Mimi is drowning in the world’s trash.
She’s a waste worker on Silicon Isle, where electronics—from cell phones and laptops to bots and bionic limbs—are sent to be recycled. These amass in towering heaps, polluting every spare inch of land. On this island off the coast of China, the fruits of capitalism and consumer culture come to a toxic end. Mimi and thousands of migrant waste workers like her are lured to Silicon Isle with the promise of steady work and a better life. They’re the lifeblood of the island’s economy, but are at the mercy of those in power…
A storm is brewing, between ruthless local gangs, warring for control. Ecoterrorists, set on toppling the status quo. American investors, hungry for profit. And a Chinese-American interpreter, searching for his roots.
As these forces collide, a war erupts—between the rich and the poor; between tradition and modern ambition; between humanity’s past and its future.
Mimi, and others like her, must decide if they will remain pawns in this war or change the rules of the game altogether.
Award-winning author Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide is a thought-provoking vision of the future. Translated by Ken Liu, Waste Tide is available for the first time in English on April 30th, publishing with Tor Books.
The fine, handcrafted wooden model of the junk at the center of the glass display case glistened with the reddish-brown varnish intended to give it an antique air. There was no holographic scene around it; instead, the background was a hand-drawn map of Silicon Isle—really a peninsula connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but everyone talked about it like a true island—and the sea around it. It was easy to tell that the mapmaker strained too hard to show the natural beauty of the local scenery, and the excessive application of colorful paint appeared unnatural.
“…this is the symbol of Silicon Isle, representing good harvest, prosperity, and harmony…”
Scott Brandle was fascinated by the model ship and only half paid attention to the guide’s patter. The color and texture of the model, especially the puffed sails seemingly full of wind, reminded him of the steamed lobsters served at the reception last night. He was no vegetarian, and he wasn’t a zealous supporter of the World Wide Fund for Nature either, but the fact that the plate held a third claw and that the lobster’s carapace had apparently been carefully patched had made him suspicious. The thought that the “wild lobster” with an extra limb might have been raised in the sea farms nearby had taken away his appetite, leaving him to stare as the Chinese officials gorged themselves.
“Mr. Scott, what would you like to study tomorrow?” Director Lin Yiyu, already drunk, asked him in the local topolect.
Chen Kaizong (a.k.a. Caesar Chen), Brandle’s assistant, did not correct Lin’s confusion of his boss’s given name and surname, but translated what he said literally.
“I want to understand Silicon Isle better.” Although Scott had been drinking some baijiu—the strong distilled spirit unavoidable at Chinese social functions—he remained fairly sober. He omitted “the real” from his request.
“Good, good.” Director Lin, his face red from baijiu, turned and said something to the other officials. Everyone laughed uproariously. Kaizong did not translate right away. After a while, he said to Scott, “Director Lin says that he will be sure to satisfy your wish.”
They’d already spent more than two hours in the overly air-conditioned Museum of Silicon Isle History, and the visit didn’t seem to be nearing its end. Without a pause in his torrent of heavily accented English, the museum guide had taken them through all the brightly lit exhibit halls. Using ancient poetry, government correspondence, restored photographs, re-created tools and artifacts, faux documentaries, and dioramas made with plastic mannequins, the guide had presented Silicon Isle’s thousand-year-long history dating back to the ninth century.
However, the museum’s exhibits fell short of the designers’ ideals. The intent might have been to showcase how Silicon Isle had progressed from fishing and farming into the modern industrial age and thence into the information age, but all Scott saw were rooms full of boring artifacts accompanied by droning propaganda. The hypnotic effect was about on par with his memory of his drill sergeant’s speeches during basic training.
But the interpreter, Chen Kaizong, was fascinated by the presentation, as though he were completely unfamiliar with Silicon Isle. Scott noticed that since the moment Kaizong set foot on this patch of land, the earlier indifference that had seemed too precocious in the young man had been replaced by a pride and curiosity that felt more natural for a young man of twenty-one.
“…wonderful… unbelievable…” Periodically, the expressionless Scott dispensed a word of praise like a robot.
Director Lin nodded appreciatively. The smile on his face resembled those found on the plastic mannequins, and his striped shirt was tucked into his dress pants. Unlike the other officials, he still had a thin waist. What he lost in presence, he gained in the impression of efficiency. Standing next to Scott, who was almost six foot three, Lin Yiyu resembled a walking stick.
And yet, this man could make Scott suffer without being able to say a thing, like a mute man forced to swallow bitter herbs.
He says one thing and thinks another, Scott thought. Only now did he finally understand what Director Lin had meant last night. Before he came to China, he had purchased a copy of The Ignoramus’s Guide to China, which offered this pearl of wisdom: “The Chinese rarely say what they mean.” He had added the annotation: “And how is this different from Americans?”
Perhaps the officials present at the reception banquet last night had been told to be there—none of the real decision makers had shown up. Measured by the amount of baijiu consumed, those officials had accomplished (or even exceeded) their assigned tasks of creating a jolly atmosphere at the reception. Based on Director Lin’s lack of genuine cooperation, Scott was certain that his research trip for TerraGreen Recycling Co., Ltd., would not go smoothly.
The key personnel from the three main clans of Silicon Isle were never going to show up. The best that Scott could hope for was to take a tour of some carefully prepared model street and Potemkin village factory, eat some tasty, refined dim sum, and carry a pile of souvenirs onto the plane back to San Francisco.
But wasn’t that why TerraGreen Recycling had sent Scott Brandle instead of someone else? A smile softened Scott’s angular features. From Ghana to the Philippines—other than that accident in Ahmedabad— he had never failed. Silicon Isle would be no exception.
“Tell him that we’re going to Xialong Village this afternoon,” Scott leaned down and whispered to Kaizong. “Make him.”
Then he pursed his lips and put on a careless smile as he glanced around. Kaizong understood that his boss meant business and began a rapid exchange with Director Lin.
The museum was too bright, too clean, just like the whitewashed and rewritten history it tried to present, just like the version of Silicon Isle that the natives tried to show outsiders. It was infused with a false, shallow technological optimism. In this building, there was no Basel Convention, no dioxins and furans, no acid fog, no water whose lead content exceeded the safe threshold by 2,400 times, no soil whose chromium concentration exceeded the EPA limit by 1,338 times, and of course nothing about the men and women who had to drink this water and sleep on this soil.
All history is contemporary history, he recalled Chen Kaizong saying when he had interviewed him.
Scott shook his head. The voices of Director Lin and Kaizong, straining to maintain a façade of friendliness but unable to come to agreement, grew louder. If they were speaking Mandarin, perhaps he could converse with Lin using the help of translation software, but they were using the ancient Silicon Isle topolect, with eight tones and exceedingly complex tone sandhi rules. He had no choice but to rely on the special talent of his assistant, whose linguistic heritage was the main reason that the history major fresh out of Boston University had been hired.
“Tell him: if he has objections”—Scott’s eyes fell on a group portrait, and he tried valiantly to pick out anyone who had appeared in the documents he had reviewed before the trip; here in this restricted-bitrate zone, he was deprived of access to remote databases, and the Chinese faces all looked the same to him—“we’ll have Minister Guo speak to him directly.”
Minister Guo Qidao belonged to the Provincial Department of Ecology and Environment and was slated to become the next Deputy Minister for the National Ministry of Ecology and Environment. He had most likely been the one to draw up the short list of companies to bid for the project.
A fox can sometimes invoke the name of a tiger to get things done. Another trick from The Ignoramus’s Guide to China.
The argument ceased. Director Lin, who had assumed a posture of defeat, appeared even thinner and smaller. He rubbed his hands together. Compared to the threat of Minister Guo, he seemed to worry more about not being able to accomplish his assigned task. But Scott had left him no way out. Lin strained to put on a smile, cleared his throat, and then walked toward the exit.
“Mission accomplished. But we’re going to eat first.” Kaizong’s wide, entitled smile was just what you’d expect from someone who had graduated from an expensive school on the East Coast.
Let’s hope that we don’t encounter any more dangerous dishes like the “wild lobsters,” Scott thought to himself as he passed by the model of the junk. He was glad to leave this museum, freezing cold and full of falsehoods. The model junk seemed to him the perfect metaphor: a play on words was perhaps the sole remaining thread connecting the museum and this island of junk.
He put on the protective face mask from 3M, passed through the mist of condensation near the exit, and entered into the humid, bright tropical sunlight.
Instead of baijiu, the restaurant served beer, but the change didn’t put Scott at ease. This establishment seemed to respect health and hygiene even less than the one from last night. The private suite they were in was called “the Pine Room,” and the ancient air conditioner buzzed like a wasp nest that had been poked. Still, it was unable to eliminate the stench in the air. There was a large wet spot on the wall, looking like the terra incognita on some antique map. The table and chairs were relatively clean, or maybe it was just because the proprietor chose dark colors that didn’t show stains.
The food was brought out quickly. Excited, Kaizong introduced each dish to Scott, explaining the ingredients and methods of preparation. Kaizong was a bit surprised that he, who had left Silicon Isle as a child of seven, could still recall those tastes and flavors. Crossing the Pacific seemed to have also carried him back across a gulf of more than a dozen years.
Scott had no appetite, especially after he learned how duck liver, pig lung, cow tongue, goose intestines, and other organ meats had been prepared. He chose plain rice porridge and soup—choices that appeared to offer the least risk of accumulated heavy metals. He restrained the impulse to pull out the field testing kit. As a result of the network-access regulations, it was impossible to connect to remote encrypted databases from here, and thus impossible to determine the composition of food, air, water, soil, and the associated risks. And of course augmented-reality technology had no use here.
Director Lin seemed to detect his anxiety. He pointed to the electric rickshaws hauling water through the streets outside: “This restaurant belongs to the Luo clan. Even the water is hauled in from Huang Village, nine kilometers away.”
The Luo clan controlled 80 percent of Silicon Isle’s high-end restaurants and entertainment venues. The clan’s economic power was based on the largest collection of e-waste-dismantling workshops on the island, including those at Xialong Village, which they intended to visit this afternoon. The power of the Luo clan was such that they had their first pick of all waste containers passing through Kwai Tsing, and whatever was left was divided up between the other two big clans. A real-life example of the Matthew effect, the triumvirate of Luo, Chen, and Lin clans had in effect been reduced to reign by the Luo clan alone. It was even powerful enough to influence government policy.
Scott turned over Director Lin’s words in his head, trying to guess at the hidden meaning. Another bit of Chinese folk wisdom came unbidden to his mind: Once you’ve eaten someone’s food, it’s hard to raise your voice at him. Once you’ve accepted someone’s gift, it’s hard to lift your hand against him.
He was growing more and more annoyed at these Chinese tricks, as though he had to constantly decrypt everything that was said while the encryption key shifted unpredictably with the flow and context. He decided to remain silent.
“Come, come, let’s drink!” This was the best way to break an awkward silence at a meal. Director Lin lifted his foamy beer.
A few rounds later, Director Lin’s face was once again bright red. After the last time, Scott was more cautious. Although the Chinese also had a proverb that translated to in vino veritas, it didn’t seem to apply to Director Lin.
“Mr. Scott, please allow me to be frank.” Director Lin clapped Scott’s shoulder, his alcohol-laden breath in Scott’s face. “I’m not trying to hinder your investigation and research. I have my own difficulties. But please listen to a bit of advice: this project isn’t going to work out, and it’s best you leave here as quickly as possible.”
Kaizong finished translating and looked at Scott, a trace of annoyance in his expression.
“I totally understand. We serve different masters. Why don’t you also listen to a bit of advice from me? This project is going to be a win-win for everyone. There are no downsides. Anything can be discussed. If it succeeds, it will be a model project for Southeast China. This is an important step for China’s national recycling strategy. Your contribution will not be forgotten.”
“Ha!” Director Lin’s laughter had no mirth in it. He drained his glass. “Interesting. Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re here to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good. Mr. Scott, what kind of national strategy would you call that?”
The sharp retort from Lin stunned Scott. Apparently this man was more than the cowardly bureaucrat he had imagined. He carefully considered his response, struggling to inject sincerity into his words.
“The world is changing. Recycling is an emerging industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Maybe it’s even the way to control the fate of global manufacturing. Silicon Isle has a first-mover’s advantage here. Shifting gears is much easier for you than for developed countries, and you can act without the political and legal burdens they face. What you need is technology and modern management practices to increase efficiency and reduce pollution. Right now, both Southeast Asia and West Africa are hotspots where a lot of money and companies are going in, trying to secure themselves a seat at the table. But I can guarantee that the terms offered by TerraGreen Recycling are the best. We also never neglect to give back to those who help us…”
Scott emphasized “give back.” Images of those officials from the Philippines hinting for bribes flashed across his mind.
Director Lin did not think this American would be so direct, completely devoid of the typical empty buzzwords and insincere politeness he had come to expect. He hesitated, lifting his empty glass and setting it back down, and made a decision. “I’m glad that you’re so straight with me. Then I’ll put all my cards on the table, too. The issue here isn’t money, but trust. The natives don’t even trust the Chinese from outside the island, let alone Americans.”
“But Americans aren’t all the same. Just like all Chinese aren’t the same. I can tell you’re not like the rest.” Scott now used the trick that, he knew from experience, worked everywhere on the planet.
Director Lin stared at Scott, his jaundiced eyes filled with swollen blood vessels. He looked drunk but wasn’t. After a while, he harrumphed and said, “You’re wrong, Scott. All Chinese are the same. I’m no exception.”
Scott was surprised. This was the first time that Director Lin had called him “Scott” instead of “Mr. Scott.” But he was even more surprised by Lin’s next question.
“Do you have children? What’s your hometown like?”
In Scott’s limited—but not inconsiderable—experience of socializing with Chinese men, he had found that most would converse about international politics and global trends. Some would talk about business, and a few would bring up religion or hobbies. But never once had he encountered anyone who brought up his own family or asked about Scott’s. They were like natural-born diplomats: holding forth about the world and concerned with the fate of all peoples, but always omitting their own private lives as fathers, sons, husbands, or brothers from conversations with him.
“I have two daughters. One is seven, the other thirteen.” Scott took out his wallet and showed the creased photograph to Director Lin. “This picture is old; I never got around to changing it. I grew up in a small town in Texas. It’s a bit of a ghost town now, but back when times were good it was very pretty. Have you seen the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films? It’s a bit like that, but not so scary.” Scott laughed, and Kaizong joined him.
Director Lin shook his head and returned the pictures to Scott. “When they’re older they’ll break many hearts. I have only a son, thirteen, in middle school.”
A pause. Scott nodded, encouraging Lin to continue. Truth be told, he didn’t know where the conversation was going.
“The greatest hope cherished by the people of Silicon Isle is to see their children leave this place, the farther the better. We’re old and can’t shift from our familiar nests, but the young are different. They’re blank sheets of paper, full of potential for new pictures. This island has no hope. The air, the water, the soil, and the people have been immersed in trash for too long. Sometimes you can no longer even tell what’s trash and what’s not in our lives. We rely on waste to feed our families, to grow rich. But the more money we make, the worse the environment becomes. It’s like we are holding on to a rope looped around our necks. The harder we pull, the less we can breathe. But if we let go, we’ll fall into the bottomless pit below and drown.”
Instead of translating right away, Kaizong grew excited and began to argue with Director Lin in the local topolect. Director Lin kept on shaking his head.
“This is exactly why we came here,” Scott said. “My parents were just like you. They wanted me to leave home and go to a big city. But only after I’d been on my own for a while did I realize that responsibility is always there, on everyone’s shoulders. You can turn your face and pretend not to see certain things, or you can face them and change them. Everything depends on what kind of person you hope to be.”
What a lovely speech, suitable for a Hollywood film. Scott wasn’t counting on much support from Director Lin, but right now, right here, if he could avoid making an enemy, it was as good as making a friend.
“It’s too difficult.” Director Lin continued to shake his head. “I’ve read your proposal and your bid carefully. I don’t know enough to say anything about the technology, though I know that TerraGreen Recycling is a leader in recycling, and the environmental reclamation plan you came up with is attractive. However, there’s a big problem: your plan requires the thousands of workshops across the island to be eliminated, and future e-waste would be sorted, dismantled, and processed by you. Do you understand what this means to them?”
Scott understood who them referred to. The Luo, Lin, and Chen clans monopolized all the e-waste recycling and processing business on Silicon Isle: a yearly processing capacity of millions of tons and an economic output measured by billions of dollars. For a large industry like that to upgrade would result in a redistribution of profits, a process that was certain to be raw and bloody.
“Our plan would create tens of thousands of new, green jobs with full benefits. And due to TerraGreen Recycling’s superior technology, the processing would be far more efficient and reduce the losses currently experienced with manual dismantling and processing. Economic output would be increased by at least thirty percent. But most importantly, we will allocate special funds to help Silicon Isle in a comprehensive plan for environmental remediation. We’ll return your home to its former glory: blue skies and clear water.”
This was basically a recitation of the description in the proposal. Kai-zong was impressed by his boss’s powers of recall, especially since he couldn’t even rely on his augmented-reality gear.
“I know all this.” Director Lin seemed to have completely sobered up from whatever measure of drunkenness he had had and ordered a cup of strong tea. “But no one really cares. The natives don’t care. They just want to squeeze as much money as they can out of whatever life is left in this place. The migrant workers don’t care, either. They just want to earn enough money as quickly as possible to return to their home villages and open up a general store, or build a new house and get married. They hate this island. No one cares about the future of this place. They want to leave here and forget this period of their lives, just like the trash.”
“But the government ought to care!” Scott couldn’t help himself.
“The government has more important things to worry about.” Director Lin took a big sip of tea. His speech was now unhurried, and the red flush had faded from his face. That polite, efficient, but fake smile was pasted back on, as though the sincere father that had spoken earlier never existed. “It’s getting late. We still have to get to Xialong Village. Believe me, you won’t be staying long.”
There are two Silicon Isles, Scott Brandle thought as he watched the scene slowly scrolling past the window of the Land Rover.
Earlier, government officials had taken them to visit Silicon Isle Town proper. Amid the chaotic traffic, Scott had been surprised by the number of expensive cars whose drivers seemed to be always leaning on their horns: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Porsche… He thought he had even seen a ruby-red Maserati parked right across the sidewalk, with its young owner squatting next to it, enjoying seafood barbecue bought from a street vendor.
Despite the peninsula’s low position on the totem pole of China’s administrative regions, Silicon Isle Town was prosperous. Scott saw many boutiques specializing in luxury brands that he had only expected to see in China’s largest cities. It was the fashion among the town residents to build expensive, traditional, hiasuanhoun-style mansions, but they also liked to add in elements of European influence, giving the whole place a kind of dazzling but incongruous ersatz exoticism. A visitor sometimes felt as though he had stumbled into a third-rate architectural fair: one house showing Mediterranean influence, the next displaying Scandinavian minimalism.
It was just like Scott’s China guidebook said: these were the nouveaux riches of contemporary China. They bought the best material goods the world had to offer and used them to fill their own empty lives.
Scott didn’t see any pedestrians wearing masks. He knew that prosthetic respiratory systems hadn’t yet been popularized here. Silicon Isle Town was located upwind from the rest of Silicon Isle, so the air quality was at least passable, though there was a pervasive stench that made breathing difficult. It was an odor that he had once experienced in a rubber-incineration plant in the Philippines, after which he had felt like gagging for a whole week. But the people here seemed to take the smell in their stride.
The Land Rover lurched slowly through the traffic. From time to time, a three-wheeled electric rickshaw carrying drinking water would cut across the traffic, causing horns to beep and curses to ring out. But the rickshaw drivers, all speaking nonlocal topolects, simply ignored them. A ton of water, costing two yuan in Huang Village nine kilometers away, would sell for two yuan per forty-liter drum once ferried here. The natives didn’t care to earn such low profits—but their big business was what caused most of Silicon Isle’s surface water and groundwater to be undrinkable in the first place.
That’s the price that must be paid for economic development, everyone said. It was a cliché they had learned from TV.
“We’re almost at the village,” Director Lin, who was seated in the front passenger seat, turned to tell Scott.
“Holy—” Kaizong blurted out before he could control himself. Scott followed his gaze, pursed his lips, but said nothing. Although he had already reviewed a lot of background material on Silicon Isle’s conditions, reading about something could not compare to the shock of reality staring from the other side of a glass window.
Countless workshops, little more than sheds, were packed tightly together like mahjong tiles along both sides of every street. A narrow lane was left in the middle to allow carts to bring in the trash for processing.
Metal chassis, broken displays, circuit boards, plastic components, and wires, some dismantled and some awaiting processing, were scattered everywhere like piles of manure, with laborers, all of them migrants from elsewhere in China, flitting between the piles like flies. The workers sifted through the piles and picked out valuable pieces to be placed into the ovens or acid baths for additional decomposition to extract copper and tin, as well as gold, platinum, and other precious metals. What was left over was either incinerated or scattered on the ground, creating even more trash. No one wore any protective gear.
Everything was shrouded in a leaden miasma, an amalgamation of the white mist generated by the boiling aqua regia in the acid baths and the black smoke from the unceasing burning of PVC, insulation, and circuit boards in the fields and on the shore of the river. The two contrasting colors were mixed by the sea breeze until they could no longer be distinguished, seeping into the pores of every living being.
Scott observed the men and women living among the trash—the natives called them the waste people. The women did their laundry in the black water with their bare hands, the soap bubbles forming a silver edge around floating mats of duckweed. Children played everywhere, running over the black shores, where fiberglass and the charred remains of circuit boards twinkled; jumping over the abandoned fields, where embers and ashes from burnt plastic smoldered; swimming and splashing in dark green ponds, where polyester film floated over the surface. They seemed to think this was the natural state of the world and nothing disturbed their joy. The men bared their chests to show off the cheap body films they had applied. Wearing shanzhai versions of augmented-reality glasses, they enjoyed a bit of rare leisure by lying on the granite banks of irrigation canals, filled with broken displays and plastic junk. These ancient canals, built hundreds of years ago to bring water to thirsty rice paddies, now shimmered with the fragmented lights of the process of dismantling the old.
“We’re here. Still want to get out of the car?” Director Lin’s tone was mocking, as though he were only a visitor.
“Without going into the tiger’s nest, how can we retrieve the tiger cub?” Scott struggled to enunciate the proverb in heavily accented Mandarin. He put on his face mask and opened the car door.
Director Lin shook his head and reluctantly followed.
Hot, polluted air assaulted Scott, accompanied by an overwhelming stench. The mask filtered out particles and dust but was powerless against odors. For a moment, he seemed to be back in the suburbs of Manila, two years earlier, except that the smell here was ten times more concentrated. He tried to remain still, but sweat continued to ooze out of him, mixing with unknown chemicals in the air until it formed a viscous film that stuck to his skin and clothes and made taking even a single step difficult.
In front of them stood a stone gate inscribed with the characters Xialong in clerical script. Normally, Scott Brandle would have considered examining it for signs of its antiquity and craftsmanship, but at this moment, what flashed through his mind was the beginning of the warning carved on the gate of Hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Scott had read these lines when he studied Italian in college; he had never thought he would need this half-forgotten skill for the rest of his life. But here, the lines seemed especially appropriate. He did his best to put out of his mind the last line of Dante’s warning.
The laborers stopped what they were doing and glanced their way curiously. Most of the eyes were focused on Scott. Even though he was wearing a mask, his height, pale skin, and head of short, blond hair already betrayed him. The migrant workers had seen foreigners, of course, but they were confused as to why this well-dressed laowai would appear here, like some vision of Jesus of Nazareth passing through waves of heat, clouds of toxic miasma, and streets full of filth.
Then, they all smiled. The smiles spread from face to face like a chill wind, pulling up the corners of everyone’s mouths.
“Be careful. There are many addicts here.” Director Lin’s voice was a low murmur next to Chen Kaizong’s ears. Without waiting for a translation, Scott, walking at the front, suddenly stopped.
On the ground in front of him was a wriggling prosthetic arm. Whether intentional or not, the stimulus loop of the arm was left open, and the internal battery, incompletely disassembled, continued to provide power. The electricity flowed along the artificial skin to the synthetic nerves revealed at the broken end, and triggered cyclic contractions in the muscles. The five fingers of the prosthesis continuously clawed at the ground, pulling the broken forearm along like some giant, flesh-colored inchworm.
It then collided with an abandoned liquid crystal display, and the broien fingernails scrabbled against the smooth glass surface but could no longer make any progress.
A little boy ran over, picked up the prosthetic arm, and put it back down on the ground facing a different direction. His expression seemed to suggest that the arm was nothing more than a common toy car. And so this bizarre toy continued its endless journey to nowhere, apparently only to terminate when its battery ran out.
Scott squatted down. The little boy stared at his mask, without fear, without curiosity. “Where else can you find the same kind of… hand?” Scott asked in Mandarin. Fearing that his accent was too heavy, he also gestured with his hands.
The little boy froze for a moment, and then pointed to a work shed not too far away. Then he turned and ran off.
Scott stood up. An intense joy radiated from his eyes, as though he had discovered some secret treasure.
From outside it was easy to see that no one was in the shed, but in the middle was a heap of junked silicone products whose electronic components had all been removed. The remaining silicone had to be decomposed using special industrial processes to extract the monomers and silicone oil. The local workshops weren’t equipped with the technology for this, so the heap was just waiting to be picked up by a specialized recycler.
Director Lin finished his explanation, and then added, “These days, the rich switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones. The junked prostheses are shipped here. Most haven’t been decontaminated and still contain blood and bodily fluids, which pose a lot of potential risk for public health—” He seemed to realize something and stopped himself, awkwardly changing the subject. “It’s too dirty here, Mr. Scott. Why don’t we go to the back of the village? That’s where the workshops are most concentrated.”
Kaizong gave him a knowing look. Director Lin was clearly trying to hide something. He translated what Lin said for Scott, but added his own guess. Scott smiled as though he didn’t care, and continued to walk into the shed.
Suddenly, a dark shadow dashed out of the left side of the enclosed space. Scott heard a cry from Director Lin and then felt something with a rotten, fishy smell come straight at him. He ducked, turned to the side, and shoved whatever it was away with his hands.
A few low growls later, Scott saw that his assailant was a large German shepherd. The dog rolled on the ground, quickly righted itself, and prepared to attack again.
Scott raised his arms into a combat stance and focused his gaze on the creature’s green, glittering eyes. His whole body was tensed and ready.
But at that moment, a silent order seemed to hit the German shepherd, and the dog lowered its eyes, tucked its tail between its legs, and ran off into the shade behind the shed.
“It’s a chipped dog.” Director Lin held up his phone. His chest heaved as though he had been the one attacked.
To stop burglars, the villagers liked to keep large dogs with implanted chips. Thanks to an electronically enhanced Pavlov effect, if anyone en-tered a designated area without sending out a predetermined signal, the chipped dog would attack relentlessly until the intruder was incapacitated. Each village had its own unique signal band, which changed often. Only a few individuals possessed the authority to have all the key frequencies. Director Lin was one of them.
“A few have been killed by the dogs, most of them radical environmental activists.” Director Lin smiled. “I have to say, Mr. Scott, I didn’t expect you to be so knowledgeable in the art of hand-to-hand combat.”
Scott smiled back, his left hand held over his chest. The sudden surge of fear and adrenaline had caused his heart rhythm to become erratic, and he needed a moment for the tiny box implanted in his chest cavity to do its job.
Kaizong tried to hide his surprise. He could tell that Scott’s quick reaction and his almost automatic defensive maneuvers were the results of long, professional training. It appeared that his boss was not just a successful business consultant. And the goal of his trip to Silicon Isle was perhaps not as simple as project research.
Scott entered the shed and stopped in front of the flesh-colored hill of prostheses. He squatted and purposefully sifted through the pile. A pungent disinfectant smell assaulted his nose. Translucent artificial cochleas, false lips, prosthetic limbs, breast implants, augmented muscles, and enlarged sexual organs bounced against each other, and the pile collapsed around him. His field of vision was filled with the pink glow of faux health, as though he were trapped in the storage locker of Jack the Ripper. Finally, he found what he was looking for.
The string of letters and numbers, SBT-VBPII32503439, was obscurely etched on the inside of a rigid, mold-cast prosthetic part that resembled half of a strange shell. Glistening with a bone-white light, the empty prosthesis apparently once contained some integrated circuits.
Scott raised this treasure in front of Director Lin’s face and tossed it at him. A trembling Director Lin caught it, his face full of disgust.
“Director Lin, I’d like to ask you for a favor.” Scott’s voice took on a deliberate, courteous tone. “Would you help me find the person who processed this piece of trash?”
“That is not so simple. We’re not like you. We don’t have modern management processes and databases… this might take a really long time.” Director Lin pondered the prosthesis. It didn’t look like anything that could be attached to a body, or at least not a normal body. “What in the world is it?”
“Believe me: you don’t want to know.”
There was a noise behind him; Scott turned cautiously. Several laborers ran past the work shed without stopping.
Director Lin nodded thoughtfully. The peninsula was so small that there could be no secret that he wouldn’t eventually discover; it was just a matter of time.
“I will do my best to find the man for you before you finish your research trip,” he said meaningfully.
At that moment, Director Lin saw more people running past the shed in the same direction as the previous laborers, their expressions mixtures of excitement and fear. He stopped a young man and—because none of the workers here were natives—asked in broken Mandarin, “What happened?”
“Someone got clamped.” The young man dodged out of his way and ran on.
Director Lin’s face changed, and he chased after the young man. Scott and Kaizong followed. They saw a crowd forming around another work shed, everyone arguing excitedly. The three shoved their way through the crowd to the front, and all drew a sharp intake of breath.
A blood-covered man was lying on the ground, his limbs jerking uncontrollably. A broken, black robot arm’s pincers were clamped around his head and neck. Through the cracks between the robotic claws, one could see that his facial features had deformed under the pressure, and bloody foam was seeping out of his orifices. He was no longer coherent, and from his throat emerged the grunts of a wounded animal. His twitching body looked like an assembly line mistake that attached a robot’s head to a man’s body.
“How did this happen?” Director Lin asked the crowd. The answer, as best as he could tell from the cacophonous responses, was that during the dismantling of the junked robot arm, the man had triggered the backup feedback circuits and got his head caught in the viselike grip. This man was clearly unlucky and had angered the spirits somehow. Everyone shook their heads to indicate sympathy.
Scott rushed over and gestured for Kaizong to hold the man’s shoulders still to avoid damaging his spine. Then he carefully examined the robot arm: manufactured by Foster-Miller, Inc., USA, Model “Spirit Claw III” (no longer in production), six degrees of freedom, equipped with embedded microbatteries that could power its servomotors for up to thirty minutes after main power had been cut off. This particular model was a basic, semi-military model widely used for riot control, public safety, bomb squad, and other similar applications.
You’re both lucky and unlucky. Scott felt rather powerless. The man was lucky because the maximum force the arm could generate was only 520 newtons. If the robot had been an industrial model, the man’s head would have turned into tofu pudding long ago. The man was also unlucky because due to its use in bomb disposal, the arm was made with a special, hardened alloy. Regular tools couldn’t even make a dent in it.
“Make way, make way!” The crowd parted at the noise, and two men carrying a plasma cutting torch over their shoulders came into the shed. One of them, seeing Kaizong holding the victim’s shoulder, gave him a grateful look, and then glanced at Scott suspiciously.
That’s useless, Scott thought. In fact, it will make things worse. But he said nothing and stood to the side.
The plasma cutting torch emitted a light blue arc. As the arc struck the joints of the robot claw, there was a hissing noise. As impurities were incinerated, the light shifted through different colors. The cut in the metal turned black, then red, then white. Everyone seemed to glimpse hope and held their breaths. They stood on their tiptoes but also didn’t dare to come too close.
The man caught in the claw began to thrash harder, and pitiful, keening screams tore from his throat.
Metal conducts heat really well. Scott turned his head away.
The man’s hair began to burn. Shining, translucent blisters appeared over his scalp, quickly burst, and blood bubbled out. The men operating the plasma cutter scrambled to stop and looked for wet rags to put out the fire. White smoke rose along with the smell of burning flesh and then dispersed among the crowd. Some held their noses; others began to vomit.
Oh dear God. Scott knew that at this point, the only solution was to connect to the Spirit Claw through the proprietary interface and issue it the commands to shut down the servomotors. But he didn’t have the tools and didn’t know if this robot’s command-processing module was still functioning. So all he could do was to pray for the batteries to run out as soon as possible.
Kaizong and another man struggled to hold the wounded man down. Kaizong felt the body under him gradually weakening as though some unknown substance was silently draining away. The thrashing ceased. He let go. The man did not move.
The robot claw loosened with a loud bang. Everyone jumped. Then the man’s crushed head drooped to the ground.
Scott gazed at the crowd in front of him, at the waste people’s expressions: a combination of helplessness, numbness, fright, and excitement. He saw Director Lin’s disgust and Kaizong’s shock. He seemed to even see himself, a pale white face hovering incongruously among the yellow faces. What expression was on that face he could not see clearly: it was too blurry.
Scott Brandle could no longer avoid thinking of a snippet of Italian: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.
The last line in the warning carved above the gate of Hell.