This scene is dedicated to BakkaPhoenix Books in Toronto, Canada. Bakka is the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world, and it made me the mutant I am today. I wandered in for the first time around the age of 10 and asked for some recommendations. Tanya Huff (yes, the Tanya Huff, but she wasn't a famous writer back then!) took me back into the used section and pressed a copy of H. Beam Piper's “Little Fuzzy” into my hands, and changed my life forever. By the time I was 18, I was working at Bakka -- I took over from Tanya when she retired to write full time -- and I learned life-long lessons about how and why people buy books. I think every writer should work at a bookstore (and plenty of writers have worked at Bakka over the years! For the 30th anniversary of the store, they put together an anthology of stories by Bakka writers that included work by Michelle Sagara (AKA Michelle West), Tanya Huff, Nalo Hopkinson, Tara Tallan --and me!)
In the game, Matthew's characters killed monsters, as they did every single night. But tonight, as Matthew thoughtfully chopsticked a dumpling out of the styrofoam clamshell, dipped it in the red hot sauce and popped it into his mouth, his little squadron did something extraordinary: they began to win.
There were eight monitors on his desk, arranged in two ranks of four, the top row supported on a shelf he'd bought from an old lady scrap dealer in front of the Dongmen market. She'd also sold him the monitors, shaking her head at his idiocy: at a time when everyone wanted giant, 30“ screens, why did he want this collection of dinky little 9” displays?
So they'd all fit on his desk.
Not many people could play eight simultaneous games of Svartalfaheim Warriors. For one thing, Coca Cola (who owned the game), had devoted a lot of programmer time to preventing you from playing more than one game on a single PC, so you had to somehow get eight PCs onto one desk, with eight keyboards and eight mice on the desk, too, and room enough for your dumplings and an ashtray and a stack of Indian comic books and that stupid war-axe that Ping gave him and his notebooks and his sketchbook and his laptop and --
It was a crowded desk.
And it was noisy. He'd set up eight pairs of cheap speakers, each glued to the appropriate monitor, turned down low to the normal hum of Svartalfaheim -- the clash of axes, the roar of ice-giants, the eldritch music of black elves (which sounded a lot like the demo programs on the electric keyboards his mother had spent half her life manufacturing). Now they were all making casino noise, pay off noises, as his raiding party began to clean up. The gold rolled into their accounts. He was playing trolls -- it was trolls versus elves in Svartalfaheim, though there was an expansion module with light elves and some kind of walking tree -- and he'd come through an instanced dungeon that was the underground lair of a minor dark elvish princeling. The lair was only medium hard, with a lot of crappy little monsters early on, then a bunch of dark elf cannon-fodder to be mown down, some traps, and then the level-boss, a wizard who had to be taken out by the spell-casters in Matthew's party while the healers healed them and the tanks killed anything that tried to attack them.
So far, so good. Matthew had run and mapped the dungeon on his second night in-world, a quick reccy that showed that he could expect to do about 400 gold's worth of business there in about 20 minutes, which made it a pretty poor way to earn a living. But Matthew kept very good notes, and among his notes was the fact that the very last set of guards had dropped some mareridtbane, which was part of the powerful Living Nightmare spell in the new expansion module. There were players all over Germany, Switzerland and Denmark who were buying mareridtbane for 800 gold per plant. His initial reccy had netted him five plants. That brought the total expected take from the dungeon up to 4,400 gold for 20 minutes, or 13,200 gold per hour -- which, at the day's exchange, was worth about $30, or 285 Renminbi.
Which was -- he thought for a second -- more than 71 bowls of dumplings.
His hands flew over the mice, taking direct control over the squad. He'd work out the optimal path through the dungeon now, then head out to the Huoda internet cafe and see who he could find to do runs with him at this. With any luck, they could take -- his eyes rolled up as he thought again -- a million gold out of the dungeon if they could get the whole cafe working on it. They'd dump the gold as they went, and by the time Coca Cola's systems administrators figured out anything was wrong, they'd have pulled almost $3000 out of the game. That was a year's rent, for one night's work. His hands trembled as he flipped open a notebook to a new page and began to take notes with his left hand while his right hand worked the game.
He was just about to close his notebook and head for the cafe -- he needed more dumplings on the way, could he stop for them? Could he afford to? But he needed to eat. And coffee. Lots of coffee -- when the door splintered and smashed against the wall bouncing back before it was kicked open again, admitting the cold fluorescent light from outside into his tiny cave of a room. Three men entered his room and closed the door behind them, restoring the dark. One of them found the lightswitch and clicked it a few times without effect, then cursed in Mandarin and punched Matthew in the ear so hard his head spun around on his neck, contriving to bounce off the desk. The pain was blinding, searing, sudden.
“Light,” one of the men commanded, his voice reaching Matthew through the high-pitched whine of his ringing ear. Clumsily, he fumbled for the desk-lamp behind the Indian comics, knocked it over, and then one of the men seized it roughly and turned it on, shining it full on Matthew's face, making him squint his watering eyes.
“You have been warned,” the man who'd hit him said. Matthew couldn't see him, but he didn't need to. He knew the voice, the unmistakable Wenjhou accent, almost impossible to understand. “Now, another warning.” There was a snick of a telescoping baton being unfurled and Matthew flinched and tried to bring his arms up to shield his head before the weapon swung. But the other two had him by the arms now, and the baton whistled past his ear.
But it didn't smash his cheekbone, nor his collarbone. Rather, it was the screen before him that smashed, sending tiny, sharp fragments of glass out in a cloud that seemed to expand in slow motion, peppering his face and hands. Then another screen went. And another. And another. One by one, the man dispassionately smashed all eight screens, letting out little smoker's grunts as he worked. Then, with a much bigger, guttier grunt, he took hold of one end of the shelf and tipped it on its edge, sending the smashed monitors on it sliding onto the floor, taking the comics, the clamshell, the ashtray, all of it sliding to the narrow bed that was jammed up against the desk, then onto the floor in a crash as loud as a basketball match in a glass factory.
Matthew felt the hands on his shoulders tighten and he was lifted out of his chair and turned to face the man with the accent, the man who had worked as the supervisor in Mr Wing's factory, almost always silent. But when he spoke, they all jumped in their seat, never sure of whether his barely contained rage would break, whether someone would be taken off the factory floor and then returned to the dorm that night, bruised, cut, sometimes crying in the night for parents left behind back in the provinces.
The man's face was calm now, as though the violence against the machines had scratched the unscratchable itch that made him clench and unclench his fists at all times. “Matthew, Mr Wing wants you to know that he thinks of you as a wayward son, and bears you no ill will. You are always welcome in his home. All you need to do is ask for his forgiveness, and it will be given.” It was the longest speech Matthew had ever heard the man give, and it was delivered with surprising tenderness, so it was quite a surprise when the man brought his knee up into Matthew's balls, hard enough that he saw stars.
The hands released him and he slumped to the floor, a strange sound in his ears that he realized after a moment must have been his voice. He was barely aware of the men moving around his tiny room as he gasped like fish, trying to get air into his lungs, air enough to scream at the incredible, radiant pain in his groin.
But he did hear the horrible electrical noise as they tasered the box that held his computers, eight PCs on eight individual boards, stuck in a dented sheet-metal case he'd bought from the same old lady. The ozone smell afterwards sent him whirling back to his grandfather's little flat, the smell of the dust crisping on the heating coil that the old man only turned on when he came to visit. He did hear them gather up his notebooks and tread heavily on the PC case, and pull the shattered door shut behind them. The light from the desklamp painted a crazy oval on the ceiling that he stared at for a long time before he got to his feet, whimpering at the pain in his balls.
The night guard was standing at the end of the corridor when he limped out into the night. He was only a boy, even younger than Matthew -- sixteen, in a uniform that was two sizes too big for his skinny chest, a hat that was always slipping down over his eyes, so he had to look up from under the brim like a boy wearing his father's hat.
“You OK?” the boy said. His eyes were wide, his face pale.
Matthew patted himself down, wincing at the pain in his ear, the shooting stabbing feeling in his neck.
“I think so,” he said.
“You'll have to pay for the door,” the guard said.
“Thanks,” Matthew said. “Thanks so much.”
“It's OK,” the boy said. “It's my job.”
Matthew clenched and unclenched his fists and headed out into the Shenzhen night, limping down the stairs and into the neon glow. It was nearly midnight, but Jiabin Road was still throbbing with music, food and hawkers and touts, old ladies chasing foreigners down the street, tugging at their sleeves and offering them “beautiful young girls” in English. He didn't know where he was going, so he just walked, fast, fast as he could, trying to walk off the pain and the enormity of his loss. The computers in his room hadn't cost much to build, but he hadn't had much to begin with. They'd been nearly everything he owned, save for his comics, a few clothes -- and the war-axe. Oh, the war-axe. That was an entertaining vision, picking it up and swinging it over his head like a dark elf, the whistle of its blade slicing the air, the meaty thunk as it hit the men.
He knew it was ridiculous. He hadn't been in a fight since he was ten years old. He'd been a vegetarian until last year! He wasn't going to hit anyone with a war axe. It was as useless as his smashed computers.
Gradually, he slowed his pace. He was out of the central area around the train station now, in the outer ring of the town center, where it was dark and as quiet as it ever got. He leaned against the steel shutters over a grocery market and put his hands on his thighs and let his sore head droop.
Matthew's father had been unusual among their friends -- a Cantonese who succeeded in the new Shenzhen. When Premier Deng changed the rules so that the Pearl River Delta became the world's factory, his family's ancestral province had filled overnight with people from the provinces. They'd “jumped into the sea” -- left safe government factory jobs to seek their fortune here on the south Chinese coast -- and everything had changed for Matthew's family. His grandfather, a Christian minister who'd been sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution -- had never made the adjustment, a problem that struck many of the native Cantonese, who seemed to stand still as the outsiders raced past them to become rich and powerful.
But not Matthew's father. The old man had started off as a driver for a shoe-factory boss -- learning to drive on the job, nearly cracking up the car more than once, though the owner didn't seem to mind. After all, he'd never ridden in a car before he'd made it big in Shenzhen. But he got his break one day when the pattern-maker was too sick to work and all production ceased while the girls who worked on the line argued about the best way to cut the leather for a new order that had come in.
Matthew's father loved to tell this story. He'd heard the argument go back and forth for a day as the line jerked along slowly, and he'd sat on his chair and thought, and thought, and then he'd stood up and closed his eyes and pictured the calm ocean until the thunder of his heartbeat slowed to a normal beat. Then he'd walked into the owner's office and said, “Boss, I can show you how to cut those hides.”
It was no easy task. The hides were all slightly different shapes -- cows weren't identical, after all -- and parts of them were higher grade than others. The shoe itself, an Italian men's loafer, needed six different pieces for each side, and only some of them were visible. The parts that were inside the shoe didn't need to come from the finest leather, but the parts outside did. All this Matthew's father had absorbed while sitting in his chair and listening to the arguments. He'd always loved to draw, always had a good head for space and design.
And before his boss could throw him out of the office, he'd plucked up his courage and seized a pen off the desk and rooted a crumpled cigarette package out of the trash -- expensive foreign cigarettes, affected by all the factory owners as a show of wealth -- torn it open and drawn a neat cowhide, and quickly shown how the shoes could be fit to the hide with a minimum of wastage, a design that would get ten pairs of shoes per hide.
“Ten?” the boss said.
“Ten,” Matthew's father said, proudly. He knew that the most that Master Yu, the regular cutter, ever got out of a hide was nine. “Eleven, if you use a big hide, or if you're making small shoes.”
“You can cut this?”
Now, before that day, Matthew's father had never cut a hide in his life, had no idea how to slice the supple leather that came back from the tanner. But that morning he'd risen two hours early, before anyone else was awake, and he'd taken his leather jacket, a graduation present from his own father that he'd owned and treasured for ten years, and he'd taken the sharpest knife in the kitchen, and he'd sliced the jacket to ribbons, practicing until he could make the knife slice the leather in the same reliable, efficient arcs that his eyes and mind could trace over them.
“I can try,” he said, with modesty. He was nervous about his boldness. His boss wasn't a nice man, and he'd fired many employees for insubordination. If he fired Matthew's father, he would be out a job and a jacket. And the rent was due, and the family had no savings.
The boss looked at him, looked at the sketch. “OK, you try.”
And that was the day that Matthew's father stopped being Driver Fong and became Master Fong, the junior cutter at the Infinite Quality Shoe Factory. Less than a year later, he was the head cutter, and the family thrived.
Matthew had heard this story so many times growing up that he could recite it word-for-word with his father. It was more than a story: it was the family legend, more important than any of the history he'd learned in school. As stories went, it was a good one, but Matthew was determined that his own life would have an even better story still. Matthew would not be the second Master Fong. He would be Boss Fong, the first -- a man with his own factory, his own fortune.
And like his father, Matthew had a gift.
Like his father, Matthew could look at a certain kind of problem and see the solution. And the problems Matthew could solve involved killing monsters and harvesting their gold and prestige items, better and more efficiently than anyone else he'd ever met or heard of.
Matthew was a gold farmer, but not just one of those guys who found themselves being approached by an Internet cafe owner and offered seven or eight RMB to keep right on playing, turning over all the gold they won to the boss, who'd sell it on by some mysterious process. Matthew was Master Fong, the gold farmer who could run a dungeon once and tell you exactly the right way to run it again to get the maximum gold in the minimum time. Where a normal farmer might make 50 gold in an hour, Matthew could make 500. And if you watched Matthew play, you could do it too.
Mr Wing had quickly noticed Matthew's talent. Mr Wing didn't like games, didn't care about the legends of Iceland or England or India or Japan. But Mr Wing understood how to make boys work. He displayed their day's take on big boards at both ends of his factory, treated the top performers to lavish meals and baijiu parties in private rooms at his karaoke club where there were beautiful girls. Matthew remembered these evenings through a bleary haze: a girl on either side of him on a sofa, pressed against him, their perfume in his nose, refilling his glass as Mr Wing toasted him for a hero, extolling his achievements. The girls oohed and aahed and pressed harder against him. Mr Wing always laughed at him the next day, because he'd pass out before he could go with one of the girls into an even more private room.
Mr Wing made sure all the other boys knew about this failing, made sure that they teased “Master Fong” about his inability to hold his liquor, his shyness around girls. And Matthew saw exactly what Boss Wing was doing: setting Matthew up as a hero, above his friends, then making sure that his friends knew that he wasn't that much of a hero, that he could be toppled. And so they all farmed gold harder, for longer hours, eating dumplings at their computers and shouting at each other over their screens late into the night and the cigarette haze.
The hours had stretched into days, the days had stretched into months, and one day Matthew woke up in the dorm room filled with farts and snores and the smell of 20 young men in a too-small room, and realized that he'd had enough of working for Boss Wing. That was when he decided that he would become his own man. That was when he set out to be Boss Fong.
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022