on the ground was the smaller brother of one of the remaining badmashes and then the fight was joined. The tallest boy, the one who'd answered the door that morning and spat at him, hacked his way through two soldiers, dealing out deep cuts to their chests and arms -- Ashok's face coated with a fine mist of geysering arterial blood -- face contorted with rage. He was coming for Mala, standing centimeters from Ashok, and the blood ran off his machete and down his arm.
Mala seemed frozen in place, and Ashok thought that he was about to die, to watch her die first, and he tensed, blood roaring in his ears so loudly it drowned out the terrible screams of the fighters around him, desperate and about to grab for the boy. But as he shifted his weight, Mala barked “NO!” at him, never shifting her eyes from the leader, and he checked himself, stumbling a half-step forward. The boy with the machete looked at him for the briefest of instants and Mala whirled, uncoiling herself, using the weighted skull-tipped cane to push herself off, then whipping out the arm, the gesture he'd seen her mime countless times in battle lessons, and the weighted tip crashed into the boy's forearm with a crack he heard over the battle-sounds, a crack that he'd last heard that night so many months before, when Mala and her army had come for him and Yasmin in the night. Ashok the doctor's son knew exactly what that crack meant.
A blur of fabric as Yasmin danced before him, stooping gracefully to take the machete up, and the boy just watched, eyes glazed, shock setting in already. Yasmin delicately and deliberately kicked him in the kneecap, a well-aimed kick with the toe of her sandal, coming in from the side, and the boy went down, crying in a little boy's voice, calling out for his mother with a sound as plaintive as a baby bird that's fallen from the nest.
It had been mere seconds, but it was already over. Two of the boys were running away, one was sobbing through a bloody mouth, two were unconscious. Ashok looked for wounded soldiers. Three had been cut with machetes, including the two he'd seen hurt by the leader as he ran for Mala. Remembering the arterial blood, red and rich, Ashok found its owner first, lying on the ground, eyes half open, breath labored. He pushed his hands over the injury, a deep cut on the left arm that spurted with each of the hammering beats of the boy's chest and he shouted, “A shirt, anything, a bandage,” and someone pressed a shirt into his bloody hands and he applied hard pressure, staunching the blood. “Someone call for a doctor,” he said, making eye-contact with Anam, a soldier he had hardly spoken to before. “You have a phone?” The girl was shivering slightly, but she nodded and patted a handbag at her side, absentmindedly swinging the length of iron in her hand. She dropped it. “You call the doctor, you understand?” She nodded. “What will you do?”
“Call the doctor,” she said, dreamily, but she began to dial. He turned and grabbed the hand that had passed him the shirt, and he saw that it was attached to Mala, who had stripped it off of another boy in her army. Her chest was heaving, but her gaze was calm.
“Hold here,” he ordered, without a moment's scruple about dictating to the general. This was first aid, it was what he had been trained for by his father, long before he studied economics, and it brooked no argument. He pressed her hand against the bloody rag and stood, not hearing the crackle of his joints. He turned and found the next injured person, and the next.
And then he came to the boy, the little boy whose misshapen head had caught his attention. The boy who'd been hit high and low with two hard-flung rocks. The whole front of his jaw was crushed, a nightmare of whitish bone and tooth fragments swimming in a jelly of semi-clotted blood. When Ashok peeled back each eyelid, he saw that the left pupil was as wide as a sewer entrance, and did not contract when he moved away and let the sun shine full on it. “Concussion,” he muttered to the air, and Yasmin answered, “Is that bad?”
“His brain is bleeding,” Ashok said. “If it bleeds too much, he will die.” He said it simply, as if reading from a textbook. The boy smelled terrible, and there were sores on his arms and chest and ankles, swollen, overscratched and infected insect-bites and boils. “He has to see a doctor.” He looked back to the bleeding soldier. “Him too.”
He found the girl who'd promised to call a doctor. “Where is the doctor?” He had no idea how much time had passed since he'd told her to call. It could have been ten minutes or two hours.
She looked confused. “The ambulance,” she began. She looked around helplessly. “It will come, they said.”
And now that he listened for it, he heard it, a distant dee-dah, dee-dah. The narrow lane that housed Mrs Dibyendu's cafe would never admit an ambulance. Without speaking, Yasmin ran for the main road, to hail it. And now that Ashok was listening, he could hear: neighbors with their heads stuck out of their windows and doorways, passing furious opinion and gupshup. They cheered on Mala's army, rained curses down on the badmashes with their machetes, lamented Mrs Dibyendu's departure, chattered like tropical birds about how she had been forced out, weeping, and chased down the road in the dark of night.
Ashok was covered in blood. It covered his hands, his arms, his chest, his face. His lips were covered in dried blood, and there was a coppery taste in his mouth. His shirt and trousers -- soaked. He straightened and looked around the crowded lane, up at the chatterers, blinking owlishly. Around him, the soldiers and the wounded.
Mala was whispering urgently in Sushant's ear, the boy listening intently. Then he began to move among the soldiers, urging them inside. The Webblies had work to do. The police would come soon, and the people inside the building would have the moral authority to claim it was theirs. The boys with their machetes, injured or gone, would have no claim. Ashok wondered if he would be arrested, and, if he was, whether he'd be able to get out. Maybe his father could take care of it. An important man, a doctor, he could take care --
Two ambulance technicians arrived, bearing heavy bags and collapsed stretchers. They were locals, with Dharavi accents, sent from the Lokmanya Tilak hospital, a huge pile with a good reputation. Quickly, he described the injuries to the men, and they split up to look at the most serious cases, the deep arterial cut and the concussion. Ashok stayed near the small boy, feeling somehow responsible for him, more responsible than for his own teammate, watched as the technician fitted the boy with a neck-brace and then triggered the air-cannister that filled it, immobilizing his head. Carefully, the technician seated a plastic ring in the donut-hole center of the brace, over the boy's ruined jaw and nose, so that the plastic wouldn't interfere with his breathing. He unfurled his stretcher, snapped its braces to rigidity and looked at Ashok.
“You know the procedure?”
Instead of answering, Ashok positioned himself at the boy's skinny hips, putting a hand on each, ready to roll him up at the same time as the medic, keeping his whole body in line to avoid worsening any spinal injuries. The medic slid the stretcher in place, and Ashok rolled the boy back. For one brief moment, he was supporting nearly all the boy's weight in his hands and the child seemed to weigh nothing, nothing at all, as though he was hollow. Ashok found that he was crying, silent tears that slid down his face, collecting blood, slipping into his mouth, doubly salty blood and tear mixture.
Mala silently slipped her arm in his. She was very warm in the oppressive heat of the morning. There would be a rain soon, the humidity couldn't stay this high all day, the water would come together soon and then the blood would wash away into the rough gutters that ran the laneway's length.
“He was a brave kid,” Mala said.
Ashok couldn't find a reply.
“I think he thought that if he charged us with that knife, sliced one of us up, we'd be so scared we'd go away forever.”
“You really understand him, then?” Ashok saw Yasmin steal over to them, slip her fingers into Mala's.
Mala didn't answer.
Yasmin said, “Everyone thinks that you can win the fight by striking first.” Mala's arm tightened on Ashok's arm. “But sometimes you win the fight by not fighting.”
Mala said, “We should call you General Gandhiji.”
“It'd be an honor, but I couldn't live up to Gandhi. He was a great man.”
Ashok said, “Gandhi admitted to beating his wife. He was a great man, but not a saint.” He swallowed. “No one mentions that Gandhi had all that violence inside him. I think it makes him better, because it means that his way wasn't just some natural instinct he was born with. It was something he battled for, in his own mind, every day.” He looked down at the top of Mala's head, startled for a moment to realize that she was shorter than him. He had a tendency to think of her as towering, larger than life.
Mala looked up at him and it seemed that her dark eyes were glowing in the hot, steamy air, staring out from under her long lashes. “Controlling yourself is overrated,” she said. “There's plenty to be said for letting go.”
There were so many eyes on them, so many people watching from every corner of the road, and Ashok felt suddenly very self-conscious.
Inside, the cafe was hardly recognizable. It stank like the den of some sick animal that had gone to ground, and one corner had been used as a toilet. Many of the computers had been carelessly moved, disconnecting their wires, and one screen was in fragments on the floor. There were betel-spit streaks around the floor, and empty bottles of cheap, fiery booze so awful even the old drunks in the streets wouldn't drink it.
But there was also a photo, much-creased and folded, of a worn but still pretty woman, formally posed, holding a baby and a slightly larger boy, whom Ashok remembered from the melee. The baby, he thought, must have been that younger boy, and he wondered what had become of the woman, and how she was separated from the sons she held with so much love. And the more he wondered, the more numb and sorrowful he felt, until the sorrow welled over him in black waves, like a tide coming in, until he buckled at the knees and went down to the floor, and if any of the soldiers saw him hold himself and cry, no one said a word.
His papers were intact, mostly, in the back room where he'd worked, and the network connection was still up, and the garbage was all swept out the door and the windows were flung open and soon the sound of joyous combat and soldierly high spirits filled Mrs Dibyendu's, as it had for so many days before. Ashok fell into the numbers and the sheets, seeing how he could work them with the new dates, and he was so engrossed that he didn't even notice the sudden silence in the cafe that marked the arrival of a policeman.
The policeman -- fat, corrupt, an old Dharavi rat himself, and more a creature of the slum than the children -- had already gotten an account from the neighbors, heard that the machete-wielding badmashes had been the invaders here, and he wasn't about to get exercised on behalf of six little nobodies like them. But when there was a death, there had to be paperwork...
“Death?” Ashok said.
“The small one. Dead by the time he reached the hospital.”
Ashok felt as though the floor was dropping away from him and the only thing that distracted him and kept him from falling with it was the gasp of dismay from Yasmin behind him, a sound that started off as an exhalation of breath but turned into a drawn out whimper. He turned and saw that she had gone so pale that she was actually green, and the doctor's son in him noticed that her pupils had shrunk to pinpricks.
The fat policeman looked at her, and his lips twisted into a wet, sarcastic smile. “Everything all right, miss?”
“She's fine,” Mala said, flatly. She was standing closer to the policeman than was strictly necessary, too short to stare him in the eye, but still she seemed to be looking down. Unconsciously, the policeman shifted his weight back, then took a step back, then turned.
“Good bye, then,” he said, brandishing his notebook, containing Ashok's identity card number; all the soldiers had claimed that they were never registered for the card, which Ashok really doubted, but which the policeman didn't question, as the air whistled out of his nostrils and he sweated in his uniform. The rains had finally come, the skies opening like floodgates, the rain falling in sheets the color of the pollution they absorbed on their fall from the heavens. The clatter on the tin walls and roof was like a firefight in some cheap game where the guns all made metallic pong and ping sounds.
Ashok watched as Yasmin drifted away into Mrs Dibyendu's little “office,” the room where she made the chai over a small gas burner; watched as Mala followed her. He tried to work on his calculations, but he couldn't concentrate until he saw Mala emerge, face slammed shut into her General Robotwallah expression, but there were still tracks from the tears on her cheeks. She looked straight through him and started to bark orders to her soldiers, who had been setting the cafe to rights and getting all the systems running again. A moment later, they were all clicking, shouting, headsets on, shoulders tight, in another world, and the battle was joined.
Ashok found his way into Mrs Dibyendu's office, found Yasmin squatting by the wall, heels flat on the ground, hands before her. She stared silently into those hands, twining them around each other like snakes.
“Yasmin,” he whispered. “Yasmin?”
She looked at him. There were no tears in her eyes, only an expression of bottomless sorrow. “I threw the rock,” she said. “The rock that hit that little boy. I threw it. The one that hit him in the mouth. He was...” She swallowed.
“He was running at us with a machete,” Ashok said. “He would have killed us --”
She chopped her hand through the air, a gesture full of uncharacteristic violence. “We put ourselves in that position, in the position where we'd have to kill him! It was Mala. Mala, she always wants to win before the battle is fought, win by annihilating the enemy. And then to talk of Gandhi?” She looked like she was going to punch something, small hands balled in fists and then, abruptly, she pitched forward and threw up, copiously, a complete ejection of the entire contents of her stomach, more vomit than Ashok had ever seen emerge from a human throat. In between convulsions, he half-led, half-carried her out of the cafe, into the all-pounding rain, and let her throw up into the laneway, which had become a rushing river, the rain overflowing the narrow ditches on either side of it. The water ran right up to the cracked slab of cement that served as Mrs Dibyendu's doorstep, and Yasmin's hijab was instantly soaked as she leaned out to spatter the water's turbulent surface with poories and chai and bile. Her long dress clung to her narrow back and shoulders, and it heaved with them as she labored for breath. Ashok was soaked too, the blood-taste in his mouth again as the water washed the dried blood down his face. The rain made talking impossible so he didn't have to worry about soothing words.
At last Yasmin straightened and then sagged against him. He put his arm around her, grateful for the feeling of another human being, that contact that penetrated his numbness. Something passed between them, carried on the thudding of their hearts, transmitted by their skin, and for a moment, he felt as though here, here at last, was someone who understood everything about him and here was someone he understood. The moment ended, ebbing away, until they were standing in an embarrassed, awkward half-hug, and they wordlessly disentangled and went back in. Someone had mopped up the vomit, using the rags that the badmashes had left behind and then kicking them in a reeking ball in the corner. Yasmin sat down at a computer and logged in, listening intently to the chatter around her, catching the order of battle, while Ashok went to his computer and got ready to talk to Big Sister Nor.
The day the strike started, Wei-Dong was in the midst of his second special assignment -- the first one had been to bring over the box of prepaid cards, which had been handed off into the Webbly network to be scratched off and then keyed in and sent to Big Sister Nor so she could portion them out to the fighters.
The second assignment was harder in some ways: he was charged with finding other Mechanical Turks who might be sympathetic to the strikers' cause and recruit them. Wei-Dong had never thought of himself as much of a leader -- he'd always been a loner in school -- but Big Sister Nor had talked to him at length about all the ways in which he might convince his fellow Turks to consider joining this strange enterprise.
Technically, it was simple enough to accomplish. As a Turk, he had access to the leaderboards of Turk activity, which Coca-Cola Online made a big deal out of, updating them every ten minutes. The leaderboards listed each Turk by name and showed which parts of the game he or she hung out in, how many queries she or he handled per hour, how highly rated the Turk's rulings and role-play were rated by the players who were randomly surveyed by a satisfaction-bot that gave out rare badges to any player who would fill in an in-game questionnaire. The idea was to inspire the Turks by showing them how much better their peers were doing. It worked, too -- Wei-Dong had spent many a night trying to pump his stats so that he could get ahead of the other Turks, scaling to the highest heights before being knocked down by someone else's all-night run. And, of course, when you pulled ahead of another Turk, you got to leave a public “message of encouragement” for them, no more than 140 characters so that it could be tweeted and texted straight to them, and these messages had pushed the boundaries of extremely terse profanity and boasting.
Wei-Dong had a new use for the boards: he was using them to figure out which players were likely to switch sides. The game-runners had created a facility for bulk-downloading historical data from them, and Turks were encouraged to make crazy mash-ups and visualizations showing whose play was the best. Wei-Dong had a different idea.
For weeks now, he'd been downloading gigantic amounts of data from the boards, piping it all into a database that Matthew had helped him build and now he could run some very specialized queries on it, queries like, “Show me Turks who used to lead the pack but have fallen off, despite long hours of work.” Or “Show me Turks who use a lot of profanity when they're filling in the dialog for non-player characters.” And especially, “Show me Turks who have a below-average level of ratting out gold-farmers to the bosses.” This last one was a major enterprise among Turks, who got a big bonus every time they busted a farmer. Most of the Turks went “de-lousing” pretty often, looking to rack up the extra cash. But a significant minority never, ever hunted the farmers, and these were Wei-Dong's natural starting point.
He had a long list of leads, and for each one, he had a timetable of the Turk's habitual login hours and the parts of the world that the Turk worked most often. Then it was only a matter of logging in using one of the Webblies many, many toons, heading to that part of the world, and invoking the Turk and hoping the right person showed up. It would be easier to just use the Turk message boards, but if he did, he'd be busted and fired in seconds. This way was less efficient but it was a lot safer.
Now he was in the Goomba's Star-Fields, a cloudscape in Mushroom Kingdom where the power-up stars were cultivated in endless rows. Players could quest here, taking jobs with comical farmers who'd put them to work weeding the star patches and pulling up the ripe ones. It was good for training up your abilities; a highly ranked Star Farmer could get more power-up out of his stars.
And here was the farmer, chewing a corn-stalk and puttering around his barn, which was also made from clouds. He offered Wei-Dong a quest -- low-level, just pulling up weeds from some of the easier-to-reach clouds, the ones that weren't patrolled by hostile Lakitus. Wei-Dong accepted the quest, and then opened a chat with the farmer: “How long have you owned this farm?”
“Oh, youngster, I've been working this farm since I was but a boy -- and my pappy worked it before me and his pappy before him. Yep, I guess you could say that we're a farming family, hee hee!”
This was canned dialog, of course. No Turk could ever bring himself to type anything that hokey. The farmer NPC had a whole range of snappy answers to stupid questions. The trick to invoking a Turk was to get outside the box.
“Do you like farming?”
“Ay-yuh, you might say I do. It's a good living -- when the sun shines! Hee hee!”
Wei-Dong rolled his eyes. Who wrote this stuff? “What problems do you have as a farmer?”
“Oh, it's a good living -- when the sun shines! Hee hee!”
Wei-Dong smiled a little. Once the NPC started repeating itself, a Turk would be summoned. The farmer seemed to twitch a little.
“Do you have any problems apart from lack of sunshine?”
“Oh, youngster, you don't want to hear an old farmer's complaints. Many and many a day I have toiled in these fields and my hands are tired. Let's speak of more pleasant things, if you please.” That was more like it. The dialog was the kind of thing an enthusiastic role-playing Turk would come up with, and that fit the profile of the Turk he was after.
“Is your name Jake Snider?” he typed.
The character didn't move for a second. “I ken not this Jake Snider, youngster. You'd best be on with your chores, now.”
“I think you are Jake Snider and I think you know that you're not getting a fair deal out of Coke. You're pulling down more hours than ever, but your pay is way down. Why do you suppose that is? Did you know that Coca-Cola Games just had its best quarter, ever? And that the entire executive group got a 20 percent raise? Did you know that Coke systematically rotates Turks who make too much money out of duty, replacing them with newbies who don't know how to maximize their revenue?”
The farmer started to walk away, rake over his shoulder. Wei-Dong followed.
"Wait! Here's the thing. It doesn't have to be this way! Workers can organize and demand a better deal from their bosses. Workers are organizing. You give it two more months and you'll be out on the street. Isn't your pay and your dignity worth fighting for?
The farmer was headed into his house. Wei-Dong thought for a second that he was talking to the NPC again, that the Turk had logged out. But no, there was a little clumsiness in the farmer's movements, a little hesitation. There was still someone home. “I know you can't talk to me in-game. Here's an email address -- D9FA754516116E89833A5B92CE055E19BCD2FA7@gmail.com. Send me a message and we'll talk in private.”
He held his breath. The Turk could have been ratting him out to game management, in which case his toon would be nuked in a matter of minutes and the Webblies would be out one more character and one more prepaid card. But the NPC went into his house and nothing happened. Wei-Dong felt a flutter in his chest, and then another, a few minutes later, when his email pinged.
> Tell me more
It was unsigned, but he knew who it came from.
“You should go to Hong Kong,” Lu said to Jie, holding her hand tightly and staring into her eyes. “You can do the show from there. It's safer.”
Jie turned her head and blew out a stream of air. She squeezed his hand. “I know that you mean the best, Tank, but I won't do it and I want you to stop talking about it. I'm a Webbly, just like you, just like everyone here. Sure, I can broadcast from Hong Kong, technically, but what would I broadcast about? I'm a journalist, Tank. I need to be here to see what's going on, to report on it. I can't do that from HK.”
“But it's not safe --”
She cut him off with a chopping gesture. “Of course it's not safe! I haven't been interested in safety since the day I went on the air. You're not safe. My factory girls aren't safe. The Webblies on the picket lines aren't safe. Why should I be safe?”
Lu bit down on the words: because I love you. Secretly, he was relieved. He didn't know what he'd do if Jie was in Hong Kong and he was in Shenzhen. The last of her safe-houses, another flat in a handshake building, was crowded with Webblies, forty boys all studiously ignoring them, but he knew they were listening in. They slept in shifts here, forty at a time, while eighty more went out to work at friendly net-cafes, taking care never to send more than two or three into any one cafe lest they draw attention to themselves. Just the day before, two boys had been followed out of a cafe by a couple of anonymous hard men who methodically kicked the everloving crap out of them, right on the public street, sending one to the hospital.
“You know it's only a matter of time until this place is blown,” is what Lu said. “Someone will get careless and be followed home, or one of the neighbors will start to talk about all the boys who trek in and out of the flat at all hours, and then --”
“And then we'll move to another one,” she said. “I have been renting and blowing off apartments for longer than you've been killing trolls. So long as the advertising keeps on paying, I'll keep on earning, and if I keep on earning, I can keep on renting.”
“How long will the advertisers pay for you to spend three hours every night telling factory girls to fight back against their bosses?”
A smile played over her lips, the secret, confident smile that always melted his heart. “Oh, Tank,” she said. “The advertisers don't care what I talk about, so long as the factory girls are listening, and they are listening.”
She patted his hands. “Now, I want you to go and find me a Webbly to interview tonight, someone who can tell me how it's all going. Any more protests?”
He shook his head. “Not the noisy kind. Too many arrests.” There were over a hundred Webblies in jail, all over south China. “But you heard about Dongguan?”
She shook her head.
“The Webblies there have a new kind of demonstration. Instead of making a lot of noise and shouting slogans, they all walk very slowly around the bus-station, right in the middle of town, eating ice cream.”
He grinned. “Ice-cream. After the jingcha started to arrest anyone who even looked like he was going to protest, they started posting these very public notices: 'show up at such-and-such a place and buy an ice-cream.' Dozens, then hundreds of them, eating ice-cream, grinning like maniacs, and the police were there, staring at each other like mannequins, like, Are we going to arrest these boys for eating ice-cream? And then someone got the bright idea of buying two ice-creams and giving one away to someone random passing by. It's the easiest recruitment tool you can imagine!”
She laughed so long and hard that tears ran down her face. “I love you guys,” she said. “I can't wait to talk about this on tonight's show.”
“If they get arrested for eating ice-cream, they're going to switch to getting together and smiling at each other. Can you imagine? Are we going to arrest these boys for smiling?”
Her laughter broke through the invisible wall that separated them from the lounging, off-shift Webblies, who demanded to know what was so funny. Not all of them knew about the ice-cream -- they were too busy patrolling the worlds, keeping the gold-farms from being run with replacement workers -- but everyone agreed that it was pure genius.
Soon they were downloading videos of the ice-cream eating, and then another shift of boys trickled in and wanted to be let in on the joke, and before they knew it, they were planning their own ice-cream eating festival, and the general hilarity continued until Jie and Lu slipped away to 'cast her show for the night, grabbing a couple of hysterical Webblies to interview in between the calls from the factory girls.
As Lu put his head down on his pillow and draped his arm around Jie's narrow shoulders and put his face in her thick, fragrant hair, he had a moment's peace and joy, real joy, knowing that they couldn't possibly lose.
The strike was entering its second week when the empire struck back. Connor had known about the strike for days, but he hadn't taken action right away. At first he wasn't sure he wanted to take action. The parasites were keeping each other busy, after all, and the strikers were doing a better job of shutting down the gold markets than he ever had (much as it hurt to admit it). Plus there was something fascinating about the organization of these characters -- they all came in through proxies, but by watching their sleep schedules and sniffing their chatter he knew that they were scattered all across the Pacific Rim and the subcontinent. Sitting there in his god's eye, in Command Central, he felt like he had a front-row seat to an amazing and savage flea circus in which exotic, armored insects fought each other endlessly, moving in precise regimented lines that spoke of military discipline.
But he couldn't leave them to do this forever. He wasn't the only one in Command Central who'd noticed that this was going on, and the derivative markets were starting to pick up on the news, yo-yo-ing so crazily that even the mainstream press had begun to sniff around. Game-gold markets had been an exotic, silly-season news-story a couple years back but these days the only people who paid attention to them were players: high-volume traders controlling huge fortunes that bought and sold game gold and its many sub-species in a too-fast-to-follow blur. Until, of course, word started to leak out about these Webblies and their pitched battles, their ice-cream socials, their global span -- and now corporate PR was calling Command Central five times a day, trying to get a meeting so they could agree on what to tell the press.
So first thing on Monday morning, he gathered all of Command Central, along with some of the cooler -- that is, less neurotically paranoid -- lawyers and a couple of the senior PR people in one of Coke's secure board-rooms for a long session with the white-board.
“We should just exterminate these parasites,” Bill said. “You can have the ten grand.” Connor and Bill's bet had become a running joke in Command Central, but Connor and Bill knew that it was deadly serious. They were both part of the financial markets, and they knew that a bet was just another kind of financial transaction, and had to be honored.
Connor's smile was grim. He hadn't known whether the security chief would come over to his side; he was such a pragmatist about these things. Maybe they'd get something done after all. “You know I'm with you, but the question is, how high a price are we prepared to pay to get rid of these people?”
“No price is too high,” said Kaden, who prided himself on being the most macho guy in Command Central -- the kind of guy who won't shut up about his gun collection and his karate prowess. Kaden might have been a black belt 20 years ago, but five years in Command Central had made him lavishly, necklessly fat, and unable to go up a flight of stairs without losing his breath.
Bill -- no lightweight himself -- craned his head around to stare fishily at Kaden. He made a dismissive grunt and said, “Oh, really?”
Kaden -- called out in front of a room full of people -- colored, dug in. “Goddamned right. These crooks are in our worlds. We can outspend and outmanoeuvre them. We just have to have the balls to do what it takes, instead of pussying out the way we always do.”
Bill grunted again, a sound like a cement-mixer with indigestion. “No price is too high?”
“How about shutting down the game? Is that price too high?”
“Don't be stupid.”
“I don't think I'm the one being stupid. There's an upper limit on how much this company can afford to spend on these jerks. If removing them from the game costs us more than leaving them there, we're just shooting ourselves in the head. So let's stop talking about 'pussying out' and 'no cost is too high' and set some parameters that we can turn into action, all right?”
“I just mean to say --”
Bill got out of his seat and turned all the way around to face Kaden, fixing him with a withering stare. “Go,” he said. “Just go. You're a pretty good level designer, but I've seen better. And as a person, you're a total waste. You've got nothing useful to add to this discussion except for stupid slogans. We've heard the stupid slogans. Go buff your paladin or something and let the grownups get on with it.”
Silence descended on the meeting room. Connor, standing at the front of the room, thought about telling Bill to back off, but the thing was, he was right, Kaden was a total ass, and letting him talk would just distract them all from getting the job done.
Kaden sat, mouth open and fishlike, for a moment, then looked around for support. He found none. Bill made a condescending little shooing gesture. Kaden's face went from red to purple.
“Just go,” Connor said, and that broke the moment. Kaden slunk out of the room like a whipped dog and they all turned back to Connor.
“OK,” Connor said. “Here's the thing: this has to be about solving the problem, not posturing or thumping our chests. So let's stick to the problem.” He nodded at Bill.
Bill stood, turned around to face the audience. "Here's what doesn't work: IP addresses. They're coming in from proxies all over the US, and they can find proxies faster than we can blacklist them. Plus we've got tons of legit customers -- expats, mostly -- who live in China and around Asia and use these proxies to escape their local network blocks. But even if we were willing to throw those customers under a bus to stop the gold-farmers, we couldn't.
"Also doesn't work: payment tracing. These accounts are bought on legit prepaid cards. The farmers are all paying customers, in other words. We could shut off the prepaid cards and insist on credit cards, but they'd just get prepaid credit cards. And every kid in America and Canada and Europe who pays for her account with prepaid cards from the corner store would be out of luck. That's a lot of customers to throw under the bus -- and they'll just move on to one of our competitors. Plus, those prepaid cards are gold. Kids buy them and half the time they don't use them -- they're free money for us.
"Finally doesn't work: Behavioral profiling. Yes, these characters have some stereotypical behaviors, like running the same grinding tasks for hours, or engaging in these giant, epic battles. But this is also characteristic of a huge number of normal players -- again, these are people we don't want to throw under the bus.
“So what will work?”
Connor nodded. “One thing I know we can do is get more mileage out of the busts we make. Once we positively identify a farmer, we should be able to take out his whole network by backtracking the people he's chatted with, the ones he's partied with, his guildies.”
Bill was shaking his head and made a rumbling sound. “That's the sound of your bus running over more legit players. These cats can easily blow that strategy just by recruiting normal players for their raids and fights. Hell, we designed it that way.”
“The money'll be easier to trace,” said Fairfax, interrupting them. She looked from one to the other. “I mean, these farmer types have to dispose of their gold, and if we take it back from any player that bought it --”
“They'd go crazy,” Connor said.
“It's against the terms of service,” she said. “They know they're cheating. It'd be justice. On what basis could they complain? They agree to the terms every time they log on.”
Connor sighed. The terms of service were 18 screens long and required a law degree to understand. They prohibited every conceivable in-game activity, up to and including having fun. Technically, every player violated the terms every day, which meant that if they wanted to, they could kick off anyone at any time (of course, this too was allowed in the terms: “Coca-Cola Games, Ltd reserves the right to terminate your account at any time, for any reason”). “The problem is that too many players think that buying gold is all right. We sell gold, after all, on our own exchanges, all the time. If you nuked every account involved in a gold-farming buy, we'd depopulate the world by something like 80 percent. We can't afford it.”
“80 percent? No way --”
“Look,” he said. “I've been going after the farmers now for months. It's the first time we've ever tried to be systematic about them, instead of just slapping them down when the activity gets a little too intense. I can show you the numbers if you want, show you how I worked this out, but for now, let's just say that I'm the expert on this subject and I'm not making this up.”
Fairfax looked chastened. “Fine,” she said. “So you want to go after the known associates of the farmers we bust, even though we can all see how easy it will be to defeat.”
Connor shrugged. “OK, sure. They'll get around it, eventually. But we'll have some time to get on them.”
Bill cleared his throat, shook his head again. “You have any idea how much transactional data we're going to have to store to keep a record of every person every player has ever talked to or fought with? And then someone will have to go over all those transactions, one by one, every time we bust a player, to make sure we're getting real confederates and not innocent by-standers. Where are all those people going to come from?”
Someone in the audience -- it was Baird, the lawyer Connor hated the least -- said, “What about the Mechanical Turks?”
Connor and Bill stared at each other, mouths open. The lawyer looked slightly nervous. “I mean --”
“Of course,” Connor said. “And we could do it for free. Just let the Turks keep any gold from the accounts of busted players.”
One of the other economists was young Palmer, and he reminded Connor of himself a few years back. Connor hated him. His eager hand shot up. “I thought the point was to keep all that gold out of the market,” he said. “How can we control the monetary supply if these goombas are allowed to flood the market with cheap money?”
Connor waved his hands. “Yes, theoretically these cats are outside our monetary planning, but even going flat out, they just don't move the market that much. And if they do, we can restrict the supply at our side, or adjust the basic in-game costs up or down... And it's not as if the Turks will turn around and spend the gold right away, or dump it through one of the official exchanges, especially if we keep the exchange rate low through that period.”
Young Palmer opened his mouth again and Connor stopped him. “Look, this is all model-able. Let's stipulate that we can take care of the monetary supply and move on.” In the back of his mind, he knew that he was dismissing a potentially explosive issue with a lot more cavalier abandon than was really warranted, but the fact was this was his chance to take care of the gold farmers once and for all, with the full weight of the company behind him, and if that screwed up the economy a little, well, they'd fix it later. They controlled the economy, after all.
Later, at his desk in Command Central, he looked up from his feeds and saw a room full of the smartest, toughest people in the company -- in the world -- bent to the same task, ferreting out the parasites that he'd been chasing for months. And if he himself had once been a kind of gold-farmer, a speculator of in-game assets, well, so what? He graduated to something better.
The fact was, there wasn't room on earth for a couple million gold-farmers to turn into high-paid video-game executives. The fact was, if you had to slice the pie into enough pieces to give one to everyone, you'd end up slicing them so thin you could see through them. “When 30,000 people share an apple, no one benefits -- especially not the apple.” It was a quote one of his economics profs had kept written in the corner of his white-board, and any time a student started droning on about compassion for the poor, the old prof would just tap the board and say, “Are you willing to share your lunch with 30,000 people?”
And hell, there were at least three million gold-farmers in the world. Let them get their own goddamned apples.
“Sea-level” is a term that refers to the average level of all the world's oceans. Think of the world as a giant bed-pan, filled halfway with water. You can blow on one part of the surface and induce some tiny waves whose crests are higher than the rest of the water. You can tip the bed-pan from side to side and cause the water to slosh around, making it higher at one end than another. But overall, there's a single level to that water, a surface height that you can easily discern.
Same with the oceans. Though the tides may drag the water from one edge of the sea to the other -- and really, there's only one sea, a single, continuous jigsaw-puzzle-piece-shaped body of water that wraps around all the continents -- though the storms may blow up waves here and there, in the end, there's only so much water in the ocean, and it more or less comes to an easily agreed-upon height. Sea level.
Same with money. There's only so much value in the world: only so much stuff to buy. If you got all the money in the world, you could exchange it for all the stuff on earth (at least all the stuff there is for sale). It doesn't matter, really, whether the money is in dollars or gold pieces or mushrooms or ringgits or euros or yen. Add it all together and what you've got is the ocean. What you've got is sea level.
So what happens if someone just prints a lot more money? What happens if you just double the amount of money in circulation? Will the monetary seas rise, drowning the land?
Printing more money doesn't make more money. Printing more money is like measuring the ocean in liters instead of gallons. Converting 343 quintillion gallons of ocean into 1.6 sextillion liters (give or take) doesn't give you any more water. Gallons and liters are measurements of water, not water itself.
And dollars are measures of value, not value itself. If you double the amount of currency in circulation, you double the price of everything on Earth. The amount of stuff is fixed, the amount of currency isn't. That's called inflation, and it can be savage.
Say you're a dictator of a tin-pot republic. For decades, you've lined your pockets at the peoples' expenses, taxing the crap out of everyone and embezzling it into your secret off-shore bank-account in Honduras. Eventually, you've moved so much wealth out of the country that people are ready to eat their shoes. They start to get angry. At you.
Normally, you'd just have your soldiers go and make examples of a few hundred dissidents and leave their grisly, carved up remains by the roadside in shallow graves as a means of informing your loyal subjects of what they can expect if they keep this kind of thing up.
But soldiers -- even the real retarded sadists -- don't work for free. They want paying. And if you've taken all the money out of the country and put it in your bank account, you need something to pay them with.
No problem. You're a dictator. Just call up the treasury department and order them to print up a couple trillion ducats or gold certificates or wahoonies or whatever you call your money, and you start paying the troops. It works -- for a while. The troops take their dough into town and use it to buy drinks and snazzy clothes and big meals. They send it home to their families, who use it to buy lumber and tile and steel and cement to improve their houses, or to buy farm implements and pay the hired hands to help them bring up the next crop.
But as the amount of money in circulation grows, it gradually becomes worth less. The bar raises its drink prices because the landlord has raised the rent. The landlord has raised the rent because the cost of feeding his family has gone up, because the farmer isn't willing to sell his crops for the old prices, because she's paying double for diesel for the tractor and triple for water.
And then the soldiers show up at the dictator's palace and explain, pointedly, with bayonets (if necessary), why their old wages are no longer sufficient.
No problem. Just call up the treasury and order up another trillion wahoonies. And watch it all happen again.
This is called inflation, and it's the cheap sugar high of governments. Like a cramming student sucking down energy beverages, a government can only print money for so long before they have to pay the price. It's not pretty, either. Families that carefully saved all their lives for their retirement suddenly find their tidy nest-egg is insufficient to cover the price of a dinner out. Every penny of savings is wiped out in the blink of an eye, and suddenly you need a lot more soldiers on the job to keep your loyal subject from gutting you like a fish and hanging you upside down from your own palace's tallest chimney.
If you're a very cheeky dictator, you'll go one further: take all the savings in the banks that are denominated in real money -- euros or dollars or yen -- and convert them into wahoonies at today's exchange rate. Use all that real money to pay the army for a day or two more, but you'd better save enough to pay for airfare to some place very, very far away.
If you think inflation is scary, try deflation. As people get poorer -- as less and less money is in circulation -- the value of money goes up. This is good news for savers: the wahoonie you banked last year is worth twice as much this year. But it's bad news for everyone else: only an idiot borrows money in deflationary times, since the wahoonie you borrow today will be worth twice as much next year when you repay it. Deflation is uneven, too: the cost of food may crash because of some amazing new fertilizer, which means you can buy twice as much cassava per wahoonie. But this means that farmers are only earning half as much, and won't pay as much for cable TV. The cable company hasn't had its costs go down, though, so the reduced payment means less profits. Businesses start to fail, which means more people have less money, which drives prices down and down and down. Before long, no one can afford to make or buy anything.
In other words, the amount of money in circulation is a big deal. Theoretically, this amount is watched carefully by clever, serious economists. In practice, all the world's money is in one big swirling, whirling pool. Dollars and ducats and wahoonies and euros, blended together willy nilly, and when one government goes to the press and starts to churn out bales of bank-notes, everyone gets the sugar high. And when things crash, and peoples' savings go up in smoke, the deflationary death-spiral kicks in, and prices sink, and more companies fail -- and governments go back to the printing press.
So in practice, this big engine that determines how much food is grown, whether you'll have to sell your kidneys to feed your family, whether the factory down the road will make Zeppelins, whether the restaurant on the corner can afford the coffee beans, all this important stuff has no one in charge of it. It is a runaway train, the driver dead at the switch, the passengers clinging on for dear life as their possessions go flying off the freight-cars and out the windows, and each curve in the tracks threatens to take it off the rails altogether.
There is a small number of people in the back of the train who fiercely argue about when it will go off the rails, and whether the driver is really dead, and whether the train can be slowed down by everyone just calming down and acting as though everything was all right. These people are the economists, and some of the first-class passengers pay them very well for their predictions about whether the train is doing all right and which side of the car they should lean into to prevent their hats from falling off on the next corner.
Everyone else ignores them.
“Hey, Connor!” his broker said, his voice tight and nervous, his cheer transparently false.
“Cut to the chase, huh, man?” Ira's voice was so tight it twanged. “You're such a straight-shooter. It's why you're my favorite customer.”
“What's wrong, Ira?” Command Central roared around him, a buzz of shouts and conversations and profanity.
“So, you remember those bonds we took you into?”
Connor's chest tightened. He forced himself to stay calm. “I remember them.”
“Well, they were paying out really well -- you saw the statements. Eight percent last month --”
“I saw the statements.”
“Ira,” Connor said. “Stop being such a goddamned salesman and tell me what the hell is going on, or I'm going to hang up this phone and call your boss.”
“Connor,” Ira said, his voice hurt. “Look, we're buddies --”
“We're not buddies. You're a salesman. I'm your customer. I'm hanging up now.”
“Wait! Come on, wait! OK, here it is. There's a little...liquidity crisis in the underlying assets.”
Connor translated the broker-speak into English. “They don't have any money.”
“They don't have any money this month,” he said. “Look, the coupon on this contract has been through the roof for more than a year. Ultimately, it can't lose, either, because of how we've packaged it with a credit-default swap. But right now, this instant, they're having a tough one-time-only squeeze.”
After the first month's interest had paid out, Connor had liquidated several other holdings and bought more of the bonds, bought big. So big that the brokerage had FedExxed him a bottle of Champagne. He'd lost track of how much he had tied up with Ira's “fully hedged” scheme, but he knew it was at least $150,000. That had seemed like such a good bet --
“What kind of one-time-only squeeze?”
“Nintendo,” the broker said. “They've loosened up their monetary policy lately. The star-farmers in Mushroom Kingdom are bringing up huge crops, and so Mario coins are dropping off in cost. But the word is that this is just a temporary gambit because they've had such a huge rush of new players who can't afford to keep up with the old-timers, so they're trying to lower commodity prices to keep those players onboard. But once those players catch up and start demanding more power-ups, the prices'll bounce back.”
It sounded plausible to Connor. After all, they'd done similar things in their own games. The experienced players howled as inflation lowered the value of their savings, but a player who'd been honing his toon for two years wasn't going to quit over something like that. The new blood was vital to keeping the game on track, replacements for the players who got old, or bored, or poor -- any of the reasons behind the churn that caused some players to resign every month.
Churn was one of his biggest economic problems. You could minimize it in lots of sneaky ways: email a former player to tell him that you were about to delete the toon he hadn't touched in a year and there was a one-in-three chance that he'd sign up to play again, rather than doom this forgotten avatar to the bit-bucket. But ultimately some players would leave, and the only thing for it was to bring new players in.
The broker was still droning on. “ -- so really, we expect a huge surge in four to eight weeks, more than enough to make up for the drop. And if things go bad enough, there's always the prince and his bets --”
“What's the bottom line?” Connor said.
“Bottom line,” Ira said. “Bottom line is that there's no coupon this month. The underlying bonds are selling at a 20 percent discount off face value.” He swallowed audibly. “That's sixty percent off what you paid for them in this package. But if things get bad enough, you'll recoup with the insurance --”
Connor tried to keep listening, but his breath was coming in tight little gasps. Sixty percent! He'd just had more than half his net worth vanish into thin air. The worst part was that he had other obligations -- a mortgage, payments due on some of the little startups he'd bought into, money to pay the contractors who were fixing up the holiday cottage he'd bought as a rental property in Bermuda. Without the cash he'd been expecting from these investments, he could lose it all.
Oblivious, the broker kept talking. “-- which is why our recommendation today is to buy. Double down.”
“Excuse me?” Connor said, loud enough that the people closest to him in Command Central looked up from their feeds to stare at him. He scowled at them until they looked away. “Did you say buy?”
“There's never been a better time,” the salesman said. Connor pictured him in his cubicle, a short-haired middle-aged guy in an old suit that had once been tailor made, a collection of bad habits glued to a phone, chewed-down fingernails and twitching knees, a trashcan beside him filled with empty coffee cups, screens everywhere around him flickering like old silent films. “Look, any idiot can buy when the market is up, but how much higher does the market go when it's already at the top? The only way to make real money, big money, is to bet against the herd. When everyone else is dumping their holdings, that's the time to buy, when it's all down in the basement.”
Connor knew that this made sense. It was the basis of his Prikkel equations, it was the basis of all the fortunes he'd amassed to date. Buying stuff that everyone else wanted was a safe, uninteresting bet that paid practically nothing. Buying into the things that everyone else was too dumb to want -- that was how you got rich.
“Ira,” Connor said, “I hear what you're saying, but you've seen my accounts. I can't afford to double down. I'm maxxed out.”
“Connor, pal,” he said, and Connor heard the smile in his voice and he smiled himself, a reflex he couldn't tamp down even if he'd wanted to. “You're not tapped out. You've got a liquidity problem. You have a relationship with this brokerage. That's worth something. Hell, that's worth everything. We got you into this problem, and we'll get you out of it. If you need some credit, that's absolutely do-able. Let me talk to our credit department and get back to you. I'm sure we can make it all work.”
Connor was overcome by an eerie, schizophrenic sensation. It was as if his brain had split into two pieces. One piece was shaking its head vigorously, saying Oh no, you're out of your mind, there's no way I'm putting more money into this thing. No, no, no, Christ, no!
But there was another part of his mind that was saying He's right, the best time to buy is at the bottom of the market. These things have been paying out big-time. The explanation makes sense. Just think of how you'll feel when you don't buy in and the security bounces back, all that money you'll miss out on. Think of how you'll feel if you clean up and can buy a bigger house, another income property, a new car. Think of how all these jerks will drool with envy when you make a killing.
And his mouth opened and the words that came out of it were, “All right, that sounds great. I'll take as much as you can sell me on margin.” On margin: that was when you bought securities with borrowed money, because you were sure that the bets would pay off before you had to pay the money back. It was a dangerous game: if the margin call came before the bets paid off -- or if they never paid off -- it could wipe you out.
But these were not bets, really. The way that the brokerage had packaged them, they were fully hedged. The worse the underlying bonds did, the more the bets against them from the Prince paid off. There might be some minor monthly variations, but when it was all said and done, he just couldn't lose.
“Buy,” he said. “Buy, buy, buy.”
Through the rest of the day, he was so preoccupied with worry over his precarious position that he didn't even notice when every other executive in Command Central had a nearly identical conversation with their brokers.
Wei-Dong's mother was the perfect reality check when it came to games and the Webblies. He'd never appreciated it before he left home, but once he'd gone to work as a Turk, his mom had tried to re-establish contact by clipping stories about games and gamers and emailing them to him. It was always stuff he'd absorbed through his pores months before, being reported to outsiders with big screaming OMG WTF headlines that made him snicker.
But he came to appreciate his mom's clippings as a glimpse into a parallel universe of non-gamers, people who just didn't get how important all this had become. The best ones were from the financial press, trying to explain to weirdos who invested in game-gold exactly what they had bought.
And those clippings were even more important now that he'd come to China. Mom still thought he was in Alaska, and he made sure to pepper his occasional emails to her with references to the long nights and short days, the wilderness, the people -- a lot of it cut-and-pasted verbatim from the tweets of actual Alaska tourists.
Today, three weeks into the strike, she sent him this:
A UNION FOR VIDEO-GAMERS?
They call themselves the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, and they claim that there are over 100,000 of them today, up from 20,000 just a few weeks ago. They spend their days and nights in multiplayer video-games, toiling to extract wealth from the game-engines, violating the game companies' exclusive monopoly over game-value. The crops these “gold farmers” raise are sold on to rich players in America, Europe and the rest of the developed world, and the companies that control the games say that this has the potential to disrupt the carefully balanced internal economies --
Wei-Dong spacebarred through the article, skimming down. It was interesting to see one of his mother's feeds talking about Webblies, but they were so... old school about it. Explaining everything.
Then he stopped, scrolled back up.
...mysterious, influential pirate radio host who calls herself Jiandi, whose audience is rumored to be in the tens of millions, creating a rare and improbable alliance between traditional factory workers and the gamers. This phenomenon is reportedly repeating itself around the Pacific Rim, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, though it's unclear whether the “IWWWW” chapters in these countries are mere copycats or whether they're formally affiliated, under a single command.
Wei-Dong looked up from his screen at the mattress where Lu and Jie had collapsed after staggering in from the latest broadcast, Jie's face so much younger in repose. Could she really be this famous DJ that Mom -- Mom, all the way across the world in Los Angeles -- was reading about?
There was more, screens and screens more, but what really caught his attention was the mention of the “market turmoil” that was sending bond and stock prices skittering up and down. He didn't understand that stuff very well -- every time someone had attempted to explain it to him, his eyes had glazed over -- but it was clear that the things that they were doing here were having an effect, a massive effect, all over the world.
He almost laughed aloud, but caught himself. Matthew was sleeping all of six inches from where he sat, and he'd run the picket-skirmishes for 22 hours straight before keeling over. Wei-Dong had fought too, but he'd been mostly tasked to recruiting more Turks to his little list of friendly operatives, a much less intense kind of game. Still, he should be sleeping, not pecking at his laptop. In six hours, he'd be back on shift, with only a bowl of congee and a plate of dumplings to start the day.
He folded down his laptop's lid and stretched his arms over his head, noting as he did the rank smell of his armpits. The single shower -- ringed with a scary-looking electrical heater that warmed up the water as it passed through the showerhead -- wasn't sufficient for all the Webblies who slept in the flat, and he'd skipped bathing for two days in a row. He wasn't the only one. The apartment smelled like the locker rooms at school or like the homeless shelter near Santee Alley that he used to pass when he went out for groceries.
He heard a little chirp from somewhere nearby, the cricket-soft buzz of a mobile phone ringing. He watched as Jie sleepily pawed at the little purse by her pillow, its strap already looped around her arm, and extracted a phone, blearily answered it: “Wei?”
Her sleepy eyes sprang open with such force that he actually heard her eyelids crinkling. Her bloodshot eyes showed her whole iris, and she leapt up, shouting in slangy Chinese that came so fast he couldn't understand her at first.
But then he caught it: “Police! Outside! GO GO GO!”
There were 58 Webblies sleeping in the safe-house, and in an instant they all shot out of their blankets, most of them already dressed, and jammed their toes into their shoes and grabbed little shoulder-bags containing their data and personal possessions and crowded into the doorway. They worked in near-silence, the only sound urgent whispers and curses as they stepped on each others' shoes. Some made for the window, leaping out to grab the balcony of the opposite handshake building, and now there was shouting from the street as the oncoming police spotted them.
He joined the crush of bodies, pushing grimly into the narrow hallway, then sprinting in the opposite direction to most of the Webblies, for he had seen Jie running that way, holding tight to Lu's hand, and Jie seemed to have the survival instincts of a city rat. If she was running that way, he'd run that way too.
But she'd gotten ahead of him, and when he skidded around the corner and found himself looking at a short length of corridor ending with an unmarked door, neither she nor Lu were anywhere to be seen. He paused for a second, then the unmistakable sound of a gunshot and a rising wave of panicked screams drove him forward, hurtling for the unmarked door, hand stretched out to turn the knob --
-- which was locked!
He bounced off the door, stunned, and went on his ass, and shouted a single, panicked “Shit!” as he cracked his head on the dirty tile floor. As he struggled back into a seated position, he saw the door crack open. Jie's bloodshot eye peeked out at him, and she swore in imaginative, slangy Chinese. “Gweilo,” she hissed, “quickly!”
He got to his feet quickly and reached the door in two quick steps. Her long fingernails dug into his arm as she dragged him inside the dimly lit space, which he saw now was a kind of supply closet that someone had converted into sleeping quarters, with a rolled up bed in one corner and a corner of one shelf cleared of cleaning products and disinfectant and piled with a meager stack of clothes and collection of toiletries and a small vanity mirror.
“The matron,” Jie said, whispering so quietly that Wei-Dong could barely hear her. “She gets to live in here for free. She and I have an arrangement.” Lu was on his hands and knees behind her, silently rearranging the crowded space, working with a small LED flashlight clamped between his teeth. He was breathing heavily, his skinny arms trembling as he hefted the giant bottles of bleach and strained to set them down without making a sound.
“Can I help?” Wei-Dong whispered.
Jie rolled her eyes. “Does it look like there's room to help?” she said. She was so close to him that he could see her individual eyelashes, the downy hair on her earlobes. If he took a deep breath, he'd probably crush her.
He shook his head minutely. “Sorry.”
Lu made a satisfied grunt and detached the entire bottom shelf from its bracket. Wei-Dong could see that he'd uncovered an access-hatch set into the wall, and it showered dust and paint-chips onto the floor in a cockroach-wing patter as he worked it loose. He passed it back and Jie tried to grab it, but there wasn't room to maneuver it in the small space.
From the other side of the door, he heard the tromp, tromp, tromp of heavy boots, heard the thudding and pounding on the doors, the muffled and frightened conversations of people roused from their beds in the middle of the night.
With a low, frustrated, frightened sound Jie grabbed the hatch cover and moved it out of the way, bashing him so hard in the nose that he had to stuff his fist in his mouth to stop from crying out. She gave him a contemptuous look and shoved the hatch into his hands. It was about 30 inches square, filthy, awkward, made from age-softened plywood.
Lu had passed through the hatch already, and now Jie was following, her bare legs flashing in the half-light of the room, and then Wei-Dong was alone, and the tromp of the boots was louder. Someone was scuffling in the hallway, a man, shouting in outrage; a woman, screaming in terror; a baby, howling.
Wei-Dong knelt down and peered into the tiny opening. It was pitch dark in there. He carefully leaned the cover up against the wall beside the opening and then climbed in. The floor on the other side was unfinished concrete, gritty and dusty. He couldn't see a thing as he pulled himself forward on his elbows, commando-style, his breath rasping in his ears. He inched forward, feeling cautiously ahead for obstructions and then discovered that he was holding something soft and pliant and warm. Jie's breast.
She hissed like a snake and swiped his hand away with sudden violence. He began to stammer an apology, but she hissed again: “Shhh!”
He bit back the words.
“Close up the grating,” she said. He cautiously began to turn around. The little space was a mere meter high and he repeatedly smashed his head into the ceiling, which had several unforgiving metal pipes running along it that bristled with vicious joints and tees. And he kicked both Jie and Lu several times.
But he eventually found himself with his head and arms outside the hatch, and he desperately fitted his fingers to the inside of the grill and inched it into place. It was nearly impossible to manoeuvre it into the tight space, but he managed, his fingers white -- and all the while, the sounds from the corridor grew louder and louder.
“Got it,” he gasped and slithered away. There were voices from just outside the door now, deep, impatient male voices and an angry, shrill woman's voice telling them that this was the stupid broom closet and to stop being so stupid. Someone shook the doorknob and then put a shoulder into the door, which shuddered.
Wei-Dong bit his tongue to hold in the squeak and pushed back even more, the fear on him know, a live thing in his chest. Jie and Lu pushed at him as he collided with them, but he barely felt it. All he felt was the fear, fear of the armed men on the other side of the door, about to come through and see the closet and the obvious gap on the bottom shelf where things had been shoved aside. Wei-Dong was suddenly and painfully aware of how far he was from home, an illegal immigrant with no rights in a country where no one else had rights, either. He would have cried if he hadn't been scared to make a sound.
“Come on,” Jie whispered, a sound barely audible as another crash rocked the door. Someone had a key in the lock now, jiggling it. She clicked a tiny red LED to life and it showed him the shape of the space: a long, low plumbing maintenance area. The pipes above them gurgled and whooshed softly as the water sluiced through them.
Lu was beside him, Jie ahead of them, and she was arm-crawling to the opposite side of the area. He followed as quickly as he could, ears straining for any sound from behind him.
Jie swore under her breath.
“What?” Lu said.
“I can't find the other grating,” she said. “I thought it was right here, but --”
Wei-Dong understood now. The maintenance area occupied a dead-space between their building and the one behind it, and somewhere around here, there was a grating like the one they'd come through, a little wormhole into another level of the game. Jie's survival instincts were incredibly sharp, that much had been obvious, so he wasn't altogether surprised to discover that she had a back door prepared.
He peered into the darkness, his whole body slicked with sweat and grimed with the ancient dust covering the floor.
“The last time, there was a light on the other side. It was easy to find,” she said, her voice near panic. He heard the unmistakable sound of the police entering the utility closet behind them, then voices.
“We need to search the whole wall,” Lu said. “Split up.”
So Wei-Dong found himself squirming over Jie's bare calves, tearing his jeans on one of the low pipes as he did so. He patted the wall blindly, feeling around. Away from the small red light, it was pitch black, disorienting, frightening. Nearby, he heard the sounds of Jie and Lu searching too.
And then, he found it, his baby fingertip slipping into a grating hole, then he patted around it, felt its full extent. “Here, here!” he whispered loudly, and the other two began to struggle his way. He jiggled the grating, trying to find the trick that would make it come away, but it appeared to be screwed in. Increasingly desperate, he shook the grating, causing a rain of dust and dried paint to fall on his hands. He was gripping the metal so hard he could feel it cutting into one finger, a trickle of blood turning into mud as it mixed with the dirt.
“Light,” he said. “Can't see anything.”
A hand patted the length of his leg, feeling its way up his body, to his arm, then pressed the little light into his hand. Jie's hand, slim and girlish. He clicked the red light to life and peered intently at the grating. It wasn't screwed in, but it needed to be pushed slightly forward before it would lift out. He stuck the light's handle between his teeth and pushed and lifted and the grating popped free.
Just as it did, a long cone of light sliced through the crawlspace, and then a martial voice demanded “Halt!” The light bathed him, making him squint, and Jie thumped him in the thigh and said, “GO!”
He went, commando crawling again, Jie's slim hands pushing him to hurry him along. He emerged into a tiled space, dirty and dark, the floor wet and slimy. He stood up cautiously, worried about hitting his head again, then stooped to help Jie through. There were more shouts coming from the other side of the grating now, and the light spilled out of it and painted the greenish scum on the old, cracked grey tile floor. “Halt!” again, and “Halt” once more, as Jie finished wriggling through and he bent to grab Lu, peering into the now-brilliantly-lit crawlspace. Lu had been searching for the grating at the other end of the crawlspace and he was going as fast as he could, his face a mask of determination and fear, lips skinned back from his teeth, blood flowing freely from a scalp wound.
“Halt!” again, and Lu put on a burst of speed, and there was the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Lu's eyes grew wide and he flung his arms out before him and dug his hands into the ground and pulled himself along, scrambling with his toes.
“Come on,” Wei-Dong begged, practically in tears. “Come on, Lu!”
A gunshot, that flat sound he'd heard in the distance when he was living in downtown LA, but with an alarming set of whining aftertones as the bullet bounced from one pipe to another. Water began to gush onto the floor, and Lu was still too far away. Wei-Dong went down on his belly and crawled halfway into the space, holding his arms out: “Come on, come on,” crooning it now, not sure if he was speaking English or Chinese.
And Lu came, and: “HALT!” and another gunshot, then two more, and the water was everywhere, and the whining ricochets were everywhere and then --
Lu screamed, a sound like nothing Wei-Dong had ever heard. The closest he'd heard was the wail of a cat that he'd once seen hit by a car in front of his house, a cat that had lain in the street with its spine broken for an eternity, screaming almost like a human, a wail that made his skin prickle from his ankles to his earlobes. Then, Lu stopped. Lay stock still. Wei-Dong bit his tongue so hard he felt blood fill his mouth. Lu's eyes narrowed, the pupils contracting. He opened his mouth as though he had just had the most profound insight of his life, and then blood sloshed out of his mouth, over his lips, and down his chin.
“Lu!” Wei-Dong called, and was torn between the impulse to go forward and get him and the impulse to back out and run as fast as he could, all the way to California if he could --
And then, “STAY WHERE YOU ARE,” in that barking, brutal Chinese, and the gun was cocked again. He smelled the blood from his own mouth and from Lu, and Lu slumped forward. Then a gunpowder smell. Then --
-- another shot, which whined and bounced with a deadly sound that left his ears ringing.
“STAY WHERE YOU ARE,” the voice said, and Wei-Dong scrambled backwards as fast as he could.
Jie yanked him to his feet, her face grimed with dust and streaked with tears. “Lu?” she said.
He shook his head, all his Chinese gone for a moment, no words at all available to him.
Then Jie did an extraordinary thing. She closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, drew it in and in, squeezed her fists and her arms and her neck muscles so that they all stood out, corded and taut.
And then she blew it all out, unclenched her fists, relaxed her neck, and opened her eyes.
“Let's go,” she said, and, with a single smooth motion, turned to the door behind her and shot the bolt, turned the knob and opened it into another apartment-building corridor, smelling of cooking spices and ancient, ground-in body-odor and mold. The dim light from the hallway felt bright compared to the twilight he'd been in since diving through the bolt-hole, and he saw that he was in a disused communal shower, the walls green with old mold and slime.
Jie dug a pair of strappy sandals out of her purse and calmly and efficiently slipped them on. She produced two sealed packets of wet-wipes, handed one to Wei-Dong and used the other's contents to wipe her face, her hands, her bare legs, working with brisk strokes. Though Wei-Dong's heart was hammering and the adrenalin was surging through his body, he forced himself to do the same, shoving the dirty wipes in his pocket until there were no more. There were more shouts from the grating behind them, and distant sounds from the street below, and Wei-Dong knew it was hopeless, knew that they were cornered.
But if Jie was going to march on, he would too. Lu was behind him, with the coppery blood smell, the bonfire smell of the gunpowder. Ahead of him was China, all of China, the country he'd dreamed of for years, not a dream anymore, but a brutal reality.
Jie began to walk briskly, her arm waving back and forth like a metronome as she crossed the length of the building and opened the door to the stairway without breaking stride. Wei-Dong struggled to keep up. They pelted down three flights of stairs, the grimy, barred windows allowing only a grey wash of light. It was dawn outside.
Only one flight remained, and Jie pulled up abruptly, wheeled on her heel and looked him in the eye. Her eyes were limned with red, but her face was composed. “Why do you have to be white?” she said. “You stand out so much. Walk five paces behind me, three paces to the side, and if they catch you, I won't stop.”
He swallowed. Tried to swallow. His mouth was too dry. Lu was dead upstairs. The police were outside the door -- he heard calls, radio-chatter, engines, sirens, shouts -- and they were murderous.
He wanted to say, Wait, don't, don't open the door, let's hide here. But he didn't say it. They were doomed in here. The police knew which building they'd entered. The longer they waited, the sooner it would be before they sealed the exits and searched every corner and nook.
“Understood,” he managed, and made his face into a smooth mask.
One more flight.
Jie cracked the door and the dawn light was rosy on her face. She put her eye to the crack for a moment, then opened it a little wider and slipped out. Wei-Dong counted to three, slowly, making his breath as slow as the count, then went out the door himself.
The street was a little wider than most of the lanes near the handshake buildings, a main road that was just big enough to admit a car. A car idled at one end of it, two policemen outside it. Three more police were just entering the building he'd come out of, using a glass door a few yards away. The blue police-car bubble-lights painted the walls around them with repeating patterns of blue and black. Somewhere nearby, shouting. Lots of shouting. Boyish yells of terror and agony, the thud of clubs, screaming from the balconies, no words, just the wordless slaughterhouse soundtrack of dozens of Webblies being beaten. Beaten, while Lu lay dead or dying in the crawlspace.
He turned left, the direction that Jie had gone, just in time to see her disappearing down a narrow laneway, turning sideways to pass into it. He wasn't sure how he could follow her injunction to stay to one side of her in a space that narrow, but he decided he didn't care. He wasn't going to try to make his own way out of the labyrinth of Cantonese-town.
As soon as he entered the alley, though, he regretted it. A policeman who happened to look down the alley would see him instantly and he'd be a sitting target, impossible to miss. He looked over his shoulder so much as he inched along that he tripped and nearly went over, only stopping himself from falling to the wet, stinking concrete between the buildings by digging his hands into the walls on either side of him. Ahead of him, Jie cleared the other end of the alley and cut right. He hurried to catch her.
Just as he cleared the alley-mouth himself, he heard three more gunshots, then a barrage of shots, so many he couldn't count them. He froze, but the sounds had been further away, back where the Webblies had emerged from their safe house. It could only mean one thing. He bit his cheek and swallowed the sick feeling rising in his throat and scrambled to keep up with Jie.
Jie walked quickly -- too quickly; he almost lost her more than once. But eventually she turned into a metro station and he followed her down. He'd used the ticket-buying machines before -- they were labelled in Chinese and English -- and he bought a fare to take him to the end of the line, feeding in some RMB notes from his wallet. The machine dropped a plastic coin like a poker chip into its hopper and he took it and rubbed it on the turnstile's contact-point and clattered down the stairs with the sparse crowd of workers headed for early shifts.
He positioned himself by one of the doors and reached into his pocket for a worn tourist guide to Shenzhen, taken from the free stack at the info-booth at the train-station. It was perfect camouflage, a kind of invisibility. There was always a gweilo or two puzzling over a tourist map on the metro, being studiously ignored by the flocks of perfectly turned-out factory girls who avoided them as probable perverts and definite sources of embarrassment.
Jie got off four stops later, and he jumped off at the last minute. As he did, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of the car-doors and saw that one side of his hair was matted with dried blood which had also run down his neck and dried there. He cursed himself for his smugness. Invisible! He was probably the most memorable thing the metro riders saw all that day, a grimy, bloody gweilo on the train.
He followed Jie up the escalator and saw her pointedly nod toward a toilet door. He went and jiggled the handle, but it was locked. He turned to go, and the door opened. Behind it was an ancient grandmother, with a terrible hump that bent her nearly double.
She gave him a milky stare, pursed her lips and began to close the door.
“Wait!” he said in urgent, low Chinese.
“You speak Chinese?”
He nodded. “Some,” he said. “I need to use the bathroom.”
“10 RMB,” she said. He was pretty sure that she wasn't the official bathroom-minder, but he wasn't going to argue with her. He dug in his pocket and found two crumpled fives and passed them to her. It came to $1.25 and he was pretty sure it was an insane amount of money to pay for the use of the bathroom, but he didn't care at this point.
The bathroom was tiny and cramped with the old woman's possessions bundled into huge vinyl shopping bags. He positioned himself by the sink and stared at his reflection in the scratched mirror. He looked like he'd been through a blender, head-first. He ran the water and used his cupped hands to splash it ineffectually on his hair and neck, soaking his t-shirt in the process.
“That's no way to do it,” the old woman shouted from behind him. She twisted off the faucet with her arthritic hand. He looked silently at her. He didn't want to get into an argument with this weird old crone.
“Shirt off,” she said, in a stern voice. When he hesitated, she gave his wrist an impatient slap. “Off!” she said. “Shirt off, lean forward, hair under the tap. Honestly!”
He did as he was bade, bending deeply at the waist to get his hair under the faucet in the small, dirty sink. She cranked the tap full open and used her trembling hands to wash out his hair and scrub at his bloody neck. When he made to stand up, she slapped his back and said, “Stay!”
He stayed. Eventually, she let him up, and dug through her bags until she found a tattered old men's shirt that she handed to him. “Dry,” she said.
The shirt smelled of must and city, but was cleaner than anything he was wearing. He towelled at his hair, careful of the tender cut on his scalp.
“It's not deep,” she said. “I was a nurse, you'll be OK. A stitch or two, if you don't want the scar.”
“Thank you,” Wei-Dong managed. “Thank you very, very much.”
“Ten RMB,” she said, and smiled at him, practically toothless. He gave her two more fives and put his t-shirt on. It smelled terrible, a thick reek of BO and blood, but it was a black tee with a picture of a charging orc and it didn't show the blood.
“Go,” she said. “No more fighting.”
He left, dazed, and found his way into the station, looking for Jie. She was waiting by the escalator to the surface, fixing her makeup in a small mirror that just happened to give her a view of the bathroom door. She snapped the compact shut and ascended to the surface. He followed.
“Forty two dead,” Big Sister Nor said to Justbob and The Mighty Krang. “Forty two dead in Shenzhen. A bloodbath.”
“War,” Justbob said.
“War,” The Mighty Krang said, with a viciousness that neither of them had ever heard from him before. He saw their looks, balled his fists, glared. “War,” he said, again.
“Not a war,” Big Sister Nor said. “A strike.”
“A strike,” General Robotwallah announced to her troops. “No more gold gets in or out of any of our games.”
“Forty two dead,” Yasmin said, in a voice leaden with sorrow.
Forty three, Ashok thought, remembering the boy, and sure enough, Yasmin mouthed Forty three as she sat down.
“We'll need defense here,” General Robotwallah said. “Bannerjee will find more badmashes to try to take us out of this place.”
Sushant stood up and held up a machete that the boys had left behind. “We took this place. We'll hold it,” he said, all teen bravado. Ashok felt like he would be sick.
Yasmin and the General looked intensely at one another, a silent conversation taking place.
“No more violence,” the General said, in the voice of command.
Sushant deflated, looked humiliated. “But what if they come for us with knives and clubs and guns?” he said, defiant.
Yasmin stood up and walked to stand next to her general. “We make sure they don't,” she said.
Ashok stood and went to his little back room and began to place phone calls.
“Sisters!” Jie said, throwing her head back and clenching her fists. She'd been calm enough as she sat down in the basement of the Internet cafe, a private room the owner rented out discreetly to porno freelancers who needed a network connection away from the public eye. But now it seemed as if all the sorrow and pain she had shoved down into herself when Lu was shot was pouring out.
“SISTERS!” she said again, and it was a howl, as horrible as the noise Lu had made, as horrible as the noise that half-dead cat had made in the street in front of Wei-Dong's house.
The cafe was in the shuttered Intercontinental hotel, in the theme-restaurant that sported a full-size pirate ship sticking out of the roof, its sails in tatters. The man behind the desk had negotiated briskly with Jie for the space, studiously ignoring Wei-Dong lurking a few steps behind her. She'd motioned him along with a jerk of her head and led him to the private room, which had once been a restaurant store-room.
Once the door clicked shut behind them, she produced a bootable USB stick and restarted the computer from it, fitted an elegant, slender earwig to her ear and passed one to Wei-Dong, which he screwed into his own ear. After some futzing with the computer she signalled to him that they were live and commenced to howl like a wounded thing.
“Sisters! My sisters!” she said, and tears coursed down her face. "They killed him tonight. Poor Tank, my Tank. His name, his real name was Zha Yue Lu, and I loved him and he never harmed another human being and the only thing he was guilty of was demanding decent pay, decent working conditions, vacation time, job security -- the things we all want from our jobs. The things our bosses take for granted.
“They raided us last night, the vicious jingcha, working for the bosses as they always have and always will. They beat down the door and the boys ran like the wind, but they caught them and they caught them and they caught them. Lu and I tried to escape through the back way and they --” She broke then, tears coursing down her face, a sob bigger than the room itself escaping her chest. The mixer-readouts on the computer screen spiked red from the burst of sound. “They shot him like a dog, shot him dead.”
She sobbed again, and the sobs didn't stop coming. She beat her fists on the table, tore at her hair, screamed like she was being cut with knives, screamed until Wei-Dong was sure that someone would burst the door down expecting to find a murder in progress.
Tentatively, he uncrossed his legs and got to his feet and crossed to her and caught her beating fists in his hands. She looked at him, unseeing, and stuck her face into his chest, the hot tears soaking through his t-shirt, the cries coming and coming. She pulled away for a moment, gasped, “I'm sorry, I'll be back in a few minutes,” and clicked something, and the mixer levels on the screen flatlined.
On and on she cried, and soon Wei-Dong was crying too -- crying for his father, crying for Lu, crying for all the gunshots he'd heard on the way out of the handshake buildings. They rocked and cried together like that for what seemed like an eternity, and then Jie gently disengaged herself and turned back to her computer and clicked some more.
“Sisters,” she said, "for years now I've sat at this mic, talking to you about love and family and dreams and work. So many of us came here looking to get away from poverty, looking to find a decent wage for a decent day's work, and instead found ourselves beating off perverted bosses, being robbed by marketing schemes, losing our wages and being tossed out into the street when the market shifts.
“No more,” she said, breathing it so low that Wei-Dong had to strain to hear it. “No more,” she said, louder. “NO MORE!” she shouted and stood up and began to pace, gesturing as she did.
"No more asking permission to go to the bathroom! No more losing our pay because we get sick! No more lock-ins when the big orders come in. No more overtime without pay. No more burns on our arms and hands from working the rubber-molding machinery -- how many of you have the idiotic logo of some stupid company branded into your flesh from an accident that could have been prevented with decent safety clothes?
“No more missing eyes. No more lost fingers. No more scalps torn away from a screaming girl's head as her hair is sucked into some giant machine with the strength of an ox and the brains of an ant. NO MORE!”
"Tomorrow, no one works. No one. Sisters, it's time. If one of you refuses to work, they just fire you and the machines grind on. If you all refuse to work, the machines stop.
“If one factory shuts down, they send the police to open it again, soldiers with guns and clubs and gas. If all the factories shut down, there aren't enough police in the world to open them again.”
She looked at her screen. It was going crazy. She clicked in a call. Wei-Dong heard it in his earpiece.
“Jiandi,” a breathy, girly voice said. “Is this Jiandi?”
“Yes, sister, it is,” she said. “Who else?” She smiled a thin smile.
“Have you heard about the other deaths, in the Cantonese quarter in Shenzhen? The boys they shot?”
Wei-Dong felt like he was falling. The girl was still speaking.
“-- 42 of them, is what we heard. There were pictures, sent from phone to phone. Google for 'the fallen 42' and you'll find them. The police said it was lies, and just now, they said that they were a criminal gang, but I recognized some of those boys from the strike before, the one you told us about --”
Wei-Dong dug out his phone and began to google, typing so quickly he mashed the keys and had to retype the query three times, a process made all the more cumbersome by the need to use proxies to get around the blocks on his phone's network connections. But then he got it, and the photos dribbled into his phone's browser as slow as glaciers, and soon he was looking at shot after shot of fallen boys, lying in the narrow lanes, arms thrown out or held up around their faces, legs limp. The cam-phone photos were a little out of focus, and the phone's small screen made them even less distinct, but the sight still hit him like a hammerblow.
The girl was still speaking. “We've all seen them and the girls in my dorm are scared, and now you're telling us to walk out of our jobs. How do you know we won't be shot too?”
Jie's mouth was opening and closing like a fish. She held her hand out and snapped her fingers at Wei-Dong, who passed her his phone. Her face was terrible, her lips pulled away from her teeth, which clicked rhythmically as she looked at the photos.
“Oh,” she said, as if she hadn't heard the girl's question. “Oh,” she said, as if she'd just realized some deep truth that had evaded her all her life.
“Jiandi?” the girl said.
“You might be shot,” Jie said, slowly, as if explaining something to a child. “I might be shot. But they can't shoot us all.”
She paused, considering. Tears rolled off her chin, stained the collar of her shirt.
She clicked something and a commercial started.
“I can't finish this,” she said in a dead voice. “I can't finish this at all. I should go home.”
Wei-Dong looked down at his hands. “I don't think that would be safe.”
She shook her head. “Home,” she said. “The village. Go back. There's a little money left. I could go home and my parents could find some boy for me to marry and I could be just another girl in the village, growing old. Have my one baby and pray it's a boy. Swallow pesticide when it gets to be too much.” She looked into his eyes and he had to steel himself to keep from flinching away. “Do you know that China is the only country where more women commit suicide than men?”
Wei-Dong spoke, his voice trembling. “I can't pretend that I know what your life is like, Jie, but I can't believe that you want to do that. There are 42 dead. I don't think we can stop here.” Thinking I am so far from home and don't know how I'll get back. Thinking, If she goes, I'll be all alone. And then thinking, Coward and wanting to hit his head against something until the thoughts stopped.
She reached for the keyboard and he knew enough about her work environment to see that she was getting ready to shut down.
“Wait!” he said. “Come on, stop.” He fished for the words. In the weeks since he'd arrived in China, he'd begun to think in Chinese, even dream in it sometimes, but now it failed him. “I --” He beat his fists on his thighs in frustration. “It won't stop now,” he said. “If you go home to the village, it will keep going, but it won't have you. It won't have Jiandi, the big sister to all the factory girls. When Lu told me about you, I thought he was crazy, thought there was no way you could possibly have that many listeners. He thought you were some kind of god, or a queen, a leader of an army of millions. He told me he thought you didn't understand how important you are. How you --” He paused, gathered the words. "You're shiny. That's what he said. You shine, you're like this bright, shiny thing that people just want to chase after, to follow. Everyone who meets you, everyone who hears you, they trust you, they want you to be their friend.
“If you go, the Webblies will still fight, but without you, I think they'll lose.”
She glared at him. “They'll probably lose with me, too. Do you have any idea what a terrible burden you put on me? You all put on me? It's absolutely unfair. I'm not your god, I'm not your queen. I'm a broadcaster!”
The heat rose in Wei-Dong. “That's right! You're a broadcaster. You don't work for some government channel like CCTV, though, do you? You're underground, criminal. You spent years telling factory girls to stand up for their rights, years living in safe-houses and carrying fake IDs. You set yourself up to be where you are now. I can't believe that you didn't dream about this. Look me in the eye and tell me that you didn't dream about being a leader of millions, about having them all follow you and look up to you! Tell me!”
She did something absolutely unexpected. She laughed. A little laugh, a broken laugh, a laugh with jagged shards of glass in it, but it was a laugh anyway. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course. With a hairbrush for a microphone, in front of my parents' mirror, pretending to be the DJ that they all listened to. Of course. What else?”
Her smile was so sad and radiant it made Wei-Dong weak in the knees. “I never thought I'd end up here, though. I thought I'd be a pretty girl on television, recognized in the street. Not a fugitive.”
Wei-Dong shrugged, back on familiar territory. “The future's a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids. Look at gold-farming, how weird is that?”
She grinned. “No weirder than making rubber bananas for Swedish department-store displays. That was my first job when I came here, you know?” She rolled up her sleeves and showed him her arms. They were crisscrossed with old burn-scars. “Then making cheap beads for something called 'Mardi Gras.' Boss Chan liked me, liked how I worked with the hot plastic. No complaining, even though we didn't have masks, even though I was burned over and over again.” She twisted her forearm and he saw that she had the Nike logo branded backwards, in bubbled, wrinkled scar there. “Afterwards, I worked on the same kind of machine, in a shoe factory. You see the logo? Many of us have it. It's like we were cattle, and the factory branded us one at a time.”
“Are you going to talk to the people again?”
She slumped. Slipped in her earwig. Began to prod at the computer. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I must. As long as they'll listen, I must.”
Matthew wept as he walked, pacing the streets without seeing. He'd been one of the first ones out of the building when the police raided, and he'd slipped through the cordon before they'd tightened it, slipping into another handshake building, one he'd played in as a boy, and running up the stairs to the roof, where he'd lain on his belly amid the broken glass and pebbles, staring down at the street below as the police chased down and caught his friends, one after the other, a line of Webblies face-down on the ground, groaning from the occasional kick or punch when they violated the silence and tried to speak with one another.
The police began to methodically cuff and hood them, starting at one end, working in threes -- one to cuff, one to hood, and one to stand guard with his rifle. It seemed to go on forever, and Matthew saw that he was far from the only person observing the sick spectacle: the laundry-hung balconies of the handshake buildings shivered as people piled out onto them, their mobile phones aimed at the laneway below. Matthew got out his own phone, zooming in methodically on each face, trying to get a picture of each Webbly before he was hooded, thinking vaguely of putting the images on the big Webbly boards, sending them to the foreign press, the dissident bloggers who used their offshore servers.
Then, sudden movement. Ping was thrashing on the ground, limbs flailing, head cracking against the pavement hard enough to be heard from Matthew's perch six stories up. Matthew knew with hopeless certainty that it was one of his friend's epileptic seizures, which didn't come on very often, but which were violent and terrifying for those around him. The cops tried to grab his arms and legs, and one of them got a hard kick in the knee for his trouble, and then Ping's arm cracked the hooded prisoner beside him, who rolled away, stumbled to his feet, and the cops waded in, rifle-butts raised and ready.
What happened next seemed to take forever, an eternity during which Matthew struggled not to scream, struggled on the edge of indecision, of impotence, of being driven to run to the street below for his comrades and of being too scared to move from the spot.
A policeman cracked the hooded Webbly who was on his feet across the kidneys, and the boy screeched and staggered and happened to catch hold of the rifle-butt. The two grappled for the gun while the boys on the pavement shouted, other policemen closing in, and then one of them unholstered his revolver and calmly shot the hooded boy in the head, the hood spattered and red as the boy fell.
That was it. The boys leapt to their feet and charged, warriors screaming their battle-cries, unarmed children scared and brave and stupid, and the police guns fired, and fired, and fired.
The cordite smell overpowered his senses, a smell like the fireworks he and his friends used to set off on New Year's. Mingled with it, the blood smell, the shit smell of boys whose bowels had let go. Matthew cried silently as he aimed his phone at the carnage, shooting and shooting, and then a policeman looked up at the crowd observing the massacre and shouted something indistinct, the camera lens on his helmet glinting in the dawn light, and Matthew ducked back as the rest of the policemen looked up, and then he heard the screaming, screaming from all around, from all the balconies.
He pelted across the roof, headed for the next building, vaulting the narrow gap between the two with ease. Twice more he leapt from building to building, running on sheer survival instinct, his mind a blank. Then he found himself on the street, with no memory of having descended any stairs, walking briskly, headed for the center of town, the streets with the fancy shops and the pimps, the businessmen and the Internet cafes filled with screaming boys killing orcs and blowing space-pirates out of the sky and vanquishing evil super-villains.
The tears coursed down his cheeks, and the early morning rush of people on their way to work gave him a wide berth. He wasn't the first boy to walk the streets of Shenzhen in tears, and he wouldn't be the last. He randomly boarded a bus and paid the fare and sat down, burying his face in his hands, choking back the sobs. He'd ridden the bus for a full hour before he bothered to look up and see where he was headed.
Then he had to smile. Somehow, he'd boarded a bus headed for Dafen, the “oil painting village,” where thousands of painters working in small factories turned out millions of paintings. He'd gone there once with Ping and the boys, on a rare day off, to wander the narrow streets and marvel at the canvasses hung everywhere, in outdoor stalls and in open shops and in huge galleries. The paintings were mostly in European style, old fashioned, depicting life in ancient European cities, or the tortured Jesus (these made Matthew squirm and remember his father's stories of persecution) or perfect fruit sitting on tables. Some of the shops and stalls had painters working at them, copying paintings out of books, executing deft little brushstrokes and closing out the rest of the world. The books themselves were printed in Dongguan -- Matthew knew a factory girl who worked at the printer -- and something about the whole scene had filled Matthew with an unnameable emotion at the thought of all these painters creating work with their artist's eyes and hands for use by foreigners who'd never come to China, never imagine the faces and hands of the painters who made the work.
And here they were, pulling up at the five-meter-tall sculpture of a hand holding a brush, disgorging dozens of passengers by the side of the road. All around him rose the tall housing blocks and long factory buildings, the air scented with breakfast and oil paint and turpentine.
Matthew came out of his funk enough to notice that many of his fellow passengers wore paint-stained work-clothes and carried wooden paint-boxes, and he joined the general throng that snaked into Dafen, amid the murmur of conversation as workers greeted friends and passed the gossip.
The time he'd visited Dafen, he'd wandered into a gallery that sold contemporary paintings by Chinese painters, showing Chinese settings. He'd never had much use for art, but he'd been poleaxed by these ones. One showed four factory girls, beautiful and young, holding mobile phones and designer bags, walking down a rural village street at Mid-Autumn Festival, the house-fronts and shop-windows hung with lanterns. The village was old and poor, the street broken, the people watching from the doorways with seamed peasant faces, pinched and dried up. The four girls were glamorous aliens from another world, children who'd been sent away to find their fortunes, who'd come back changed into a different species altogether.
And there'd been a picture of an old grandmother sleeping in a Dongguan bus-shelter, toothless mouth thrown open, huddled under a fake designer coat that was streaked with grime and torn. And a picture of a Cantonese man on a ladder between two handshake buildings, hanging up an illegal cable-wire. The images had been poignant and painful and beautiful, and he'd stood there looking at them until the gallery owner chased him out. These were for people with money, not people like him.
Now, passing by the same shop, he felt a jolt of recognition as he saw the picture of the four factory girls, arms around each others' shoulders, in the shop's windows. It hadn't sold -- or maybe the painter turned them out by the truckload. Maybe there was a factory full of painters devoted to making copies of this painting.
He became conscious of a distant hubbub, an indistinct roar of angry voices. He thought he'd been hearing it for some time now, but it had been subsumed in the sound of the people around him. Now it was growing louder, and he wasn't the only one who'd noticed it. It was a chant, thunderous and relentless, with tramping, rhythmic feet. The crowd craned their necks around to locate the disturbance, and he joined them.
Then they turned the corner and he saw what it was: a group of young men and women, paint-stained, holding up sheets of paper with beautifully calligraphed slogans: “NON-FORMULA PAINTING FACTORY UNFAIR!” “WE DEMAND WAGES!” “BOSS SIU IS CORRUPT!” The signs were decorated with artistic flourishes, and he saw that at the far end of the picket there was a trio of painters crouched over a pile of paper, brushes working furiously. A new sign went up: “REMEMBER THE 42!” and then one that simply said “IWWWW” in the funny Western script, and Matthew felt a surge of elation.
“Who are the 42?” he asked one of the painters, a pretty young woman with several prominent moles on her face. She pushed her hair behind her ears. “It was three hours ago,” she said, then looked at the time on her phone. “Four hours ago.” She shook her head, brought up some pictures on her phone. “The police executed 42 boys in Cantonese town. They say that the boys were criminals, but the neighbors say they were just gold-farmers.” She showed him the pictures. His friends, on the ground, heads in hoods, being shot by policemen, reeling back under the fire. The policemen anonymous behind their masks. The girl saw the expression on his face and nodded. “Terrible, isn't it? Just terrible. And the things the fifty-cent army have been saying about them --” The fifty-cent army was the huge legion of bloggers paid fifty cents -- 4 RMB -- to write patriotic comments and posts about the government.
He found that he was sitting on the dirty sidewalk, holding the girl's phone. She knelt down with him and said, “Hey, mister, are you all right?”
He nodded his head automatically, then shook it. Because he wasn't all right. Nothing was all right. “No,” he said.
The girl looked at the sign she'd been painting and then at him. She turned her back on the painting and took his chin, tilted his face up. “Are you hurt?”
“Not hurt,” he said. “But.” He shook his head. Pointed at her phone. Drew out his own. Brought up the photos he'd taken while trembling on the roof.
“The same photos?” she said. Then looked closer. “Different photos. Where'd you get them?”
He said, “I took them,” and it came out in a rasp. “They were my friends.”
She jolted as if shocked, then bit her lip and paged through the photos. She smelled of turpentine and her fingers were very long and elegant. She reminded Matthew of an elf. “You were there?” It was only half a question, but he nodded anyway. “Oh, oh, oh,” she said, handing him back the phone and giving him a strong, sisterly hug. “You poor boy,” she said.
“We heard about it an hour ago, while we were settling in to work. We gathered to discuss it, leaving our canvasses, and our boss, Boss Siu, came by and demanded that we all get back to work. He wouldn't let us tell him why we were gathered. He never does. It's like Jiandi says on her radio show -- he controls our bathroom breaks, docks our wages for talking or sometimes just for looking up for too long. And when he told us we were all being docked, one of the girls stood up and shouted a slogan, something like 'Boss Siu is unfair!' and though it was funny, it was also so real, straight from her heart, and we all stood up too and then --” She gestured at the line.
Matthew remembered the day they'd walked out, a million years ago, remembered the police arriving and taking them to jail, remembered his vow never to go to jail again. And then he picked up the sign she'd been making and gripped it by the corners and joined the line. He wasn't the only one. He shouted the slogans, and his voice wasn't hoarse anymore, it was strong and loud.
And when the police finally did come, something miraculous happened: the huge crowd of painters and other workers who'd gathered at the factory joined ranks with the picketers and picked up their slogans. They held their phones aloft and photographed the police as they advanced, with masks and helmets and shields and batons.
They held their ground.
The police fired gas cannisters.
Painters with big filter masks from the factories seized the cannisters and calmly threw them through the factory windows, smoking out the bosses and security men who'd been cowering there, and they came coughing and weeping and wheezing.
The crowd expanded, moved toward the police instead of away from it, and a policeman darted forward out of his line, club raised, mouth and eyes open very wide behind his facemask, and three factory girls sidestepped him, tripped him, and the crowd closed over him. The police line trembled as the man disappeared from view, and just as it seemed like they would charge, the mob backed away, and the man was there, moving a little but painfully, lying on the ground. His helmet, truncheon and shield were gone, as was his utility belt with its gun and its gas and its bundle of plastic cuffs.
Now we have a gun, Matthew thought, and from a far distance observed that he was thinking like a tactician again, not like a terrorized boy, and he knew which way the police should come from next, that alley over there, if they took it they'd control all the entrances to the square, trapping the picketers.
“We need people over there,” he shouted to the painter girl, whose name was Mei, and who had stood by his side, her fine slender arm upraised as she called the slogans with him. “There and there. Lots of them. If the police seal those areas off --”
She nodded and pushed off through the crowd, tapping people on the shoulder and shouting in their ears over the roar of the mob and the police sirens and the oncoming chopper. That chopper made Matthew's hands sweaty. If it dropped something on them -- gas, surely, not bombs, surely not bombs he thought like a prayer -- there'd be nowhere to hide. Protesters moved off to defend the alleyways he'd pointed to, armed with bricks and rocks and cameraphones. The same funnel-shaped alley-mouths that would make those alleys so deadly in the hands of their enemies would make them easier to defend.
The chopper was coming on now, and the cameraphones pointed at the sky, and then the helicopter veered off and headed in a different direction altogether. As Matthew raised his own phone to photograph it, he saw that he'd missed several calls. A number he didn't recognize, overseas. He dialled it back, crouching down low in the forest of stamping feet to get out of the noise.
“Hello?” a woman's voice said, in English.
“Do you speak Chinese?” he said, in Cantonese.
There was a pause, then the phone was handed off to someone else. “Who is this?” a man's voice said in Mandarin.
“My name is Matthew,” he said. “You called me?”
“You're one of the Shenzhen group?” the man said.
“Yes,” he said.
“We've got another survivor!” he called out and sounded genuinely elated.
“Who is this?”
“This is The Mighty Krang,” the man said. “I work for Big Sister Nor. We are so happy to hear from you, boy! Are you OK, are you safe?”
“I'm in the middle of a strike,” he said. “Thousands of painters in Dafen. That's a village in Shenzhen, where they paint --”
“You're in Dafen? We've been seeing pictures out of there, it looks insane. Tell me what's going on.”
Without thinking, just acting, Matthew scaled a park bench and stood up very tall and dictated a compact, competent situation report to the The Mighty Krang, whom he'd seen on plenty of video-conferences with Big Sister Nor and Justbob, snickering and clowning in the background. Now he sounded absolutely serious and intent, asking Matthew to repeat some details to ensure he had them clear.
“And have you seen the other strikes?”
“All around you,” he said. “Lianchuang, Nanling and Jianying Gongyequ. There's a factory on fire in Jianying Gongyequ. That's bad business. Wildcatters -- if they'd talked to us first, we would have told them not to. Still.” He paused. “Those photos were something. The 42.”
“I have more.”
“Where'd you get them?”
“I was there.”
A long pause.
“Matthew, are you safe where you are?”
Matthew stood up again. The police line had fallen back, the demonstration had taken on something of a carnival air, the artists laughing and talking intensely. Some had instruments and were improvising music.
“Safe,” he said.
“OK, send me those photos. And stay safe.”
Two more helicopters now, not headed for them. Headed, he guessed, for the burning factory in Jianying Gongyequ. He hoped no one was in it.
Mr Bannerjee came for them that night, with another group of thugs, but these weren't skinny badmashes, but grown adults, dirty men with knives and clubs, men who smelled of betel and sweat and smoke and fiery liquor, a smell that preceded them like a messenger shouting “beware, beware.” They came calling and joking through Dharavi, a mob that the Webblies heard from a long way off. Mrs Dibyendu's neighbors came to their windows and clucked worriedly and sent their children to lie down on the floor.
Mr Bannerjee led the procession, in his pretty suit, the mud sucking at his fine shoes. He stood in the laneway before the door to Mrs Dibyendu's cafe and put his hands on his hips and lit a cigarette, making a show of it, all nonchalance as he puffed it to life and blew a stream into the hot, wet air.
Mala limped to the door and opened it. Behind her, the cafe was dark and not a thing moved.
Neither said a word. The neighbors looked on in worried silence.
“Mala,” Mr Bannerjee said, spreading his hands. “Be reasonable.”
Mala stepped onto the porch of the cafe and sat down, awkwardly folding her legs beneath her. In a clear, loud voice, she said, “I work here. This is my job. I demand the right to safe working conditions, decent wages, and a just and fair workplace.”
Mr Bannerjee snorted. The men behind him laughed. He took a step forward, then stopped.
One by one, Mala's army filed out of the cafe, in a disciplined, military rank. Each one sat down, until the little porch was crowded with children, sitting down.
Mr Bannerjee snorted again, then laughed. “You can't be serious,” he said. “You want, you want, you want. When I found you, you were a Dharavi rat, no money, no job, no hope. I gave you a good job, good wages, and now you want and want and want?” He made a dismissive noise and waved his hand at her. “You will remove yourself from my cafe and take your schoolchums with you, or you will be hurt. Very badly.”
The neighbors made scandalized clucking noises at that and Mr Bannerjee ignored them.
“You won't hurt us,” Mala said. “You will go back to your fine house and your fine friends and you will leave us alone to control our destiny.”
Mr Bannerjee said nothing, only smoked his cigarette in the night and stared at them, considering them like a scientist who's discovered a new species of insects.
“You are making mischief, Mala. I know what you are up to. You are disrupting things that are bigger than you. I tell you one more time. Remove yourself from my cafe.”
Mala made a very soft spitting sound, full of contempt.
Mr Bannerjee raised his hand and his mob fell silent, prepared themselves.
And then there was a sound. A sound of footsteps, hundreds of them. Thousands of them. An army marching down the laneway from both sides, and then they were upon them. Ashok leading the column from the left, old Mrs Rukmini and Mr Phadkar leading the column from the right.
The columns themselves were composed of union workers -- textile workers, steel workers, train workers. Ashok's phonecalls and photos and stories had paid off. Hundreds of text messages were sent and workers were roused from their beds and they hastily dressed and gathered to be picked up by union busses and driven all across Mumbai to Dharavi, guided in to Mrs Dibyendu's shop by Ashok, who had whispered his thanks to the leaders who had given him their support.
The workers halted, just a few paces from the gangsters and their evil smells. Ashok looked at the two groups, the sitting army and the standing mob, and he deliberately and slowly sat down.
The exquisitely elderly ladies leading the other column did the same. The sitting spread, moving back through the group, and if any worker thought of his trousers or her sari before sitting in the grime of the Dharavi lane, none said a word and none hesitated.
Bannerjee swallowed audibly. One of the neighbors leaning out of a window snickered. Bannerjee glared up at the windows. “Houses in slums like this burn down all the time,” he said, but his voice quavered. The neighbor who'd snickered -- a young shirtless man with burns up and and down his bare chest from some old accident -- closed his shutters. A moment later, he was on the street. He walked up to Bannerjee, looked him in the eye, and then, deliberately, folded his legs and sat down before him. Bannerjee raised his leg as if to kick and the crowd growled, a low, savage sound that made the hair on the back of Mala's neck stand up, even as she made it herself. It sounded as though all of Dharavi was an angry dog, straining at its leash, threatening to lunge.
More neighbors drifted into the street -- old and young, men and women. They'd known Mrs Dibyendu for years. They'd seen her driven from her home and business. They were making the same noise. They sat too.
Mr Bannerjee looked at Mala and opened his mouth as if to say something, then stopped. She stared at him with utter calm, and then smiled broadly. “Boo,” she said, softly, and he took a step back.
His own men laughed at this and he went purple in the dim light of the street. Mala bit her tongue to keep from laughing. He looked so comical!
He turned with great dignity to look at his men, who were so tense they practically vibrated. Mala watched in stupefied awe as he grabbed one at random and slapped him, hard, across the face, a sound that rang through the narrow laneway. It was the single dumbest act of leadership she'd ever seen, so perfectly stupid you could have put it in a jar and displayed it for people to come and marvel at.
The man regarded Bannerjee for a moment, his eyes furious, his fists bunched. He was shorter than Bannerjee, but he was carrying a length of wood and the muscles in his bare forearms jerked and bunched like a basketful of snakes. Deliberately, the man spat a glob of evil, pink, betel-stained saliva into Bannerjee's face, turned on his heel and walked away, delicately picking his way through the sitting Webblies and workers and neighbors. After a moment, the rest of Bannerjee's mob followed.
Bannerjee stood alone. The saliva slid down his face. Mala thought If he takes out a gun and starts blazing away, it wouldn't surprise me in the least. He was totally beaten, humiliated before children and the poor of Dharavi, and there were so many cameraphone flashes dancing in the night it was like a disco in a movie.
But perhaps Bannerjee didn't have a gun, or perhaps he had more self-control than Mala believed. In any case, he, too, turned on his heel and walked away. At the end of the alley, he turned back and said, in a voice that could be heard above the buzz of conversation that sprang up in his wake, “I know where your parents live, Mala,” and then he walked away altogether into the night.
The crowd roared with triumph as he disappeared. Ashok helped her stand, his hand lingering in hers for longer than was strictly necessary. She wanted to hug him, but she settled for hugging Yasmin, who was crying, happy tears like the ones they'd shared so many times before. Yasmin was as thin as a piece of paper but her arms were strong, and oh, it did feel good to be held for a moment, instead of holding everyone else up.
She let go at last and turned to Ashok. “They came,” she said.
Instead of answering, he led her to two tiny old ladies, and a man with a skullcap and a beard. “Mr Phadkar, Mrs Rukmini and Mrs Muthappa,” he said. “This is Mala. They call her General Robotwallah. Her workers have been defending the strike. They are unbeatable, so long as they have a place to work.”
Mr Phadkar looked fierce. “You will always have a place to work, General,” he said, in a voice that was pitched to carry to the workers who gathered around them, excitedly passing whispered accounts of the historic meeting back through their ranks.
The old ladies rolled their eyes at one another, which made Mala smile. They each took one of her hands in their calloused, dry old hands and squeezed. “You were very brave,” one said. “Please, introduce us to your comrades.”
They chatted all night, and the women's papadam collective brought them food, and there was chai, and as there were far too many people to fit in the little cafe, the party occupied the whole of the laneway and then out into the street. Mala and her fighters fought on through the night in shifts, stepping out on their breaks to mingle, making friends, bringing them into the cafe to explain what they did and how they did it.
And there were reporters asking questions, and the gupshup flew up and down the streets and lanes of Dharavi, picking up steam as the roosters began to call and the first of the early risers walked to the toilets and the taps and had their ears bent. The bravery of the children, the valor of the workers, the evil of the sinister Bannerjee in his suit and the thugs he'd brought with him -- it was a story straight off the movie screen, and every new ear it entered was attached to a mouth that was anxious to spread it.
Mala and Yasmin's parents came to see them the next morning, as they sat groggy after a night like no other night, on the porch of Mrs Dibyendu's cafe. The parents didn't know what to make of their strange daughters, but they were visibly proud of them, even Yasmin's father, which clearly surprised Yasmin, who'd looked like she expected a beating.
As their mothers gathered them into their bosoms, Mala looked at Yasmin, and saw the haunted look in Yasmin's eye and knew, just knew that she was thinking of the little boy who'd died.
How did she know? Because Mala herself had never stopped thinking of him, and thinking of how she'd taken the actions that led to his death. And because Mala herself knew that no amount of sitting down peacefully and braving thugs with her moral force instead of her army would ever wipe the stain of that boy's death off her karma.
And then Mamaji kissed Mala's forehead and murmured many things in her ear, and her little brother emerged from behind her skirts and demanded to be shown how it all worked and stared at her with so much admiration that she thought he'd burst and for a moment, it was all golden.
Ashok looked on from his little office, meeting with the union leaders, talking to Big Sister Nor. Something big was brewing with him, she knew, something even bigger than this miracle that he'd pulled off. She fobbed her brother off on a group of boys who were eager to teach him some of the basics and bask in the pure hero-worship radiating off of him, then slipped back into Ashok's room and perched at his side on a stool, moving a pile of papers away first.
“That was incredible,” she said. “Absolutely incredible.” She said it quietly, with conviction. “You're our saviour.”
He snorted through his nose, then scrubbed at his eyes with his fists. “Mala, my general, you do a hundred incredible things every day. The only reason all those people came out is because I could show them what you'd done, explain how you had organized these children, these slum-rats, into a disciplined force that was committed to justice.”
She squirmed on her seat. “I'm just bloodthirsty,” she said. “I'm just one of those people who fights all the time.” Thinking again of the boy, the dead boy. His blood was still under Ashok's fingernails.
He turned and, just for an instant, touched her arm. The gesture was gentle, tender. No one had ever touched her quite like that. It broke something in her, some flood-dam that had safely contained all the pain and fear and shame, and she had to turn and run blindly out into the lane and around a corner to weep and weep biting her lip to keep from screaming out her grief. Though she heard some of the others looking for her, she kept silent and did not let them find her. Then she realized she was hiding in the same place in which she'd hidden from Mrs Dibyendu's idiot nephew, and that broke another dam and it was quite some time before she could get herself under control and head back into the laneway again.
She didn't get very far. Out front of dozens of businesses, there were small groups of people boisterously shouting rhymed chants about working conditions and pay. Crowds gathered to talk to each other, and there were arguments, laughter, a fistfight. She stood in the middle of the road and thought, How can this be?
And at that moment, she realized that she was not alone. All over Dharavi, all over the world, there were people like her who wanted more, demanded more, with a yearning that was always just there, beneath the skin, and it only took the lightest scratch to let it out.
She didn't go back to Mrs Dibyendu's cafe. Instead, she took her walking stick and limped all around Dharavi, up and down the streets where the tiny factories would normally have been hives of activity. Many of them were, but many were not -- many had workers and crowds out front, and it was like a virus that was spreading through the streets and lanes and alleys, and now it was as if all the crying had lightened her so that her feet barely touched the ground, as though she might fly away at any instant.
She was just turning to go back to her army and maybe a few hours' sleep when they grabbed her, hit her very hard on the head, and dragged her into a tiny, stinking room.
Confidence is a funny thing. When lots of people believe something is valuable, it becomes valuable. So if you're selling game-gold and people think game-gold is valuable, they buy it.
But it's better than that. If there's a wide-spread belief that Svartalfaheim Warriors swords are valuable, then even people who don't think they're valuable will buy them, because they believe they can sell them to people who do believe that they're valuable.
And when people who buy to sell to others start to bid on Svartalfaheim swords, the price of the swords goes up. Of course it does: the more buyers there are for something, the higher the price goes. And the higher the price goes, the more buyers there are, because hey, if the price is high, there must be plenty of suckers who'll take the swords off your hands in a little while for an even higher price.
Confidence makes value. Value makes more value, which makes more confidence. Which makes more value.
But it's not infinite. Think of a cartoon character who runs off a cliff and keeps running madly in place, able to stay there until someone points out that he's dancing on air, at which point he plummets to the sharp rocks beneath him.
For so long as everyone believes in the value of a Svartalfaheim sword, the sword will be valuable, and get more valuable. As the pool of people who might buy a Svartalfaheim sword grows -- say, because they're getting calls from their brokers offering to sell them elaborate, complex sword futures (a contract to buy a sword at a later date), or because their smart-ass nieces and nephews are talking them up -- the likelihood that someone will say, “Are you kidding me? This is a sword in a video game!” goes up.
Indeed, this doubter might have other choice observations, like this: “If everyone has these swords, doesn't that mean that there's more swords than anyone could possibly use? Doesn't that mean that they're not valuable, but valueless?”
Or if the doubter is impossibly old fashioned, he might even say: “What if the people who run this Fartenstein game decide to change the number of swords available by just deleting a ton of them? Or by printing up a kazillion more? Or change the swords into toothpicks?”
Oh, the sword-speculators will reply, they'll never do that, it would ruin the game, they can't afford to do that. And here's the thing: they're half-right. So long as the game-runners believe that messing around with the swords will piss off all these people who own, speculate on, buy and sell swords, they can't afford to do it.
These cartoon characters run in place on air, shouting that the swords will always go up in value, shouting that the game-runners will never nerf or otherwise bork them, and they can stay there, up in the air, waving their swords, being joined by others who are convinced by their arguments and the incontrovertible fact that they are indeed not falling, until...
Until there's enough widespread confidence in the proposition that they will fall. Until the press starts to publish wide-eyed stories about the absurdity of ever believing in the value of these swords, pointing out that the fall is inevitable, that it was pre-ordained from the moment the first speculator bought his first sword.
Think of the belief in infallible swords as a solar system. In the center, there's the sun, gigantic and white-hot, exerting gravity on the planets and asteroids that spin around and around it. At the outer edge is the dandruff of planetesimals and asteroids, weakly caught in the gravity, only halfway committed to being part of the system. As the sun begins to cool off, begins to shrink with the force of disbelief, these outer hangers-on fly away. These are the tasters, the people who bought one or two little swords or sword-futures or “fully hedged complex sword derived securities” because everyone else was doing it. They hear that this thing is too good to be true and see the prices start to drop and so they sell off what they've got, take a small loss, and tell their friends.
Well, now there's a bunch of people saying that swords aren't really that valuable. Less confidence equals lower prices. And there's more swords on the market. More swords equals lower prices. The larger planets, closer in, the investors with a fair bit of money in imaginary cutlery, these folks see the prices dip and continue to fall. They hear the brokers and analysts scurrying around saying, “No, no, the sun will burn bright forever, the sun will never dim! Prices will come up again. This is temporary.”
Here's the thing: if the brokers and analysts can convince these bigger investors that they're right, they will be right. If these bigger investors hold on to their swords, the market will stay healthy for a while longer.
But if they aren't convincing enough, if these bigger investors lose confidence and start selling, they'll never stop. That's because the first seller to get out of the sword-market will get the highest price for his goods. But once he gets out, his swords will be on the market (remember, more swords equals lower prices) and everyone else will get a lower price. And when they sell, the prices will go down further, panicking more investors, putting more swords on the market, forcing the prices down further.
Somewhere in there, the game-runners are apt to have a minor freak-out and then a major one. They'll start to mess with the sword-supply. They'll take swords out of the market, or put swords in, or nerf swords, or buff the hell out of them, anything to keep the fun from collapsing out of the game.
And that'll probably make things worse, because this isn't an exact science, it's a bunch of guesswork, and there are ten zillion ways to get this wrong and so few ways to get it right.
The sun gets smaller, and dimmer, and the close-in planets are feeling the tug of oblivion now, the call of deep space that says, “Spin away, spin away to forever, for the sun is dying!”
They don't want to spin away. They want to hang on. They have so many swords in the bank, they're practically made of swords. They've made a fortune buying and selling swords. Of course, they spent the fortune on more swords. Or different swords. Or axes. But whatever they've spent it on, it's basically the same thing, because every broker knows that you won't get in trouble for recommending that people buy things that have always been profitable.
If the sword market collapses, these planets -- these major, committed investors -- will die. They will be wiped out. They have pledged their lives and love and immortal souls to magic swords, and if the swords break their hearts, they will never recover. So as the market for swords gets crummier and crummier and crummier and crummier, they grow more and more insistent that everything is fine, just fine, it'll all be back to “normal” any day now. They can't afford to lose confidence, because they aren't going to fly off into space. They're going to fall into the dying sun and will be incinerated in its glowing heart.
But denial only works for so long. The sun is dying. No one wants your swords. Your swords are worthless. Even the people who need a sword to kill some elves or orcs or random wildlife critters are faintly embarrassed by the fact, because worthless swords are now the subject of numerous jokes about idiotic investment schemes and corrupt brokerages and loony investors who got swept up in the heat of the moment. These people go and kill monsters with bows and clubs for a while, because everyone knows how much swords suck.
How low can the value of a sword go? Subzero, as it turns out. Not only can a sword become worthless, it can actually cost you money to get rid of it. Oh, not the sword itself, of course, but the derivatives of the swords. The bets on swords. Where someone else has made a bet on whether your sword will go up or down in value, and then packaged it up with a bunch of other bets, just figuring out which bets are in which packages can cost so much money that you end up losing money, even on winning bets.
Confidence is great, but it isn't everything. Reality catches up with everyone, eventually. All suns extinguish themselves. All cartoon characters eventually plummet to the bottom of the canyon. And every sword is eventually worthless.
Command Central was bedlam. The game-runners snarled at each other like bad-tempered, huge-bellied dinosaurs, and ate like dinosaurs, too, sending out for burgers, pizza, buckets of chicken, huge thick shakes Anything they could scarf down one-handed while they labored over their screens and shouted insults at one another.
Connor hardly noticed. He was deep in his feeds. Bill's new security subroutines let him run every player's actions backwards and forwards like a video, branching off into other players' timelines every time they crossed paths in a party, a PvP combat session, a trade, or a conversation. It was an ocean of information, containing every secret of every player in every game that Coke ran.
It was too much information. He was looking for something very precise -- the identities of gold-farmers -- but what he had was every damned thing ever uttered or done in-game. It was a wondrous toy and an infinite distraction, and practically every spare moment Connor could muster was spent writing scripts and filters to help him make sense of it.
Just now he was watching a feed of every player who had PvP killed another player, where the dead player's toon had earned more than 1000 Mario coins in the previous hour. This was turning out to be a rich vein of potential gold-farmers and Webblies. He was just trying to figure out how to write a script that would also grab the player IDs of anyone who was nearby during one of these fights, when he realized that Command Central had gotten even noisier than usual, devolving into raw chaos.
He looked up. “What's wrong?” he said, even as his fingers moved to call up general feeds showing the overall health of the game and its systems. And even before anyone answered he saw what was wrong. Server load had spiked across every game-shard, redlining the server-clusters seated in air-conditioned freight containers all over the world. It seemed as though every single metric for server-load was at peak -- calculations per second, memory usage, disk churn. But on closer examination, he saw that this wasn't quite true: network load was down. Way down. Somehow, these vast arrays of computing power were all being made to work so hard they were in danger of collapsing, but it was all happening without anyone talking very much to the servers.
Indeed, network load was so low that it seemed that hardly anyone could be logged into these servers -- and yes, there it was, the number of players logged in was low and falling -- a million players, then 800,000, then 500,000, then 300,000, and finally the games stabilized at about 40,000 sessions. Another click revealed why: the system was kicking off players as the load increased, trying to make room in memory and on the CPUs for whatever monster process was tearing through the frigid shipping containers.
“What the hell is going on?” he said, shouting into the general din. Kaden was on the phone with ops, shouting at the systems administrators to get on it, trace every process on the boxes, identify whatever species of strangler vine was loose in the machines, choking them to death.
Bill, meanwhile, had set loose his special team of grey-hat hackers to try and figure out if there were any of their black-hat brethren loose on the systems, crackers who'd broken in to steal corporate secrets, amass virtual wealth, or simply crash the thing, either to benefit a competitor, seek ransom or simply destroy for the pleasure of destruction.
Connor's money was on hackers. Each cluster was built and tested at Coke Games HQ in Austin, burned in for three solid weeks after it was all bolted into place in the shipping container. Once it had been green-lighted, it was loaded onto a flatbed truck and shipped to a data-center somewhere cold, preferably near a geothermal vent, tide-farm or wind-farm. There were plenty of sites in Newfoundland and Alaska, and some very good ones in Iceland and Norway, a few in Belgium and some in Siberia. The beauty of using standard shipping containers for their systems is that they were easy to ship (duh). The beauty of sticking the containers somewhere cold was that the main cost of running the systems was cooling off the machines as they relentlessly rubbed electrons against each other, bouncing them through the pinball-machine guts of the chips within them. On a cold day when the wind was blowing, they could knock the cost of running one of those containers in half.
Coke bought their data-center slots in threes, keeping one empty. When a new container arrived, it was slotted into the empty bay, run for a week to make sure nothing had been hurt in transit, and then the oldest container in a Coke-slot was yanked, loaded back onto a train, or ship, or flatbed truck, and sent back to Austin, detouring at Mumbai or Shenzhen or Lagos to drop off the computers within, stripped by work crews who sent them off to the used server markets to be torn to pieces and salvaged.
The containers were all specialized, only handling local traffic, to keep down network lag. But if one was overwhelmed, it could start offloading on its brothers around the planet -- better to face a laggy play experience than to be knocked off altogether. It was inconceivable that every server on the planet would suddenly get a spike in players and hit capacity and not be able to offer some support to the others. Inconceivable, unless someone had sabotaged them.
In the meantime, Connor had his feeds, his forensics, his gigantic haystacks and their hidden needles. Let the others worry about the downtime. He had bigger fish to fry.
He plunged back in, writing ever-more-refined scripts to try to catch the bad guys. He had a growing file of suspects to look into in more depth, using another set of scripts and filters he'd been drafting in the back of his mind. He already knew how he'd do it: he'd build his files of bad guys, make it big and deep, follow them around the game, see who else they knew, get thousands and thousands of accounts and then:
In one second, one instant, he'd delete every single one of their accounts, make their gold and elite items vanish, toss every single one out for terms-of-service violations. That part would be easy. The terms of service were so ridiculously strict and yet maddeningly vague that simply playing the game necessarily involved violating them. He'd obliterate them from gamespace and send them all back to their mommies crying. Thinking this kind of thing made him feel dirty and good at the same time.
He was deep in meditation when a fat, hairy hand reached over his shoulder and slammed his laptop lid down so hard he heard the screen crack, and then the hand reversed its course and slapped him so hard in the back of the head that his face bounced off the table in front of him.
Command Central fell perfectly silent as Connor straightened up, feeling and then tasting the blood pouring out of his nose. His ears were ringing. He turned his head slowly, because his eyes wouldn't focus properly and his head felt like it was barely attached to his neck. Standing over him, snorting like freight engine, stood Kaden, the head of ops, wearing a two-day beard and smelling of rancid sweat.
The man drew back his beefy fist again, cocking it for another blow to Connor's head and Connor flinched away involuntarily. He hadn't been in a fight since his schoolyard days, and he couldn't believe that this actual adult man had actually hit him with his actual fists. Something was growing in his chest, bubbling over, headed into his arms and legs. His breath came in short pants, every inhale bringing blood into his mouth. His heart thudded. He stood up abruptly, knocking his chair over backwards and --
He pushed off with both legs, throwing his own considerable bulk into Kaden's huge, protruding midsection. It was like a medicine ball, hard and unyielding, and he rebounded off it, just as Kaden's fist clobbered him again, getting him with a hard hammerblow in the back of the neck that knocked him to the ground.
He hit the ground with a thud that he felt in every bone in his body, his head caroming off a table-leg. He got his palms underneath him and shot to his feet again, coming all the way up, bringing his knee up into Kaden's balls as he did, doubling the fat man over. His hands were already in awkward fists and it was natural as anything to begin to beat the man's head with them, hitting so hard the skin over his knuckles split.
It had only taken a few seconds, and now the rest of Command Central reacted. Big hands grabbed his arms, waist, legs, pulled him away. Across from him, four game-runners had Kaden pinned as well, shouting at him to calm down, just calm the hell down, all right?
He did, a little. Someone handed Connor a wad of pizza-parlor napkins to press against his nose and someone else handed him an ice-cold can of Coke from the huge cooler at the side of the room to press against his aching neck.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he choked, glaring at Kaden, still held fast by four beefy game-runners.
“You goddamned idiot! You brought down the whole goddamned network. You and your stupid scripts! Do you have any idea how much you've cost us with your little fishing-expedition?”
Connor's anger and shock morphed into fear.
“What are you talking about?”
“Who ever wrote those damned forensics programs didn't have a clue. They clobbered the servers so hard, taking priority over every other job, until the system had to kick all the players off the games so that it could tell you what they were doing. I'll tell you what they were doing, Connor: they were trying to connect to the server.”
Connor shot a look at Bill, who had written the scripts, and saw that the head of security had gone pale. Connor dimly remembered him saying that the scripts were experimental and to use them sparingly, but they had been so rewarding, it had given him such a thrill to sit like a recording angel over the worlds, like Santa Claus detecting everyone who was naughty and everyone who'd been nice --
The enormity of what he'd done hit him almost as hard as Kaden's fist had. He had shut down three of the twenty largest economies in the world for a period of hours. Coke ran games that turned over more money than Portugal, Poland or Peru. That was just the P's. If Coke's games had been real countries, it would have been an act of war, or treason.
It was easily the biggest screwup of his career. Of his life. Possibly the biggest screwup in the entire history of the Coca Cola corporation.
Command Central seemed to recede, as if the room was rushing away from him. Distantly, he heard the game runners hiss explanations to one another, explaining the magnitude of his all-encompassing legendary world-beating FAIL.
Connor had never had a failure like this before. He'd screwed up here and there on the way. But he'd never, ever, never, never --
He shook his head. The hands restraining him loosened. Stiffly, he bent to pick up his laptop. Slivers of plastic and glass rained down as he lifted it. He couldn't meet anyone's eyes as he let himself out of the room.
He wasn't sure how he'd gotten home. His car was in the driveway, so that implied that he'd driven himself, but he had no recollection of doing so. And here he was, sitting at his dining-room table -- grand and dusty, he ate his meals over the sink when he bothered to eat at home at all -- and his phone was ringing from a long way off.
Absently, he patted himself down, noticing as he did that he was holding his car keys, which bolstered his hypothesis that he had driven himself home. He found his phone and answered it.
“Connor,” Ira said, “Connor, I don't know how to tell you this --”
Connor grunted. These were words you never wanted to hear from your broker.
“Connor are you there?”
He grunted again. Somewhere, his brain was finding some space in which to be even more alarmed.
“Connor, listen. Are you listening? Connor, it's like this. Mushroom Kingdom gold is collapsing, falling through the floor. There's no bottom in sight.”
“Oh,” Connor said. It came out in a breathless squeak.
The broker sighed. He sounded half-hysterical. “It's worse than that, though. That Prince in Dubai? Turns out he was writing paper that he couldn't honor. He's broke, too.”
“He is,” Connor said. A million miles away, a furious gorilla was bearing its teeth and beating its hairy fists against the insides of his skull, screeching something that sounded like You said it was risk-free!
“He isn't saying so, of course.” Now the broker sounded more than half-hysterical. He giggled, a laugh that ran up and down several octaves like a drunk sliding his fingers up and down a piano's keyboard.“He's saying things like, 'We are experiencing temporary cash-flow difficulties that have caused us to defer on some of our financial obligations, due to overall instability in the market.' But Connor --” He giggled again. “I've been around the block. I know what financial BS sounds like. The prince is b-r-o-k-e.”
“He is,” Connor said. You said it was risk-free! You said it was risk-free!
“And there's something else.”
Connor made a tiny sound like a whimper. The broker plunged on. "This is my last day at Paglia and Kennedy. Actually, this may be Paglia and Kennedy's last day. We just got our notices. Paglia and Kennedy sank a lot of money into these bonds and their derivatives.
“Everyone else ran off to steal some office supplies but I thought I would stand here on the deck of the Titanic and make some phone calls to my best clients. I put nearly everything into Mushroom Kingdom gold. Not at first, you understand. But over time, bit by bit, the returns were just so good --”
“It was risk-free,” Connor said, louder than he'd planned to.
“Yeah,” Ira said. “OK, Connor, buddy, OK. I have other calls to make.” Connor could tell the poor guy expected him to be grateful. He thought he was making up for costing Connor -- how much? A hundred and eighty thousand? Two hundred thousand? Connor didn't even know anymore.
“Thanks for calling,” he said. “Thanks, Ira. Take care of yourself.” He could barely choke the words out, but once he had, he actually felt a little better.
He hung up the phone and dropped it on the table, letting it clatter. Somewhere out there, Coke's gameworlds were flickering back to life, players logging in again, along with gold-farmers, Webblies, Pinkertons, the whole crew. Not Connor, though. Connor had lived in a game-world of one kind or another since he was seven years old, and now he was willing to believe that he'd never visit one again.
Any second now, he would be fired, he was quite sure. And maybe arrested. And he was broke. Worse than broke -- he'd bought the last round of securities from Paglia and Kennedy on margin, on borrowed money, and he owed it back. Though with the brokerage going under they may never come and ask for it.
He drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes. Some smell -- the sweat that soaked his shirt, the blood that caked his face, the musty smell of the house -- triggered a strong memory of his place in Palo Alto, near the Stanford campus, and the long, long time he'd spent there, buying virtual assets, teetering on the brink of financial ruin and even starvation. And just like that, he was free.
Free of the terror of losing his job. Free of the terror of being broke. Free of the rage at the gold-farmers. Free of the shouting, roiling anger that was Command Central and free, finally free of his fingerspitzengefuhl. The world was tumbling free and uncontrolled and there wasn't a single thing he could do about it and wasn't that fine?
There was an old song that went Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose and Connor suddenly understood what it all meant.
When he was eight years old, he'd decided to work on video games. It was one of those ridiculous kid-things, like deciding to be an astronaut or a ballerina or a cowboy or a deep-sea diver. Most kids outgrow their dreams, go on to do something normal and boring. But Connor had held onto it, finding his way into gamespace through the most curious of means, and he had trapped himself there. Until today.
Now the eight-year-old who'd sent him on a quest had finally released him from it.
He took a shower and iced his nose some more and put on a t-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts he'd bought on holiday in the Bahamas the year before (he'd spent most of the trip in his room, online, logged into gamespace, keeping the fingerspitzengefuhl alive) and opened his door.
Outside it was Atlanta. He'd lived in the city for seven years, gone to its movie theaters and eaten at its restaurants, taken his parents around to its tourist sites when they visited, but he had never really lived there. It was like he'd been on an extended, seven-year visit. He kicked on a pair of flip-flops he normally wore when he had to go outside to get the mail and stepped out his door.
He walked into the baking afternoon sun of Atlanta, breathing in the humid air that was so wet it seemed like it might condense on the roof of his mouth and drip onto his tongue. He got to the end of his walk and looked up and down the street he'd lived on for all these years, with its giant houses and spreading trees and disused basketball hoops and he started walking. No one except maids and gardeners walked anywhere in this neighborhood. Connor couldn't understand why. The spreading trees smelled great, there were birds singing, even a snail inching its way across the sidewalk. In half an hour, Connor saw more interesting new things than he had in a month.
Oh, the feeling of it all! A lightness in his head, an openness in his chest. Old pains in his back and shoulders that had been there so long he'd forgotten about them disappeared, leaving behind a comfortable feeling as striking as the quiet after a refrigerator's compressor shuts off, leaving behind unexpected silence.
He was sweating freely, but he didn't mind. It just made the occasional breath of wind feel that much better.
Eventually, his bladder demanded that he head home, so he ambled back, waving at the suspicious neighbors who peered at him from between the curtains of their vast living-room windows. As he opened his door, he heard his phone ringing. A momentary feeling of worry arced from his throat to his balls, like a streak of lightning, but he forced himself to relax again and headed for the bathroom. Whomever was calling would leave a message. There, the voicemail had picked it up. He had to pee.
The phone started ringing again.
He went into the kitchen and rummaged in his freezer. There was a loaf of brown bread there -- he never could get through a whole loaf before it went moldy, so now he bought a dozen loaves at a time and froze them. He chipped off two slices and put them in the toaster. There was peanut butter from the health-food store, crunchy-style, with nothing added. While the bread was toasting, he stirred the peanut butter with a knife, mixing the oil that was floating on top with the ground peanuts below. He had honey, but it had crystallized. No problem -- twenty seconds in the microwave and it was liquid again. What he really wanted was bananas, but there weren't any (the phone was ringing again) and he was hungry and wanted a sandwich now. He'd get bananas later.
The sandwich was (the phone was ringing again) delicious. He needed fresh bread though, he'd get some of that when he picked up the bananas. Throw out the frozen (there it was again) bread. He'd eat fresh from now on, and relish (and again) every bite.
Up until the moment that his finger pressed the green button, he believed that he was going to switch his phone off. But his finger came down on the green button and the anxiety sizzled up his arm and spread out from his shoulder to his whole body as the distant voice from the phone's earpiece said, “Hello? Connor?”
Connor watched as his hand wrapped itself around his phone and lifted it to his ear.
“Yes?” his mouth said, in the old, tight Connor voice.
“It's Bill,” the head of security said. “Can you come into the office?”
Connor heaved a sigh. “I'll courier over my badge. You can pack up my desk and ship it back. If you want to sue me, you'll have to hire a process server and have him come out here.”
Bill's laugh was bitter and mirthless. “We're not suing you, Connor. We're not firing you. We need your help.”
Connor swallowed. This was the one thing he hadn't anticipated: that his life might come back and suck him into it again. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“We think it's your gold-farmers,” Bill said. “They've got us by the balls, and they're squeezing.”
Connor changed into his work clothes like a condemned man dressing for his own hanging. He prayed that his car wouldn't start, but it was a new car -- he bought a new one every year, just like everyone else in Command Central -- and its electric motor hummed to life as he eyeballed the retina-scanner in the sun-visor.
He drove down his street again, seeing it all through the smoked glass of his car, the rolled up windows and air-conditioning drowning out the birdsong and shutting out the smells of the trees and the nodding flowers. Too fast to spot a snail or a bird.
He headed back to work.
They came for Big Sister Nor and The Mighty Krang and Justbob in the dead of night, and this time they brought the police. The three of them watched the police break down the door, accompanied by a pair of sour Chinese men with the look of mainland gangsters, the kind who came to Singapore on easy two-week tourist visas. Nor and her friends watched the door be broken down from two Lorongs -- side-streets -- down, using a webcam and streaming the video live to the Webblies' network and a bunch of journalists they'd woken up as soon as they'd bugged out of the old place, warned by a sympathetic grocer at the top of Geylang Road.
The fallback house wasn't nearly as nice as the one they'd vacated, naturally, but the two quickly came into balance as the police methodically smashed every piece of furniture in the place to splinters. The Mighty Krang drew real-time annotations on the screen as the police worked, sometimes writing in the dollar value of the furniture being smashed, sometimes just drawing mustaches and eye-patches on the police in the video. When the Chinese men took out their dicks and began to piss on the wreckage, he leapt to his trackpad, circled the members in question, drew arrows pointing to them, and wrote “TINY!” in three languages before they'd finished.
They watched as one of the policemen answered his phone, listened in as he said, “Hello?” and “What?” and “Where?” and then “Here?” “Here?” feeling around the place where the wall met the ceiling, until he found the video camera. The look on his face -- a mixture of horror and fury -- as he disconnected it was priceless.
“Priceless,” The Mighty Krang said, and turned to his companions, who were far less amused than he was.
“Oh, do lighten up,” he said. “They didn't catch us. The strikers are striking. Mumbai and Guandong are going crazy. The New York Times is sending us about ten emails a minute. The Financial Times, too. And the Times of London. That's just the English papers. Germans, French... And the Times of India, of course, they've got a reporter in Dharavi, and so do the Mumbai tabloids. We're six of the top twenty YouTube videos. I've got --” he looked down, moused some -- “82,361 emails from people to the membership address.”
Justbob glowered at him with her good eye. “Matthew is trapped in Dafen. 42 are dead. We don't know where Jie and the white boy, Wei-Dong, are.”
Big Sister Nor reached out her hands and they each took one of hers. “Comrades,” she said, "comrades. This is the moment, the one we planned for. We've been hurt. Our friends have been hurt. More will be hurt when this is over.
“But people like us get hurt every single day. We get caught in machines, we inhale poison vapors, we are beaten or drugged or raped. Don't forget that. Don't forget what we go through, what we've been through. We're going to fight this battle with everything we have, and we will probably lose. But then we will fight it again, and we will lose a little less, for this battle will win us many supporters. And then we'll lose again. And again. And we will fight on. Because as hard as it is to win by fighting, it's impossible to win by doing nothing.”
An alert popped up on Krang's screen, reminding him to switch a new prepaid SIM card into his mobile phone. A second later, the same alert came up on Big Sister Nor and Justbob's screens.
Big Sister Nor smiled. “OK,” she said. “Back to work.”
They swapped SIMs, pulling new ones out of dated envelopes they carried in money-belts under their clothes. They powered up their phones. Both Justbob and The Mighty Krang's phones rang as soon as they powered up.
The Mighty Krang looked down at the number. “It's Wei-Dong,” he said. “Told you he was safe.”
Justbob looked at her phone. “Ashok,” she said.
They both answered their phones.
Ashok knew that this time would come. For months, he'd slaved over models of economic destruction: how much investment in junk game-securities would it take to put the game-runners into a position of total vulnerability? He'd modelled it a thousand ways, tried many variables in his equations, sweated over it, woken in the night to pace or ride his motorcycle around until the doubts left his mind.
Somewhere out there, some distant follower of Big Sister Nor's had convinced the Mechanical Turks to go to work selling his funny securities. It had been easy enough to package them -- there were so many companies that would let you roll your own custom security packages together and market them, and all it took was to figure out which one was most lax with its verification procedures and create an account there and invent a ton of virtual wealth through it. Then he logged into less-sloppy competitors and repackaged the junk he'd created, making something that seemed a little more legit. Working his way up the food chain, he'd gone from packager to packager, steadily accumulating a shellac of respectability overtop of his financial turds.
Once they had acquired this sheen, brokers came hunting for his funny money. And since the Webblies were diverting a sizeable chunk of game-wealth into the underlying pool, he was able to make everything seem as though it was growing at breakneck speed -- and it was. After all, all those traders swapping the derivatives were driving up the prices every time they completed a sale.
Once, at about two in the morning, as Ashok watched the trading proceed, he realized that he could simply quit the Webblies, sell the latest batch of funny money, and retire. But he was never tempted. He'd always known that it was possible to get rich by trampling on the people around you, by treating them as suckers to be ripped off. He couldn't do it.
Of course, here he was, doing it, but this was different. His little financial game could end well if all went according to plan, and now it was time to see if the plan would go the way it was supposed to.
Justbob took his call in her fractured English, which was better than her Hindi, limited as it was to orders of battle and military cursing. He told her that he needed to speak to Big Sister Nor, and she asked him to wait a moment, as BSN was on the phone with someone else at the time.
In the background, he heard Big Sister Nor conversing in a mix of Chinese and English, flipping back and forth in a way that reminded him of his buddies at university and the way they'd have fun mixing up English and Hindi words, turning out puns and obscurely dirty phrases that nevertheless sounded innocent.
He looked at the clock in the corner of his screen. It was 5AM and outside, he could hear the birds singing. In the next room, Mala's army fought on in tireless shifts, defending the strike. They slept in shifts on the floor now, and there were fifty or sixty steel and garment workers prowling the street out front, visiting other striking sites around Dharavi with sign-up sheets, trying to organize the workers of little five- or ten-person shops into their unions.
He realized he was falling asleep. How long had it been since he'd last slept for more than an hour or so? Days. He jerked his head up and forced his eyes open and there was Yasmin before him, raccoon-eyed beneath the hijab across her forehead. She was frowning, her mouth bracketed by deep worry lines, another one above the bridge of her nose. She was holding her lathi.
“Yasmin?” he said.
She bit her lip. “Mala is gone,” she said. “No one's seen her for hours. Twelve, maybe fourteen.”
He started to say something but then Big Sister Nor spoke on the phone, “Ashok, sorry to keep you waiting.”
He looked to Yasmin, then back at his screen. “One second,” he said to the phone.
“Yasmin, she's probably gone home to sleep --”
Yasmin shook her head once, emphatically. He felt a jolt of fear.
“Ashok?” Big Sister Nor's voice in his ear.
“Come in,” he said to Yasmin, “come here. Close the door.”
He stood up and held his chair out to Yasmin and dropped into a squat beside her, heels on the ground. He pressed the speaker button on the phone.
“Nor,” he said. He always felt faintly ridiculous calling this woman “Big Sister,” though the Webblies seemed to relish it in the same way they loved saying General Robotwallah. “I have Yasmin with me here. She tells me that Mala is missing, has been missing for some hours.”
There was a momentary pause. “Ashok,” Nor said, “that's terrible news. But I thought you were calling about the other thing --”
He looked at Yasmin, whose eyes were steady on him. He never talked about the work he did for Big Sister Nor, but everyone knew he was up to something back here.
“Yes,” he said. “The other thing. I need to talk to you about that. But Yasmin is here and she tells me that Mala is missing.”
Big Sister Nor seemed to hear the gravity in his voice. She took a deep breath, spoke in a patient voice: “You know Dharavi better than I do. What do you think has happened?”
He nodded to Yasmin. “I think that Bannerjee has her,” she said. “I think that he will hurt her, if he hasn't already.”
From the phone, The Mighty Krang's voice broke in. “I have Bannerjee's phone number,” he said. “From one of our people in Guzhen. He emailed us a list of everyone in his boss's address book.”
Ashok found his hands were in fists. He'd only met Bannerjee once, but that was enough. The man looked like he was capable of anything, one of those aliens who could look at a fellow human being as nothing more than an opportunity to make money. Yasmin's eyes were wide.
“You want to phone him?”
“Sure,” The Mighty Krang sounded calm, even flippant, just as he did in the inspirational videos he posted to the Webbly boards and YouTube. “It's worth a try. Maybe he wants to ransom her.”
“Are you joking?”
The light tone left his voice. “No, Yasmin, I'm not joking. Look, the Webblies are powerful. Men like Bannerjee understand that. Once I got Bannerjee's number, I used it to get a full workup on him. We have some leverage over him. It's possible that we can make him see reason. And if we can't --” He trailed off.
“We're no worse off than before,” Big Sister Nor finished.
“When will we call him?”
“Oh, now would be good. Negotiations are always best in the small hours. Hang on, I'll get the number.” The Mighty Krang typed some. “OK, let's do this.”
“OK,” Yasmin said in a tiny voice.
“OK,” Ashok said.
“I'll keep you two muted for him, but live for me. Remember that -- if you talk over him, I'll hear both, which might confuse me.”
“We'll mute our end,” Ashok said. He saw that his battery was low and fished around on his desk for a power-cable and plugged it in. Then he muted the phone. He and Yasmin unconsciously leaned their heads together over it, so that he could smell his sour breath and hers, which smelled of vomit. She had been sick. He closed his eyes and it felt as though there was sandpaper on the insides of his eyelids.
After a few rings, a sleepy voice mumbled “Victory to Rama,” in Hindi, the traditional phone salutation. It made Ashok snort derisively. A man like Bannerjee was about as pious as a turnip. As a jackal.
“Mr Bannerjee,” Big Sister Nor said in accented Hindi. “Good morning.”
“Who is it?” He had switched to English.
“The Webblies,” Big Sister Nor said.
“For a Webbly,” Bannerjee grunted, still sounding half-asleep, “you sound an awful lot like an underage Chinese whore. Where are you calling from, China-Doll? A brothel in Hong Kong?”
“2,500 kilometers from HK, actually. And I'm Indonesian.”
Bannerjee grunted again. “But you are a whore, aren't you?”
“Mr Bannerjee, I am a busy woman --”
“A popular whore!”
Yasmin hissed at the phone and Ashok double-checked that the mute was on. It was.
“-- a busy woman. I've called to make you an offer.”
“I have all the whores I need,” he said. “Goodbye.”
“Mr Bannerjee! I'm calling to arrange for the release of Mala,” Big Sister Nor spoke quickly. “And I'm sure if you think about it for just a moment, you'll realize that there's plenty I can offer you for her safe return.”
Bannerjee said, “Mala is missing?” in a tone that could have won a medal in the unconvincing Olympics.
“Stop playing games, please. You know that we're not the police. We're not going to have you arrested. We just want her back.”
“I'm sure you do. She's a delightful girl.”
Yasmin was grasping her opposite elbows so hard her knuckles were white. Ashok had his fists bunched in the fabric of his trouser-legs. He made himself loosen them. But Big Sister Nor just continued on, as though she hadn't heard.
“I'm sure you've seen what's happened to the gold markets. Prices are on fire. No one can get any gold out of the gold farms, thanks to my Webblies. If you could promise a farmer access to one spot, without harassment, just think of what you could charge.”
Bannerjee chuckled. “And all I have to do is find Mala for you and give her to you and you will guarantee this to me, is that right?”
“That's the shape and size of it.”
“You will, of course, honor your end of the bargain once I've found her for you.”
There was a long silence. Finally, Big Sister Nor spoke again.
“I understand your scepticism. I can give you my word of honor.”
Bannerjee made a rude sound, like a wet fart. “How about this: I get the gold out of the game, then I find Mala for you.”
Ashok hated this game he was playing, pretending that he didn't have Mala, but he could somehow find her. He wanted to crawl through the phone and strangle the man.
“How about if we just get you some gold?” It was The Mighty Krang speaking.
“Oh, there's more of you? Are you also an Indonesian whore 2500 kilometers from Hong Kong, or are you dialled in from some other exotic locale?”
“We can get the gold out of the game faster than anyone you could hire. All the best gold farmers are in the union. The scabs they've got working in the shops right now are so crap they'll probably screw up and get themselves banned.” Ashok loved that Krang wasn't playing Bannerjee's taunting game either.
Bannerjee snorted. “That's not bad,” he said.
“We could use an escrow service, one we both agree on.” The gold-markets ran on escrow services, trustworthy parties that would hold gold and cash while a deal was closing, working for a small percentage.
“And you would return Mala to us?”
“I would do everything I could to find the poor girl and get her into your hands.” Gold, silver and bronze medals in the 100-yard slime.
They dickered over price and timing -- Mala ended up promising him a 300,000 Svartalfaheim runestones -- and Krang disconnected Bannerjee.
“Brilliant,” Ashok said, trying to force some enthusiasm into his voice, while inside he was quavering at the thought of Mala in the hands of Bannerjee.
“Very good,” Yasmin said.
“Yes, yes,” Big Sister Nor said. “And your team will get the runestones for us, and I'm sure you'll do it quickly and well because she is your general. All our problems should be that easy to solve. Now, Ashok, how have you done with your complicated problem?”
Ashok looked at Yasmin, who showed no signs of leaving.
“I think we're there. The trick was to create a situation where they can't put things back together without our help. Our accounts control the gold underneath so many of these securities that if they kick us all off, they'll create a massive crash, both in-game and out-of-game. At the same time, they can't afford to leave us running around freely, because there's a hundred ways we could crash the system, too, from resigning in a huge group all at once to repeating the Mushroom Kingdom job.” Crashing the Mushroom Kingdom securities had been easy -- Mushroom Kingdom was already riddled with scams that had been flying under the radar of Nintendo's incompetent economist and security teams. Ashok had used Webblies and some of the Mechanical Turks that Big Sister Nor had supplied through her mysterious contact on the inside, building up a catalog of all the other scams and then giving them a nudge here and a shove there, using Webblies to produce gold on demand when necessary.
He'd gone into it thinking that he'd never manage to take on the Mushroom Kingdom economy, believing that the security would be all-knowing and all-powerful. But in truth, it had all been held together with twine and wishful thinking, straining at the seams, and it had only taken a little pushing and pulling to first make it swell to unheard-of heights, and then to explode gloriously.
“But we couldn't afford to repeat the Mushroom Kingdom job. There was no way we could have pulled that one out of the nosedive, once it started. It was doomed from the start. With Coca-Cola's games, we have to be able to promise to put it all back together again if they play cricket with us.” Talking about his work made him forget momentarily about Mala, let the iron bands around his chest loosen, just a little.
“If we had kept things on schedule, it would have been much easier. But you know, with things all chaotic, I had to rush things. I've been dumping our gold reserves on the market for hours now, which has sent the market absolutely crazy, especially after they had that crash. How on Earth did you manage that?”
Big Sister Nor snorted. “It wasn't me. We're not sure if they got hacked, or some kind of big crash. It was well-timed, though.”
“Would you tell me if you had caused it?”
Yasmin looked faintly shocked.
“Ashok,” BSN said, with mock sternness, “I tell everyone anything I think they need to know, and I usually tell them anything they think they need to know. We're not in the secrets business around here.”
That made Ashok pause. He'd always thought of the operation as being shrouded in secrecy. Certainly Big Sister Nor had never volunteered any details about her contact with the Mechanical Turks -- but then, he'd never asked, had he? Nor had he ever asked if he could discuss his project with Mala's army. He shook his head. What if the secrecy had been all in his mind?
“OK,” he said. "Fine. The problem is this: if I had enough time -- if I had the time we'd planned on -- I'd be in a position to take Svartalfaheim right up to the brink of collapse and then either save it or let it collapse. It all comes down to how much gold we had in our reserves, and how much of the trading we controlled.
“But I've had to rush the schedule, which means that I can't give you both. I can bring the economy to the brink of ruin, but when I do, I need to know in advance whether we're going to let it blow up, or whether we're going to let it recover. I can't decide later.” He swallowed. “I think that means we have to destroy it. I still have Zombie Mecha and Clankers underway. We can show them our force by taking out Svartalfaheim and then threaten to take out the other two.”
“Why do you want to do it that way?”
He shook his head, realized she couldn't see him. “Listen, they're not going to give in to you. You're going to go in there and start giving them orders and they're going to assume you're some ridiculous third-world crook. They're going to tell you to get lost. If you make a threat and you can't make good on it, that'll be the last time you hear from them. They'll never take you seriously after that.”
Big Sister Nor clucked her tongue. “Are we so easy to dismiss?”
“Yes,” Ashok said. “I know what the Webblies can do. But they don't. And they won't, until we show them.”
“We have Mushroom Kingdom for that.”
That stopped him. “Yes, that's true of course. But that was so easy --”
“They don't know that. They don't know anything about us, as you point out. So yes, maybe they'll assume we're weak and maybe they'll assume we're strong. But one thing I know is, if they give us what we want and then we destroy their game, they'll never trust us again.”
“So you're saying you want me to set this all up so that we can't make good on our threat?”
“If we have to choose --”
“Then yes, that's just what I want, Ashok. I'll just have to be sure that whatever happens, we don't need to carry out our threat.”
“OK,” Ashok said. “I can do that.”
“Good. And Ashok?”
“I need you to speak with them,” she said. “With who ever they get to talk to us. I'll be on the call, too, of course. But you need to talk to them, to explain to them what we've done and what we can do.”
Ashok swallowed. “I'm not good at that sort of talk --”
Yasmin made a rude noise. “Don't listen to him,” she said. “You talked the steelworkers and the garment-workers into coming to Dharavi!”
“I did,” he said. “I didn't think it would work -- they'd never listened before. But once I explained what kind of situation you were all in, the thugs, the violence, told them that all of Dharavi would know if they came down --”
“Once you really believed in it,” Big Sister Nor said. “That's the difference. I've heard you talk about the things you love, Ashok. You are very convincing when it comes to that. The difference between all the conversations you had with them before and the last one is that you came to them as a Webbly last time, not as someone who was playing a game to make himself feel like he was doing something important.” The criticism took him off guard and pierced him. He had been playing a game at first, taken with his own cleverness at the vision of kids all over the world running circles around the tired old unions he'd hung around with all his life. But now, it wasn't a game anymore. Or rather, it was a game, but it was one that he took deadly serious.
“OK,” he said. “I'll talk to them.”
Now it was Jie's turn to watch Wei-Dong, as he typed furiously at his keyboard, reaching out to hundreds of Mechanical Turks who'd said, “Yes, yes, we're on your side; yes, we're tired of the crummy pay and of always having the threat of being fired over our heads.” He reached out to them and what he told them all was:
Now it begins, now we are ready, now we move. He sent them links to the YouTube videos of the protests in China, the picket lines in India, the workers who'd begun to walk off the job in Indonesia and Vietnam and Cambodia, saying, “Us too, us all together, us too.”
Only it wasn't working the way it was supposed to. The Mechanical Turks had been happy enough to seed a little disinformation, to pass on some weird-sounding stock-tips or to look the other way when the Webblies were fighting the Pinkertons, but they balked at going to Coke and saying, “We demand, we want, we are all one.” Just from their typing, he could feel their fear, the terror that they might find themselves without a job next month, that they might be the only ones who stood up.
But not all of them. First one, then five, then fifty, and finally over a hundred of his Turks were with him, ready to put their names to a list of dues-paying Webblies who wanted to bargain as a group with Coke for a better deal. That was only 20 percent of what he'd bargained for, but they still accounted for 35 of the top fifty performers on the Webbly leaderboards.
He kept up a running account for Jie, muttering in Chinese to her between messages and quick voice calls.
“Now what?” she said. She was jammed up in a corner of the room, resting on her sweater, which she'd spread out over the filthy mattress, eyes barely open.
“Now I call Coke,” he said. He had talked this over with Big Sister Nor a dozen times, iterating through the plan, even role-playing it with The Mighty Krang playing the management on the other end. But that didn't mean that he was calm -- anything but, he felt like he might throw up at any instant.
“How is that supposed to work?”
He closed his eyes, which were burning with exhaustion and dried tears. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded. “I was thinking of going upstairs for some dumplings,” she said.
“Bring me some?”
She got up and walked unsteadily to the door. She pulled a compact out of her purse and looked at herself, made a face, then said, “Tea?”
He'd drunk tea for years, but right now he needed coffee, no matter how American that made him feel. “Coffee,” he said. “Two coffees.”
She smiled a sad little smile. “Of course. I'll bring a syringe, too.”
But he was already back at his computer, screwing in his borrowed earwig, dialling in on the employee-only emergency number.
“Co' Cola Games level two support, this is Brianna speaking,” the voice was flat, American, bored, female, Hispanic.
“I need to speak to someone in operations,” he said. “This is Leonard Goldberg, Turk number 4446E764.”
“Hello, Leonard. Can I have the fifth letter of your security code?”
He had to think hard for a moment. Like the name Leonard Goldberg, like his entire American life, the security code he used to communicate with his employers seemed like it was in a distant fairytale land. “K for kilo,” he said. “No, wait, Z for Zulu.”
“And the second letter?”
“A for alpha.”
“OK, Leonard, what can I do for you?”
“I need to speak to someone in operations,” he said. “Level four, please.”
“What do you need to speak to operations about, please?” He could hear her clicking away at her screen, looking up the escalation procedures. Technically it wasn't supposed to be possible to go from level two support to level four without going through level three. But the entire escalations manual was available in the private discussion forums on the unofficial Turk groups if you knew where to look for them.
“I, uh, I think I found someone, who was, like, a pedophile? Like he might have been trying to get some kids to give him their RL addresses?” Kid-diddlers, mafia, terrorists or pirates, the four express tickets to level four support. Anything that meant calling in the federal cops or the international ones. He figured that a potential pedophile would have just the right amount of ick to get him escalated without the call being sent straight to the cops.
Brianna typed something, read something, muttered “Just a minute, hon,” read some more. “OK, level four it is.” She parked him on hold.
Jie came back with a styrofoam clamshell brimming over with steaming dumplings and a bottle of nuclear-hot Vietnamese rooster sauce and a pair of chopsticks. She picked one up, blew on it, dipped it in the sauce and held it out to him. He popped it into his mouth and chewed it, blowing out at the same time to try to cool off the scalding pork inside. They shared a smile, then the call started up again.
“Hello, Coca Cola Games, level four ops, Gordon speaking, your name please.”
Leonard went through the authentication routine with Gordon again, his password coming more easily to him this time.
“All right, Leonard, I hear you found a pedophile? One moment while I pull up your interaction history --”
“Don't bother,” Wei-Dong said, his pulse going so fast he felt like he was going to explode. “I made that up.”
“Did you.” It wasn't really a question.
“I need to speak to Command Central,” he said. “It's urgent.”
Wei-Dong waited. This Gordon character was supposed to get angry or sarcastic, not quiet. The pause stretched until he felt he had to fill it. “It's about the Webblies, I have a message for Command Central.”
Oh, for Christ's sake. “Gordon, listen. I know you think I'm just a kid and you probably think I'm full of crap, but I need to speak to Command Central right now. I promise you, if you don't connect me with them, you'll regret it.”
“I will, will I? Well, listen, Leonard, I've been looking at your interaction history and you certainly seem like an efficient worker, so I'm going to go easy on you. You can't talk to Command Central. Period. Tell me what you want, and I'll see that someone gets back to you.”
This was something Wei-Dong had prepared for. “Gordon, please relay the following to Command Central. Do you have a pen?”
“Oh, this is all being recorded.” There was the sarcasm he'd been waiting for. He was getting under his skin. Right.
“Tell them that I represent the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, Local 56, and that we need to speak with Coca Cola Games's Chief Economist immediately in order to avert a collapse on the scale of the Mushroom Kingdom disaster. Tell them that we have two hours to act before the collapse takes place. Did you get that?”
“What? You're kidding --”
“I'm serious. I'll hold while you tell them.” He muted the connection and immediately dialled back to Singapore and told Justbob what had happened. She assured him that they'd get their economist on the line as quickly as possible and put him on hold. He bridged both calls into his earpiece but isolated them so that they wouldn't be able to hear him, then told Jie what had just happened.
“When can I interview you about this for the radio show?”
He swallowed. “I think maybe never. Part of this story can probably never be publicly told. We'll ask BSN, OK?”
She made a face, but nodded. And now there was Gordon.
“Leonard, you there, buddy?”
“I'm here,” he said.
“You're logging in from a lot of proxies lately. Where exactly are you located? We have you in LA.”
“I'm not in LA,” Wei-Dong said, grinning. “I'm a little ways off from there. You don't need to know where. How's it coming with Command Central, Gordon? Time's a-wastin'.” Keep the pressure up, that was a critical part of the plan. Don't give them time to think. Get them to run around like headless chickens.
“I'm on it,” Gordon said. He swallowed audibly. “Look, you're not serious, are you?”
“You saw what happened to Mushroom Kingdom, right?”
“OK then,” Wei-Dong said. He'd been warned not to admit to any wrongdoing personally.
“You know, 15 minutes have gone by already.”
Another swallow. “I'll be right back.”
A new line cut in, different background noise, chaotic, lots of chatter. Gordon had probably been a teleworker sitting in his underwear in his living room. This was different. This was a room filled with angry, arguing people who were typing on keyboards like machineguns.
“This is William Vaughan, head of security for Coca Cola Games. Hello, Leonard.”
“Hello, Mr Vaughan.” Leonard said. Be polite. That was part of the plan, too. Real operators were grownups, polite, businesslike. “May I speak with Connor Prikkel, please?” Prikkel's name had been easy enough to google. Wei-Dong had spent some time watching videos of the man at conferences. He seemed like an awkward, super-brainy academic type run to fat. He typed a quick one-handed message to Justbob: Got cmd ctnrl, where r u?
“Mr Prikkel is away from the office. I have been asked to speak with you in his stead.”
He had prepped for this, too. “I'm afraid that I need to talk with Connor Prikkel personally.”
“That's not possible,” Vaughan said, sounding like he was barely holding onto his temper.
“Mr Vaughan,” Wei-Dong said. He hadn't spoken this much English for weeks. It was weird. He'd started to think in Chinese, to dream in it. “I don't know if uh, Gordon told you what I told him --”
“Yes, he did. That's why you're talking to me now.”
“Mr Prikkel is qualified to evaluate what I have to say to him. I'm not qualified to understand it. And no offense, I don't think you are either.”
“I'll be the judge of that.”
Justbob sent him a message back: 5 min.
“I've got a better idea,” Wei-Dong said. “You get Mr Prikkel and call me back. I'll leave you a voice-chat ID. You can listen in on the call.”
“How about if I just trace where you're calling us from and we call the police? Leonard, kid, you are working on my last good nerve and I'm about to lose it with you. Fair warning.”
Wei-Dong tisked. He was starting to enjoy this. “Mr Vaughan, here's the thing. In --” he looked at the clock -- “about ten minutes, you’re going to see total chaos in your gold markets. All those contracts that Coke Games has written for gold futures are going to start to slide into oblivion. You can spend the next ten minutes trying to trace me, but you're not going to find me, and even if you do, you're not going to be able to do anything about it, because I am an ocean away from the nearest police force that will give you the time of day.” The security man started to choke out a response, but Wei-Dong kept talking. “I'd prefer not to destroy the game. I love it. I love playing all these games. You have my record there, you know it. We all feel that way, all the Webblies. It's where we go to work every day. We want it to succeed. But we want that to happen on terms that are fair to us. So believe me when I tell you that I am calling to strike a bargain that you can afford, that we can live with and that will save the game and get everything back on track by the end of the day.” He looked at the clock again, did some mental arithmetic. “By tomorrow morning, your time, that is.”
He could almost hear the gears turning in Vaughan's head. “You're in Asia, somewhere?”
“Is that the only thing that you got from that?”
He made a little conciliatory snort. “You're a long way from home, kid. Ten minutes, huh?”
Wei-Dong said, “Eight, now. Give or take.”
“That's some pretty impressive economic forecasting.”
“When you've got 400,000 gold farmers working with a few thousand Mechanical Turks, you can do some pretty impressive things.” The numbers were all inflated. But Vaughan would assume they were. If Wei-Dong had given him the real numbers, he'd have underestimated their strength. He liked how this was going.
2 min more from Justbob.
“OK, Vaughan, here's how Mr Prikkel can reach me. Sooner, rather than later.” He named the ID and the service, one that was run out of the Mangalore Special Economic Zone. It was pretty reliable and easy to sign up for, and they supported strong crypto and didn't log connections. He'd heard that it was a favorite with diplomats from poor countries that couldn't run their own servers.
“Call me!” he said, and gave him the details once more.
They'll call me back he typed to Justbob. Our guy wasn't there.
Justbob called him right away, and he heard The Mighty Krang and Big Sister Nor holding another conversation in the background. “You hung up?”
“It wasn't the right guy. I think he was away, maybe on holidays or something. They'll get him on the phone. no worries.” But Justbob sounded worried, and he didn't like that. He shrugged mentally. He'd done the best he could, using his best judgement. He'd been shot at, seen his friend killed. He'd smuggled himself halfway around the world. He'd earned some autonomy.
He ate some of the now-cold dumplings and tried not to worry as the time stretched out. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes. Justbob sent more and more impatient notes. Jie fell asleep on the disgusting mattress, her sweater spread out beneath her head, her face girlish and sad in repose.
Then his computer rang.
“Hello?” Texting, Phone.
“This is Connor Prikkel. I understand you needed to speak to me?”
Now he texted and clicked the button that pulled Justbob and her economist onto the call.
No one in Command Central would meet Connor's eye when he came back into the office, his nose swollen and his eyes red and puffy. He grabbed a spare computer from the shelves by the door -- smashed laptops weren't exactly unheard-of in the high-tension environment of Command Central -- and plugged it in and powered it up.
“The markets are going crazy,” Bill said in a low voice, while around them, Command Central's denizens -- minus Kaden, who seemed to have been removed for his own good -- made a show of pretending not to listen in. “Huge amounts of gold have hit the market in the past ten minutes, and the price is whipsawing down.”
Connor nodded. “Sure, our normal monetary policy has had to assume that a certain amount of gold would be entering the system from these characters. When they stopped the flow a couple weeks ago, we had to pick up production to keep inflation down. I had assumed that they were too busy fighting to mine any more gold, but it looks like they spent that time building up their reserves. Now that they're dumping it --”
“Can you do something about it?”
Connor thought. All the peace and serenity he'd attained just an hour ago, when he was a man with nothing to lose, was melting away. He had the curious sensation of his muscles returning to their habitual, knotted states. But a new clarity descended on him. He'd been thinking of the Webblies as a pack of gang-kids, fighting a gang-war with their former bosses. This business, though, was sophisticated beyond anything that some gangsters would kick up. It was an act of sophisticated economic sabotage.
“I'd better talk to this kid,” he said, quickly paging through the data, setting up feeds, feeling the return of his fingerspitzengefuhl.
Bill made a sour face. “You think they're for real?”
“I think we can't afford to assume they aren't.” The voice was someone else's. He recognized it: the voice of a company man doing the company's business.
A few minutes later, he said, “This is Connor Prikkel. I understand you needed to speak to me?”
“Mr Prikkel, it is very good to speak with you.” The voice had a heavy Indian accent, and the background was flavored with the unmistakable sound of gamers at their games, shooting, shouting.
Bill, listening in with his own earpiece, shook his head. “That's not the kid.”
“I'm here too.” This voice was young, unmistakably American. When it cut in, the background changed, no gamers, no shouting. These two were in different rooms. He had an intuition that they might be in different countries, and he remembered all the battles he'd spied upon in which the sides were from all over Asia and even Eastern Europe, South America and Africa.
“Mr Prikkel -- Doctor Prikkel,” Connor supressed a laugh. The PhD was purely honorary, and he never used it. “My name is Ashok Balgangadhar Tilak. Allow me to begin by saying that, having read your publications and watched dozens of your presentations, I consider you to be one of the great economics thinkers of our age.”
“Thank you, Mr Tilak,” Connor said. “But --”
“So it is somewhat brash of me to say what I am about to say. Nevertheless, I will say it: We own your games. We control the underlying assets against which a critical mass of securities have been written; further, we control the substantial number of those securities and can sell them as we see fit, through a very large number of dummy accounts. Finally, we have orders in ourselves for many of the sureties that you have used to hedge this deal, orders that will automatically execute should you try to float more to absorb the surplus.”
Connor typed furiously. “You don't expect me to take your word for this?”
“Naturally not. I expect you to look to the example of Mushroom Kingdom. And to the turmoil in Svartalfaheim Warriors. Then I'd suggest that you cautiously audit the books for Zombie Mecha and Clankers.”
“I will.” Again, that company man's voice, from so far away. The feeds were confirming it, though, the trading volume was insane, but underneath it all there was a sense of directedness, as though someone were making it all happen.
“Now, I suppose there's something coming here. Blackmail, I'm guessing. Cash.”
“Nothing of the sort,” said the Indian man, sounding affronted. “All we're after is peace.”
“Exactly. I can undo everything we've done, put the markets back together again, stop the bleeding by unwinding the trades very carefully and very gently, working with you to make a soft landing for everyone. The markets will dip, but they'll recover, especially when you make the announcement.”
“The announcement that we've made peace with you.”
“Oh yes,” Ashok said. “Of course. Your employers expect that you can run your economy like a toy train set, on neat rails. But we know better. Gold-farming is an inevitable consequence of your marketplace, and that pushes the train off the rails. But imagine this: what if your employer were to recognize the legitimacy of gold farming as a practice, allowing our workers to participate as legitimate actors in a large and complex economy. Our exchanges would move above-ground, where you could monitor them, and we would meet regularly with you to discuss our membership's concerns and you would tell us about your employers' concerns. There would still be underground traders, of course, but they would be pushed off into the margins. Every decent farmer in the world wants to join the Webblies, for we represent the best players and everyone knows it. And we'll be at every non-union farm-site in every game, talking to the workers about the deal they will get if they band with us.”
“And all we have to do is... what?”
“Cooperate. Union gold that comes out of Coke's games will be legitimate and freely usable. We'll have a cooperative that buys and sells, just like today's exchange markets, but it will all be above-board, transparently governed by elected managers who will be subject to recall if they behave badly.”
“So we replace one cartel with another one?”
“Dr Prikkel, I wouldn't ever ask such a thing of you. No, of course not. We don't object to other unionized operations in the space. I have colleagues here from the Transport and Dock Workers' Union who are interested in organizing some of these workers. Let there be as many gold exchanges as the market can bear, all certified by you, all run by the workers who create them.”
“What about the players, Mr Tilak? Do they get a say in this?”
“Oh, I think the players have already had their say. After all, whom do you suppose is buying all this gold?”
“And you expect me to make all this happen in an hour?”
The American kid broke in. “45 minutes now.”
“Of course not. Today, all we seek is an agreement in principle. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that Coca Cola Games's board of directors will have to approve. However, we are of the impression that the board is likely to pay close attention to any recommendations brought to it by its chief economist, especially one of your standing.”
Connor found himself grinning. These kids -- not just kids, he reminded himself -- were gutsy. And what's more, they were gamers, something that was emphatically not true of CCG's board, who were as boring a bunch of mighty captains of industry as you could hope to find. “Is that it?”
“No.” It was the American kid again. He consulted his notes. Leonard Goldberg. In LA. Except Bill was pretty sure this kid was in Asia somewhere. He suspected there was a story in there.
“Hi, Connor. I'm emailing you a list of names right now.”
“I see it.” The message popped up in his public account, the one that was usually filtered by an intern before he saw it. He grabbed it, saw that it had been encrypted to his public key, decrypted it. It was a list of names, with numbers beside them. “OK, go ahead.”
“That's the names of Turks who've joined the Webblies.”
“You've got Turks who want to moonlight as gold farmers?”
“No.” The boy said, speaking as though to an idiot. “I've got Turks who want to join a union.”
Connor snorted. “I see. And is this union certified under US labor law? Have you considered the fact that you are all independent contractors and not employees?”
The boy cut in. “Yes, yes, all of that. But these are your best Turks, and they're Webblies, and we're all in it together.”
“You know, they'll never go for it.”
“Your teamsters are unionized. Your janitors are unionized. Now your Mechanical Turks are --”
“Son, you're not a union. Under US law, you're nothing.”
The Indian man cleared his voice. “That is all true, but this is likewise true of IWWWW members around the world in all their respective countries. Many countries prohibit all unions. And we ask you to recognize these workers' rights.”
“We're not those workers' employers.”
“You claim you're not our employers either,” said the boy, with a maddening note of triumph in his voice. “Remember? We're 'independent contractors', right?”
“Dr Prikkel, let me explain. The IWWWW is open to all workers, regardless of nationality or employment, and it will work for all those workers' rights, in solidarity. Our gold farmers will stand up for our Mechanical Turks, and vice versa.”
“Goddamned right,” said the boy. “An insult to one --”
“Is an insult to all. The gold farmers have a modest set of demands: modest benefits, job security, a pension plan. All the same things that we plan on asking our farmers' employers for. Nothing your division can't afford.”
“Are you saying that your demands are contingent on recognizing the demands from Mr Goldberg's friends.”
“And you will destroy the economy of Svartalfaheim Warriors in 45 minutes --”
“38 minutes,” said the kid.
“Unless I agree in principle that we will do this?”
“You have summed it all up admirably,” said the Indian economist. “Well done.”
“Can you give me a minute?”
“I can give you 38 minutes.”
“37,” said the kid.
He muted them, and he and Bill stared at each other for a long time.
“Is this as crazy as it sounds?”
"Actually, the crazy part is that it's not all that crazy. Impossible, but not crazy. We already let lots of third parties play with our economies -- independent brokers, the people who buy and sell their instruments. There's no technical reason these characters can't be a part of our planning. Hell, if they can do what they say, we'll be way more profitable than we are now.
“For one thing, we won't need to crash the servers tracking them all down.”
Connor grimaced. “Right. But then there's the impossible part. Leaving out the whole thing about the Turks, which is just crazy, there's the fact that the board will never, ever, never, never --”
Bill held a hand up. “Now, that's where I disagree with you. When you meet with the board, you're always trying to sell them on some weird-ass egghead financial idea that makes them worry that they're going to lose their life's savings. When I go to them, it's to ask them for some leeway to fight scammers and hackers. They understand scammers and hackers, and they say yes. If we were to ask them together --”
“You think this is a good idea?”
“It's a better idea than chasing these kids around gamespace like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale. The formal definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different outcome. It's time we tried something different.”
“What about the Turks?”
“What about them?”
“They're looking for --”
“They're looking to take about half a percent out of the company's bottom line, if that. We spend more on your first-class plane tickets to economics conferences every year than they want. Big freakin' deal.”
“But if we give in on this thing, they'll ask for more.”
“And if we don't give in on this, we're going to spend the next hundred years chasing Chinese and Indian kids around gamespace instead of devoting our energy to fighting real ripoffs and hacker creeps. Security is always about choosing your battles. Every complex ecosystem has parasites. You've got ten times more bacteria cells than blood cells in your body. The trick with parasites is to figure out how to co-exist with them.”
“I can't believe I'm hearing you say this.”
“That's because I'm not a gamer. I don't care who wins. I don't care who loses. I'm a security expert. I care about what the costs are to secure the systems that I'm in charge of. We can let these kids 'win' some little battles, pay the cost for that, and save ten times as much by not having to chase 'em.”
Connor shook his head. “What about them?” he said, rolling his eyes around the room to encompass the rest of Command Central, most of whom were openly eavesdropping now.
Bill turned to them. “Hands up: who wants to make and run totally kick-ass games that make us richer than hell?” Every hand shot up. “Who wants to spend their time chasing a bunch of skinny poor kids around instead of just finding a way to neutralize them?” A few hands stayed defiantly in the air, among them Kaden, who had come back into the room while Connor was on the phone and was now glaring at both of them. Bill turned back to Connor. “I think we'll be OK,” he said. He jerked his head over his shoulder and said, loudly, “Those goons are so ornery they'd say no if you asked them whether they wanted a lifetime's supply of free ice-cream.”
300,000 runestones hadn't seemed like much when Yasmin started. After all, the gold was for Mala, and Mala was all she could think of. And she had Mala's army on her side, all of them working together.
But it had been days since she'd slept properly, and there were reporters every few minutes, pushing into Mrs Dibyendu's cafe with their cameras and recorders and pads and asking her all sorts of mad questions and she had to keep her temper and speak modestly and calmly with them when every nerve in her body was shrieking Can't you see how busy I am? Can't you see what I have to do? But the army covered itself with glory and not one soldier lost his or her temper, and the press all marvelled at them and their curious work.
At least the steelworkers and garment workers had the sense not to interrupt them, and they were mostly busy with their organizing adventures in Dharavi to bother them anyway. The story of how they'd saved this gang of Dharavi children from bad men with weapons had spread to every corner, and the workers they'd inspired to walk off the job were half in awe of them.
Piece by piece, though, they were able to build the fortune. Yasmin found them an instanced mission with a decent payoff, one that three or four players could run at a time, and she directed them all into it, sending them down the caverns after the dwarves and ogres below in gangs, prowling up and down the narrow, blisteringly hot aisles between the machines, pointing out ways of getting the work done faster, noting each player's total, until, after a seeming eternity, they had it all.
“Ashok,” she said, banging unannounced into his office. He was bent over his keyboard, earwig screwed in, muttering in English to his Dr Prikkel in America. He held up a hand and asked the man to excuse him -- she hated how subservient he sounded, but had to admit that he'd been very cool when the negotiations had been underway -- and put him on mute.
“We have Mala's ransom,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, “of course.” He sent a quick message to the central cell in Singapore and got Bannerjee's number, then quickly dialled it on speaker. Bannerjee answered, this time in a much less fuzzy and sleep-addled voice.
“Victory to Rama!”
“We have your money,” Ashok said. “Our team are delivering it to the escrow's hut now. You can check for yourself.”
“So serious, so businesslike. It's only a game, friend -- relax!”
Yasmin felt like she might throw up. The man was so... evil. What made a man that bad? She understood, really understood, how Mala must feel all the time. A feeling like there were people who needed to be punished and she was the person who must do it. She pushed the feeling down.
“All right, good. I see that it is there. I will tell you where to find your friend when you tell the escrow agent to release the money, yes?”
Ashok waggled his chin at the phone, thinking hard. Yasmin suddenly realized something she should have understood from the beginning: escrow agent or no, either they were going to have to trust Bannerjee to let Mala go after they released the money, or Bannerjee would have to trust them to release the money after he gave them Mala. Escrow services worked for cash trades, not for ransoms. She felt even sicker.
“You release Mala first and --”
“Oh, come on. Why on Earth would I do that? You hold me in so much contempt, there's no way you'll give me what you've promised. After all, you can always spend 300,000 runestones. I, on the other hand, have no particular use for a disrespectful little girl. Why wouldn't I tell you where to find her?”
Ashok and Yasmin locked eyes. She remembered the last time she'd seen Mala, how tired she had been, how thin, how pained her limp. “Do it,” she said, covering the mic with her hand.
“The passphrase for the escrow is 'Victory to Rama',” Ashok said, his tone wooden.
Bannerjee laughed loudly, then put them on hold, cutting them off. After a moment, Ashok looked at his screen, watching the alerts. “He's taken the money.” They waited a minute longer. Another minute. Ashok redialled Bannerjee."
“Victory to Rama,” the man said, with a mocking voice. Right away, Yasmin knew that he wouldn't give them Mala.
“Mala,” Ashok said.
“Piss off,” Bannerjee said.
“Mala,” Ashok said.
“One million runestones,” Bannerjee said.
“Mala,” Ashok said. “Or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else I take everything.”
“I will take 30,000 now. And I will take 30,000 more every five minutes until you give us Mala.”
Bannerjee began to laugh again, and Ashok cut him off again, then transferred back to his American at Coca Cola.
“Dr Prikkel,” he said. “I know we're busy rescuing the economy from ruin, but I have a small but important favor to ask of you.”
The American's voice was bemused. “Go ahead.”
Ashok gave him the name of the toon that Bannerjee had sent to the escrow house. “He has kidnapped a friend of ours and won't give her back.”
“Taken her into captivity.”
“In the game?”
“In the world.”
“And Rama too. We paid the ransom but --”
Yasmin stopped listening. Ashok clearly thought he was the cleverest man who ever walked God's Earth, but she'd had enough of games. She sank down on her heels and regarded the dirty floor, her eyes going in and out of focus from lack of sleep and food.
Gradually, she became aware that Ashok was talking to Bannerjee again.
“She is at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General. She was brought to the casualty ward earlier today, without any name. She should still be there.”
“How do you know she hasn't gone?”
“She won't have gone,” Bannerjee said. “Now get out of my bank account or I will come down there and blow your balls off.”
It took Yasmin a moment to understand how Bannerjee could be so sure that Mala hadn't left the hospital -- she must have been so badly injured that she couldn't leave. She found that she was wailing, making a sound like a cat in the night, a terrible sound that she couldn't contain. Mala's army came running and she tried to stop so that she could explain it to them, but she couldn't.
In the end, they all walked to LT hospital together, a solemn procession through the streets of Dharavi. A few people scurried forward to ask what was going on, and once they were told, they joined. More and more people joined until they arrived at the hospital in a huge mob of hundreds of silent people. Ashok and Yasmin and Sushant went to the counter and told the shocked ward sister why they were there. She paged through her record-book for an eternity before saying, “It must be this one.” She looked at them sternly. “But you can't all go. Who is the girl's mother?”
Ashok and Yasmin looked back at the crowd. Neither of them had thought to fetch Mala's mother. They were Mala's family. She was their general. “Take us to her, please,” Yasmin said. “We will bring her mother.”
The sister looked like she would not let them pass, but Ashok jerked his head over his shoulder. “They won't leave until we see her, you know.” He waggled his chin good-naturedly and smiled and for a moment Yasmin remembered how handsome he'd been when she'd first met him on his motorcycle.
The sister blew out an exasperated sigh. “Come with me,” she said.
They wouldn't have recognized Mala if she hadn't told them which bed was hers. Her head had been shaved and bandaged, and one side of her face was a mass of bruises. Her left arm was in a sling.
Yasmin let out an involuntary groan when she saw her, and the ward sister beside her squeezed her arm. “She wasn't raped,” the woman whispered in her ear. “And the doctor says there was no brain-damage.”
Yasmin cried now, really cried, the way she hadn't let herself cry before, the cry from her soul and her stomach, the cry that wouldn't let go, the cry that drove her to her knees as though she were being beaten with a lathi. She curled up into a ball and cried and cried, and the ward sister led her to a seat and tried to put a pill between her lips but she wouldn't let it in. She needed to be alert and awake, needed to stop crying, needed --
Ashok squatted against the wall beside her, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I'll ruin him,” he muttered over and over again, ignoring the stares of the other patients on the ward with their visitors. “I'll destroy him.”
This got through to Yasmin. “How?”
“Every piaster, ever runestone, every gold piece that man takes out of a game we will take away from him. He is finished.”
“He'll find some other way to survive, some other way of hurting people to get by.”
Ashok shook his head. “Fine. I'll find a way to ruin that, too. He is powerful and strong and ruthless, but we are smart and fast and there are so many of us.”
Dafen was full of choking smoke. Matthew pushed his way through the crowds. He'd tried to bring the painter girl, Mei, with him, but she had run into a group of her friends and had gone off with them, stopping to kiss him hard on the lips, then laughing at his surprised expression and kissing him again. The second time, he had the presence of mind to kiss her back and for a second he actually managed to forget he was in the middle of a riot. Mei's friends hooted and called at them and she gave his bottom a squeeze and took his phone out of his fingers and typed her number into it, hit SAVE. The phone network had died an hour before, when the police retreated from Dafen and fell back to a defensive cordon around the whole area.
And then he was alone, making his way back toward the huge statue of the hand holding the brush, the entrance to Dafen. Painters thronged the streets, carrying beautifully made signs, singing songs, drinking fiery, cheap baijiu whose smells mixed with the smoke and the oil paint and the turpentine.
The police line bristled as he peered around the corner of a cafe at the edge of Dafen. He wasn't the only one eyeing them nervously -- there was a little group of white tourists cowering in the cafe, clutching their cameras and staring incredulously at their dead phones. Matthew listened in on their conversation, straining to understand the rapid English, and gathered that they'd been brought here by a driver from their hotel, a Hilton in Jiabin Road.
“Hello,” he said, trying his English out. He wished that the gweilo, Wei-Dong, had let him practice more. “You need help?” He was intensely self-conscious about how bad he must sound, his accent and grammar terrible. Matthew prided himself on how well-spoken he was in Chinese.
The eldest tourist, a woman with wrinkled arms and neck showing beneath a top with thin straps, looked hard at him. She removed her oversized sunglasses and assayed a little Chinese. “We are fine,” she said, her accent no better than Matthew's, which he found oddly comforting. She was with three others, a man he took to be her husband and two young men, about Matthew's age, who looked like a cross between her and the husband: sons.
“Please,” he said. “I take you out, find taxi. You tell --” he tried to find the word for policemen, couldn't remember it, found himself searching through his game-vocabulary. “Knights? Paladins? Soldiers. You tell soldiers I am guide. We all go.”
The boys grinned at him and he thought they must be gamers, because they'd really perked up at paladins, and he tried grinning back at them, though truth be told he didn't feel like doing anything. They conferred in hushed voices.
“No thank you,” the older man said. “We're all right.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. He had to get somewhere that his phone would work, had to check in with Big Sister Nor and find out where the others were, what the plan was. He'd have to get new papers, maybe go to one of the provinces or try to sneak into Hong Kong. “You help me,” he managed. “I no go without you. Without, uh, foreigners.” He gestured at the police, at their shields. “They not hurt foreigners.”
The older man's eyes widened in comprehension. They spoke again among themselves. He caught the word “criminal.”
“I not criminal,” he said. But he knew it was a lie and felt like they must know it too. He was a criminal and a former prisoner, and he would never be anything but, for his whole life; just like his grandfather.
They all stared at him, then looked away.
“Please,” he said, looking at each one in turn. He jerked his head at the police. “They hurt people soon.”
The woman drew in a deep breath, turned to the man, said, “We need to get out of here anyway. It will be good to have a local.”
The taller of the two boys said, “What do you play?”
“Svartalfaheim Warriors, Zombie Mecha, Mushroom Kingdom, Clankers, Big Smoke, Toon,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers.
“All of them?” The boys boggled at him.
He nodded. “All.”
They laughed and he laughed too, small sounds in the roar of the crowds and the thunder of the choppers overhead.
“You are sure about this?” the woman said. Adding, “Certain?” in Chinese. He nodded twice.
“Come with me,” he said and drew in a deep breath and led them out toward the police lines.
Wei-Dong didn't want to wake Jie, but he needed to sleep. He finally curled up on the floor next to the mattress, using his shoulderbag as a pillow to get his face off of the filthy carpet. At first he lay rigid in the brightly lit room, his mind swirling with all he'd seen and done, but then he must have fallen asleep and fallen hard, because the next thing he knew, he was swimming up from the depths of total oblivion as Jie shook his shoulder and called his name. He opened his eyes to slits and peered at her.
“Wha?” he managed, then realized he was talking English and said, “What?” in Chinese.
“Time to go,” she said. “Big Sister Nor says we have to move.”
He sat up. His mouth was full of evil-tasting salty paste, a stale residue of dumplings and sleep. Self consciously, he breathed through his nose.
“Hong Kong,” she said. “Then...” She shrugged. “Taiwan, maybe? Somewhere we can tell the story of the dead without being arrested. That's the most important thing.”
“How are we going to cross the border? I don't have a Chinese visa in my passport.”
She grinned. “That part is easy. We go to my counterfeiter.”
It was as good a plan as any. Wei-Dong had watched the Webblies change papers again and again. Shenzhen was full of counterfeiters. He rode the Metro apart from her again, staring at his stupid guide map and trying to look like a stupid tourist, invisible. It was easier this time around, because there was so much else going on -- factory girls talking about Jie's radio show and “the 42,” policemen prowling the cars and demanding the papers of any group of three or more people, searching bags and, once, confiscating a banner painted on a bedsheet. Wei-Dong didn't see what it said, but the police took four screaming, kicking girls off the train at the next station. Shenzhen was in chaos.
They got off the train at the stock market station, and he followed Jie, leaving a hundred yards between them. But he came up against her when they got to the surface. The last time he'd been here, it had been thronged with counterfeiters and touts handing out fliers advertising their services, scrap-buyers with scales lining the sidewalks, hawkers selling fruit and ices. Now it was wall-to-wall police, a cordon formed around the entrance to the stock-market. Officers were stationed every few yards on the street, too, checking papers.
Jie picked up her phone and pretended to talk into it, but Wei-Dong could see she just didn't want to look suspicious. He got out his tourist-map and pretended to study it. Gradually, they both made their way back into the station. She joined him at a large map of the surrounding area.
“Now what?” he whispered, trying not to move his mouth.
“How were you going to get out of here?” she said.
His stomach tightened. “I hadn't really thought about it much,” he said.
She hissed in frustration. “You must have had some idea. How about the way you got in?”
He hadn't told anyone the details of his transoceanic voyage. It would have felt weird to admit that he was part owner of a giant shipping company. Besides, he didn't really feel like it was his. It was his father's.
Two policemen passed by, grim-faced, moving quickly, an urgent, insectile buzz coming from their earpieces.
“If we could get into the port,” he said. “I think I could get us anywhere.”
She smiled, and it was the first real smile he'd seen on her face since -- since before the shooting had started.
“But I need to call my mother.”
The policemen that questioned Matthew were so tense they practically vibrated, but the tourist lady put on a big show of being offended that they were being stopped and demanded that they be allowed to go, practically shouting in English. Matthew translated every word, speaking over the policemen as they tried to ask him more questions about how he'd come to be there and what had happened to get his clothes so dirty with paint and mud.
The tourist lady took out her camera and aimed it at the policemen, and that ended the friendly discussion. Before she could bring the screen up to her face, a policeman's gloved hand had closed around the lens. The two boys moved forward and it looked like someone would start shoving soon, and the man was shouting in English, and all the noise was enough to attract the attention of an officer who gave the cops a blistering tongue lashing for wasting everyone's time and waved them on with a stern gesture.
Matthew could hardly believe he was free. The tourists seemed to think it was all a game as he urged them down the road a way, out of range of the police cordon and away from the shouting. They walked up the shoulder of the Shenhui Highway, staying right on the edge as huge trucks blew past them so fast it sucked the breath out of their lungs.
“Taxi?” the woman asked him.
He shook his head. “I no think taxi today,” he said. “Private car, maybe.”
She seemed to understand. He began to wave at every car that passed them by, and eventually one stopped, a Chang’an sedan that had seen better days, its trunk held shut with a bungee cord that allowed the lid to bang as the car rolled to a stop. It was driven by a man in a dirty chauffeur's uniform. Matthew leaned in and said, “100 RMB to take us to Jiabin Road.” It was high, but he was sure the tourists could afford it.
“No, too far,” the man said. “I have another job --”
“200,” Matthew said.
The man grinned, showing a mouthfull of steel teeth. “OK, everyone in.”
They were on the road for a mere five minutes before his phone chirped to let him know that he had voicemail waiting for him. It was Justbob, from Big Sister Nor.
“Hi, Mom.” He tried to ignore Jie who was looking at him with an expression of mingled hilarity and awe. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of gamer cafes with private rooms, and had brought them to this one in the ground floor of a youth hostel that catered to foreigners and had a room set off for karaoke and net-access.
“It's been so long since I've heard your voice, Leonard.”
“I know, Mom.”
“How's your trip?”
“Um, fine.” He tried to remember where he told her he'd be. Portland? San Francisco?
“Oh, Leonard,” she said, and he heard that she was crying. It was what, 8PM back in LA, and she was crying and alone. He felt so homesick at that moment he thought he would split in two and he felt the tears running down his own cheeks.
“I love you, Mom,” he blubbered.
And they both cried for a long time, and when he risked a look at Jie, she was crying too.
“Mom,” he said, choking back snot. “I have a favor to ask of you. A big favor.”
“You're in trouble.”
“Yes.” There was no point in denying it. “I'm in trouble. And I can't explain it right now.”
“You're in China, aren't you?”
He didn't know what to say. “You knew.”
“I suspected. It's that gamer thing, isn't it? I did the math on when you answered my messages, when you called.”
“I'm not stupid, Leonard.” She wasn't crying anymore. “I thought I knew, but I didn't want to say anything until you told me.”
“I'm sorry, Mom.”
She didn't say anything.
“Are you coming home?”
He looked at Jie. “I don't know. Eventually. I have something I have to do here, first.”
“And you need my help with that.”
“Mom, I need you to order a shipment from Shenzhen to Mumbai.” Big Sister Nor had suggested it, and Jie had shrugged and said that it was fine with her, one place was as good as any other. “I'll give you the container number. And you have to have Mr Alford call the port authority here and tell them that I'm authorized to access it.”
“No, Leonard. I'll call the embassy, I'll get you home, but this is --” He could picture her hand flapping around her head. “It's crazy, is what it is.”
“Mom, listen. This is about a lot more than just me. There are people here, friends, whose lives are at stake. You can call the embassy all you want but I won't go there. If you don't help me, I'll have to do this on my own, and I have to be honest with you, Mom, I don't think I'll be able to do it. But I can't abandon my friends.”
She was crying again.
“I'm going to be at the port in --” he checked the screen of his phone -- “in three hours. I've got my passport with me, that'll get me inside, if you've got it squared away with the port authority. The container number is WENU432134. It's at the western port. Do you have that?”
“Leonard, I won't do it.”
“WENU432134,” he said, very slowly, and hung up.
There were five of them in all. Matthew, Jie, Wing, Shirong, and Wei-Dong. They'd stopped at a 7-11 on the way to the train station and bought as much food as they could carry, asking the bemused clerk to pack it in boxes and seal them with packing tape.
As they approached the port, they stopped talking, walking slowly and deliberately. Wei-Dong steeled himself and walked to the guard's booth. He hadn't called his mother back. There hadn't been time. Shenzhen was in chaos, police-checks and demonstrations everywhere, some riots, spirals of black smoke heading into the sky.
He motioned for Wing to join him. They had agreed that he would play interpreter, to make Wei-Dong seem like more of a hopeless gweilo, above suspicion. They'd found him some cheap fake Chinese Nike gear to wear, a ridiculous track suit that reminded him of the Russian gangsters he'd see around Santee Alley.
Wordlessly, he handed his passport -- his real passport, held safely all this time -- to the young man on the gate. “WENU432134,” he said. “Goldberg Logistics container.”
He waited for Wing to translate, watched him sketch out the English letters on his palm.
The security guard looked over his shoulder at the two policemen in the booth with him. He picked up a scratched tablet and prodded at it with a blunt finger, squinting at Wei-Dong's passport. Wei-Dong hoped that he wouldn't try something clever, like riffling its pages looking for a Chinese visa.
He began to shake his head, said “I don't see it --”
Wei-Dong felt sweat run down his butt-crack and over his thighs. He craned his neck to see the screen. There it was, but the number had been entered wrong, WENU432144. He pointed to it and said, “Tell him that this is the one.” He sent a silent thanks to his mother. The guard compared the number to the one he'd entered and then seemed about to let them pass. Then one of the policeman said, “Wait.”
The cop shouldered the security guard out of the way, took the passport from him, examined it closely, holding a page up to the light to see the watermark. “What are you bringing?”
Wei-Dong waited for Wing to translate.
“Samples,” he said. “Clothes.”
He opened up the box at his feet and pulled out a folded tee-shirt emblazoned with some Chinese characters that said “I'm stupid enough to think that this shirt looks cool.” Jie had found them from one of the few stubborn peddlers left on the street outside of the Metro entrance near the train station. The cop snorted and said, “Does he know what this says?”
Wing nodded. “Yes,” he said. “But he thinks that other Americans won't. If they like it, they will order twenty thousand from us!” He laughed, and after a moment, the cop and the security guard joined in. The cop slapped Wei-Dong on the shoulder and Wei-Dong forced a laugh out as well.
“OK,” the cop said, handing back his papers. The security guard gave them directions. “But you'll have to use the north gate to leave. We're closing this one for the evening in half an hour.”
Wing made a show of translating for Wei-Dong, who had the presence of mind to pretend to listen, but he was rocking on his heels, almost at the point of collapse from lack of sleep and food.
They walked in total silence to the container, and Wei-Dong managed to only look over his shoulder once. Jie caught his eye when he did and waggled a finger at him. He smiled wryly and looked ahead, following the directions.
The container was just as he'd left it, and his key fit the padlock. The four marvelled at the cleverness of his work inside as they efficiently unpacked their food.
“Three nights, huh?” said Jie, as he pulled the door shut behind them.
“After they load us.”
“When will that be?”
He sighed. “I need to call my mother to find out.” He pulled out his phone and Jie handed him her last SIM and a calling card.
Big Sister Nor, The Mighty Krang and Justbob had no warning this time. Three men, small-time crooks working on contract for a man in Dongguan who owned one of the big gold-exchanges, worked silently and efficiently. They followed Justbob back from a Malaysian satay restaurant that they were known to frequent, back to the latest safe-house, a room over a massage-parlor on Changi Road, where the Webblies could tap into the wireless from a nearby office building. They waited patiently outside for all the windows to go dark.
Then they methodically attached bicycle locks to each doorway. It was nearly 5AM and the few passers-by paid them no particular attention. Once they had locked each door, they hurled petrol bombs through windows on the ground floor. They stayed just long enough to make sure that the fires were burning cheerily before they got into two cars parked around the corner and sped off. The next morning, they crossed into Kuala Lumpur and did not return to Singapore for eight months, drawing a small salary from the man in Dongguan while they laid low.
Big Sister Nor was the first one awake, roused by the sound of three windows smashing in close succession. She smelled the greasy smoke a moment later and began to shout, in her loudest voice, “Fire! Fire!” just as she had practiced in a thousand dreams.
Justbob and The Mighty Krang were up an instant later. Justbob went to the stairs and ventured halfway down toward the massage-parlor before the flames forced her up again. The Mighty Krang broke out the window with a chair -- it had been painted shut -- and leaned way out, far enough to see the lock that had been added to the door. He breathlessly but calmly reported this to Big Sister Nor, who had already popped the drives out of their control machines. She handed them to him, listened to Justbob's assessment of the staircase and nodded.
They could hear the screams from the floor below them as the girls from the massage parlor broke out their own windows and called for help. A girl emerged, legs first, from one of the massage parlor's small, high windows. She was screaming, on fire, rolling on the ground. A few people were in the street below, talking into their phones -- the fire department would be here soon. It wouldn't be soon enough. Choking smoke was already filling the room, and they were forced to their knees.
“Out the window,” Big Sister Nor gasped. “You'll probably break a leg, but that's better than staying here.”
“You first,” The Mighty Krang said.
“Me last,” she said, in a voice that brooked no argument. “After you two are out.” She managed a small smile. “Try to catch me, OK?”
Justbob grabbed The Mighty Krang's arm and pulled him toward the window. He got as far as the sill, then balked. “Too far!” he said, dropping back to his belly. Justbob gave him a withering look, then hauled herself over the sill, dropped so she was hanging by her arms, then allowed herself to drop the rest of the way. If she made a sound, it was lost in the roar of the flames that were just outside the door now. The floor was too hot to touch.
“GO!” Big Sister Nor said.
“You're our leader, our Big Sister Nor,” he said, and grabbed her arm. “We're all nothing without you!” She shook his hand off.
“No, you idiot,” she said. “I am nothing more than the switchboard. You all lead yourselves. Remember that!” She grabbed the waistband of his jeans, just over his butt, and practically threw him out the window. The air whistled past him for an instant, and then there was a tremendous, jarring impact, and then blackness.
Big Sister Nor was on fire, her loose Indian cotton trousers, her long black hair. The room was all smoke now, and every breath was fire, too. She smelled her own nose-hairs singe as a breath of scalding air passed into her lungs, which froze and refused to work anymore. She stood and took one step to the window, standing for a moment like a flaming avatar of some tragic god in the window before she faltered, went down on one knee, then the flames engulfed her.
And below, the crowd on the street began to cry. Justbob cried too, from the pavement where she was being tended by a passerby who knew some first aid and was applying pressure to the ruin of her left leg. The Mighty Krang was unconscious, with a broken arm and three broken ribs.
But he remembered what Big Sister Nor told him, and he wrote those words down, typing them with his left hand in English, Malay, Hindi and Chinese, recording them with his smoke-ruined voice from his hospital bed.
His words -- Big Sister Nor's words -- went out all over the world, spreading from phone to message board to site to site. You lead yourselves.
The words were heard by factory girls all over South China, back on the job after a few short days of energetic chaos, mass firings and mass arrests. They were heard by factory boys all over Cambodia and Vietnam. They were heard in the alleys of Dharavi and in the living rooms of Mechanical Turks all over Europe, the US and Canada. They were published in many languages on the cover of many newspapers and aired on many broadcasts.
These last treated the words as a report from a distant world -- “Did you know that these strange games and the people who played them took it all so seriously?” But for the people who needed to hear them, the words were heard.
They were heard by five friends who downloaded them over the achingly slow network connection on the container ship, a day out of Shenzhen port. Five friends who wept to hear them. Five friends who took strength from them.
They hid in the inner container when the ship entered the Mumbai Harbor, heading for the Mumbai Port Trust. Wei-Dong had googled the security procedures at Mumbai Port, and he didn't think they were using gas chromatograph to detect smuggled people, but they didn't want to take any chances. It was crowded, and the toilet had stopped working, and they had only managed to gather enough water for one brief shower each on the three day passage.
They fell against one-another, then clung to the floor as the container was lifted on a crane and set down again. They heard the outer door open, then shut, and muffled conversations. Then they were rolling.
Cautiously, they opened the inner door. The smell of Mumbai -- spicy, dusty, hot and wet -- filled the container. Light streamed in from the little holes Wei-Dong had drilled an eternity ago on the passage to Shenzhen.
Now they heard the sound of horns, many, many horns. Lots of motorcycle engines, loud. Diesel exhaust. The huge, bellowing air-horn of the truck their container had been placed upon. The truck stopped and started many times, made a few slow, lumbering turns, then stopped. A moment later, the engines stopped too.
The five of them held their breaths, listened to the footsteps outside, listened to a conversation in Hindi, adult male voices. Listened to the scrape of the catch on the container's big rear doors.
And then sunlight -- dusty, hot, with swirling clouds of dust and the pong of human urine -- flooded into the container. They shielded their eyes and looked into the faces of two grinning Indian men, with fierce mustaches and neatly pressed shirts. The men held out their hands and helped them down, one at a time, into a narrow alley that was entirely filled by the truck, which neatly shielded them from view. Wei-Dong couldn't imagine backing a truck into a space this narrow.
The men gestured at the interior of the container, miming, Do you have everything? Wei-Dong and Jie made sure everyone was clear and then nodded. The men waggled their chins at them, shook Wei-Dong and Jie's hands, brief and dry, and edged their way back along the space between the truck and the alley's walls. The engine roared to life, a cloud of diesel blew into their face, and the truck pulled away, lights glowing over a handpainted sign on the bumper that read HORN PLEASE.
The truck blew its horn once as it cleared the alley-mouth and turned an impossibly tight right turn. The alley was flooded with light and noise from the street, and then they saw a man and a girl walking down it, toward them.
They drew close. The girl was wearing some kind of headscarf with a veil that covered most of her face. The man had short, gelled hair and was dressed in a pressed white shirt tucked into black slacks. The two groups stood and looked at one another for a long moment, then the man held his hand out.
“Ashok Balgangadhar Tilak,” he said.
“Leonard Goldberg,” Leonard said. They shook. It was another short, dry handshake.
The girl held her hand out. “Yasmin Gardez,” she said.
She barely took his hand, and the shake was brief.
“We all lead ourselves,” Leonard said. He hadn't planned on saying it, but it came out just the same, and Wing understood it and translated it into Chinese, and for a moment, no one needed to say anything more.
“We have places for you to stay in Dharavi,” Yasmin said. Leonard translated. “We all want to hear what you have to tell us. And we have work for you, if you want.”
“We want to work,” Wing said.
“That's good,” Ashok said, and they struck out.
They emerged beside a hotel. The street before them thronged with people, more than they could comprehend, and cars, and three-wheelers, and bicycles, and trucks of all sizes. It was a hive of activity that made even Shenzhen seem sedate. For a moment none of them said anything.
“Mumbai is a busy place,” Yasmin said.
“We have friends in the Transport and Dock Workers' Union,” Ashok said, casually, setting off down the crowded pavement, ignoring the children who approached them, begging, holding their hands out, tugging at their sleeves. Leonard felt as though he was walking through an insane dream. “They were glad to help.”
The street ended at the ocean, a huge, shimmering harbor dotted with ferries and other craft. Ahead of them spread an enormous plaza, the size of several football fields stitched together, covered in gardens, and, where it met the ocean, an enormous archway topped with minarets and covered with intricate carvings, and all around them, thousands of people, talking, walking, selling, begging, sleeping, running, riding.
The five of them stopped and gaped. Three days locked in a container with nothing to see that was more than a few yards away had robbed them of the ability to easily focus on large, far-away objects, and it took a long while to get it all into their heads. Yasmin and Ashok indulged them, smiling a little.
“The Gateway of India,” Yasmin said, and Leonard translated absently.
To one side stood a hotel as big as the giant conference center hotels near Disneyland, done up like some kind of giant temple, vast and ungainly. Leonard looked at it for a moment, then shooed away the beggars that had approached them. Yasmin scolded them in Hindi and they smiled at her and backed off a few paces, saying something clearly insulting that Yasmin ignored.
“It's incredible,” Leonard said.
“Mumbai is...” Ashok waved his hand. “It's amazing. Even where we're going -- the other end of the Harbour Line, our humble home, is incredible. I love it here.”
Wing said, “I loved it in China.” He looked grave.
“I hope that you can go back again some day,” Ashok said. “All of you. All of us. Anywhere we want.”
Jie said, “They put down the strikes in China.” Leonard translated.
Yasmin and Ashok nodded solemnly. “There will be other strikes,” Yasmin said.
A man was approaching them. A white man, pale and obvious among the crowds, trailing a comet-tail of beggars. Leonard saw him first, then Ashok turned to follow his gaze and whispered “Oh, my, this is interesting.”
The man drew up to them. He was fat, racoon-eyed, hair a wild mess around his head. He was wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the Coca-Cola Games logo and a pair of blue-jeans that didn't fit him well, and Birkenstocks. He wouldn't have looked more American if he was holding up the Statue of Liberty's torch and singing “Star Spangled Banner.”
Ashok held his hand out. “Dr Prikkel, I presume.”
“Mr Tilak.” They shook. He turned to Leonard. “Leonard, I believe.”
Leonard gulped and took the man's hand. He had a firm, American handshake. The four Chinese Webblies were talking among themselves. Leonard whispered to them, explaining who the man was, explaining that he had no idea what he was doing there.
“You'll have to forgive me for the dramatics,” Connor Prikkel said. “I knew that I would have to come to Mumbai to meet with you and your extraordinary friends, curiosity demanded it. But once we put our competitive intelligence people onto your organization, it wasn't hard to find a hole in your mail server, and from there we intercepted the details of this meeting. I thought it would make an impression if I came in person.”
“Are you going to call the police?” Wing said, in halting English.
Prikkel smiled. “Shit, no, son. What good would that do? There's thousands of you Webbly bastards. No, I figure if Coca Cola Games is going to be doing business with you, it'd be worth sitting down and chatting. Besides, I had some vacation days I needed to use before the end of the year, which meant I didn't have to convince my boss to let me come out here.”
They were blocking the sidewalk and getting jostled every few seconds as someone pushed past them. One of them nearly knocked Prikkel into a zippy three-wheeled cab and Ashok caught his arm and steadied him.
“Are you going to fire me?” Leonard said.
Prikkel made a face. “Not my department, but to be totally honest, I think that's probably a good bet. You and the other ones who signed your little petition.” He shrugged. “I can do stuff like take money out of that bastard's account when your friend's life is at stake -- it's not like he's gonna complain, right? But how Coke Games contracts with its workforce? Not my department.”
Yasmin's eyes blazed. “You can't -- we won't let you.”
“That's a rather interesting proposition,” he said, and two men holding a ten-foot-long tray filled with round tin lunchpails squeezed past him, knocking him into Jie. “One I think we could certainly have a good time discussing.” He gestured toward the huge wedding-cake hotel. “I'm staying at the Taj. Care to join me for lunch?”
Ashok looked at Yasmin, and something unspoken passed between them. “Let us take you out for lunch,” Ashok said. “As our guest. We know a wonderful place in Dharavi. It's only a short train journey.”
Prikkel looked at each of them in turn, then shrugged. “You know what? I'd be honored.”
They set off for the train station. Jie snorted. “I can't wait to broadcast this.” Leonard grinned. He couldn't wait either.
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022