For Poesy: Live as though it were the early days of a better nation.
Part I: The gamers and their games, the workers at their work
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 his 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.
Wei-Dong Goldberg woke one minute before his alarm rang, the glowing numbers showing 12:59. 1AM in Los Angeles, 6PM in China, and it was time to go raiding.
He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and climbed out of his narrow bed—his mom still put his goddamned Spongebob sheets on it, so he’d drawn beards and horns and cigarettes on all the faces in permanent marker—and crossed silently to his school-bag and retrieved his laptop, then felt around on his desk for the little Bluetooth earwig, screwing it into his ear.
He made a pile of pillows against the headboard and sat cross-legged against them, lifting the lid and firing up his gamespy, looking for his buds, all the way over there in Shenzhen. As the screen filled with names and the games they could be found in, he smiled to himself. It was time to play.
Three clicks later and he was in Savage Wonderland, spawning on his clockwork horse with his sword in his hand, amid the garden of talking, hissing flowers, ready to do battle. And there were his boys, riding up alongside of him, their clockwork mounts snorting and champing for battle.
“Ni hao!” he said into his headset, in as loud a whisper as he dared. His father had a bladder problem and he got up all night long and never slept very deeply. Wei-Dong couldn’t afford that. If his parents caught him at it one more time, they’d take away his computer. They’d ground him. They’d send him to a military academy where they shaved your head and you got beaten up in the shower because it built character. He’d been treated to all these threats and more, and they’d made an impression on him.
Not enough of an impression to get him to stop playing games in the middle of the night, of course.
“Ni hao!” he said again. There was laughter, distant and flanged by network churn.
“Hello, Leonard,” Ping said. “You are learning your Chinese well, I see.” Ping still called him Leonard, but at least he was talking in Mandarin to him now, which was a big improvement. The guys normally liked to practice their English on him, which meant he couldn’t practice his Chinese on them.
“I practice,” he said.
They laughed again and he knew that he’d gotten something wrong. The intonation. He was always getting it wrong. He’d say, “I’ll go aggro those demons and you buff the cleric,” and it would come out, “I am a bowl of noodles, I have beautiful eyelashes.” But he was getting better. By the time he got to China, he’d have it nailed.
“Are we raiding?” he said.
“Yes!” Ping said, and the others agreed. “We just need to wait for the gweilo.” Wei-Dong loved that he wasn’t the gweilo anymore. Gweilo meant “foreign devil,” and technically, he qualified. But he was one of the raiders now, and the gweilos were the paying customers who shelled out good dollars or euros or rupees or pounds to play alongside of them.
Here was the gweilo now. You could tell because he frequently steered his horse off the path and into the writhing grasp of the living plants, having to stop over and over to hack away their grasping vines. After watching this show for a minute or two, he rode out and cast a protection spell around them both, and the vines sizzled on the glowing red bubble that surrounded them both.
“Thanks,” the gweilo said.
“No problem,” he said.
“Woah, you speak English?” The gweilo had a strong New Jersey accent.
“A little,” Wei-Dong said, with a smile. Better than you, dummy, he thought.
“OK, let’s do this thing,” the gweilo said, and the rest of the party caught up with them.
The gweilo had paid them to raid an instance of The Walrus’s Garden, a pretty hard underwater dungeon that had some really good drops in it—ingredients for potions, some pretty good weapons, and, of course, lots of gold. There were a couple prestige items that dropped there, albeit rarely—you could get a vorpal blade and helmet if you were very lucky. The deal was, the gweilo paid them to run the instance with him, and he could just hang back and let the raiders do all the heavy lifting, but he’d come forward to deal the coup de grace to any big bosses they beat down, so he’d get the experience points. He got to keep the gold, the weapons, the prestige items, all of it—and all for the low, low cost of $75. The raiders got the cash, the gweilo got to level up fast and pick up a ton of treasure.
Wei-Dong often wondered what kind of person would pay strangers to help them get ahead in a game? The usual reason that gweilos gave for hiring raiders was that they wanted to play with their friends, and their friends were all more advanced than them. But Wei-Dong had joined games after his friends and being the noob in his little group, he’d just asked his buds to take him raiding with them, twinking him until his character was up to their level. So if this gweilo had so many pals in this game that he wanted to level up to meet them, why couldn’t he get them to power-level his character up with them? Why was he paying the raiders?
Wei-Dong suspected that it was because the guy had no friends.
“Goddamn would you look at that?” It was at least the tenth time the guy had said it in ten minutes as they rode to the seashore. This time it was the tea-party, a perpetual melee that was a blur of cutlery whistling through the air, savage chairs roaming in packs, chasing luckless players who happened to aggro them, and a crazy-hard puzzle in which you had to collect and arrange the crockery just so, stunning each piece so that it wouldn’t crawl away before you were done with it. It was pretty cool, Wei-Dong had to admit (he’d solved the puzzle in two days of hard play, and gotten the teapot for his trouble, which he could use to summon genies in moments of dire need). But the gweilo was acting like he’d never seen computer graphics, ever.
They rode on, chattering in Chinese on a private channel. Mostly, it was too fast for Wei-Dong to follow, but he caught the gist of it. They were talking about work—the raids they had set up for the rest of the night, the boss and his stupid rules, the money and what they’d do with it. Girls. They were always talking about girls.
At last they were at the seaside, and Wei-Dong cast the Red Queen’s Air Pocket, using up the last of his oyster shells to do so. They all dismounted, flapping their gills comically as they sloshed into the water (“Goddamn,” breathed the gweilo).
The Walrus’s Garden was a tricky raid, because it was different every time you ran it, the terrain regenerating for each party. As the spellcaster, Wei-Dong’s job was to keep the lights on and the air flowing so that no matter what came, they’d see it in time to prepare and vanquish it. First came the octopuses, rising from the bottom with a puff of sand, sailing through the water toward them. Lu, the tank, positioned himself between the party and the octopuses, and, after thrashing around and firing a couple of missiles at them to aggro them, went totally still as, one after another, they wrapped themselves around him, crushing him with their long tentacles, their faces crazed masks of pure malevolence.
Once they were all engrossed in the tank, the rest of the party swarmed them, the four of them drawing their edged weapons with a watery clang and going to work in a writhing knot. Wei-Dong kept a close eye on the tank’s health and cast his healing spells as needed. As each octopus was reduced to near death, the raiders pulled away and Wei-Dong hissed into his mic, “Finish him!” The gweilo fumbled around for the first two beasts, but by the end, he was moving efficiently to dispatch them.
“That was sick,” the gweilo said. “Totally badass! How’d that guy absorb all that damage, anyway?”
“He’s a tank,” Wei-Dong said. “Fighter class, heavy armor. Lots of buffs. And I was keeping up the healing spells the whole time.”
“I’m fighter class, aren’t I?”
You don’t know? This guy had a lot more money than brains, that was for sure.
“I just started playing. I’m not much of a gamer. But you know, all my friends—”
I know, Wei-Dong thought. All the cool kids you knew were doing it, so you decided you had to keep up with them. You don’t have any friends—yet. But you think you will, if you play. “Sure,” he said. “Just stick close, you’re doing fine. You’ll be leveled up by breakfast time.” That was another mark against the gweilo: he had the money to pay for a power-levelling session with their raiding guild, but he wasn’t willing to pay the premium to do it in a decent American timezone. That was good news for the rest of the guild, sure—it saved them having to find somewhere to do the run during daylight hours in China, when the Internet cafes were filled with straights—but it meant that Wei-Dong had to be up in the middle of the night and then drag his butt around school all the next day.
Not that it wasn’t worth it.
Now they were into the crags and caves of the garden, dodging the eels and giant lobsters that surged out of their holes as they passed. Wei-Dong found some more oyster shells and surreptitiously picked them up. Technically, they were the gweilo’s to have first refusal over, but they were needed if he was going to keep on casting the Air Pocket, which he might have to do if they kept up at this slow pace. And the gweilo didn’t notice, anyway.
“You’re not in China, are you?” the gweilo asked.
“Not exactly,” he said, looking out the window at the sky over Orange County, the most boring ZIP code in California.
“Where are you guys?”
“They’re in China. Where I live, you can see the Disneyland fireworks show every night.”
“Goddamn,” the gweilo said. “Ain’t you got better things to do than help some idiot level up in the middle of the night?”
“I guess I don’t,” he said. Mixed in behind were the guys laughing and catcalling in Chinese on their channel. He grinned to hear them.
“I mean, hell, I can see why someone in China’d do a crappy job for a rotten 75 bucks, but if you’re in America, dude, you should have some pride, get some real work!”
“And why would someone in China want to do a crappy job?” The guys were listening in now. They didn’t have great English, but they spoke enough to get by.
“You know, it’s China. There’s billions of ’em. Poor as dirt and ignorant. I don’t blame ’em. You can’t blame ’em. It’s not their fault. But hell, once you get out of China and get to America, you should act like an American. We don’t do that kind of work.”
“What makes you think I ’got out of China’?”
“I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. Their parents came here from Russia.”
“I didn’t know they had Chinese in Russia.”
Wei-Dong laughed. “I’m not Chinese, dude.”
“You aren’t? Well, goddamn then, I’m sorry. I figured you were. What are you, then, the boss or something?”
Wei-Dong closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, the carpenters had swum out of the wrecked galleon before them, their T-squares and saws at the ready. They moved by building wooden boxes and gates around themselves, which acted as barricades, and they worked fast. On the land, you could burn their timbers, but that didn’t work under the sea. Once they had you boxed in, they drove long nails through boards around you. It was a grisly, slow way to die.
Of course, they had the gweilo surrounded in a flash, and they all had to pile on to fight them free. Xiang summoned his familiar, a boar, and Wei-Dong spelled it its own air bubble and it set to work, tearing up the planks with its tusks. When at last the carpenters managed to kill it, it turned into a baby and floated, lifeless, to the ocean’s surface, accompanied by a ghostly weeping. Savage Wonderland looked like it was all laughs, but it was really grim when you got down to it, and the puzzles were hard and the big bosses were really hard.
Speaking of bosses: they put down the last of the carpenters and as they did, a swirling current disturbed the sea-bottom, kicking up sand that settled slowly, revealing the vorpal blade and armor, encrusted in barnacles. And the gweilo gave a whoop and a holler and dove for it clumsily, as they all shouted at once for him to stop, to wait, and then—
And then he triggered the trap that they all knew was there.
And then there was trouble.
The Jabberwock did indeed have eyes of flame, and it did make a “burbling” sound, just like it said in the poem. But the Jabberwock did a lot more than give you dirty looks and belch. The Jabberwock was mean, it soaked up a lot of damage, and it gave as good as it got. It was fast, too, faster than the carpenters, so one minute you could be behind it and then it would do a barrel roll—its tail like a whip, cracking and knocking back anything that got in its way—and it would be facing you, rearing up with its spindly claws splayed, its narrow chest heaving. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch—and once they’d caught you, the Jabberwock would beat you against the hardest surface in reach, doing insane damage while you squirmed to get free. And the burbling? Not so much like burping, really: more like the sound of meat going through a grinder, a nasty sound. A bloody sound.
The first time Wei-Dong had managed to kill a Jabberwock—after a weekend’s continuous play—he’d crashed hard and had nightmares about that sound.
“Nice going, jackass,” Wei-Dong said as he hammered on his keyboard, trying to get all his spells up and running without getting disemboweled by the nightmare beast before them. It had Lu and was beating the everloving piss out of him, but that was OK, it was just Lu, his job was to get beaten up. Wei-Dong cast his healing spells at Lu while he swam back as fast as he could.
“Now, that’s not nice,” the gweilo said. “How the hell was I supposed to know—”
“You weren’t. You didn’t know. You don’t know. That’s the point. That’s why you hired us. Now we’re going to use up all our spells and potions fighting this thing—” he broke off for a second and hit some more keys “—and it’s going to take days to get it all back, just because you couldn’t wait at the back like you were supposed to.”
“I don’t have to take this,” the gweilo said. “I’m a customer, dammit.”
“You want to be a dead customer, buddy?” Wei-Dong said. He’d barely had any time to talk with his guildies on the whole raid, he’d been stuck talking to this dumb English speaker. Now the guy was mouthing off to him. It made him want to throw his computer against the wall. See what being nice gets you?
If the gweilo replied, Wei-Dong didn’t hear it, because the Jabberwock was really pouring on the heat. He was out of potions and healing spells and Lu wasn’t going to last much longer. Oh, crap. It had Ping in its other claw now, and it was worrying at his armor with a long fang, trying to peel him like a grape. He tabbed over to his voice-chat controller and dialled up the Chinese channel to full, tuning out the gweilo.
It was a chaos of fast, profane dialect, slangy Chinese that mixed in curse-words from Japanese comics and Indian movies. The boys were all hollering, too fast for him to get more than the sense of things.
There was Ping, though, calling for him. “Leonard! Healing!”
“I’m out!” he said, hating how this was all going. “I’m totally empty. Used it all up on Lu!”
“That’s it, then,” Ping said. “We’re dead.” They all howled with disappointment. In spite of himself, Wei-Dong grinned. “You think he’ll reschedule, or are we going to have to give him his money back?”
Wei-Dong didn’t know, but he had a feeling that this goober wasn’t going to be very cooperative if they told him that he’d gotten up in the middle of the night for nothing. Even if it was his fault.
He sucked in some whistling breaths through his nose and tried to calm down. It was almost 2AM now. In the house around him, all was silent. A car revved its engine somewhere far away, but the night was so quiet the sound carried into his bedroom.
“OK,” he said. “OK, let me do something about this.”
Every game had a couple of BFGs, Big Friendly Guns (or at least some kind of Big Gun), that were nearly impossible to get and nearly impossible to resist. In Savage Wonderland, they were also nearly impossible to re-load: the rare monster blunderbuss that you had to spend months gathering parts for fired huge loads of sharpened cutlery from the Tea Party, and just collecting enough for a single load took eight or nine hours of gameplay. Impossible to get—impossible to load. Practically no one had one.
But Wei-Dong did. Ignoring the shouting in his headset, he backed off to the edge of the blunderbuss’s range and began to arm it, a laborious process of dumping all that cutlery into the muzzle. “Get in front of it,” he said. “In front of it, now!”
His guildies could see what he was doing now and they were whooping triumphantly, arraying their toons around its front, occupying its attention, clearing his line of fire. All he needed was one…more…second.
He pulled the trigger. There was a snap and a hiss as the powder in the pan began to burn. The sound made the Jabberwock turn its head on its long, serpentine neck. It regarded him with its burning eyes and it dropped Ping and Lu to the oceanbed. The powder in the pan flared—and died.
Ohcrapohcrapohcrap, he muttered, hammering, hammering on the re-arm sequence, his fingers a blur on the mouse-buttons. “Crapcrapcrapcrap.”
The Jabberwock smiled, and made that wet meaty sound again. Burble burble, little boy, I’m coming for you. It was the sound from his nightmare, the sound of his dream of heroism dying. The sound of a waste of a day’s worth of ammo and a night’s worth of play. He was a dead man.
The Jabberwock did one of those whipping, rippling barrel-rolls that were its trademark. The currents buffeted him, sending him rocking from side to side. He corrected, overcorrected, corrected again, hit the re-arm button, the fire button, the re-arm button, the fire button—
The Jabberwock was facing him now. It reared back, flexing its claws, clicking its jaws together. In a second it would be on him, it would open him from crotch to throat and eat his guts, any second now—
Crash! The sound of the blunderbuss was like an explosion in a pots-and-pans drawer, a million metallic clangs and bangs as the sea was sliced by a rapidly expanding cone of lethal, screaming metal tableware.
The Jabberwock dissolved, ripped into a slowly rising mushroom of meat and claws and leathery scales, The left side of its head ripped toward him and bounced off him, settling in the sand. The water turned pink, then red, and the death-screech of the Jabberwock seemed to carom off the water and lap back over him again and again. It was a fantastic sound.
His guildies were going nuts, seven thousand miles away, screaming his name, and not Leonard, but Wei-Dong, chanting it in their Internet Cafe off Jiabin Road in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong was grinning ferociously in his bedroom, basking in it.
And when the water cleared, there again were the vorpal blade and helmet in their crust of barnacles, sitting innocently on the ocean floor. The gweilo—the gweilo, he’d forgotten all about the gweilo!—moved clumsily toward it.
“I don’t think so,” said Ping, in pretty good English. His toon moved so fast that the gweilo probably didn’t even see him coming. Ping’s sword went snicker-snack, and the gweilo’s head fell to the sand, a dumb, betrayed expression on its face.
Wei-Dong dropped him from the chat.
“That’s your treasure, brother,” Ping said. “You earned it.”
“But the money—”
“We can make the money tomorrow night. That was killer, dude!” It was one of Ping’s favorite English phrases, and it was the highest praise in their guild. And now he had a vorpal blade and helmet. It was a good night.
They surfaced and paddled to shore and conjured up their mounts again and rode back to the guild-hall, chatting all the way, dispatching the occasional minor beast without much fuss. The guys weren’t too put out at being 75 bucks’ poorer than they’d expected. They were players first, business people second. And that had been fun.
And now it was 2:30 and he’d have to be up for school in four hours, and at this rate, he was going to be lying awake for a long time. “OK, I’m going to go guys,” he said, in his best Chinese. They bade him farewell, and the chat channel went dead. In the sudden silence of his room, he could hear his pulse pounding in his ears. And another sound—a tread on the floor outside his door. A hand on the doorknob—
He manged to get the lid of the laptop down and his covers pulled up before the door opened, but he was still holding the machine under the sheets, and his father’s glare from the doorway told him that he wasn’t fooling anyone. Wordlessly, still glaring, his father crossed the room and delicately removed the earwig from Wei-Dong’s ear. It glowed telltale blue, blinking, looking for the laptop that was now sleeping under Wei-Dong’s artistically redecorate Spongebob sheets.
“Dad—” he began.
“Leonard, it’s 2:30 in the morning. I’m not going to discuss this with you right now. But we’re going to talk about it in the morning. And you’re going to have a long, long time to think about it afterward.” He yanked back the sheet and took the laptop out of Wei-Dong’s now-limp hand.
“Dad!” he said, as his father turned and left the room, but his father gave no indication he’d heard before he pulled the bedroom door firmly and authoritatively shut.
Mala missed the birdcalls. When they’d lived in the village, there’d been birdsong every morning, breaking the perfect peace of the night to let them know that the sun was rising and the day was beginning. That was when she’d been a little girl. Here in Mumbai, there were some sickly rooster calls at dawn, but they were nearly drowned out by the neverending trafficsong: the horns, the engines revving, the calls late in the night.
In the village, there’d been the birdcalls, the silence, and peace, times when everyone wasn’t always watching. In Mumbai, there was nothing but the people, the people everywhere, so that every breath you breathed tasted of the mouth that had exhaled it before you got it.
She and her mother and her brother slept together in a tiny room over Mr Kunal’s plastic-recycling factory in Dharavi, the huge squatter’s slum at the north end of the city. During the day, the room was used to sort plastic into a dozen tubs—the plastic coming from an endless procession of huge rice-sacks that were filled at the shipyards. The ships went to America and Europe and Asia filled with goods made in India and came back filled with garbage, plastic that the pickers of Dharavi sorted, cleaned, melted and reformed into pellets and shipped to the factories so that they could be turned into manufactured goods and shipped back to America, Europe and Asia.
When they’d arrived at Dharavi, Mala had found it terrifying: the narrow shacks growing up to blot out the sky, the dirt lanes between them with gutters running in iridescent blue and red from the dye-shops, the choking always-smell of burning plastic, the roar of motorbikes racing between the buildings. And the eyes, eyes from every window and roof, all watching them as mamaji led her and her little brother to the factory of Mr Kunal, where they were to live now and forevermore.
But barely a year had gone by and the smell had disappeared. The eyes had become friendly. She could hop from one lane to another with perfect confidence, never getting lost on her way to do the marketing or to attend the afternoon classes at the little school-room over the restaurant. The sorting work had been boring, but never hard, and there was always food, and there were other girls to play with, and mamaji had made friends who helped them out. Piece by piece, she’d become a Dharavi girl, and now she looked on the newcomers with a mixture of generosity and pity.
And the work—well, the work had gotten a lot better, just lately.
It started when she was in the games-cafe with Yasmin, stealing an hour after lessons to spend a few Rupees of the money she’d saved from her pay-packet (almost all of it went to the family, of course, but mamaji sometimes let her keep some back and advised her to spend it on a treat at the cornershop). Yasmin had never played Zombie Mecha, but of course they’d both seen the movies at the little filmi house on the road that separated the Muslim and the Hindu sections of Dharavi. Mala loved Zombie Mecha, and she was good at it, too. She preferred the PvP servers where players could hunt other players, trying to topple their giant mecha-suits so that the zombies around them could swarm over it, crack open its cockpit cowl and feast on the av within.
Most of the girls at the game cafe came in and played little games with cute animals and trading for hearts and jewels. But for Mala, the action was in the awesome carnage of the multiplayer war games. It only took a few minutes to get Yasmin through the basics of piloting her little squadron and then she could get down to tactics.
That was it, that was what none of the other players seemed to understand: tactics were everything. They treated the game like it was a random chaos of screeching rockets and explosions, a confusion to be waded into and survived, as best as you could.
But for Mala, the confusion was something that happened to other people. For Mala, the explosions and camera-shake and the screech of the zombies were just minor details, to be noted among the Big Picture, the armies arrayed on the battlefield in her mind. On that battlefield, the massed forces took on a density and a color that showed where their strengths and weaknesses were, how they were joined to each other and how pushing one this one, over here, would topple that one over there. You could face down your enemies head on, rockets against rockets, guns against guns, and then the winner would be the luckier one, or the one with the most ammo, or the one with the best shields.
But if you were smart, you didn’t have to be lucky, or tougher. Mala liked to lob rockets and grenades over the opposing armies, to their left and right, creating box-canyons of rubble and debris that blocked their escape. Meanwhile, a few of her harriers would be off in the weeds aggroing huge herds of zombies, getting them really mad, gathering them up until they were like locusts, blotting out the ground in all directions, leading them ever closer to that box canyon.
Just before they’d come into view, her frontal force would peel off, running away in a seeming act of cowardice. Her enemies would be buoyed up by false confidence and give chase—until they saw the harriers coming straight for them, with an unstoppable, torrential pestilence of zombies hot on their heels. Most times, they were too shocked to do anything, not even fire at the harriers as they ran straight for their lines and through them, into the one escape left behind in the box-canyon, blowing the crack shut as they left. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the zombies to overwhelm and devour your opponents, while you snickered and ate a sweet and drank a little tea from the urn by the cashier’s counter. The sounds of the zombies rending the armies of her enemies and gnawing their bones was particularly satisfying.
Yasmin had been distracted by the zombies, the disgusting entrails, the shining rockets. But she’d seen, oh yes, she’d seen how Mala’s strategies were able to demolish much larger opposing armies and she got over her squeamishness.
And so on they played, drawing an audience: first the hooting derisive boys (who fell silent when they watched the armies fall before her, and who started to call her “General Robotwalla” without even a hint of mockery), and then the girls, shy at first, peeking over the boys’ shoulders, then shoving forward and cheering and beating their fists on the walls and stamping their feet for each dramatic victory.
It wasn’t cheap, though. Mala’s carefully hoarded store of Rupees shrank, buffered somewhat by a few coins from other players who paid her a little here and there to teach them how to really play. She knew she could have borrowed the money, or let some boy spend it on her—there was already fierce competition for the right to go over the road to the drinkswalla and buy her a masala Coke, a fizzing, foaming spicy explosion of Coke and masala spice and crushed ice that soothed the rawness at the back of her throat that had been her constant companion since they’d come to Dharavi.
But nice girls from the village didn’t let boys buy them things. Boys wanted something in return. She knew that, knew it from the movies and from the life around her. She knew what happened to girls who let boys take care of their needs. There was always a reckoning.
When the strange man first approached her, she thought about nice girls and boys and what they expected, and she wouldn’t talk to him or meet his eye. She didn’t know what he wanted, but he wasn’t going to get it from her. So when he got up from his chair by the cashier as she came into the cafe, rose and crossed to intercept her with his smart linen suit and good shoes and short, neatly oiled hair, and small moustache, she’d stepped around him, stepped past him, pretended she didn’t hear him say, “Excuse me, miss,” and “Miss? Miss? Please, just a moment of your time.”
But Mrs Dibyendu, the owner of the cafe, shouted at her, “Mala, you listen to this man, you listen to what he has to say to you. You don’t be rude in my shop, no you don’t!” And because Mrs Dibyendu was also from a village, and because her mother had said that Mala could play games but only in Mrs Dibyendu’s cafe, Mrs Dibyendu being the sort of person you could trust not to allow improper doings, or drugs, or violence, or criminality, Mala stopped and turned to the man, silent, expecting.
“Ah,” he said. “Thank you.” He nodded to Mrs Dibyendu. “Thank you.” He turned back to her, and to the army of boys and girls who’d gathered around her, her army, the ones who called her General Robotwallah and meant it.
“I hear that you are a very good player,” he said. Mala waggled her chin back and forth, half-closing her eyes, letting her chin say, Yes, I’m a good player, and I’m good enough that I don’t need to boast about it.
“Is she a good player?”
Mala turned to her army,
who had the discipline to remain silent until she gave them the nod. She waggled her chin at them: go on.
And they erupted in an enthused babble, extolling the virtues of their General Robotwallah, the epic battles they’d fought and won against impossible odds.
“I have some work for good players.”
Mala had heard rumors of this. “You represent a league?”
The man smiled a little smile and shook his head. He smelled of citrusy cologne and betel, a sweet combination of smells she’d never smelled before. “No, not a league. You know that in the game, there are players who don’t play for fun? Players who play to make money?”
“The kind of money you’re offering to us?”
His chin waggled and he chuckled. “No, not exactly. There are players who play to build up game-money, which they sell on to other players who are too lazy to do the playing for themselves.”
Mala thought about this for a moment. The containers went out of India filled with goods and came back filled with garbage for Dharavi. Somewhere out there, in the America of the filmi shows, there was a world of people with unimaginable wealth. “We’ll do it,” she said. “I’ve already got more credits than I can spend. How much do they pay for them?”
Again, the chuckle. “Actually,” he said, then stopped. Her army was absolutely silent now, hanging on his every word. From the machines came the soft crashing of the wars, taking place in the world inside the network, all day and all night long. “Actually, that’s not exactly it. We want you and your friends to destroy them, kill their avs, take their fortunes.”
Mala thought for another instant, puzzled. Who would want to kill these other players? “You’re a rival?”
The man waggled his chin. Maybe yes, maybe no.
She thought some more. “You work for the game!” she said. “You work for the game and you don’t want—”
“Who I work for isn’t important,” the man said, holding up his fingers. He wore a wedding ring on one hand, and two gold rings on the other. He was missing the top joints on three of his fingers, she saw. That was common in the village, where farmers were always getting caught in the machines. Here was a man from a village, a man who’d come to Mumbai and become a man in a neat suit with a neat mustache and gold rings glinting on what remained of his fingers. Here was the reason her mother had brought them to Dharavi, the reason for the sore throat and the burning eyes and the endless work over the plastic-sorting tubs.
“What’s important is that we would pay you and your friends—”
“My army,” she said, interrupting him without thinking. For a moment his eyes flashed dangerously and she sensed that he was about to slap her, but she stood her ground. She’d been slapped plenty before. He snorted once through his nose, then went on.
“Yes, Mala, your army. We would pay you to destroy these players. You’d be told what sort of mecha they were piloting, what their player-names were, and you’d have to root them out and destroy them. You’d keep all their wealth, and you’d get Rupees, too.”
He made a pained expression, like he had a little gas. “Perhaps we should discuss that in private, later? With your mother present?”
Mala noticed that he didn’t say, “Your parents,” but rather, “Your mother.” Mrs Dibyendu and he had been talking, then. He knew about Mala, and she didn’t know about him. She was just a girl from the village, after all, and this was the world, where she was still trying to understand it all. She was a general, but she was also a girl from the village. General Girl From the Village.
So he’d come that night to Mr Kunal’s factory, and Mala’s mother had fed him thali and papadams from the women’s papadam collective, and they’d boiled chai in the electric kettle and the man had pretended that his fine clothes and gold belonged here, and had squatted back on his heels like a man in the village, his hairy ankles peeking out over his socks. No one Mala knew wore socks.
“Mr Banerjee,” mamaji said, “I don’t understand this, but I know Mrs Dibyendu. If she says you can be trusted…” She trailed off, because really, she didn’t know Mrs Dibyendu. In Dharavi, there were many hazards for a young girl. Mamaji would fret over them endlessly while she brushed out Mala’s hair at night, all the ways a girl could find herself ruined or hurt here. But the money.
“A lakh of rupees every month,” he said. “Plus a bonus. Of course, she’ll have to pay her ‘army’—” he’d given Mala a little chin waggle at that, see, I remember “— out of that. But how much would be up to her.”
“These children wouldn’t have any money if it wasn’t for my Mala!” mamaji said, affronted at their imaginary grasping hands. “They’re only playing a game! They should be glad just to play with her!” Mamaji had been furious when she discovered that Mala had been playing at the cafe all these afternoons. She thought that Mala only played once in a while, not with every rupee and moment she had spare. But when the man—Mr Banerjee—had mentioned her talent and the money it could earn for the family, suddenly mamaji had become her daughter’s business manager.
Mala saw that Mr Banerjee had known this would happen and wondered what else Mrs Dibyendu had told him about their family.
“Mamaji,” she said, quietly, keeping her eyes down in the way they did in the village. “They’re my army, and they need paying if they play well. Otherwise they won’t be my army for long.”
Mamaji looked hard at her. Beside them, Mala’s little brother Gopal took advantage of their distraction to sneak the last bit of eggplant off Mala’s plate. Mala noticed, but pretended she hadn’t, and concentrated on keeping her eyes down.
Mamaji said, “Now, Mala, I know you want to be good to your friends, but you have to think of your family first. We will find a fair way to compensate them—maybe we could prepare a weekly feast for them here, using some of the money. I’m sure they could all use a good meal.”
Mala didn’t like to disagree with her mother, and she’d never done so in front of strangers, but—
But this was her army, and she was their general. She knew what made them tick, and they’d heard Mr Banerjee announce that she would be paid in cash for their services. They believed in fairness. They wouldn’t work for food while she worked for a lakh (a lakh—100,000 rupees! The whole family lived on 200 rupees a day!) of cash.
“Mamaji,” she said, “it wouldn’t be right or fair.” It occurred to Mala that Mr Banerjee had mentioned the money in front of the army. He could have been more discreet. Perhaps it was deliberate. “And they’d know it. I can’t earn this money for the family on my own, Mamaji.”
Her mother closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, a sign that she was trying to keep hold of her temper. If Mr Banerjee hadn’t been present, Mala was sure she would have gotten a proper beating, the kind she’d gotten from her father before he left them, when she was a naughty little girl in the village. But if Mr Banerjee wasn’t here, she wouldn’t have to talk back to her mother, either.
“I’m sorry for this, Mr Banerjee,” Mamaji said, not looking at Mala. “Girls of this age, they become rebellious—impossible.”
Mala thought about a future in which instead of being General Robotwallah, she had to devote her life to begging and bullying her army into playing with her so that she could keep all the money they made for her family, while their families went hungry and their mothers demanded that they come home straight from school. When Mr Banerjee mentioned his gigantic sum, it had conjured up a vision of untold wealth, a real house, lovely clothes for all of them, Mamaji free to spend her afternoons cooking for the family and resting out of the heat, a life away from Dharavi and the smoke and the stinging eyes and sore throats.
“I think your little girl is right,” Mr Banerjee said, with quiet authority, and Mala’s entire family stared at him, speechless. An adult, taking Mala’s side over her mother? “She is a very good leader, from what I can see. If she says her people need paying, I believe that she is correct.” He wiped at his mouth with a handkerchief. “With all due respect, of course. I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to raise your children, of course.”
“Of course…” Mamaji said, as if in a dream. Her eyes were downcast, her shoulders slumped. To be spoken to this way, in her own home, by a stranger, in front of her children! Mala felt terrible. Her poor mother. And it was all Mr Banerjee’s fault: he’d mentioned the money in front of her army, and then he’d brought her mother to this point—
“I will find a way to get them to fight without payment, Mamaji—” But she was cut short by her mother’s hand, coming up, palm out to her.
“Quiet, daughter,” she said. “If this man, this gentleman, says you know what you’re doing, well, then I can’t contradict him, can I? I’m just a simple woman from the village. I don’t understand these things. You must do what this gentleman says, of course.”
Mr Banerjee stood and smoothed his suit back into place with the palms of his hands. Mala saw that he’d gotten some chana on his shirt and lapel, and that made her feel better somehow, like he was a mortal and not some terrible force of nature who’d come to destroy their little lives.
He made a little namaste at Mamaji, hands pressed together at his chest, a small hint of a bow. “Good night, Mrs Vajpayee. That was a lovely supper. Thank you.” he said. “Good night, General Robotwallah. I will come to the cafe tomorrow at three o’clock to talk more about your missions. Good night, Gopal,” he said, and her brother looked up at him, guiltily, eggplant still poking out of the corner of his mouth.
Mala thought that Mamaji might slap her once the man had left, but they all went to bed together without another word, and Mala snuggled up to her mother the same as she did every night, stroking her long hair. It had been shining and black when they left the village, but a year later, it was shot through with grey and it felt wiry. Mamaji’s hand caught hers and stilled it, the callouses on her fingers rough.
“Sleep, daughter,” she murmured. “You have an important job, now. You need your sleep.”
The next morning, they avoided one another’s eyes, and things were hard for a week, until she brought home her first pay-packet, folded carefully in the sole of her shoe. Her army had carved through the enemy forces like the butcher’s cleaver parting heads from chickens. There had been a large bonus in their pay-packet, and even after she’d paid Mrs Dibyendu and bought everyone masala Coke at the Hotel Hajj next door, and paid the army their wages, there was almost 2,000 rupees left, and she took Mamaji into the smallest sorting room in the loft of the factory, up the ladder. Mamaji’s eyes lit up when she saw the money, and she’d kissed Mala on the forehead and taken her in the longest, fiercest hug of their lives together.
And now it was all wonderful between them. Mamaji had begun to look for a place for them further towards the middle of Dharavi, the old part where the tin and scrap buildings had been gradually replaced with brick ones, where the potters’ kilns smoked a clean woodsmoke instead of the dirty, scratchy plastic smoke near Mr Kunal’s factory. Mala had new school-clothes, new shoes, and so did Gopal, and Mamaji had new brushes for her hair and a new sari that she wore after her work-day was through, looking pretty and young, the way Mala remembered her from the village.
And the battles were glorious.
She entered the cafe out of the melting, dusty sun of late day and stood in the doorway. Her army was already assembled, practicing on their machines, passing gupshup in the shadows of the dark, noisy room, or making wet eyes at one another through the dim. She barely had time to grin and then hide the grin before they noticed her and climbed to their feet, standing straight and proud, saluting her.
She didn’t know which one of them had begun the saluting business. It had started as a joke, but now it was serious. They vibrated at attention, all eyes on her. They had on better clothes, they looked well-fed. General Robotwallah was leading her army to victory and prosperity.
“Let’s play,” she said. In her pocket, her handphone had the latest message from Mr Banerjee with the location of the day’s target. Yasmin was at her usual place, at Mala’s right hand, and at her left sat Fulmala, who had a bad limp from a leg that she’d broken and that hadn’t healed right. But Fulmala was smart and fast, and she grasped the tactics better than anyone in the cafe except Mala herself. And Yasmin, well, Yasmin could make the boys behave, which was a major accomplishment, since left to their own they liked to squabble and one-up each other, in a reckless spiral that always ended badly. But Yasmin could talk to them in a way that was stern like an older sister, and they’d fall into line.
Mala had her army, her lieutenants, and her mission. She had her machine, the fastest one in the cafe, with a bigger monitor than any of the others, and she was ready to go to war.
She touched up her displays, rolled her head from side to side, and led her army to battle again.
Gold. It’s all about gold.
But not regular gold, the sort of thing you dig out of the ground. That stuff was for the last century. There’s not enough of it, for one thing: all the gold ever dug out of the ground in the history of the world would only amount to a cube whose sides were the length of a tennis court. And curiously, there’s also too much of it: all the certificates of gold ownership issued into the world add up to a cube twice that size. Some of those certificates don’t amount to anything—and no one knows which ones. No one has independently audited Fort Knox since 1956 FCK. For all we know, it’s empty, the gold smuggled out and sold, put in a vault, sold as certificates, then stolen again and put into another vault, used as the basis for more certificates.
Not regular gold.
Call it what you want: in one game it’s called “Credits,” in another, “Volcano Bucks.” There are groats, Disney Dollars, cowries, moolah, and Fool’s Gold, and a million other kinds of gold out there. Unlike real gold, there’s no vault of reserves backing the certificates. Unlike money, there’s no government involved in their issue.
Virtual gold is issued by companies. Game companies. Game companies who declare, “So many gold pieces can buy this piece of armor,” or “So many credits can buy this space ship” or “So much Jools can buy this zeppelin.” And because they say it, it is true. Countries and their banks have to mess around with the ugly business of convincing citizens to believe what they say: the government may say, “This social security check will provide for all your needs in a month,” but that doesn’t mean that the merchants who supply those needs will agree.
Companies don’t have this problem. When Coca Cola says that 76 groats will buy you one dwarvish axe in Svartalfaheim Warriors, that’s it: the price of an axe is 76 groats. Don’t like it? Go play somewhere else.
Virtual money isn’t backed by gold or governments: it’s backed by fun. So long as a game is fun, players somewhere will want to buy into it, because as fun as the game is, it’s always more fun if you’re one of the haves, with all the awesome armor and killer weapons, than if you’re some lowly noob have-not with a dagger, fighting your way up to your first sword.
But where there’s money to be spent, there’s money to be made. For some players, the most fun game of all is the game that carves them out a slice of the pie. Not all the action belongs to the giant companies up on their tall offices and the games they make. Plenty of us can get in on the action from down below, where the grubby little people are.
Of course, this makes the companies bonkers. They’re big daddy, they know what’s best for their worlds. They are in control. They design the levels and the difficulty to make it all perfectly balanced. They design the puzzles. They decree that light elves can’t talk to dark elves, that players on Russian servers can’t hop onto the Chinese servers, that it would take the average player 32 hours to attain the Von Klausewitz drive and 48 hours to earn the Order of the Armored Penguin. If you don’t like it, you’re supposed to leave: you’re not supposed to just buy your way out of it. Or if you do, you should have the decency to buy it from them.
And here’s a little something they won’t tell you, these Gods of the Virtual: they can’t control it. Kids, crooks, and weirdos all over the world have riddled their safe little terrarrium worlds with tunnels leading to the great outdoors. There are multiple, competing interworld exchanges: want to swap out your Zombie Mecha wealth for a fully loaded spaceship and a crew of jolly space-pirates to crew it? Ten different gangs want your business—they’ll fix you right up with someone else’s spaceship and take your mecha, arms and ammo into inventory for the next person who wants to immigrate to Zombie Mecha from some other magical world.
And the Gods are powerless to stop it. For every barrier they put up, there are hundreds of smart, motivated players of the Big Game who will knock it down.
You’d think it’d be impossible, wouldn’t you? After all, these aren’t mere games of cops and robbers, played out in real cities filled with real people. They don’t need an all-points bulletin to find a fugitive at large: every person in the world is in the database, and they own the database. They don’t need a search warrant to find the contraband hiding under your floorboards: the floorboards, the contraband, the house and you are all in the database—and they own the database.
It should be impossible, but it isn’t, and here’s why: the biggest sellers of gold and treasure, levels and experience in the worlds are the game companies themselves. Oh, they don’t call it power-levelling and gold-farming—they package it with prettier, more palatable names, like “accelerated progress bonus pack” and “All Together Now(TM)” and lots of other redonkulous names that don’t fool anyone.
But the Gods aren’t happy with merely turning a buck on players who are too lazy to work their way up through the game. They’ve got a much, much weirder game in play. They sell gold to people who don’t even play the game. That’s right: if you’re a bigshot finance guy and you’re looking for somewhere to stash a million bucks where it will do some good, you can buy a million dollars’ worth of virtual gold, hang onto it as the game grows and becomes more and more fun, as the value of the gold rises and rises, and then you can sell it back for real money through the official in-game banks, pocketing a chunky profit for your trouble.
So while you’re piloting your mecha, swinging your axe or commanding your space fleet, there’s a group of weird old grownups in suits in fancy offices all over the world watching your play eagerly, trying to figure out if the value of in-game gold is going to go up or down. When a game starts to suck, everyone rushes to sell out their holdings, getting rid of the gold as fast as they can before its value it obliterated by bored gamers switching to a competing service. And when the game gets more fun, well, that’s an even bigger frenzy, as the bidding wars kick up to high gear, every banker in the world trying to buy the same gold for the same world.
Is it any wonder that eight of the 20 largest economies in the world are in virtual countries? And is it any wonder that playing has become such a serious business?
Matthew stood outside the door of the Internet cafe, breathing deeply. On the walk over, he’d managed to calm down a little, but as he drew closer, he became more and more convinced that Boss Wing’s boys would be waiting for him there, and all his friends would be curled up on the ground, beaten unconscious. He’d brought four of the best players with him out of Boss Wing’s factory, and he knew that Boss Wing wasn’t happy about that at all.
He was hyperventilating, his head swimming. He still hurt. It felt like he had a soccer ball-sized red sun of pain burning in his underwear and one of the things he wanted most and least to do was to find a private spot to have a look in there. There was a bathroom in the cafe, so that was that, it was time to go inside.
He walked up the four flights of stairs painfully, passing under the gigantic murals from gamespace, avoiding the plastic plants on each landing that reeked of piss from players who didn’t want to wait for the bathroom. From the third floor up, he was enveloped in the familiar cloud of body odor, cigarette smoke and cursing that told him he was on his way to his true home.
In the doorway, he paused and peered around, looking for any sign of Boss Wing’s goons, but it was business as usual: rows and rows of tables with PCs on them, a few couples sharing machines, but mostly, it was boys playing, skinny, with their shirts rolled up over their bellies to catch any breeze that might happen through the room. There were no breezes, just the eddies in the smoke caused by the growl of all those PC fans whining as they sucked particulate-laden smoky air over the superheated motherboards and monster video cards.
He slunk past the sign-in desk, staffed tonight by a new kid, someone else just arrived from the provinces to find his fortune here in bad old Shenzhen. Matthew wanted to grab the kid and carry him to the city limits, explaining all the way that there was no fortune to be found here anymore, it all belonged to men like Boss Wing. Go home, he thought at the boy, Go home, this place is done.
His boys were playing at their usual table. They had made a pyramid from alternating layers of Double Happiness cigarette packs and empty coffee cups. They looked up as he neared them, smiling and laughing at some joke. Then they saw the look on his face and they fell silent.
He sat down at a vacant chair and stared at their screens. They’d been playing, of course. They were always playing. When they worked in Boss Wing’s factory, they’d pull an 18 hour shift and then they’d relax by playing some more, running their own characters through the dungeons they’d been farming all day long. It’s why Boss Wing had such an easy time recruiting for his factory: the pitch was seductive. “Get paid to play!”
But it wasn’t the same when you worked for someone else.
He tried to find the words to start and couldn’t.
“Matthew?” It was Yo, the oldest of them. Yo actually had a family, a wife and a young daughter. He’d left Boss Wing’s factory and followed Matthew.
Matthew stared at his hands, took a deep breath, and made a decision: “Sorry, I just had a little fight on the way over here. I’ve got good news, though: I’ve got a way to make us all very rich in a very short time.” And, from memory, Master Fong described the way he’d found into the rich dungeon of Svartalfaheim Warriors. He commandeered a computer and showed them, showed them how to shave the seconds off the run, where to make sure to stop and grab and pick up. And then they each took up a machine and went to work.
In time, the ache in his pants faded. Someone gave him a cigarette, then another. Someone brought him some dumplings. Master Fong ate them without tasting them. He and his team were at work, and they were making money, and someday soon, they’d have a fortune that would make Boss Wing look like a small-timer.
Sometime during the shift, his phone rang. It was his mother. She wanted to wish him a happy birthday. He had just turned 17.
Wei-Dong’s game-suspension lasted all of 20 minutes. That’s how long it took him to fake a migraine, get a study-pass, sneak into the resource center, beat the network filter and log on. It was getting very late back in China, but that was OK, the boys stayed up late when they were working, and they were glad to have him.
Wei-Dong’s real name wasn’t Wei-Dong, of course. His real name was Leonard Goldberg. He’d chosen Wei-Dong after looking up the meanings of Chinese names and coming up with Strength of the East, which he liked the sound of. This system for picking names worked well for the Chinese kids he knew—when their parents immigrated to the States, they’d just pick some English name and that was it. Why not? Why was it better to pick a name because your grandfather had it than because you liked the sound of it?
He’d tried to explain this to his parents, but it didn’t make much of an impression on them. They were cool with him being interested in other cultures, but that didn’t mean he could get out of having a Bar-Mitzvah or that they would call him Wei-Dong. And it didn’t mean that they approved of him being up all night with his buds in China, making money.
Wei-Dong knew that this could all be seen as very lame, an outcast kid so desperate to make friends that he abandoned his high school altogether and sucked up to someone in another hemisphere with free labor instead. But it wasn’t like that. Wei-Dong had plenty of friends at Ronald Regan Secondary School. Plenty of kids thought that China was the most interesting place in the world, loved the movies and the food and the comics and the games. And there were lots of Chinese kids in school too and while a couple clearly thought he was weird, lots more got it. After all, most of them were into India the way he was into China, so they had that in common.
And so what if he was skipping a class? It was Social Studies, ferchrissakes! They were supposed to be studying China, but Wei-Dong knew about ten times more about the subject than the teacher did. As he whispered in Mandarin into his earwig, he thought that this was like an independent study project. His teachers should be giving him bonus marks.
“Now what?” he said. “What’s the mission?”
“We were thinking of running the Walrus’s Garden a few more times, now that we’ve got it fresh in our heads. Maybe we could pick up another vorpal blade.” That’s what the guys did when there weren’t any paying gweilos—they went raiding for prestige items. It wasn’t the most exciting thing of all, but you never knew what might happen.
“I’m into it,” he said. He had a free period after this one, then lunch, so technically he could play for three hours solid. They’d all be ready to log off and go to bed by then, anyway.
“You’re a good gweilo, you know?” Wei-Dong knew Ping was kidding. He didn’t care if the guys called him gweilo. It wasn’t a racist term, not really, not like “chink” or “slant-eye.” Just a term of affection. And as nicknames went, “Foreign ghost” was actually kind of cool.
So they hit the Garden and ran it and they did pretty well, and they went and put the money in the guild bank and went back for more. Then they did it again. Somewhere in there, the bell rang. Somewhere in there, some of his friends came and talked to him and he muted the earwig and said some things back to them, but he didn’t really know what he’d said. Something.
Then, on the third run, the bad thing happened. They were almost to the shore, and they’d banished their mounts. Wei-Dong was prepping the Queen’s Air Pocket, dipping into the monster supply of oyster shells he’d built up on the previous runs.
And out they came, a dozen knights on huge, fearsome black steeds, rising out of the water in unison, rending the air with the angry chorus of their mounts and their battle-cries. The water fountained up around them and they fell upon Wei-Dong and his guildies.
He shouted something into his earwig, a warning, and all around him in the resource center, kids looked up from their conversations to stare at him. He’d become a dervish, hammering away at his keyboard and mousing furiously, his eyes fixed on the screen.
The black riders moved with eerie synchrony. Either they were monsters—monsters such as Wei-Dong had never encountered—or they were the most practiced, cooperative raiding party he’d ever seen. He had his vorpal blade out now, and his guildies were all fighting as well. In his earwig, they cursed in the Chinese dialects of six different provinces. Under other circumstances, Wei-Dong would have taken notes, but now he was fighting for his life.
Lu had bravely taken the point between the riders and the party, the huge tank standing fast with his mace and broadsword, engaging all twelve of the knights without regard for his own safety. Wei-Dong poured healing spells on him as he attempted to make his own mark on the riders with the vorpal blade, three times as long as he was.
The vorpal blade could do incredible damage, but it wasn’t easy to use. Twice, Wei-Dong accidentally sliced into members of his own party, though not badly—thank God, or he’d never hear the end of it—but he couldn’t get a cut in on the black knights, who were too fast for him.
Then Lu fell, going down on one knee, pierced through the throat by a pike wielded by a rider whose steed’s eyes were the icy blue of the Caterpillar’s mist. The rider lifted Lu into the air, his feet kicking limply, and another knight beheaded him with a contemptuous swing of his sword. Lu fell in two pieces to the gritty beach sand and in the earwig, he cursed them, using an expression that Wei-Dong had painstakingly translated into “Screw eight generations of your ancestors.”
With Lu down, the rest of them were practically helpless. They fought valiantly, coordinating their attacks, pouring on fire from their magic items and best spells, but the black knights were unbeatable. Before he died, Wei-Dong managed to hit one with the vorpal blade and had the momentary satisfaction of watching the knight stagger and clutch at his chest, but then the fighter closed with him, drawing a pair of short swords that he spun like a magician doing knife tricks. There was no question of parrying him, and seconds later, Wei-Dong was in the sand, watching the knight’s spiked boot descend on his face, hearing the crunch of his cheekbones and nose shattering under the weight. Then he was respawning in the distant Lake of Tears, naked and unarmed, and he had to corpse-run to the body of his toon before the bastards got his vorpal blade.
He heard his guildies dying in the earwig, one after another, as he ran, ghostly and ethereal, across the hills and dales of Wonderland. He reached his corpse just in time to watch the knights loot the body, and the bodies of his teammates. He rose up again, helpless and unarmed and made flesh by the body of his toon, vulnerable.
One of the knights sent him a chat-request. He clicked it, silencing the background noises from Shenzhen.
“You farmers aren’t welcome here anymore, Comrade,” the voice said. It had an accent he didn’t recognize. Maybe Russian? And the speaker was just a kid! “We’re patrolling now. You come back again, we’ll hunt and kill you again, and again, and again. You understand me, Chinee?” Not just a kid: a girl—a little girl, threatening him from somewhere in the world.
“Who put you in charge, missy?” he said. “And what makes you think I’m Chinese, anyway?”
There was a nasty laugh. “Missy, huh? I’m in charge because I just kicked your ass, and because I can kick it again, as many times as I need to. And I don’t care if you’re in China, Vietnam, Indonesia—it doesn’t make a difference. We’ll kill you and all the farmers in Wonderland. This game isn’t farmable anymore. I’m done talking to you now.” And the black knight decapitated him with contemptuous ease.
He flipped back to the guild channel, ready to tell them about what had just happened, his mind reeling, and that’s when he looked up into the face of his father, standing over him, with a look on his face that could curdle milk.
“Get up, Leonard,” he said. “And come with me.”
He wasn’t alone. There was Mr Adams, the vice-principal, and the school’s rent-a-cop, Officer Turner, and the guidance counsellor, Ms Ramirez. They presented him with the stony faces of Mount Rushmore, faces without a hint of mercy. His father reached over and took the earwig out of his ear, gently, carefully. Then, with exactly the same care, he dropped the earwig to the polished concrete floor of the resource centre and brought his heel down on it, the crunch loud in the perfectly silent room.
Leonard stood up. The room was full of kids pretending not to look at him. They were all looking at him. He followed his father into the hallway and as the door swung shut, he heard, unmistakably, the sound of a hundred giggles in unison.
They boxed him in on the walk to the vice-principal’s office, trapping him. Not that he’d run—he had nowhere to run to, but it still made him feel claustrophobic. This was not good. This was very, very bad.
Here’s how bad it was: “You’re going to send me to military school?”
“Not military school,” Ms Ramirez said. She said it with that maddening, patronizing guidance-counsellor tone. “The Martindale Academy has no military or martial component. It’s merely a very structured, supervised environment. They have a fantastic track record in helping students like you concentrate on grades and pull themselves out of academic troubles. They’ve got a beautiful campus in a beautiful location, and Martindale boys go on to fill many important—”
And on and on. She’d swallowed the sales brochure like a burrito and now it was rebounding on her. He tuned her out and looked at his father. Benny Rosenbaum wasn’t the sort of person you could read easily. The people who worked for him at Rosenbaum Shipping and Logistics called him The Wall, because you couldn’t get anything past him, under him, through him, or over him. Not that he was a hardcase, but he couldn’t be swayed by emotional arguments: if you tried to approach him with anything less than fully computerized logic, you might as well forget it.
But there were little tells, little ways you could figure out what the weather was like in old Benny. That thing he was doing with his watch strap, working at the catch, that was one of them. So was the little jump in the hinge of his jaw, like he was chewing an invisible wad of gum. Combine those with the fact that he was away from his work in the middle of the day, when he should be making sure that giant steel containers were humming around the globe—well, for Leonard, it meant that the lava was pretty close to the surface of Mount Benny this afternoon.
He turned to his dad. “Shouldn’t we be talking about this as a family, Dad? Why are we doing this here?”
Benny regarded him, fiddled with his watch strap, nodded at the guidance counsellor and made a little “go-on” gesture that betrayed nothing.
“Leonard,” she said. “Leonard, you need to understand just how serious this has become. You’re one term paper away from flunking two of your subjects: history and biology. You’ve gone from being an A student in math, English and social studies to a C-minus. At this rate, you’ll have blown the semester by Thanksgiving. Put it this way: you’ve gone from being in the ninetieth percentile of Ronald Regan Secondary School Sophomores to the twelfth. This is a signal, Leonard, from you to us, and it’s signalling, S-O-S, S-O-S.”
“We thought you were on drugs,” his father said, absolutely calm. “We actually tested a hair follicle from your pillow. I had a guy follow you around. Near as I can tell, you smoke a little pot with your friends, but you don’t actually see your friends anymore, do you?”
“You tested my hair?”
His father made that go-on gesture of his, an old favorite of his. “And had you followed. Of course we did. We’re in charge of you. We’re responsible for you. We don’t own you, but if you screw up so bad that you end up spending the rest of your life as a bum, it’ll be down to us, and we’ll have to bail you out. You understand that, Leonard? We’re responsible for you, and we’ll do whatever we have to in order to make sure you don’t screw up your life.”
Leonard bit back a retort. The sinking feeling that had started with the crushing of his earwig had sunk as low as it would go. Now his palms were sweating, his heart was racing, and he had no idea what would come out of his mouth the next time we spoke.
“We used to call this an intervention, when I was your age,” the vice-principal said. He still looked like the real-estate agent he’d been before he switched to teaching, the last time the market had crashed. He was affable, inoffensive, his eyes wide and trustworthy. They called him Babyface Adams in the halls. But Leonard knew about salesmen, knew that no matter how friendly they appeared, they were always on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit. “And we’d do it for drug addicts. But I don’t think you’re addicted to drugs. I think you’re addicted to games.”
“Oh come on,” Leonard said. “There’s no such thing. I can show you the research papers. Game addiction? That’s just something they thought up to sell newspapers. Dad, come on, you don’t really believe this stuff, do you?”
His dad pointedly refused to meet his gaze, directing his attention to the Vice-Principal.
“Leonard, we know you’re a very smart young man, but no one is so smart as to never need help. I don’t want to argue definitions of addictions with you—”
“Because you’ll lose.” Leonard spat it out, surprising himself with the vehemence. Old Babyface smiled his affable, salesman’s smile: Oh yes, good sir, you’re certainly right there, very clever of you. Now, may I show you something in a mock-Tudor split-level with a three-car garage and an above-ground pool?
“You’re a very smart young man, Leonard. It doesn’t matter if you’re medically addicted, psychologically dependent, or just—” he waved his hands, looking for the right words—” or if you just spend too darn much time playing games and not enough time in the real world. None of that matters. What matters is that you’re in trouble. And we’re going to help you with that. Because we care about you and we want to see you succeed.”
It suddenly sank in. Leonard knew how these things went. Somewhere, right now, Officer Turner was cleaning out his locker and loading its contents into a couple of paper Trader Joe’s grocery sacks. Somewhere, some secretary was taking his name off of the rolls of each of his classes. Right now, his mother was packing his suitcase back at home, filling it with three or four changes of clothes, a fresh toothbrush—and nothing else. When he left this room, he’d disappear from Orange County as thoroughly as if he’d been snatched off the street by serial killers.
Only it wouldn’t be his mutilated body that would surface in a few months time, decomposed and grisly, an object lesson to all the kiddies of John Wayne High to be on the alert for dangerous strangers. It would be his mutilated personality that would surface, a slack-jawed pod-person who’d been crammed into the happy-well-adjusted-citizen mold that would carry him through an adulthood as a good, trouble-free worker-bee in the hive.
“Dad, come on. You can’t just do this to me! I’m your son! I deserve a chance to pull my grades up, don’t I? Before you send me off to some brainwashing center?”
“You had your chance to pull your grades up, Leonard,” Ms Ramirez said, and the Vice-Principal nodded vigorously. “You’ve had all semester. If you plan on graduating and going on to university, this is the time to do something drastic to make sure that happens.”
“It’s time to go,” his father said, ostentatiously checking his watch. Honestly, who still wore a watch? He had a phone, Leonard knew, just like all normal people. An old-fashioned wind-up watch was about as useful in this day and age as an ear-trumpet or a suit of chain-mail. He had a whole case full of them—dozens of them. His father could have all the ridiculous affectations and hobbies he wanted, spend a small fortune on them, and no one wanted to send him off to the nuthouse.
It was so goddamned unfair. He wanted to shout it as they led him out to his father’s impeccable little Huawei Darter. He bought new one every year, getting a chunky discount straight from the factory, who loaded his personal car into its own container and craned it into one of Dad’s big ships in port in Guangzhou. The car smelled of the black licorice sweets that Dad sucked on, and of the giant steel thermos-cup of coffee that Dad slipped into the cup-holder every morning, refilling through the day at a bunch of diners where they called him by his first name and let him run a tab.
And outside the windows, through the subtle grey tint, the streets of Anaheim whipped past, rows of identical houses branching off of a huge, divided arterial eight-lane road. He’d known these streets all his life, he’d walked them, met the panhandlers that worked the tourist trade, the footsore Disney employees who’d missed the shuttle, hiking the mile to the cast-member parking, the retired weirdos walking their dogs, the other larval Orange County pod-people who were still too young or poor or unlucky to have a car.
The sky was that pure blue that you got in OC, no clouds, a postcard smiley-face sun nearly at noontime high, perfect for tourist shots. Leonard saw it all for the first time, really saw it, because he knew he was seeing it for the last time.
“It’s not so bad,” his dad said. “Stop acting like you’re going to prison. It’s a swanky boarding school, for chrissakes. And not one of those schools where they beat you down in the bathroom or anything. They’re practically hippies up there. Your mother and I aren’t sending you to the gulag, kid.”
“It doesn’t matter what you say, Dad. Just forget it. Here’s the facts: you’ve kidnapped me from my school and you’re sending me away to some place where they’re supposed to ’fix’ me. You haven’t given me any say in this. You haven’t consulted me. You can say how much you love me, how much it’s for my own good, talk and talk and talk, but it won’t change those facts. I’m sixteen years old, Dad. I’m as old as Zaidy Shmuel was when he married Bubbie and came to America, you know that?”
“That was during the war—”
“Who cares? He was your grandfather, and he was old enough to start a family. You can bet your ass he wouldn’t have stood still for being kidnapped—” His father snorted. “Kidnapped because his hobbies weren’t his parents’ idea of a good time. God! What the hell is the matter with you? I always knew you were kind of a prick, but—”
His father calmly steered the car to the curb and pulled over, changing three lanes smoothly, with a shoulder-check before each, weaving through the tourist traffic and gardeners’ pickup trucks without raising a single horn. He popped the emergency brake with one hand and his seatbelt with the other, twisting in his seat to bring his face right up to Leonard’s.
“You are on thin goddamned ice, kid. You can make me the villain if you want to, if you need to, but you know, somewhere in that hormone-addled teenaged brain of yours, that this was your doing. How many times, Leonard? How many times have we talked to you about balance, about keeping your grades up, taking a little time out of your game? How many chances did you get before this?”
Leonard laughed hotly. There were tears of rage behind his eyes, trying to get out. He swallowed hard. “Kidnapped,” he said. “Kidnapped and shipped away because you don’t think I’m getting good enough grades in math and English. Like any of it matters—when was the last time you solved a quadratic equation Dad? Who cares if I get into a good university? What am I going to get a degree in that will help me survive the next twenty years? What did you get your degree in, again, Dad? Oh, that’s right, Ancient Languages. Bet that comes up a lot when you’re shipping giant containers of plastic garbage from China, huh?”
His father shook his head. Behind them, cars were braking and honking at each other as they maneuvered around the stopped Huawei. “This isn’t about me, son. This is about you—about pissing away your life on some stupid game. At least speaking Latin helps me understand Spanish. What are you going to make of all your hours and years of killing dragons?”
Leonard fumed. He knew the answer to this, somewhere. The games were taking over the world. There was money to be made there. He was learning to work on teams. All this and more, these were the reasons for playing, and none of them were as important as the most important reason: it just felt right, adventuring in-world—
There was a particularly loud shriek of brakes from behind them, and it kept coming, getting louder and louder, and there was a blare of horns, too, and the sound didn’t stop, got louder than you could have imagined it getting. He turned his head to look over his shoulder and—
The car seemed to leap into the air, rising up first on its front tires in a reverse-wheelie and then the front wheels spun and the car shot forward ten yards in a second. There was the sound of crumpling metal, his father’s curse, and then a clang like temple bells as his head bounced off the dashboard. The world went dark.
Mala was in the world with a small raiding party, just a few of her army. It was late—after midnight—and Mrs Dibyendu had turned the cafe over to her idiot nephew to run things. These days, the cafe stayed open when Mala and her army wanted to use it, day or night, and there were always soldiers who’d vie for the honor of escorting General Robotwallah home afterwards. Mamaji—Mamaji had a new fine flat, with two complete rooms, and one of them was all for Mamaji alone, hers to sleep in without the snuffling and gruffling of her two children. There were places in Dharavi where ten or fifteen might have shared that room, sleeping on coats—or each other. Mamaji had a mattress, brought to her by a strong young man from Chor Bazaar, carried with him on the roof of the Marine Line train through the rush hour heat and press of bodies.
Mamaji didn’t complain when Mala played after midnight.
“More, just there,” Sushant said. He was two years older than her, the tallest of them all, with short hair and a crazy smile that reminded her of the face of a dog that has had its stomach rubbed into ecstasy.
And there they were, three mecha in a triangle, methodically clubbing zombies in the head, spattering their rotten brains and dropping them into increasing piles. Eventually, the game would send out ghouls to drag away the bodies, but for now, they piled waist deep around the level one mechas.
“I have them,” Yasmin said, her scopes locking on. This was a new kind of mission for them, wiping out these little trios of mecha who were grinding endlessly against the zombies. Mr Banerjee had tasked them to this after the more aggressive warriors had been hunted to extinction by their army. According to Mr Banerjee, these were each played by a single person, someone who was getting paid to level up basic mecha to level four or five, to be sold at auction to rich players. Always in threes, always grinding the zombies, always in this part of the world, like vermin.
“Fire,” she said, and the pulse weapons fired concentric rings of force into the trio. They froze, systems cooked, and as Mala watched, the zombies swarmed over the mechas, toppling them, working relentlessly at them, until they had found their way inside. A red mist fountained into the sky as they dismembered the pilots.
“Nice one,” she said, arching her back over her chair, slurping the dregs of a cup of chai that had grown cold at her side. Mrs Dibyendu’s idiot nephew was standing barefoot in the doorway of the cafe, spitting betel into the street, the sweet smell wafting back to her. The sleep was gathering in her mind, waiting to pounce on her, so it was time to go. She turned to tell her army so when her headphones filled with the thunder of incoming mechas, and lots of them.
She slammed her bottom down into the seat and spun around, fingers flying to the keyboard, eyes on the screen. The enemy mecha were coming in locked in a megamecha configurations, fifteen—no twenty—of them joined together to form a bot so huge that she looked like a gnat next to it.
“To me!” she cried, and “Formation,” and her soldiers came to their keyboard, her army initiating their own megamecha sequence, but it took too long and there weren’t enough of them, and though they fought bravely, the giant enemy craft tore them to pieces, lifting each warbot and peering inside its cowl as it ripped open the armor and dropped the squirming pilot to the surging zombie tide at its feet. Too late, Mala remembered her strategy, remembered what it had been like when she had always commanded the weaker force, the defensive footing she should have put her army on as soon as she saw how she was outmatched.
Too late. An instant later, her own mecha was in the enemy’s clutches, lifted to its face, and as she neared it, the lights on her console changed and a soft klaxon sounded: the bot was attempting to infiltrate her own craft’s systems, to interface with them, to pwn them. That was another game within this game, the hack-and-be-hacked game, and she was very good at it. It involved solving a series of logic puzzles, solving them faster than the foe, and she clicked and typed as she figured out how to build a bridge using blocks of irregular size, as she figured out how to open a lock whose tumblers had to be clicked just so to make the mechanism work, as she figured out—
She wasn’t fast enough. Her army gathered around her as her console locked up, the enemy inside her mecha now, running it from bootloader to flamethrower.
“Hello,” a voice said in her headphones. That was something you could do, when you controlled another player’s armor—you could take over its comms. She thought of yanking out the headphones and switching to speaker so that her army could listen in too, but some premonition stayed her hand. This enemy had gone to some trouble to talk to her, personally, so she would hear what it had to say.
“My name is Big Sister Nor,” she said, and it was a she, a woman’s voice, no, a girl’s voice—maybe something in between. Her Hindi was strangely accented, like the Chinese actors in the filmi shows she’d seen. “It’s been a pleasure to fight you. Your guild did very well. Of course, we did better.” Mala heard a ragged cheer and realized that there were dozens of enemies on the chat channel, all listening in. What she had mistaken for static on the channel was, in fact, dozens of enemies, somewhere in the world, all breathing into their microphones as this woman spoke.
“You are very good players,” Mala said, whispering it so that only her mic heard.
“I’m not just a player, and neither are you, my dear.” There was something sisterly in that voice, none of the gloating competitiveness that Mala felt for the players she’d bested in the game before. In spite of herself, Mala found she was smiling a little. She rocked her chin from side to side—Oh, you’re a clever one, do go on—and her soldiers around her made the same gesture.
“I know why you fight. You think you’re doing an honest job of work, but have you ever stopped to consider why someone would pay you to attack other workers in the game?”
Mala shooed away her army, making a pointed gesture toward the door. When she was alone, she said, “Because they muck up the game for the real players. They interfere.”
The giant mecha shook its head slowly. “Are you really so blind? Do you think the syndicate that pays you does so because they care about whether the game is fun? Oh, dear.”
Mala’s mind whirred. It was like solving one of those puzzles. Of course Mr Banerjee didn’t care about the other players. Of course he didn’t work for the game. If he worked for the game, he could just suspend the accounts of the players Mala fought. Cleaner and neater. The solution loomed in her mind’s eye. “They’re business rivals, then?”
“Oh yes, you are as clever as I thought you must be. Yes indeed. They are business rivals. Somewhere, there is a group of players just like them, being paid to level up mecha, or farm gold, or acquire land, or do any of the other things that can turn labor into money. And who do you suppose the money goes to?”
“To my boss,” she said. “And his bosses. That’s how it goes.” Everyone worked for someone.
“Does that sound fair to you?”
“Why not?” Mala said. “You work, you make something or do something, and the person you do it for pays you something for your work. That’s the world, that’s how it works.”
“What does the person who pays you do to earn his piece of your labor?”
Mala thought. “He figures out how to turn the labor into money. He pays me for what I do. These are stupid questions, you know.”
“I know,” Big Sister Nor said. “It’s the stupid questions that have some of the most surprising and interesting answers. Most people never think to ask the stupid questions. Do you know what a union is?”
Mala thought. There were unions all over Mumbai, but none in Dharavi. She’d heard many people speak of them, though. “A group of workers,” she said. “Who make their bosses pay them more.” She thought about all she’d heard. “They stop other workers from taking their jobs. They go on strike.”
“That’s what unions do, all right. But it’s not much of a sense of what they are. Tell me this: if you went to your boss and asked for more money, shorter hours, and better working conditions, what do you think he’d say?”
“He’d laugh at me an send me away,” Mala said. It was an unbelievably stupid question.
“You’re almost certainly right. But what if all the workers he went to said the same thing? What if, everywhere he went, there were workers saying, ’We are worth so much,’ and ’We will not be treated this way,’ and ’You cannot take away our jobs unless there is a just reason for doing so’? What if all workers, everywhere, demanded this treatment?”
Mala found she was shaking her head. “It’s a ridiculous idea. There’s always someone poor who’ll take the job. It doesn’t matter. It won’t work.” She found that she was furious. “Stupid!”
“I admit that it’s all rather improbable,” the woman said, and there was an unmistakable tone of amusement in her voice. “But think for a moment about your employer. Do you know where his employers are? Do you know where the players you’re fighting are? Where their customers are? Do you know where I am?”
“I don’t see why that matters—”
“Oh, it matters. It matters because although all these people are all over the world, there’s no real distance between them. We chat here like neighbors, but I am in Singapore, and you are in India. Where? Delhi? Kolkata? Mumbai?”
“Mumbai,” she admitted.
“You don’t sound like Mumbai,” she said. “You have a lovely accent. Uttar Pradesh?”
Mala was surprised to hear the state of her birth and her village guessed so easily. “Yes,” she said. She was a girl from the village, she was General Robotwallah and this woman had taken the measure of her very quickly.
“This game is headquartered in America, in a city called Atlanta. The corporation is registered in Cyprus, in Europe. The players are all over the world. These ones that you’ve been fighting are in Vietnam. We’d been having a lovely conversation before you came and blew them all to pieces. We are everywhere, but we are all here. Anyone your boss ever hired to do your job would end up here, and we could find that worker and talk to them. Wherever you boss goes, his workers will all come and work here. And we will have a chat like this with them, and talk to them about what a world we could have, if all workers cooperated to protect each others’ interests.”
Mala was still shaking her head. “They’d just blow you away. Hire an army like me. It’s a stupid idea.”
The giant metamecha lifted her up to its face, where its giant teeth champed and clanged. “Do you think there’s an army that could best us?”
Mala thought that maybe her army could, if they were in force, if they were prepared. Then she thought of how much successful war you’d have to persecute to win one of these giant beasts. “Maybe not. Maybe you can do what you say you can do.” She thought some more. “But in the meantime, we wouldn’t have any work.”
The giant metal face nodded. “Yes, that’s true. At first you may not find yourself with your wages. And maybe your fellow workers would contribute a little to help you out. That’s another thing unions do—it’s called strike pay. But eventually, you, and me, and all of us, would enjoy a world where we are paid a living wage, and where we labor under livable conditions, and where our workplaces are fair and decent. Isn’t that worth a little sacrifice?”
There it was, “You ask me to make a sacrifice. Why should I sacrifice? We are poor. We fight for a very little, because we have even less. Why do you think that we should sacrifice? Why don’t you sacrifice?”
“Oh, sister, we’ve all sacrificed. I understand that this is all very new to you, and that it will take some getting used to. I’m sure we’ll see each other again, someday. After all, we all play in the same world here, don’t we?”
Mala realized that the breathing she’d heard, the other voices on the chat channel, had all fallen silent. For a short time, it had just been Mala and this woman who called her “sister.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m Nor-Ayu,” she said. “But they call me ’Big Sister Nor.’ All over the world, they call me this. What do I call you?”
Mala’s name was on the tip of her tongue, but she did not say it. Instead, she said, “General Robotwallah.”
“A very good name,” Big Sister Nor said. “It was my pleasure to meet you.” With that, the giant mecha dropped her and turned and lumbered away, crushing zombies under its feet.
Mala stood up and felt the many pops and snaps of her spine and muscles. She had been sitting for, oh, hours and hours.
She rolled her head from side to side on her neck, working out the stiffness there and she saw Mrs Dibyendu’s idiot nephew watching her. His lip was pouched with reeking betel saliva, and he was staring at her with a frankness that made her squirm right to the pit of her stomach.
“You stayed behind for me,” he said, a huge grin on his face. His teeth were brown. He wasn’t really an idiot—not soft in the head, anyway. But he was very thick and very slow, with a brutal strength that Mrs Dibyendu always described as his “special fortitude.” Mala thought he was just a thug. She’d seen him walking in the narrow streets of Dharavi. He never shifted for women or old people, making them go around him even when it meant stepping into mud or worse. And he chewed betel all the time. Lots of people chewed betel, it was like smoking, but her mother detested the habit and had told her so many times that it was a “low” habit and dirty that she couldn’t help but think less of betel chewers.
He regarded her with his bloodshot eyes. She suddenly felt very vulnerable, the way she’d felt all the time, when they’d first come to Dharavi. She took a step to the right and he took a step to the right as well. That was a line crossed: once he blocked her exit, he’d announced his intention to hurt her. That was basic military strategy. He had made the first move, so he had the initiative, but he’d also showed his hand quickly, so—
She feinted left and he fell for it. She lowered her head like a bull and butted it into the middle of his chest. Already off-balance, he went down on his back. She didn’t stop moving, didn’t look back, just kept going, thinking of that charging bull, running over him as she made for the doorway without stopping. One heel came down on his ribcage, the next on his face, mashing his lips and nose. She wished that something had gone crunch but nothing did.
She was out the door in an instant and into the cool air of the dark, dark Dharavi night. Around her, the sound of rats running over the roofs, the distant sounds of the roads, snoring. And many other, less identifiable sounds, sounds that might have been lurkers hiding in the shadows around them. Muffled speech. A distant train.
Suddenly, sending her army away didn’t seem like such a good idea.
Behind her, she heard a much clearer sound of menace. The idiot nephew crashing through the door, his shoes on the packed earth road. She slipped back into an alley between two buildings, barely wider than her, her feet splashing through some kind of warm liquid that wafted an evil stench up to her nose. The idiot nephew lumbered past into the night. She stayed put. He lumbered back, looking in all directions for her.
There she stood, waiting for him to give up, but he would not. Back and forth he charged. He’d become the bull, enraged, tireless, stupid. She heard his voice rasping in his chest. She had her mobile phone in her hand, her other hand cupped over it, shielding the treacherous light it gave off from its tiny screen. It was 12:47 now, and she had never been alone at this hour in all her 14 years.
She could text someone in her army—they would come to get her, wouldn’t they? If they were awake, or if their phones’ chirps woke them. No one was awake at this hour, though. And how to explain? What to say?
She felt like an idiot. She felt ashamed. She should have predicted this, should have been the general, should have employed strategy. Instead, she’d gotten boxed in.
She could wait. All night, if necessary. No need to let her army know of her weakness. Idiot nephew would tire or the sun would rise, it was all the same to her.
Through the thin walls of the houses on either side of her, the sound of snoring. The evil smell rose up from the liquid below her in the ditch, and something slimy was squishing between her toes. It burned at her skin. The rats scampered overhead, sounding like rain on the tin roofs. Stupid, stupid, stupid, it was her mantra, over and over in her mind.
The bull was tiring. The next time he passed, his breath came in terrible wheezes that blew the stink of betel before him like sweet rot. She could wait for his next pass, then run.
It was a good plan. She hated it. He had—He’d threatened her. He’d scared her. He should pay. She was the General Robotwallah, not merely some girl from the village. She was from Dharavi, tough. Smart.
He wheezed past and she slipped out of the alley, her feet coming free of the muck with audible plops. He was facing away from her still, hadn’t heard her yet, and he had his back to her. The stupid boys in her army only fought face to face, talked about the “honor” of hitting from behind. Honor was just stupid boy-things. Victory beat honor.
She braced herself and ran toward him, both arms stiff, hands at shoulder-height. She hit him high and kept moving, the way he had before, and down he fell again, totally unprepared for the assault from the rear. The sound he made on the dirt was like the sound of a goat dropping at the butcher’s block. He was trying to roll over and she turned around and ran at him, jumping up in the air and landing with both muddy feet on his head, driving his face into the mud. He shouted in pain, the sound muffled by the dirt, and then lay, stunned.
She went back to him then, and knelt at his head, his hairy earlobe inches from her lips.
“I wasn’t waiting for you at the cafe. I was minding my own business,” she said. “I don’t like you. You shouldn’t chase girls or the girls might turn around and catch you. Do you understand me? Tell me you understand me before I rip out your tongue and wipe your ass with it.” They talked like this on the chat-channels for the games all the time, the boys did, and she’d always disapproved of it. But the words had power, she could feel it in her mouth, hot as blood from a bit tongue.
“Tell me you understand me, idiot!” she hissed.
“I understand,” he said, and the words came mashed, from mashed lips and a mashed nose.
She turned on her heel and began to walk away. He groaned behind her, then called out, “Whore! Stupid whore!”
She didn’t think, she just acted. Turned around, ran at his still-prone body, indistinct in the dusk, one step, two step, like a champion footballer coming in for a penalty kick and then she did kick him, the foetid water spraying off her shoe’s saturated toe as it connected with his big, stupid ribcage. Something snapped in there—maybe several somethings, and oh, didn’t that feel wonderful?
He was every man who’d scared her, who’d shouted filthy things after her, who’d terrorized her mother. He was the bus driver who’d threatened to put them out on the roadside when they wouldn’t pay him a bribe. Everything and everyone that had ever made her feel small and afraid, a girl from the village. All of them.
She turned around. He was clutching at his side and blubbering now, crying stupid tears on his stupid cheeks, luminous in the smudgy moonlight that filtered through the haze of plastic smoke that hung over Dharavi. She would up and took another pass at him, one step, two step, kick, and crunch, that satisfying sound from his ribs again. His sobs caught in his chest and then he took a huge, shuddering breath and howled like a wounded cat in the night, screamed so loud that here in Dharavi, the lights came on and voices came to the windows.
It was as though a spell had been broken. She was shaking and drenched in sweat, and there were people peering at her in the dark. Suddenly she wanted to be home as fast as possible, if not faster. Time to go.
She ran. Mala had loved to run through the fields as a little girl, hair flying behind her, knees and arms pumping, down the dirt roads. Now she ran in the night, the reek of the ditch water smacking her in the nose with each squelching step. Voices chased her through the night, though they came filtered through the hammer of her pulse in her ears and later she could not say whether they were real or imagined.
But finally she was home and pelting up the steps to the third-floor flat she had rented for her family. Her thundering footsteps raised cries from the downstairs neighbors, but she ignored them, fumbled with her key, let herself in.
Her brother Gopal looked up at her from his mat, blinking in the dark, his skinny chest bare. “Mala?”
“It’s OK,” she said. “Nothing. Sleep, Gopal.”
He slumped back down. Mala’s shoes stank. She peeled them off, using just the tips of her fingers, and left them outside the door. Perhaps they would be stolen—though you would have to be desperate indeed to steal those shoes. Now her feet stank. There was a large jug of water in the corner, and a dipper. Carefully, she carried the dipper to the window, opened the squealing shutter, and poured the water slowly over the her feet, propping first one and then the other on the windowsill. Gopal stirred again. “Be quiet,” he said, “it’s sleep-time.”
She ignored him. She was still out of breath, and the reality of what she’d done was setting in for her. She had kicked the idiot nephew—how many times? Two? Three? And something in his body had gone crack each time. Why had he blocked her? Why had he followed her into the night? What was it that made the big and the strong take such sport in terrorizing the weak? Whole groups of boys would do this to girls and even grown women sometimes—follow them, calling after them, touching them, sometimes it even led to rape. They called it “Eve-teasing” and they treated it like a game. It wasn’t a game, not if you were the victim.
Why did they make her do it? Why did all of them make her do it? The sound of the crack had been so satisfying then, and it was so sickening now. She was shaking, though the night was so hot, one of those steaming nights where everything was slimy with the low-hanging, soupy moisture.
And she was crying, too, the crying coming out without her being able to control it, and she was ashamed of that, too, because that’s what a girl from the village would do, not brave General Robotwallah.
Calloused hands touched her shoulders, squeezed them. The smell of her mother in her nose: clean sweat, cooking spice, soap. Strong, thin arms encircled her from behind.
“Daughter, oh daughter, what happened to you?”
And she wanted to tell Mamaji everything, but all that came out were cries. She turned her head to her mother’s bosom and heaved with the sobs that came and came and came in waves, feeling like they’d turn her inside out. Gopal got up and moved into the next room, silent and scared. She noticed this, noticed all of it as from a great distance, her body sobbing, her mind away somewhere, cool and remote.
“Mamaji,” she said at last. “There was a boy.”
Her mother squeezed her harder. “Oh, Mala, sweet girl—”
“No, Mamaji, he didn’t touch me. He tried to. I knocked him down. Twice. And I kicked him and kicked him until I heard things breaking, and then I ran home.”
“Mala!” her mother held her at arm’s length. “Who was he?” Meaning, Was he someone who can come after us, who can make trouble for us, who could ruin us here in Dharavi?
“He was Mrs Dibyendu’s nephew, the big one, the one who makes trouble all the time.”
Her mothers fingers tightened on her arms and her eyes went wide.
“Oh, Mala, Mala—oh, no.”
And Mala knew exactly what her mother meant by this, why she was consumed with horror. Her relationship with Mr Banerjee came from Mrs Dibyendu. And the flat, their lives, the phone and the clothes they wore—they all came from Mr Banerjee. They balanced on a shaky pillar of relationships, and Mrs Dibyendu was at the bottom of it, all resting on her shoulders. And the idiot nephew could convince her to shrug her shoulders and all would come tumbling down—the money, the security, all of it.
That was the biggest injustice of all, the injustice that had driven her to kick and kick and kick—this oaf of a boy knew that he could get away with his grabbing and intimidation because she couldn’t afford to stop him. But she had stopped him and she could not—would not—be sorry.
“I can talk with Mr Banerjee,” she said. “I have his phone number. He knows that I’m a good worker—he’ll make it all better. You’ll see, Mamaji, don’t worry.”
“Why, Mala, why? Couldn’t you have just run away? Why did you have to hurt this boy?”
Mala felt some of the anger flood back into her. Her mother, her own mother—
But she understood. Her mother wanted to protect her, but her mother wasn’t a general. She was just a girl from the village, all grown up. She had been beaten down by too many boys and men, too much hurt and poverty and fear. This was what Mala was destined to become, someone who ran from her attackers because she couldn’t afford to anger them.
She wouldn’t do it.
No matter what happened with Mr Banerjee and Mrs Dibyendu and her stupid idiot nephew, she was not going to become that person.
If you want to get rich without making anything or doing anything that anyone needs or wants, you need to be fast.
The technical term for this is arbitrage. Imagine that you live in an apartment block and it’s snowing so hard out that no one wants to dash out to the convenience store. Your neighbor to the right, Mrs Hungry, wants a banana and she’s willing to pay $0.50 for it. Your neighbor to the left, Mr Full, has a whole cupboard full of bananas, but he’s having a hard time paying his phone bill this month, so he’ll sell as many bananas as you want to buy for $0.30 apiece.
You might think that the neighborly thing to do here would be to call up Mrs Hungry and tell her about Mr Full, letting them consummate the deal. If you think that, forget getting rich without doing useful work.
If you’re an arbitrageur, then you think of your neighbors’ regrettable ignorance as an opportunity. You snap up all of Mr Full’s bananas, then scurry over to Mrs Hungry’s place with your hand out. For every banana she buys, you pocket $0.20. This is called arbitrage.
Arbitrage is a high-risk way to earn a living. What happens if Mrs Hungry changes her mind? You’re stuck holding the bananas, that’s what.
Or what happens if some other arbitrageur beats you to Mrs Hungry’s door, filling her apartment with all the bananas she could ever need? Once again, you’re stuck with a bunch of bananas and nowhere to put them (though a few choice orifices do suggest themselves here).
In the real world, arbitrageurs don’t drag around bananas—they buy and sell using networked computers, surveying all the outstanding orders (“bids”) and asks, and when they find someone willing to pay more for something than someone else is paying for it, they snap up that underpriced item, mark it up, and sell it.
And this happens very, very quickly. If you’re going to beat the other arbitrageurs with the goods, if you’re going to get there before the buyer changes her mind, you’ve got to move faster than the speed of thought. Literally. Arbitrage isn’t a matter of a human being vigilantly watching the screens for price-differences.
No, arbitrage is all done by automated systems. These little traderbots rove the world’s networked marketplaces, looking for arbitrage opportunities, buying something and selling it in less than a microsecond. A good arbitrage house conducts a billion or more trades every day, squeezing a few cents out of each one. A billion times a few cents is a lot of money—if you’ve got a fast computer cluster, a good software engineer, and a blazing network connection, you can turn out ten or twenty million dollars a day.
Not bad, considering that all you’re doing is exploiting the fact that there’s a person over here who wants to buy something and a person over there who wants to sell it. Not bad, considering that if you and all your arbitraging buddies were to vanish tomorrow, the economy and the world wouldn’t even notice. No one needs or wants your “service” but it’s still a sweet way to get rich.
The best thing about arbitrage is that you don’t need to know a single, solitary thing about the stuff you’re buying and selling in order to get rich off of it. Whether it’s bananas or a vorpal blade, all you need to know about the things you’re buying is that someone over here wants to buy them for more than someone over there wants to sell them for. Good thing, too—if you’re closing the deal in less than a microsecond, there’s no time to sit down and google up a bunch of factoids about the merchandise.
And the merchandise is pretty weird. Start with the fact that a lot of this stuff doesn’t even exist—vorpal blades, grabthar’s hammers, the gold of a thousand imaginary lands.
Now consider that people trade more than gold: the game Gods sell all kinds of funny money. How about this one:
Offered: Svartalfaheim Warriors bonds, worth 100,000 gold, payable six months from now. This isn’t even real fake gold—it’s the promise of real fake gold at some time in the future. Stick that into the market for a couple months, baby, and watch it go. Here’s a trader who’ll pay five percent more than it was worth yesterday—he’s betting that the game will get more popular some time between now and six months from now, and so the value of goods in the game will go up at the same time.
Or maybe he’s betting that the game Gods will just raise the price on everything and make it harder to clobber enough monsters to raise the gold to get it, driving away all but the hardest-core players, who’ll pay anything to get their hands on the dough.
Or maybe he’s an idiot.
Or maybe he thinks you’re an idiot and you’ll give him ten percent tomorrow, figuring that he knows something you don’t.
And if you think that’s weird, here’s an even better one!
Coca-Cola sells you a six-month Svartalfaheim Warriors 100,000 gold bond, but you’re worried that it’s going to fall in value between now and D-Day, when the bond matures. So you find another trader and you ask him for some insurance: you offer him $1.50 to insure your bond. If the bond goes up in value, he gets to keep the $1.50 and you get to keep the profits from the bond. If the bond goes down in value, he has to pay you the difference. If that’s more than $1.50, he’s losing money.
This is basically an insurance policy. If you go to a life-insurance company and ask them for a policy on your life, they’ll make a bet on how likely it is that you’re going to croak, and charge you enough that, on average, they make a profit (providing they’re guessing accurately at your chances of dying). So if the trader you’re talking to thinks that Svartalfaheim Warriors is going to tank, he might charge you $10, or $100.
So far, so good, right?
Now, here’s where it gets even weirder. Follow along.
Imagine that there’s a third party to this transaction, some guy sitting on the sidelines, holding onto a pot of money, trying to figure out what to do with it. He watches you go to the trader and buy an insurance policy for $1.50—if Svartalfaheim Warriors gets better, you’re out $1.50, if it gets worse, the trader has to make up the difference.
After you’ve sealed your deal, this third party, being something of a ghoul, goes up to the same trader and says, “Hey, how about this? I want to place the same bet you’ve just placed with that guy. I’ll give you $1.50 and if his bond goes up, you keep it. If his bond goes down, you pay me and him the difference.” Essentially, this guy is betting that your bond is junk, and so maybe he finds a taker.
Now he’s got this bet, which is worth nothing if your bond goes up, and worth some unknown amount if your bond craters. And you know what he does with it?
He sells it.
He packages it up and finds some sucker who wants to buy his $1.50 bet on your bond for more than the $1.50 he’ll have to cough up if your bond goes up. And the sucker buys it and then he sells it. And then another sucker buys it and he sells it. And before you know it, the 100,000 gold-piece bond you bought for $15 has $1,000 worth of bets hanging off of it.
And this is the kind of thing an arbitrageur is buying and selling. He’s not carrying bananas from Mr Full to Mrs Hungry—he’s buying and selling bets on insurance policies on promises of imaginary gold.
And this is what he calls an honest day’s work.
Nice work if you can get it.