Stories from the world of
The Windup Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books
Windup Stories © 2009 by Paolo Bacigalupi
This edition of Windup Stories
by Night Shade Books
“The Calorie Man” © 2005 by Spilogale, Inc. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2005.
“Yellow Card Man” © 2006 by Paolo Bacigalupi. Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, December 2006.
All rights reserved
Night Shade Books
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The Calorie Man
Yellow Card Man
The Calorie Man
“No mammy, no pappy, poor little bastard. Money? You give money?” The urchin turned a cartwheel and then a somersault in the street, stirring yellow dust around his nakedness.
Lalji paused to stare at the dirty blond child who had come to a halt at his feet. The attention seemed to encourage the urchin; the boy did another somersault. He smiled up at Lalji from his squat, calculating and eager, rivulets of sweat and mud streaking his face. “Money? You give money?”
Around them, the town was nearly silent in the afternoon heat. A few dungareed farmers led mulies toward the fields. Buildings, pressed from WeatherAll chips, slumped against their fellows like drunkards, rain-stained and sun-cracked, but, as their trade name implied, still sturdy. At the far end of the narrow street, the lush sprawl of SoyPRO and HiGro began, a waving rustling growth that rolled into the blue-sky distance. It was much as all the villages Lalji had seen as he traveled upriver, just another farming enclave paying its intellectual property dues and shipping calories down to New Orleans.
The boy crawled closer, smiling ingratiatingly, nodding his head like a snake hoping to strike. “Money? Money?”
Lalji put his hands in his pockets in case the beggar child had friends and turned his full attention on the boy. “And why should I give money to you?”
The boy stared up at him, stalled. His mouth opened, then closed. Finally he looped back to an earlier, more familiar part of his script, “No mammy? No pappy?” but it was a query now, lacking conviction.
Lalji made a face of disgust and aimed a kick at the boy. The child scrambled aside, falling on his back in his desperation to dodge, and this pleased Lalji briefly. At least the boy was quick. He turned and started back up the street. Behind him, the urchin’s wailing despair echoed. “Noooo maaaammy! Nooo paaaapy!” Lalji shook his head, irritated. The child might cry for money, but he failed to follow. No true beggar at all. An opportunist only—most likely the accidental creation of strangers who had visited the village and were open-fisted when it came to blond beggar children. AgriGen and Midwest Grower scientists and land factotums would be pleased to show ostentatious kindness to the villagers at the core of their empire.
Through a gap in the slumped hovels, Lalji caught another glimpse of the lush waves of SoyPRO and HiGro. The sheer sprawl of calories stimulated tingling fantasies of loading a barge and slipping it down through the locks to St. Louis or New Orleans and into the mouths of waiting megodonts. It was impossible, but the sight of those emerald fields was more than enough assurance that no child could beg with conviction here. Not surrounded by SoyPRO. Lalji shook his head again, disgusted, and squeezed down a footpath between two of the houses.
The acrid reek of WeatherAll’s excreted oils clogged the dim alley. A pair of cheshires sheltering in the unused space scattered and molted ahead of him, disappearing into bright sunlight. Just beyond, a kinetic shop leaned against its beaten neighbors, adding the scents of dung and animal sweat to the stink of WeatherAll. Lalji leaned against the shop’s plank door and shoved inside.
Shafts of sunlight pierced the sweet manure gloom with lazy gold beams. A pair of hand-painted posters scabbed to one wall, partly torn but still legible. One said: “Unstamped calories mean starving families. We check royalty receipts and IP stamps.” A farmer and his brood stared hollow-eyed from beneath the scolding words. PurCal was the sponsor. The other poster was AgriGen’s trademarked collage of kink-springs, green rows of SoyPRO under sunlight and smiling children along with the words “We Provide Energy for the World.” Lalji studied the posters sourly.
“Back already?” The owner came in from the winding room, wiping his hands on his pants and kicking straw and mud off his boots. He eyed Lalji. “My springs didn’t have enough stored. I had to feed the mulies extra, to make your joules.”
Lalji shrugged, having expected the last-minute bargaining, so much like Shriram’s that he couldn’t muster the interest to look offended. “Yes? How much?”
The man squinted up at Lalji, then ducked his head, his body defensive. “F-Five hundred.” His voice caught on the amount, as though gagging on the surprising greed scampering up his throat.
Lalji frowned and pulled his mustache. It was outrageous. The calories hadn’t even been transported. The village was awash with energy. And despite the man’s virtuous poster, it was doubtful that the calories feeding his kinetic shop were equally upstanding. Not with tempting green fields waving within meters of the shop. Shriram often said that using stamped calories was like dumping money into a methane composter.
Lalji tugged his mustache again, wondering how much to pay for the joules without calling excessive attention to himself. Rich men must have been all over the village to make the kinetic man so greedy. Calorie executives, almost certainly. It would fit. The town was close to the center. Perhaps even this village was engaged in growing the crown jewels of AgriGen’s energy monopolies. Still, not everyone who passed through would be as rich as that. “Two hundred.”
The kinetic man showed a relieved smile along with knotted yellow teeth, his guilt apparently assuaged by Lalji’s bargaining. “Four.”
“Two. I can moor on the river and let my own winders do the same work.”
The man snorted. “It would take weeks.”
Lalji shrugged. “I have time. Dump the joules back into your own springs. I’ll do the job myself.”
“I’ve got family to feed. Three?”
“You live next to more calories than some rich families in St. Louis. Two.”
The man shook his head sourly but he led Lalji into the winding room. The manure haze thickened. Big kinetic storage drums, twice as tall as a man, sat in a darkened corner, mud and manure lapping around their high-capacity precision kink-springs. Sunbeams poured between open gaps in the roof where shingles had blown away. Dung motes stirred lazily.
A half-dozen hyper-developed mulies crouched on their treadmills, their rib cages billowing slowly, their flanks streaked with salt lines of sweat residue from the labor of winding Lalji’s boat springs. They blew air through their nostrils, nervous at Lalji’s sudden scent, and gathered their squat legs under them. Muscles like boulders rippled under their bony hides as they stood. They eyed Lalji with resentful near-intelligence. One of them showed stubborn yellow teeth that matched its owner’s.
Lalji made a face of disgust. “Feed them.”
“I already did.”
“I can see their bones. If you want my money, feed them again.”
The man scowled. “They aren’t supposed to get fat, they’re supposed to wind your damn springs.” But he dipped double handfuls of SoyPRO into their feed canisters.
The mulies shoved their heads into the buckets, slobbering and grunting with need. In its eagerness, one of them started briefly forward on its treadmill, sending energy into the winding shop’s depleted storage springs before seeming to realize that its work was not demanded and that it could eat without molestation.
“They aren’t even designed to get fat,” the kinetic man muttered.
Lalji smiled slightly as he counted through his wadded bluebills and handed over the money. The kinetic man unjacked Lalji’s kink-springs from the winding treadmills and stacked them beside the slavering mulies. Lalji lifted a spring, grunting at its heft. Its mass was no different than when he had brought it to the winding shop, but now it fairly seemed to quiver with the mulies’ stored labor.
“You want help with those?” The man didn’t move. His eyes flicked toward the mulies’ feed buckets, still calculating his chances of interrupting their meal.
Lalji took his time answering, watching as the mulies rooted for the last of their calories. “No.” He hefted the spring again, getting a better grip. “My helpboy will come for the rest.”
As he turned for the door, he heard the man dragging the feed buckets away from the mulies and their grunts as they fought for their sustenance. Once again, Lalji regretted agreeing to the trip at all.
Shriram had been the one to broach the idea. They had been sitting under the awning of Lalji’s porch in New Orleans, spitting betel nut juice into the alley gutters and watching the rain come down as they played chess. At the end of the alley, cycle rickshaws and bicycles slipped through the midmorning gray, pulses of green and red and blue as they passed the alley’s mouth draped under rain-glossed corn polymer ponchos.
The chess game was a tradition of many years, a ritual when Lalji was in town and Shriram had time away from his small kinetic company where he rewound people’s home and boat springs. Theirs was a good friendship, and a fruitful one, when Lalji had unstamped calories that needed to disappear into the mouth of a hungry megodont.
Neither of them played chess well, and so their games often devolved into a series of trades made in dizzying succession; a cascade of destruction that left a board previously well-arrayed in a tantrum wreck, with both opponents blinking surprise, trying to calculate if the mangle had been worth the combat. It was after one of these tit-for-tat cleansings that Shriram had asked Lalji if he might go upriver. Beyond the southern states.
Lalji had shaken his head and spit bloody betel juice into the overflowing gutter. “No. Nothing is profitable so far up. Too many joules to get there. Better to let the calories float to me.” He was surprised to discover that he still had his queen. He used it to take a pawn.
“And if the energy costs could be defrayed?”
Lalji laughed, waiting for Shriram to make his own move. “By who? AgriGen? The IP men? Only their boats go up and down so far.” He frowned as he realized that his queen was now vulnerable to Shriram’s remaining knight.
Shriram was silent. He didn’t touch his pieces. Lalji looked up from the board and was surprised by Shriram’s serious expression. Shriram said, “I would pay. Myself and others. There is a man who some of us would like to see come south. A very special man.”
“Then why not bring him south on a paddle wheel? It is expensive to go up the river. How many gigajoules? I would have to change the boat’s springs, and then what would the IP patrols ask? ‘Where are you going, strange Indian man with your small boat and your so many springs? Going far? To what purpose?’ ” Lalji shook his head. “Let this man take a ferry, or ride a barge. Isn’t this cheaper?” He waved at the game board. “It’s your move. You should take my queen.”
Shriram waggled his head thoughtfully from side to side but didn’t make any move toward the chess game. “Cheaper, yes.…”
Shriram shrugged. “A swift, inconsequential boat would attract less attention.”
“What sort of man is this?”
Shriram glanced around, suddenly furtive. Methane lamps burned like blue fairies behind the closed glass of the neighbors’ droplet-spattered windows. Rain sheeted off their roofs, drumming wet into the empty alley. A cheshire was yowling for a mate somewhere in the wet, barely audible under the thrum of falling water.
“Is Creo inside?”
Lalji raised his eyebrows in surprise. “He has gone to his gymnasium. Why? Should it matter?”
Shriram shrugged and gave an embarrassed smile. “Some things are better kept between old friends. People with strong ties.”
“Creo has been with me for years.”
Shriram grunted noncommittally, glanced around again and leaned close, pitching his voice low, forcing Lalji to lean forward as well. “There is a man who the calorie companies would like very much to find.” He tapped his balding head. “A very intelligent man. We want to help him.”
Lalji sucked in his breath. “A generipper?”
Shriram avoided Lalji’s eyes. “In a sense. A calorie man.”
Lalji made a face of disgust. “Even better reason not to be involved. I don’t traffic with those killers.”
“No, no. Of course not. But still…you brought that huge sign down once, did you not? A few greased palms, so smooth, and you float into town and suddenly Lakshmi smiles on you, such a calorie bandit, and now with a name instead as a dealer of antiques. Such a wonderful misdirection.”
Lalji shrugged. “I was lucky. I knew the man to help move it through the locks.”
“So? Do it again.”
“If the calorie companies are looking for him, it would be dangerous.”
“But not impossible. The locks would be easy. Much easier than carrying unlicensed grains. Or even something as big as that sign. This would be a man. No sniffer dog would find him of interest. Place him in a barrel. It would be easy. And I would pay. All your joules, plus more.”
Lalji sucked at his narcotic betel nut, spit red, spit red again, considering. “And what does a second-rate kinetic man like you think this calorie man will do? Generippers work for big fish, and you are such a small one.”
Shriram grinned haplessly and gave a self-deprecating shrug. “You do not think Ganesha Kinetic could not some day be great? The next AgriGen, maybe?” and they had both laughed at the absurdity and Shriram dropped the subject.
An IP man was on duty with his dog, blocking Lalji’s way as he returned to his boat lugging the kink-spring. The brute’s hairs bristled as Lalji approached and it lunged against its leash, its blunt nose quivering to reach him. With effort, the IP man held the creature back. “I need to sniff you.” His helmet lay on the grass, already discarded, but still he was sweating under the swaddling heat of his gray slash-resistant uniform and the heavy webbing of his spring gun and bandoliers.
Lalji held still. The dog growled, deep from its throat, and inched forward. It snuffled his clothing, bared hungry teeth, snuffled again, then its black ruff iridesced blue and it relaxed and wagged its stubby tail. It sat. A pink tongue lolled from between smiling teeth. Lalji smiled sourly back at the animal, glad that he wasn’t smuggling calories and wouldn’t have to go through the pantomimes of obeisance as the IP man demanded stamps and then tried to verify that the grain shipment had paid its royalties and licensing fees.
At the dog’s change in color, the IP man relaxed somewhat, but still he studied Lalji’s features carefully, hunting for recognition against memorized photographs. Lalji waited patiently, accustomed to the scrutiny. Many men tried to steal the honest profits of AgriGen and its peers, but to Lalji’s knowledge, he was unknown to the protectors of intellectual property. He was an antiques dealer, handling the junk of the previous century, not a calorie bandit staring out from corporate photo books.
Finally, the IP man waved him past. Lalji nodded politely and made his way down the stairs to the river’s low stage where his needleboat was moored. Out on the river, cumbrous grain barges wallowed past, riding low under their burdens.
Though there was a great deal of river traffic, it didn’t compare with harvest time. Then the whole of the Mississippi would fill with calories pouring downstream, pulled from hundreds of towns like this one. Barges would clot the arterial flow of the river system from high on the Missouri, the Illinois, and the Ohio and the thousand smaller tributaries. Some of those calories would float only as far as St. Louis where they would be chewed by megodonts and churned into joules, but the rest, the vast majority, would float to New Orleans where the great calorie companies’ clippers and dirigibles would be loaded with the precious grains. Then they would cross the Earth on tradewinds and sea, in time for the next season’s planting, so that the world could go on eating.
Lalji watched the barges moving slowly past, wallowing and bloated with their wealth, then hefted his kink-spring and jumped aboard his needleboat.
Creo was lying on deck as Lalji had left him, his muscled body oiled and shining in the sun, a blond Arjuna waiting for glorious battle. His cornrows spread around his head in a halo, their tipped bits of bone lying like foretelling stones on the hot deck. He didn’t open his eyes as Lalji jumped aboard. Lalji went and stood in Creo’s sun, eclipsing his tan. Slowly, the young man opened his blue eyes.
“Get up.” Lalji dropped the spring on Creo’s rippled stomach.
Creo let out a whuff and wrapped his arms around the spring. He sat up easily and set it on the deck. “Rest of the springs wound?”
Lalji nodded. Creo took the spring and went down the boat’s narrow stairs to the mechanical room. When he returned from fitting the spring into the gearings of the boat’s power system, he said, “Your springs are shit, all of them. I don’t know why you didn’t bring bigger ones. We have to rewind, what, every twenty hours? You could have gotten all the way here on a couple of the big ones.”
Lalji scowled at Creo and jerked his head toward the guard still standing at the top of the riverbank and looking down on them. He lowered his voice. “And then what would the MidWest Authority be saying as we are going upriver? All their IP men all over our boat, wondering where we are going so far? Boarding us and then wondering what we are doing with such big springs. Where have we gotten so many joules? Wondering what business we have so far upriver.” He shook his head. “No, no. This is better. Small boat, small distance, who worries about Lalji and his stupid blond helpboy then? No one. No, this is better.”
“You always were a cheap bastard.”
Lalji glanced at Creo. “You are lucky it is not forty years ago. Then you would be paddling up this river by hand, instead of lying on your lazy back letting these fancy kink-springs do the work. Then we would be seeing you use those muscles of yours.”
“If I was lucky, I would have been born during the Expansion and we’d still be using gasoline.”
Lalji was about to retort but an IP boat slashed past them, ripping a deep wake. Creo lunged for their cache of spring guns. Lalji dove after him and slammed the cache shut. “They’re not after us!”
Creo stared at Lalji, uncomprehending for a moment, then relaxed. He stepped away from the stored weapons. The IP boat continued upriver, half its displacement dedicated to massive precision kink-springs and the stored joules that gushed from their unlocking molecules. Its curling wake rocked the needleboat. Lalji steadied himself against the rail as the IP boat dwindled to a speck and disappeared between obstructing barge chains.
Creo scowled after the boat. “I could have taken them.”
Lalji took a deep breath. “You would have gotten us killed.” He glanced at the top of the riverbank to see if the IP man had noticed their panic. He wasn’t even visible. Lalji silently gave thanks to Ganesha.
“I don’t like all of them around,” Creo complained. “They’re like ants. Fourteen at the last lock. That one, up on the hill. Now these boats.”
“It is the heart of calorie country. It is to be expected.”
“You making a lot of money on this trip?”
“Why should you care?”
“Because you never used to take risks like this.” Creo swept his arm, indicating the village, the cultivated fields, the muddy width of river gurgling past, and the massive barges clogging it. “No one comes this far upriver.”
“I’m making enough money to pay you. That’s all you should concern yourself with. Now go get the rest of the springs. When you think too much, your brain makes mush.”
Creo shook his head doubtfully but jumped for the dock and headed up the steps to the kinetic shop. Lalji turned to face the river. He took a deep breath.
The IP boat had been a close call. Creo was too eager to fight. It was only with luck that they hadn’t ended up as shredded meat from the IP men’s spring guns. He shook his head tiredly, wondering if he had ever had as much reckless confidence as Creo. He didn’t think so. Not even when he was a boy. Perhaps Shriram was right. Even if Creo was trustworthy, he was still dangerous.
A barge chain, loaded with TotalNutrient Wheat, slid past. The happy sheaves of its logo smiled across the river’s muddy flow, promising “A Healthful Tomorrow” along with folates, B vitamins, and pork protein. Another IP boat slashed upriver, weaving amongst the barge traffic. Its complement of IP men studied him coldly as they went by. Lalji’s skin crawled. Was it worth it? If he thought too much, his businessman’s instinct—bred into him through thousands of years of caste practice—told him no. But still, there was Gita. When he balanced his debts each year on Diwali, how did he account for all he owed her? How did one pay off something that weighed heavier than all his profits, in all his lifetimes?
The NutriWheat wallowed past, witlessly inviting, and without answers.
“You wanted to know if there was something that would be worth your trip upriver.”
Lalji and Shriram had been standing in the winding room of Ganesha Kinetic, watching a misplaced ton of SuperFlavor burn into joules. Shriram’s paired megodonts labored against the winding spindles, ponderous and steady as they turned just-consumed calories into kinetic energy and wound the shop’s main storage springs.
Priti and Bidi. The massive creatures barely resembled the elephants that had once provided their template DNA. Generippers had honed them to a perfect balance of musculature and hunger for a single purpose: to inhale calories and do terrible labors without complaint. The smell of them was overwhelming. Their trunks dragged the ground.
The animals were getting old, Lalji thought, and on the heels of that thought came another: he, too, was getting old. Every morning he found gray in his mustache. He plucked it, of course, but more gray hairs always sprouted. And now his joints ached in the mornings as well. Shriram’s own head shone like polished teak. At some point, he’d turned bald. Fat and bald. Lalji wondered when they had turned into such old men.
Shriram repeated himself, and Lalji shook away his thoughts. “No, I am not interested in anything upriver. That is the calorie companies’ province. I have accepted that when you scatter my ashes it will be on the Mississippi, and not the holy Ganges, but I am not so eager to find my next life that I wish my corpse to float down from Iowa.”
Shriram twisted his hands nervously and glanced around. He lowered his voice, even though the steady groan of the spindles was more than enough to drown their sounds. “Please, friend, there are people…who want…to kill this man.”
“And I should care?”
Shriram made placating motions with his hands. “He knows how to make calories. AgriGen wants him, badly. PurCal as well. He has rejected them and their kind. His mind is valuable. He needs someone trustworthy to bring him downriver. No friend of the IP men.”
“And just because he is an enemy of AgriGen I should help him? Some former associate of the Des Moines clique? Some ex-calorie man with blood on his hands and you think he will help you make money?”
Shriram shook his head. “You make it sound as if this man is unclean.”
“We are talking of generippers, yes? How much morality can he have?”
“A geneticist. Not a generipper. Geneticists gave us megodonts.” He waved at Priti and Bidi. “Me, a livelihood.”
Lalji turned on Shriram. “You take refuge in these semantics, now? You, who starved in Chennai when the Nippon genehack weevil came? When the soil turned to alcohol? Before U-Tex and HiGro and the rest all showed up so conveniently? You, who waited on the docks when the seeds came in, saw them come and then saw them sit behind their fences and guards, waiting for people with the money to buy? What traffic would I have with this sort of people? I would sooner spit on him, this calorie man. Let the PurCal devils have him, I say.”
The town was as Shriram had described it. Cottonwoods and willows tangled the edges of the river and over them, the remains of the bridge, some of it still spanning the river in a hazy network of broken trusses and crumbling supports. Lalji and Creo stared up at the rusting construction, a web of steel and cable and concrete, slowly collapsing into the river.
“How much do you think the steel would bring?” Creo asked.
Lalji filled his cheek with a handful of PestResis sunflower seeds and started cracking them between his teeth. He spit the hulls into the river one by one. “Not much. Too much energy to tear it out, then to melt it.” He shook his head and spat another hull. “A waste to make something like that with steel. Better to use Fast-Gen hardwoods, or WeatherAll.”
“Not to cover that distance. It couldn’t be done now. Not unless you were in Des Moines, maybe. I heard they burn coal there.”
“And they have electric lights that go all night and computers as large as a house.” Lalji waved his hand dismissively and turned to finish securing the needleboat. “Who needs such a bridge now? A waste. A ferry and a mulie would serve just as well.” He jumped ashore and started climbing the crumbling steps that led up from the river. Creo followed.
At the top of the steep climb, a ruined suburb waited. Built to serve the cities on the far side of the river when commuting was common and petroleum cheap, it now sprawled in an advanced state of decay. A junk city built with junk materials, as transient as water, willingly abandoned when the expense of commuting grew too great.
“What the hell is this place?” Creo muttered.
Lalji smiled cynically. He jerked his head toward the green fields across the river, where SoyPRO and HiGro undulated to the horizon. “The very cradle of civilization, yes? AgriGen, Midwest Growers Group, PurCal, all of them have fields here.”
“Yeah? That excite you?”
Lalji turned and studied a barge chain as it wallowed down the river below them, its mammoth size rendered small by the height. “If we could turn all their calories into traceless joules, we’d be wealthy men.”
“Keep dreaming.” Creo breathed deeply and stretched. His back cracked and he winced at the sound. “I get out of shape when I ride your boat this long. I should have stayed in New Orleans.”
Lalji raised his eyebrows. “You’re not happy to be making this touristic journey?” He pointed across the river. “Somewhere over there, perhaps in those very acres, AgriGen created SoyPRO. And everyone thought they were such wonderful people.” He frowned. “And then the weevil came, and suddenly there was nothing else to eat.”
Creo made a face. “I don’t go for those conspiracy theories.”
“You weren’t even born when it happened.” Lalji turned to lead Creo into the wrecked suburb. “But I remember. No such accident had ever happened before.”
“Monocultures. They were vulnerable.”
“Basmati was no monoculture!” Lalji waved his hand back toward the green fields. “SoyPRO is monoculture. PurCal is monoculture. Generippers make monoculture.”
“Whatever you say, Lalji.”
Lalji glanced at Creo, trying to tell if the young man was still arguing with him, but Creo was carefully studying the street wreckage and Lalji let the argument die. He began counting streets, following memorized directions.
The avenues were all ridiculously broad and identical, large enough to run a herd of megodonts. Twenty cycle rickshaws could ride abreast easily, and yet the town had only been a support suburb. It boggled Lalji’s mind to consider the scale of life before.
A gang of children watched them from the doorway of a collapsed house. Half its timbers had been removed, and the other half were splintered, rising from the foundation like carcass bones where siding flesh had been stripped away.
Creo showed the children his spring gun and they ran away. He scowled at their departing forms. “So what the hell are we picking up here? You got a lead on another antique?”
“Come on. I’m going to be hauling it in a couple minutes anyway. What’s with the secrecy?”
Lalji glanced at Creo. “There’s nothing for you to haul. ‘It’ is a man. We’re looking for a man.”
Creo made a sound of disbelief. Lalji didn’t bother responding.
Eventually, they came to an intersection. At its center, an old signal light lay smashed. Around it, the pavement was broken through by grasses gone to seed. Dandelions stuck up their yellow heads. On the far side of the intersection, a tall brick building squatted, a ruin of a civil center, yet still standing, built with better materials than the housing it had served.
A cheshire bled across the weedy expanse. Creo tried to shoot it. Missed.
Lalji studied the brick building. “This is the place.”
Creo grunted and shot at another cheshire shimmer.
Lalji went over and inspected the smashed signal light, idly curious to see if it might have value. It was rusted. He turned in a slow circle, studying the surroundings for anything at all that might be worth taking downriver. Some of the old Expansion’s wreckage still had worthy artifacts. He’d found the Conoco sign in such a place, in a suburb soon to be swallowed by SoyPRO, perfectly intact, seemingly never mounted in the open air, never subjected to the angry mobs of the energy Contraction. He’d sold it to an AgriGen executive for more than an entire smuggled cargo of HiGro.
The AgriGen woman had laughed at the sign. She’d mounted it on her wall, surrounded by the lesser artifacts of the Expansion: plastic cups, computer monitors, photos of racing automobiles, brightly colored children’s toys. She’d hung the sign on her wall and then stood back and murmured that at one point, it had been a powerful company…global, even.
She’d said the word with an almost sexual yearning as she stared up at the sign’s ruddy polymers.
For a moment, Lalji had been smitten by her vision: a company that pulled energy from the remotest parts of the planet and sold it far away within weeks of extraction; a company with customers and investors on every continent, with executives who crossed time zones as casually as Lalji crossed the alley to visit Shriram.
The AgriGen woman had hung the sign on her wall like the head of a trophy megodont and in that moment, next to a representative of the most powerful energy company in the world, Lalji had felt a sudden sadness at how very diminished humanity had become.
Lalji shook away the memory and again turned slowly in the intersection, seeking signs of his passenger. More cheshires flitted amongst the ruins, their smoky shimmer shapes pulsing across the sunlight and passing into shadows. Creo pumped his spring gun and sprayed disks. A shimmer tumbled to stillness and became a matted pile of calico and blood.
Creo repumped his spring gun. “So where is this guy?”
“I think he will come. If not today, then tomorrow or the next.” Lalji headed up the steps of the civil center and slipped between its shattered doors. Inside, it was nothing but dust and gloom and bird droppings. He found stairs and made his way upward until he found a broken window with a view. A gust of wind rattled the window pane and tugged his mustache. A pair of crows circled in the blue sky. Below, Creo pumped his spring gun and shot more cheshire shimmers. When he hit, angry yowls filtered up. Blood swatches spattered the weedy pavement as more animals fled.
In the distance, the suburb’s periphery was already falling to agriculture. Its time was short. Soon the houses would be plowed under and a perfect blanket of SoyPRO would cover it. The suburb’s history, as silly and transient as it had been, would be lost, churned under by the march of energy development. No loss, from the standpoint of value, but still, some part of Lalji cringed at the thought of time erased. He spent too much time trying to recall the India of his boyhood to take pleasure in the disappearance. He headed back down the dusty stairs to Creo.
Lalji shook his head. Creo grunted and shot at another cheshire, narrowly missing. He was good, but the nearly invisible animals were hard targets. Creo pumped his spring gun and fired again. “Can’t believe how many cheshires there are.”
“There is no one to exterminate them.”
“I should collect the skins and take them back to New Orleans.”
“Not on my boat.”
Many of the shimmers were fleeing, finally understanding the quality of their enemy. Creo pumped again and aimed at a twist of light further down the street.
Lalji watched complacently. “You will never hit it.”
“Watch.” Creo aimed carefully.
A shadow fell across them. “Don’t shoot.”
Creo whipped his spring gun around.
Lalji waved a hand at Creo. “Wait! It’s him!”
The new arrival was a skinny old man, bald except for a greasy fringe of gray and brown hair, his heavy jaw thick with gray stubble. Hemp sacking covered his body, dirty and torn, and his eyes had a sunken, knowing quality that unearthed in Lalji the memory of a long-ago sadhu, covered with ash and little else: the tangled hair, the disinterest in his clothing, the distance in the eyes that came from enlightenment. Lalji shook away the memory. This man was no holy man. Just a man, and a generipper, at that.
Creo resighted his spring gun on the distant cheshire. “Down south, I get a bluebill for every one I kill.”
The old man said, “There are no bluebills for you to collect here.”
“Yeah, but they’re pests.”
“It’s not their fault we made them too perfectly.” The man smiled hesitantly, as though testing a facial expression. “Please.” He squatted down in front of Creo. “Don’t shoot.”
Lalji placed a hand on Creo’s spring gun. “Let the cheshires be.”
Creo scowled, but he let his gun’s mechanism unwind with a sigh of releasing energy.
The calorie man said, “I am Charles Bowman.” He looked at them expectantly, as though anticipating recognition. “I am ready. I can leave.”
Gita was dead, of that Lalji was now sure.
At times, he had pretended that it might not be so. Pretended that she might have found a life, even after he had gone.
But she was dead, and he was sure of it.
It was one of his secret shames. One of the accretions to his life that clung to him like dog shit on his shoes and reduced himself in his own eyes: as when he had thrown a rock and hit a boy’s head, unprovoked, to see if it was possible; or when he had dug seeds out of the dirt and eaten them one by one, too starved to share. And then there was Gita. Always Gita. That he had left her and gone instead to live close to the calories. That she had stood on the docks and waved as he set sail, when it was she who had paid his passage price.
He remembered chasing her when he was small, following the rustle of her salwar kameez as she dashed ahead of him, her black hair and black eyes and white, white teeth. He wondered if she had been as beautiful as he recalled. If her oiled black braid had truly gleamed the way he remembered when she sat with him in the dark and told him stories of Arjuna and Krishna and Ram and Hanuman. So much was lost. He wondered sometimes if he even remembered her face correctly, or if he had replaced it with an ancient poster of a Bollywood girl, one of the old ones that Shriram kept in the safe of his winding shop and guarded jealously from the influences of light and air.
For a long time he thought he would go back and find her. That he might feed her. That he would send money and food back to his blighted land that now existed only in his mind, in his dreams, and in half-awake hallucinations of deserts, red and black saris, of women in dust, and their black hands and silver bangles, and their hunger, so many of the last memories of hunger.
He had fantasized that he would smuggle Gita back across the shining sea, and bring her close to the accountants who calculated calorie burn quotas for the world. Close to the calories, as she had said, once so long ago. Close to the men who balanced price stability against margins of error and protectively managed energy markets against a flood of food. Close to those small gods with more power than Kali to destroy the world.
But she was dead by now, whether through starvation or disease, and he was sure of it.
And wasn’t that why Shriram had come to him? Shriram who knew more of his history than any other. Shriram, who had found him after he arrived in New Orleans, and known him for a fellow countryman: not just another Indian long settled in America, but one who still spoke the dialects of desert villages and who still remembered their country as it had existed before genehack weevil, leafcurl, and root rust. Shriram, who had shared a place on the floor while they both worked the winding sheds for calories and nothing else, and were grateful for it, as though they were nothing but genehacks themselves.
Of course Shriram had known what to say to send him upriver. Shriram had known how much he wished to balance the unbalanceable.
They followed Bowman down empty streets and up remnant alleys, winding through the pathetic collapse of termite-ridden wood, crumbling concrete foundations, and rusted rebar too useless to scavenge and too stubborn to erode. Finally, the old man squeezed them between the stripped hulks of a pair of rusted automobiles. On the far side, Lalji and Creo gasped.
Sunflowers waved over their heads. A jungle of broad squash leaves hugged their knees. Dry corn stalks rattled in the wind. Bowman looked back at their surprise, and his smile, so hesitant and testing at first, broadened with unrestrained pleasure. He laughed and waved them onward, floundering through a garden of flowers and weeds and produce, catching his torn hemp cloth on the dried stems of cabbage gone to seed and the cling of cantaloupe vines. Creo and Lalji picked their way through the tangle, wending around purple lengths of eggplants, red orb tomatoes, and dangling orange ornament chilies. Bees buzzed heavily between the sunflowers, burdened with saddlebags of pollen.
Lalji paused in the overgrowth and called after Bowman. “These plants. They are not engineered?”
Bowman paused and came thrashing back, wiping sweat and vegetal debris off his face, grinning. “Well, engineered, that is a matter of definition, but no, these are not owned by calorie companies. Some of them are even heirloom.” He grinned again. “Or close enough.”
“How do they survive?”
“Oh, that.” He reached down and yanked up a tomato. “Nippon genehack weevils, or curl.111.b, or perhaps cibiscosis bacterium, something like that?” He bit into the tomato and let the juice run down his gray bristled chin. “There isn’t another heirloom planting within hundreds of miles. This is an island in an ocean of SoyPRO and HiGro. It makes a formidable barrier.” He studied the garden thoughtfully, took another bite of tomato. “Now that you have come, of course, only a few of these plants will survive.” He nodded at Lalji and Creo. “You will be carrying some infection or another and many of these rarities can only survive in isolation.” He plucked another tomato and handed it to Lalji. “Try it.”
Lalji studied its gleaming red skin. He bit into it and tasted sweetness and acid. Grinning, he offered it to Creo, who took a bite and made a face of disgust. “I’ll stick with SoyPRO.” He handed it back to Lalji, who finished it greedily.
Bowman smiled at Lalji’s hunger. “You’re old enough to remember, I think, what food used to be. You can take as much of this as you like, before we go. It will all die anyway.” He turned and thrashed again through the garden overgrowth, shoving aside dry corn stalks with crackling authoritative sweeps of his arms.
Beyond the garden a house lay collapsed, leaning as though it had been toppled by a megodont, its walls rammed and buckled. The collapsed roof had an ungainly slant, and at one end, a pool of water lay cool and deep, rippled with water skippers. Scavenged gutter had been laid to sluice rainwater from the roof into the pond.
Bowman slipped around the pool’s edge and disappeared down a series of crumbled cellar steps. By the time Lalji and Creo followed him down, he had wound a handlight and its dim bulb was spattering the cellar with illumination as its spring ran its course. He cranked the light again while he searched around, then struck a match and lit a lantern. The wick burned high on vegetable oil.
Lalji studied the cellar. It was sparse and damp. A pair of pallets lay on the broken concrete floor. A computer was tucked against a corner, its mahogany case and tiny screen gleaming, its treadle worn with use. An unruly kitchen was shoved against a wall with jars of grains arrayed on pantry shelves and bags of produce hanging from the ceiling to defend against rodents.
The man pointed to a sack on the ground. “There, my luggage.”
“What about the computer?” Lalji asked.
Bowman frowned at the machine. “No. I don’t need it.”
“But it’s valuable.”
“What I need, I carry in my head. Everything in that machine came from me. My fat burned into knowledge. My calories pedaled into data analysis.” He scowled. “Sometimes, I look at that computer and all I see is myself whittled away. I was a fat man once.” He shook his head emphatically. “I won’t miss it.”
Lalji began to protest but Creo startled and whipped out his spring gun. “Someone else is here.”
Lalji saw her even as Creo spoke: a girl squatting in the corner, hidden by shadow, a skinny, staring, freckled creature with stringy brown hair. Creo lowered his spring gun with a sigh.
Bowman beckoned. “Come out, Tazi. These are the men I told you about.”
Lalji wondered how long she had been sitting in the cellar darkness, waiting. She had the look of a creature who had almost molded with the basement: her hair lank, her dark eyes nearly swallowed by their pupils. He turned on Bowman. “I thought there was only you.”
Bowman’s pleased smile faded. “Will you go back because of it?”
Lalji eyed the girl. Was she a lover? His child? A feral adoptee? He couldn’t guess. The girl slipped her hand into the old man’s. Bowman patted it reassuringly. Lalji shook his head. “She is too many. You, I have agreed to take. I prepared a way to carry you, to hide you from boarders and inspections. Her,” he waved at the girl, “I did not agree to. It is risky to take someone like yourself, and now you wish to compound the danger with this girl? No.” He shook his head emphatically. “It cannot be done.”
“What difference does it make?” Bowman asked. “It costs you nothing. The current will carry us all. I have food enough for both of us.” He went over to the pantry and started to pull down glass jars of beans, lentils, corn, and rice. “Look, here.”
Lalji said, “We have more than enough food.”
Bowman made a face. “SoyPRO, I suppose?”
“Nothing wrong with SoyPRO,” Creo said.
The old man grinned and held up a jar of green beans floating in brine. “No. Of course not. But a man likes variety.” He began filling his bag with more jars, letting them clink carefully. He caught Creo’s snort of disgust and smiled, ingratiating suddenly. “For lean times, if nothing else.” He dumped more jars of grains into the sack.
Lalji chopped the air with his hand. “Your food is not the issue. Your girl is the issue, and she is a risk!”
Bowman shook his head. “No risk. No one is looking for her. She can travel in the open, even.”
“No. You must leave her. I will not take her.”
The old man looked down at the girl, uncertain. She gazed back, extricated her hand from his. “I’m not afraid. I can live here still. Like before.”
Bowman frowned, thinking. Finally, he shook his head. “No.” He faced Lalji. “If she cannot go, then I cannot. She fed me when I worked. I deprived her of calories for my research when they should have gone to her. I owe her too much. I will not leave her to the wolves of this place.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and placed her ahead of him, between himself and Lalji.
Creo made a face of disgust. “What difference does it make? Just bring her. We’ve got plenty of space.”
Lalji shook his head. He and Bowman stared at one another across the cellar. Creo said, “What if he gives us the computer? We could call it payment.”
Lalji shook his head stubbornly. “No. I do not care about the money. It is too dangerous to bring her.”
Bowman laughed. “Then why come all this way if you are afraid? Half the calorie companies want to kill me and you talk about risk?”
Creo frowned. “What’s he talking about?”
Bowman’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “You haven’t told your partner about me?”
Creo looked from Lalji to Bowman and back. “Lalji?”
Lalji took a deep breath, his eyes still locked on Bowman. “They say he can break the calorie monopolies. That he can pirate SoyPRO.”
Creo boggled for a moment. “That’s impossible!”
Bowman shrugged. “For you, perhaps. But for a knowledgeable man? Willing to dedicate his life to DNA helixes? More than possible. If one is willing to burn the calories for such a project, to waste energy on statistics and genome analysis, to pedal a computer through millions upon millions of cycles. More than possible.” He wrapped his arms around his skinny girl and held her to him. He smiled at Lalji. “So. Do we have any agreement?”
Creo shook his head, puzzling. “I thought you had a money plan, Lalji, but this…” He shook his head again. “I don’t get it. How the hell do we make money off this?”
Lalji gave Creo a dirty look. Bowman smiled, patiently waiting. Lalji stifled an urge to seize the lantern and throw it in his face, such a confident man, so sure of himself, so loyal.…
He turned abruptly and headed for the stairs. “Bring the computer, Creo. If his girl makes any trouble, we dump them both in the river, and still keep his knowledge.”
Lalji remembered his father pushing back his thali, pretending he was full when dal had barely stained the steel plate. He remembered his mother pressing an extra bite onto his own. He remembered Gita, watching, silent, and then all of them unfolding their legs and climbing off the family bed, bustling around the hovel, ostentatiously ignoring him as he consumed the extra portion. He remembered roti in his mouth, dry like ashes, and forcing himself to swallow anyway.
He remembered planting. Squatting with his father in desert heat, yellow dust all around them, burying seeds they had stored away, saved when they might have been eaten, kept when they might have made Gita fat and marriageable, his father smiling, saying, “These seeds will make hundreds of new seeds and then we will all eat well.”
“How many seeds will they make?” Lalji had asked.
And his father had laughed and spread his arms fully wide, and seemed so large and great with his big white teeth and red and gold earrings and crinkling eyes as he cried, “Hundreds! Thousands if you pray!” And Lalji had prayed, to Ganesha and Lakshmi and Krishna and Rani Sati and Ram and Vishnu, to every god he could think of, joining the many villagers who did the same as he poured water from the well over tiny seeds and sat guard in the darkness against the possibility that the precious grains might be uprooted in the night and transported to some other farmer’s field.
He sat every night while cold stars turned overhead, watching the seed rows, waiting, watering, praying, waiting through the days until his father finally shook his head and said it was no use. And yet still he had hoped, until at last he went out into the field and dug up the seeds one by one, and found them already decomposed, tiny corpses in his hand, rotted. As dead in his palm as the day he and his father had planted them.
He had crouched in the darkness and eaten the cold dead seeds, knowing he should share, and yet unable to master his hunger and carry them home. He wolfed them down alone, half-decayed and caked with dirt: his first true taste of PurCal.
In the light of early morning, Lalji bathed in the most sacred river of his adopted land. He immersed himself in the Mississippi’s silty flow, cleansing the weight of sleep, making himself clean before his gods. He pulled himself back aboard, slick with water, his underwear dripping off his sagging bottom, his brown skin glistening, and toweled himself dry on the deck as he looked across the water to where the rising sun cast gold flecks on the river’s rippled surface.
He finished drying himself and dressed in new clean clothes before going to his shrine. He lit incense in front of the gods, placed U-Tex and SoyPRO before the tiny carved idols of Krishna and his lute, benevolent Lakshmi, and elephant-headed Ganesha. He knelt in front of the idols, prostrated himself, and prayed.
They had floated south on the river’s current, winding easily through bright fall days and watching as leaves changed and cool weather came on. Tranquil skies had arched overhead and mirrored on the river, turning the mud of the Mississippi’s flow into shining blue, and they had followed that blue road south, riding the great arterial flow of the river as creeks and tributaries and the linked chains of barges all crowded in with them and gravity did the work of carrying them south.
He was grateful for their smooth movement downriver. The first of the locks were behind them, and having watched the sniffer dogs ignore Bowman’s hiding place under the decking, Lalji was beginning to hope that the trip would be as easy as Shriram had claimed. Nonetheless, he prayed longer and harder each day as IP patrols shot past in their fast boats, and he placed extra SoyPRO before Ganesha’s idol, desperately hoping that the Remover of Obstacles would continue to do so.
By the time he finished his morning devotions, the rest of the boat was stirring. Creo came below and wandered into the cramped galley. Bowman followed, complaining of SoyPRO, offering heirloom ingredients that Creo shook off with suspicion. On deck, Tazi sat at the edge of the boat with a fishing line tossed into the water, hoping to snare one of the massive lethargic LiveSalmon that occasionally bumped against the boat’s keel in the warm murk of the river.
Lalji unmoored and took his place at the tiller. He unlocked the kink-springs and the boat whirred into the deeper current, stored joules dripping from its precision springs in a steady flow as molecules unlocked, one after another, reliable from the first kink to the last. He positioned the needleboat amongst the wallowing grain barges and locked the springs again, allowing the boat to drift.
Bowman and Creo came back up on deck as Creo was asking, “…you know how to grow SoyPRO?”
Bowman laughed and sat down beside Tazi. “What good would that do? The IP men would find the fields, ask for the licenses, and if none were provided, the fields would burn and burn and burn.”
“So what good are you?”
Bowman smiled and posed a question instead. “SoyPRO—what is its most precious quality?”
“It’s high calorie.”
Bowman’s braying laughter carried across the water. He tousled Tazi’s hair and the pair of them exchanged amused glances. “You’ve seen too many billboards from AgriGen. ‘Energy for the world’ indeed, indeed. Oh, AgriGen and their ilk must love you very much. So malleable, so…tractable.” He laughed again and shook his head. “No. Anyone can make high-calorie plants. What else?”
Nettled, Creo said, “It resists the weevil.”
Bowman’s expression became sly. “Closer, yes. Difficult to make a plant that fights off the weevil, the leafcurl rust, the soil bacterium which chew through their roots… so many blights plague us now, so many beasts assail our plantings, but come now, what, best of all, do we like about SoyPRO? We of AgriGen who ‘provide energy to the world’?” He waved at a chain of grain barges slathered with logos for SuperFlavor. “What makes SuperFlavor so perfect from a CEO’s perspective?” He turned toward Lalji. “You know, Indian, don’t you? Isn’t it why you’ve come all this distance?”
Lalji stared back at him. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “It’s sterile.”
Bowman’s eyes held Lalji’s for a moment. His smile slipped. He ducked his head. “Yes. Indeed, indeed. A genetic dead-end. A one-way street. We now pay for a privilege that nature once provided willingly, for just a little labor.” He looked up at Lalji. “I’m sorry. I should have thought. You would have felt our accountants’ optimum demand estimates more than most.”
Lalji shook his head. “You cannot apologize.” He nodded at Creo. “Tell him the rest. Tell him what you can do. What I was told you can do.”
“Some things are perhaps better left unsaid.”
Lalji was undaunted. “Tell him. Tell me. Again.”
Bowman shrugged. “If you trust him, then I must trust him as well, yes?” He turned to Creo. “Do you know cheshires?”
Creo made a noise of disgust. “They’re pests.”
“Ah, yes. A bluebill for every dead one. I forgot. But what makes our cheshires such pests?”
“They molt. They kill birds.”
“And?” Bowman prodded.
Bowman shook his head. “And to think it was for people like you that I wasted my life on research and my calories on computer cycles.
“You call cheshires a plague, and truly, they are. A few wealthy patrons, obsessed with Lewis Carroll, and suddenly they are everywhere, breeding with heirloom cats, killing birds, wailing in the night, but most importantly, their offspring, an astonishing ninety-two percent of the time, are cheshires themselves, pure, absolute. We create a new species in a heartbeat of evolutionary time, and our songbird populations disappear almost as quickly. A more perfect predator, but most importantly, one that spreads.
“With SoyPRO, or U-Tex, the calorie companies may patent the plants and use intellectual property police and sensitized dogs to sniff out their property, but even IP men can only inspect so many acres. Most importantly, the seeds are sterile, a locked box. Some may steal a little here and there, as you and Lalji do, but in the end, you are nothing but a small expense on a balance sheet fat with profit because no one except the calorie companies can grow the plants.
“But what would happen if we passed SoyPRO a different trait, stealthily, like a man climbing atop his best friend’s wife?” He waved his arm to indicate the green fields that lapped at the edges of the river. “What if someone were to drop bastardizing pollens amongst these crown jewels that surround us? Before the calorie companies harvested and shipped the resulting seeds across the world in their mighty clipper fleets, before the licensed dealers delivered the patented crop seed to their customers. What sorts of seeds might they be delivering then?”
Bowman began ticking traits off with his fingers. “Resistant to weevil and leafcurl, yes. High calorie, yes, of course. Genetically distinct and therefore unpatentable?” He smiled briefly. “Perhaps. But best of all, fecund. Unbelievably fecund. Ripe, fat with breeding potential.” He leaned forward. “Imagine it. Seeds distributed across the world by the very cuckolds who have always clutched them so tight, all of those seeds lusting to breed, lusting to produce their own fine offspring full of the same pollens that polluted the crown jewels in the first place.” He clapped his hands. “Oh, what an infection that would be! And how it would spread!”
Creo stared, his expression contorting between horror and fascination. “You can do this?”
Bowman laughed and clapped his hands again. “I’m going to be the next Johnny Appleseed.”
Lalji woke suddenly. Around him, the darkness of the river was nearly complete. A few windup LED beacons glowed on grain barges, powered by the flow of the current’s drag against their ungainly bodies. Water lapped against the sides of the needleboat and the bank where they had tied up. Beside him on the deck the others lay bundled in blankets.
Why had he wakened? In the distance, a pair of village roosters were challenging one another across the darkness. A dog was barking, incensed by whatever hidden smells or sounds caused dogs to startle and defend their territory. Lalji closed his eyes and listened to the gentle undulation of the river, the sounds of the distant village. If he pressed his imagination, he could almost be lying in the early dawn of another village, far away, long ago dissolved.
Why was he awake? He opened his eyes again and sat up. He strained his eyes against the darkness. A shadow appeared on the river blackness, a subtle blot of movement.
Lalji shook Bowman awake, his hand over Bowman’s mouth. “Hide!” he whispered.
Lights swept over them. Bowman’s eyes widened. He fought off his blankets and scrambled for the hold. Lalji gathered Bowman’s blankets with his own, trying to obscure the number of sleepers as more lights flashed brightly, sliding across the deck, pasting them like insects on a collection board.
Abandoning its pretense of stealth, the IP boat opened its springs and rushed in. It slammed against the needleboat, pinning it to the shoreline as men swarmed aboard. Three of them, and two dogs.
“Everyone stay calm! Keep your hands in sight!”
Handlight beams swept across the deck, dazzlingly bright. Creo and Tazi clawed out of their blankets and stood, surprised. The sniffer dogs growled and lunged against their leashes. Creo backed away from them, his hands held before him, defensive.
One of the IP men swept his handlight across them. “Who owns this boat?”
Lalji took a breath. “It’s mine. This is my boat.” The beam swung back and speared his eyes. He squinted into the light. “Have we done something wrong?”
The leader didn’t answer. The other IP men fanned out, swinging their lights across the boat, marking the people on deck. Lalji realized that except for the leader, they were just boys, barely old enough to have mustaches and beards at all. Just peachfuzzed boys carrying spring guns and covered in armor that helped them swagger.
Two of them headed for the stairs with the dogs as a fourth jumped aboard from the secured IP boat. Handlight beams disappeared into the bowels of the needleboat, casting looming shadows from inside the stairway. Creo had somehow managed to end up backed against the needleboat’s cache of spring guns. His hand rested casually beside the catches. Lalji stepped toward the captain, hoping to head off Creo’s impulsiveness.
The captain swung his light on him. “What are you doing here?”
Lalji stopped and spread his hands helplessly. “Nothing.”
Lalji wondered if Bowman had managed to secure himself. “What I mean is that we only moored here to sleep.”
“Why didn’t you tie up at Willow Bend?”
“I’m not familiar with this part of the river. It was getting dark. I didn’t want to be crushed by the barges.” He wrung his hands. “I deal with antiques. We were looking in the old suburbs to the north. It’s not illeg—” A shout from below interrupted him. Lalji closed his eyes regretfully. The Mississippi would be his burial river. He would never find his way to the Ganges.
The IP men came up dragging Bowman. “Look what we found! Trying to hide under the decking!”
Bowman tried to shake them off. “I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“Shut up!” One of the boys shoved a club into Bowman’s stomach. The old man doubled over. Tazi lunged toward them, but the captain corralled her and held her tightly as he flashed his light over Bowman’s features. He gasped.
“Cuff him. We want him. Cover them!” Spring guns came up all around. The captain scowled at Lalji. “An antiques dealer. I almost believed you.” To his men he said, “He’s a generipper. From a long time ago. See if there’s anything else on board. Any disks, any computers, any papers.”
One of them said, “There’s a treadle computer below.”
In moments the computer was on deck. The captain surveyed his captives. “Cuff them all.” One of the IP boys made Lalji kneel and started patting him down while a sniffer dog growled over them.
Bowman was saying, “I’m really very sorry. Perhaps you’ve made a mistake. Perhaps.…”
Suddenly the captain shouted. The IP men’s handlights swung toward the sound. Tazi was latched onto the captain’s hand, biting him. He was shaking at her as though she were a dog, struggling with his other hand to get his spring gun free. For a brief moment everyone watched the scuffle between the girl and the much larger man. Someone—Lalji thought it was an IP man—laughed. Then Tazi was flung free and the captain had his gun out and there was a sharp hiss of disks. Handlights thudded on the deck and rolled, casting dizzy beams of light.
More disks hissed through the darkness. A rolling light beam showed the captain falling, crashing against Bowman’s computer, silver disks embedded in his armor. He and the computer slid backwards. Darkness again. A splash. The dogs howled, either released and attacking or else wounded. Lalji dove and lay prone on the decking as metal whirred past his head.
“Lalji!” It was Creo’s voice. A gun skittered across the planking. Lalji scrambled toward the sound.
One of the handlight beams had stabilized. The captain was sitting up, black blood lines trailing from his jaw as he leveled his pistol at Tazi. Bowman lunged into the light, shielding the girl with his body. He curled as disks hit him.
Lalji’s fingers bumped the spring gun. He clutched after it blindly. His hand closed on it. He jacked the pump, aimed toward bootfalls, and let the spring gun whir. The shadow of one of the IP men, the boys, was above him, falling, bleeding, already dead as he hit the decking.
Everything went silent.
Lalji waited. Nothing moved. He waited still, forcing himself to breathe quietly, straining his eyes against the shadows where the handlights didn’t illuminate. Was he the only one alive?
One by one, the three remaining handlights ran out of juice. Darkness closed in. The IP boat bumped gently against the needleboat. A breeze rustled the willow banks, carrying the muddy reek of fish and grasses. Crickets chirped.
Lalji stood. Nothing. No movement. Slowly he limped across the deck. He’d twisted his leg somehow. He felt for one of the handlights, found it by its faint metallic gleam, and wound it. He played its flickering beam across the deck.
Creo. The big blond boy was dead, a disk caught in his throat. Blood pooled from where it had hit his artery. Not far away, Bowman was ribboned with disks. His blood ran everywhere. The computer was missing. Gone overboard. Lalji squatted beside the bodies, sighing. He pulled Creo’s bloodied braids off his face. He had been fast. As fast as he had believed he was. Three armored IP men and the dogs as well. He sighed again.
Something whimpered. Lalji flicked his light toward the source, afraid of what he would find, but it was only the girl, seemingly unhurt, crawling to Bowman’s body. She looked up into the glare of Lalji’s light, then ignored him and crouched over Bowman. She sobbed, then stifled herself. Lalji locked the handlight’s spring and let darkness fall over them.
He listened to the night sounds again, praying to Ganesha that there were no others out on the river. His eyes adjusted. The shadow of the grieving girl kneeling amongst lumped bodies resolved from the blackness. He shook his head. So many dead for such an idea. That such a man as Bowman might be of use. And now such a waste. He listened for signs others had been alerted but heard nothing. A single patrol, it seemed, uncoordinated with any others. Bad luck. That was all. One piece of bad luck breaking a string of good. Gods were fickle.
He limped to the needleboat’s moorings and began untying. Unbidden, Tazi joined him, her small hands fumbling with the knots. He went to the tiller and unlocked the kink-springs. The boat jerked as the screws bit and they swept into the river darkness. He let the springs fly for an hour, wasting joules but anxious to make distance from the killing place, then searched the banks for an inlet and anchored. The darkness was nearly total.
After securing the boat, he searched for weights and tied them around the ankles of the IP men. He did the same with the dogs, then began shoving the bodies off the deck. The water swallowed them easily. It felt unclean to dump them so unceremoniously, but he had no intention of taking time to bury them. With luck, the men would bump along under water, picked at by fish until they disintegrated.
When the IP men were gone, he paused over Creo. So wonderfully quick. He pushed Creo overboard, wishing he could build a pyre for him.
Lalji began mopping the decks, sluicing away the remaining blood. The moon rose, bathing them in pale light. The girl sat beside the body of her chaperone. Eventually, Lalji could avoid her with his mopping no more. He knelt beside her. “You understand he must go into the river?”
The girl didn’t respond. Lalji took it as assent. “If there is anything you wish to have of his, you should take it now.” The girl shook her head. Lalji hesitantly let his hand rest on her shoulder. “It is no shame to be given to a river. An honor, even, to go to a river such as this.”
He waited. Finally, she nodded. He stood and dragged the body to the edge of the boat. He tied it with weights and levered the legs over the lip. The old man slid out of his hands. The girl was silent, staring at where Bowman had disappeared into the water.
Lalji finished his mopping. In the morning he would have to mop again, and sand the stains, but for the time it would do. He began pulling in the anchors. A moment later, the girl was with him again, helping. Lalji settled himself at the tiller. Such a waste, he thought. Such a great waste.
Slowly, the current drew their needleboat into the deeper flows of the river. The girl came and knelt beside him. “Will they chase us?”
Lalji shrugged. “With luck? No. They will look for something larger than us to make so many of their men disappear. With just the two of us now, we will look like very small inconsequential fish to them. With luck.”
She nodded, seeming to digest this information. “He saved me, you know. I should be dead now.”
“Will you plant his seeds?”
“Without him to make them, there will be no one to plant them.”
Tazi frowned. “But we’ve got so many.” She stood and slipped down into the hold. When she returned, she lugged the sack of Bowman’s food stores. She began pulling jars from the sack: rice and corn, soybeans and kernels of wheat.
“That’s just food,” Lalji protested.
Tazi shook her head stubbornly. “They’re his Johnny Appleseeds. I wasn’t supposed to tell you. He didn’t trust you to take us all the way. To take me. But you could plant them, too, right?”
Lalji frowned and picked up a jar of corn. The kernels nestled tightly together, hundreds of them, each one unpatented, each one a genetic infection. He closed his eyes and in his mind he saw a field: row upon row of green rustling plants, and his father, laughing, with his arms spread wide as he shouted, “Hundreds! Thousands if you pray!”
Lalji hugged the jar to his chest, and slowly, he began to smile.
The needleboat continued downstream, a bit of flotsam in the Mississippi’s current. Around it, the crowding shadow hulks of the grain barges loomed, all of them flowing south through the fertile heartland toward the gateway of New Orleans; all of them flowing steadily toward the vast wide world.
Yellow Card Man
Machetes gleam on the warehouse floor, reflecting a red conflagration of jute and tamarind and kink-springs. They’re all around now. The men with their green headbands and their slogans and their wet wet blades. Their calls echo in the warehouse and on the street. Number one son is already gone. Jade Blossom he cannot find, no matter how many times he treadles her phone number. His daughters’ faces have been split wide like blister rust durians.
More fires blaze. Black smoke roils around him. He runs through his warehouse offices, past computers with teak cases and iron treadles and past piles of ash where his clerks burned files through the night, obliterating the names of people who aided the Tri-Clipper.
He runs, choking on heat and smoke. In his own gracious office he dashes to the shutters and fumbles with their brass catches. He slams his shoulder against those blue shutters while the warehouse burns and brown-skinned men boil through the door and swing their slick red knives…
Tranh wakes, gasping.
Sharp concrete edges jam against the knuckles of his spine. A salt-slick thigh smothers his face. He shoves away the stranger’s leg. Sweat-sheened skin glimmers in the blackness, impressionistic markers for the bodies that shift and shove all around him. They fart and groan and turn, flesh on flesh, bone against bone, the living and the heat-smothered dead all together.
A man coughs. Moist lungs and spittle gust against Tranh’s face. His spine and belly stick to the naked sweating flesh of the strangers around him. Claustrophobia rises. He forces it down. Forces himself to lie still, to breathe slowly, deeply, despite the heat. To taste the swelter darkness with all the paranoia of a survivor’s mind. He is awake while others sleep. He is alive while others are long dead. He forces himself to lie still, and listen.
Bicycle bells are ringing. Down below and far away, ten thousand bodies below, a lifetime away, bicycle bells chime. He claws himself out of the mass of tangled humanity, dragging his hemp sack of possessions with him. He is late. Of all the days he could be late, this is the worst possible one. He slings the bag over a bony shoulder and feels his way down the stairs, finding his footing in the cascade of sleeping flesh. He slides his sandals between families, lovers, and crouching hungry ghosts, praying that he will not slip and break an old man’s bone. Step, feel, step, feel.
A curse rises from the mass. Bodies shift and roll. He steadies himself on a landing amongst the privileged who lie flat, then wades on. Downward ever downward, round more turnings of the stair, wading down through the carpet of his countrymen. Step. Feel. Step. Feel. Another turn. A hint of gray light glimmers far below. Fresh air kisses his face, caresses his body. The waterfall of anonymous flesh resolves into individuals, men and women sprawled across one another, pillowed on hard concrete, propped on the slant of the windowless stair. Gray light turns gold. The tinkle of bicycle bells comes louder now, clear like the ring of cibiscosis chimes.
Tranh spills out of the highrise and into a crowd of congee sellers, hemp weavers, and potato carts. He puts his hands on his knees and gasps, sucking in swirling dust and trampled street dung, grateful for every breath as sweat pours off his body. Salt jewels fall from the tip of his nose, spatter the red paving stones of the sidewalk with his moisture. Heat kills men. Kills old men. But he is out of the oven; he has not been cooked again, despite the blast furnace of the dry season.
Bicycles and their ringing bells flow past like schools of carp, commuters already on their way to work. Behind him the highrise looms, forty stories of heat and vines and mold. A vertical ruin of broken windows and pillaged apartments. A remnant glory from the old energy Expansion now become a heated tropic coffin without air conditioning or electricity to protect it from the glaze of the equatorial sun. Bangkok keeps its refugees in the pale blue sky, and wishes they would stay there. And yet he has emerged alive, despite the Dung Lord, despite the white shirts, despite old age, he has once again clawed his way down from the heavens.
Tranh straightens. Men stir woks of noodles and pull steamers of baozi from their bamboo rounds. Gray high-protein U-Tex rice gruel fills the air with the scents of rotting fish and fatty acid oils. Tranh’s stomach knots with hunger and a pasty saliva coats his mouth, all that his dehydrated body can summon at the scent of food. Devil cats swirl around the vendors’ legs like sharks, hoping for morsels to drop, hoping for theft opportunities. Their shimmering chameleon-like forms flit and flicker, showing calico and siamese and orange tabby markings before fading against the backdrop of concrete and crowding hungry people that they brush against. The woks burn hard and bright with green-tinged methane, giving off new scents as rice noodles splash into hot oil. Tranh forces himself to turn away.
He shoves through the press, dragging his hemp bag along with him, ignoring who it hits and who shouts after him. Incident victims crouch in the doorways, waving severed limbs and begging from others who have a little more. Men squat on tea stools and watch the day’s swelter build as they smoke tiny rolled cigarettes of scavenged gold leaf tobacco and share them from lip to lip. Women converse in knots, nervously fingering yellow cards as they wait for white shirts to appear and stamp their renewals.
Yellow card people as far as the eye can see: an entire race of people, fled to the great Thai Kingdom from Malaya where they were suddenly unwelcome. A fat clot of refugees placed under the authority of the Environment Ministry’s white shirts as if they were nothing but another invasive species to be managed, like cibiscosis, blister rust, and genehack weevil. Yellow cards, yellow men. Huang ren all around, and Tranh is late for his one opportunity to climb out of their mass. One opportunity in all his months as a yellow card Chinese refugee. And now he is late. He squeezes past a rat seller, swallowing another rush of saliva at the scent of roasted flesh, and rushes down an alley to the water pump. He stops short.
Ten others stand in line before him: old men, young women, mothers, boys.
He slumps. He wants to rage at the setback. If he had the energy—if he had eaten well yesterday or the day before or even the day before that he would scream, would throw his hemp bag on the street and stamp on it until it turned to dust—but his calories are too few. It is just another opportunity squandered, thanks to the ill luck of the stairwells. He should have given the last of his baht to the Dung Lord and rented body-space in an apartment with windows facing east so that he could see the rising sun, and wake early.
But he was cheap. Cheap with his money. Cheap with his future. How many times did he tell his sons that spending money to make more money was perfectly acceptable? But the timid yellow card refugee that he has become counseled him to save his baht. Like an ignorant peasant mouse he clutched his cash to himself and slept in pitch-black stairwells. He should have stood like a tiger and braved the night curfew and the ministry’s white shirts and their black batons…. And now he is late and reeks of the stairwells and stands behind ten others, all of whom must drink and fill a bucket and brush their teeth with the brown water of the Chao Phraya River.
There was a time when he demanded punctuality of his employees, of his wife, of his sons and concubines, but it was when he owned a spring-wound wristwatch and could gaze at its steady sweep of minutes and hours. Every so often, he could wind its tiny spring, and listen to it tick, and lash his sons for their lazy attitudes. He has become old and slow and stupid or he would have foreseen this. Just as he should have foreseen the rising militancy of the Green Headbands. When did his mind become so slack?
One by one, the other refugees finish their ablutions. A mother with gap teeth and blooms of gray fa’ gan fringe behind her ears tops her bucket, and Tranh slips forward.
He has no bucket. Just the bag. The precious bag. He hangs it beside the pump and wraps his sarong more tightly around his hollow hips before he squats under the pump head. With a bony arm he yanks the pump’s handle. Ripe brown water gushes over him. The river’s blessing. His skin droops off his body with the weight of the water, sagging like the flesh of a shaved cat. He opens his mouth and drinks the gritty water, rubs his teeth with a finger, wondering what protozoa he may swallow. It doesn’t matter. He trusts luck, now. It’s all he has.
Children watch him bathe his old body while their mothers scavenge through PurCal mango peels and Red Star tamarind hulls hoping to find some bit of fruit not tainted with cibiscosis.111mt.6…. Or is it 111mt.7? Or mt.8? There was a time when he knew all the bio-engineered plagues which ailed them. Knew when a crop was about to fail, and whether new seedstock had been ripped. Profited from the knowledge by filling his clipper ships with the right seeds and produce. But that was a lifetime ago.
His hands are shaking as he opens his bag and pulls out his clothes. Is it old age or excitement that makes him tremble? Clean clothes. Good clothes. A rich man’s white linen suit.
The clothes were not his, but now they are, and he has kept them safe. Safe for this opportunity, even when he desperately wanted to sell them for cash or wear them as his other clothes turned to rags. He drags the trousers up his bony legs, stepping out of his sandals and balancing one foot at a time. He begins buttoning the shirt, hurrying his fingers as a voice in his head reminds him that time is slipping away.
“Selling those clothes? Going to parade them around until someone with meat on his bones buys them off you?”
Tranh glances up—he shouldn’t need to look; he should know the voice—and yet he looks anyway. He can’t help himself. Once he was a tiger. Now he is nothing but a frightened little mouse who jumps and twitches at every hint of danger. And there it is: Ma. Standing before him, beaming. Fat and beaming. As vital as a wolf.
Ma grins. “You look like a wire-frame mannequin at Palawan Plaza.”
“I wouldn’t know. I can’t afford to shop there.” Tranh keeps putting on his clothes.
“Those are nice enough to come from Palawan. How did you get them?”
Tranh doesn’t answer.
“Who are you fooling? Those clothes were made for a man a thousand times your size.”
“We can’t all be fat and lucky.” Tranh’s voice comes out as a whisper. Did he always whisper? Was he always such a rattletrap corpse whispering and sighing at every threat? He doesn’t think so. But it’s hard for him to remember what a tiger should sound like. He tries again, steadying his voice. “We can’t all be as lucky as Ma Ping who lives on the top floors with the Dung Lord himself.” His words still come out like reeds shushing against concrete.
“Lucky?” Ma laughs. So young. So pleased with himself. “I earn my fate. Isn’t that what you always used to tell me? That luck has nothing to do with success? That men make their own luck?” He laughs again. “And now look at you.”
Tranh grits his teeth. “Better men than you have fallen.” Still the awful timid whisper.
“And better men than you are on the rise.” Ma’s fingers dart to his wrist. They stroke a wristwatch, a fine chronograph, ancient, gold and diamonds—Rolex. From an earlier time. A different place. A different world. Tranh stares stupidly, like a hypnotized snake. He can’t tear his eyes away.
Ma smiles lazily. “You like it? I found it in an antique shop near Wat Rajapradit. It seemed familiar.”
Tranh’s anger rises. He starts to reply, then shakes his head and says nothing. Time is passing. He fumbles with his final buttons, pulls on the coat and runs his fingers through the last surviving strands of his lank gray hair. If he had a comb… He grimaces. It is stupid to wish. The clothes are enough. They have to be.
Ma laughs. “Now you look like a Big Name.”
Ignore him, says the voice inside Tranh’s head. Tranh pulls his last paltry baht out of his hemp bag—the money he saved by sleeping in the stairwells, and which has now made him so late—and shoves it into his pockets.
“You seem rushed. Do you have an appointment somewhere?”
Tranh shoves past, trying not to flinch as he squeezes around Ma’s bulk.
Ma calls after him, laughing. “Where are you headed, Mr. Big Name? Mr. Three Prosperities! Do you have some intelligence you’d like to share with the rest of us?”
Others look up at the shout: hungry yellow card faces, hungry yellow card mouths. Yellow card people as far as the eye can see, and all of them looking at him now. Incident survivors. Men. Women. Children. Knowing him, now. Recognizing his legend. With a change of clothing and a single shout he has risen from obscurity. Their mocking calls pour down like a monsoon rain:
“Wei! Mr. Three Prosperities! Nice shirt!”
“Share a smoke, Mr. Big Name!”
“Where are you going so fast all dressed up?”
“Getting a tenth wife?”
“Got a job?”
“Mr. Big Name! Got a job for me?”
“Where you going? Maybe we should all follow Old Multinational!”
Tranh’s neck prickles. He shakes off the fear. Even if they follow it will be too late for them to take advantage. For the first time in half a year, the advantage of skills and knowledge are on his side. Now there is only time.
He jogs through Bangkok’s morning press as bicycles and cycle rickshaws and spring-wound scooters stream past. Sweat drenches him. It soaks his good shirt, damps even his jacket. He takes it off and slings it over an arm. His gray hair clings to his egg-bald liver-spotted skull, waterlogged. He pauses every other block to walk and recover his breath as his shins begin to ache and his breath comes in gasps and his old man’s heart hammers in his chest.
He should spend his baht on a cycle rickshaw but he can’t make himself do it. He is late. But perhaps he is too late? And if he is too late, the extra baht will be wasted and he will starve tonight. But then, what good is a suit soaked with sweat?
Clothes make the man, he told his sons; the first impression is the most important. Start well, and you start ahead. Of course you can win someone with your skills and your knowledge but people are animals first. Look good. Smell good. Satisfy their first senses. Then when they are well-disposed toward you, make your proposal.
Isn’t that why he beat Second Son when he came home with a red tattoo of a tiger on his shoulder, as though he was some calorie gangster? Isn’t that why he paid a tooth doctor to twist even his daughters’ teeth with cultured bamboo and rubber curves from Singapore so that they were as straight as razors?
And isn’t that why the Green Headbands in Malaya hated us Chinese? Because we looked so good? Because we looked so rich? Because we spoke so well and worked so hard when they were lazy and we sweated every day?
Tranh watches a pack of spring-wound scooters flit past, all of them Thai-Chinese manufactured. Such clever fast things—a megajoule kink-spring and a flywheel, pedals and friction brakes to regather kinetic energy. And all their factories owned one hundred percent by Chiu Chow Chinese. And yet no Chiu Chow blood runs in the gutters of this country. These Chiu Chow Chinese are loved, despite the fact that they came to the Thai Kingdom as farang.
If we had assimilated in Malaya like the Chiu Chow did here, would we have survived?
Tranh shakes his head at the thought. It would have been impossible. His clan would have had to convert to Islam as well, and forsake all their ancestors in Hell. It would have been impossible. Perhaps it was his people’s karma to be destroyed. To stand tall and dominate the cities of Penang and Malacca and all the western coast of the Malayan Peninsula for a brief while, and then to die.
Clothes make the man. Or kill him. Tranh understands this, finally. A white tailored suit from Hwang Brothers is nothing so much as a target. An antique piece of gold mechanization swinging on your wrist is nothing if not bait. Tranh wonders if his sons’ perfect teeth still lie in the ashes of Three Prosperities’ warehouses, if their lovely time pieces now attract sharks and crabs in the holds of his scuttled clipper ships.
He should have known. Should have seen the rising tide of bloodthirsty subsects and intensifying nationalism. Just as the man he followed two months ago should have known that fine clothes were no protection. A man in good clothes, a yellow card to boot, should have known that he was nothing but a bit of bloodied bait before a Komodo lizard. At least the stupid melon didn’t bleed on his fancy clothes when the white shirts were done with him. That one had no habit of survival. He forgot that he was no longer a Big Name.
But Tranh is learning. As he once learned tides and depth charts, markets and bio-engineered plagues, profit maximization and how to balance the dragon’s gate, he now learns from the devil cats who molt and fade from sight, who flee their hunters at the first sign of danger. He learns from the crows and kites who live so well on scavenge. These are the animals he must emulate. He must discard the reflexes of a tiger. There are no tigers except in zoos. A tiger is always hunted and killed. But a small animal, a scavenging animal, has a chance to strip the bones of a tiger and walk away with the last Hwang Brothers suit that will ever cross the border from Malaya. With the Hwang clan all dead and the Hwang patterns all burned, nothing is left except memories and antiques, and one scavenging old man who knows the power and the peril of good appearance.
An empty cycle rickshaw coasts past. The rickshaw man looks back at Tranh, eyes questioning, attracted by the Hwang Brothers fabrics that flap off Tranh’s skinny frame. Tranh raises a tentative hand. The cycle rickshaw slows.
Is it a good risk? To spend his last security so frivolously?
There was a time when he sent clipper fleets across the ocean to Chennai with great stinking loads of durians because he guessed that the Indians had not had time to plant resistant crop strains before the new blister rust mutations swept over them. A time when he bought black tea and sandalwood from the river men on the chance that he could sell it in the South. Now he can’t decide if he should ride or walk. What a pale man he has become! Sometimes he wonders if he is actually a hungry ghost, trapped between worlds and unable to escape one way or the other.
The cycle rickshaw coasts ahead, the rider’s blue jersey shimmering in the tropic sun, waiting for a decision. Tranh waves him away. The rickshaw man stands on his pedals, sandals flapping against calloused heels and accelerates.
Panic seizes Tranh. He raises his hand again, chases after the rickshaw. “Wait!” His voice comes out as a whisper.
The rickshaw slips into traffic, joining bicycles and the massive shambling shapes of elephantine megodonts. Tranh lets his hand fall, obscurely grateful that the rickshaw man hasn’t heard, that the decision of spending his last baht has been made by some force larger than himself.
All around him, the morning press flows. Hundreds of children in their sailor suit uniforms stream through school gates. Saffron-robed monks stroll under the shade of wide black umbrellas. A man with a conical bamboo hat watches him and then mutters quietly to his friend. They both study him. A trickle of fear runs up Tranh’s spine.
They are all around him, as they were in Malacca. In his own mind, he calls them foreigners, farang. And yet it is he who is the foreigner here. The creature that doesn’t belong. And they know it. The women hanging sarongs on the wires of their balconies, the men sitting barefoot while they drink sugared coffee. The fish sellers and curry men. They all know it, and Tranh can barely control his terror.
Bangkok is not Malacca, he tells himself. Bangkok is not Penang. We have no wives, or gold wristwatches with diamonds, or clipper fleets to steal anymore. Ask the snakeheads who abandoned me in the leech jungles of the border. They have all my wealth. I have nothing. I am no tiger. I am safe.
For a few seconds he believes it. But then a teak-skinned boy chops the top off a coconut with a rusty machete and offers it to Tranh with a smile and it’s all Tranh can do not to scream and run.
Bangkok is not Malacca. They will not burn your warehouses or slash your clerks into chunks of shark bait. He wipes sweat off his face. Perhaps he should have waited to wear the suit. It draws too much attention. There are too many people looking at him. Better to fade like a devil cat and slink across the city in safe anonymity, instead of strutting around like a peacock.
Slowly the streets change from palm-lined boulevards to the open wastelands of the new foreigner’s quarter. Tranh hurries toward the river, heading deeper into the manufacturing empire of white farang.
Gweilo, yang guizi, farang. So many words in so many languages for these translucent-skinned sweating monkeys. Two generations ago when the petroleum ran out and the gweilo factories shut down, everyone assumed they were gone for good. And now they are back. The monsters of the past returned, with new toys and new technologies. The nightmares his mother threatened him with, invading Asiatic coasts. Demons truly; never dead.
And he goes to worship them: the ilk of AgriGen and PurCal with their monopolies on U-Tex rice and TotalNutrient Wheat; the blood-brothers of the bio-engineers who generipped devil cats from storybook inspiration and set them loose in the world to breed and breed and breed; the sponsors of the Intellectual Property Police who used to board his clipper fleets in search of IP infringements, hunting like wolves for unstamped calories and generipped grains as though their engineered plagues of cibiscosis and blister rust weren’t enough to keep their profits high…
Ahead of him, a crowd has formed. Tranh frowns. He starts to run, then forces himself back to a walk. Better not to waste his calories, now. A line has already formed in front of the foreign devil Tennyson Brothers’ factory. It stretches almost a li, snaking around the corner, past the bicycle gear logo in the wrought-iron gate of Sukhumvit Research Corporation, past the intertwined dragons of PurCal East Asia, and past Mishimoto & Co., the clever Japanese fluid dynamics company that Tranh once sourced his clipper designs from.
Mishimoto is full of windup import workers, they say. Full of illegal generipped bodies that walk and talk and totter about in their herky-jerky way—and take rice from real men’s bowls. Creatures with as many as eight arms like the Hindu gods, creatures with no legs so they cannot run away, creatures with eyes as large as teacups which can only see a bare few feet ahead of them but inspect everything with enormous magnified curiosity. But no one can see inside, and if the Environment Ministry’s white shirts know, then the clever Japanese are paying them well to ignore their crimes against biology and religion. It is perhaps the only thing a good Buddhist and a good Muslim and even the farang Grahamite Christians can agree on: windups have no souls.
When Tranh bought Mishimoto’s clipper ships so long ago, he didn’t care. Now he wonders if behind their high gates, windup monstrosities labor while yellow cards stand outside and beg.
Tranh trudges down the line. Policemen with clubs and spring guns patrol the hopefuls, making jokes about farang who wish to work for farang. Heat beats down, merciless on the men lined up before the gate.
“Wah! You look like a pretty bird with those clothes.”
Tranh starts. Li Shen and Hu Laoshi and Lao Xia stand in the line, clustered together. A trio of old men as pathetic as himself. Hu waves a newly rolled cigarette in invitation, motioning him to join them. Tranh nearly shakes at the sight of the tobacco, but forces himself to refuse it. Three times Hu offers, and finally Tranh allows himself to accept, grateful that Hu is in earnest, and wondering where Hu has found this sudden wealth. But then, Hu has a little more strength than the rest of them. A cart man earns more if he works as fast as Hu.
Tranh wipes the sweat off his brow. “A lot of applicants.”
They all laugh at Tranh’s dismay.
Hu lights the cigarette for Tranh. “You thought you knew a secret, maybe?”
Tranh shrugs and draws deeply, passes the cigarette to Lao Xia. “A rumor. Potato God said his elder brother’s son had a promotion. I thought there might be a niche down below, in the slot the nephew left behind.”
Hu grins. “That’s where I heard it, too. ‘Eee. He’ll be rich. Manage fifteen clerks. Eee! He’ll be rich.’ I thought I might be one of the fifteen.”
“At least the rumor was true,” Lao Xia says. “And not just Potato God’s nephew promoted, either.” He scratches the back of his head, a convulsive movement like a dog fighting fleas. Fa’ gan’s gray fringe stains the crooks of his elbows and peeps from the sweaty pockets behind his ears where his hair has receded. He sometimes jokes about it: nothing a little money can’t fix. A good joke. But today he is scratching and the skin behind his ears is cracked and raw. He notices everyone watching and yanks his hand down. He grimaces and passes the cigarette to Li Shen.
“How many positions?” Tranh asks.
“Three. Three clerks.”
Tranh grimaces. “My lucky number.”
Li Shen peers down the line with his bottle-thick glasses. “Too many of us, I think, even if your lucky number is 555.”
Lao Xia laughs. “Amongst the four of us, there are already too many.” He taps the man standing in line just ahead of them. “Uncle. What was your profession before?”
The stranger looks back, surprised. He was a distinguished gentleman, once, by his scholar’s collar, by his fine leather shoes now scarred and blackened with scavenged charcoal. “I taught physics.”
Lao Xia nods. “You see? We’re all overqualified. I oversaw a rubber plantation. Our own professor has degrees in fluid dynamics and materials design. Hu was a fine doctor. And then there is our friend of the Three Prosperities. Not a trading company at all. More like a multi-national.” He tastes the words. Says them again, “Multi-national.” A strange, powerful, seductive sound.
Tranh ducks his head, embarrassed. “You’re too kind.”
“Fang pi.” Hu takes a drag on his cigarette, keeps it moving. “You were the richest of us all. And now here we are, old men scrambling for young men’s jobs. Every one of us ten thousand times overqualified.”
The man behind them interjects, “I was executive legal council for Standard & Commerce.”
Lao Xia makes a face. “Who cares, dog fucker? You’re nothing now.”
The banking lawyer turns away, affronted. Lao Xia grins, sucks hard on the hand-rolled cigarette and passes it again to Tranh. Hu nudges Tranh’s elbow as he starts to take a puff. “Look! There goes old Ma.”
Tranh looks over, exhales smoke sharply. For a moment he thinks Ma has followed him, but no. It is just coincidence. They are in the farang factory district. Ma works for the foreign devils, balancing their books. A kink-spring company. Springlife. Yes, Springlife. It is natural that Ma should be here, comfortably riding to work behind a sweating cycle-rickshaw man.
“Ma Ping,” Li Shen says. “I heard he’s living on the top floor now. Up there with the Dung Lord himself.”
Tranh scowls. “I fired him, once. Ten thousand years ago. Lazy and an embezzler.”
“He’s so fat.”
“I’ve seen his wife,” Hu says. “And his sons. They both have fat on them. They eat meat every night. The boys are fatter than fat. Full of U-Tex proteins.”
“Fatter than us.”
Lao Xia scratches a rib. “Bamboo is fatter than you.”
Tranh watches Ma Ping open a factory door and slip inside. The past is past. Dwelling on the past is madness. There is nothing for him there. There are no wrist watches, no concubines, no opium pipes or jade sculptures of Quan Yin’s merciful form. There are no pretty clipper ships slicing into port with fortunes in their holds. He shakes his head and offers the nearly spent cigarette to Hu so that he can recover the last tobacco for later use. There is nothing for him in the past. Ma is in the past. Three Prosperities Trading Company is the past. The sooner he remembers this, the sooner he will climb out of this awful hole.
From behind him, a man calls out, “Wei! Baldy! When did you cut the line? Go to the back! You line up, like the rest of us!”
“Line up?” Lao Xia shouts back. “Don’t be stupid!” He waves at the line ahead. “How many hundreds are ahead of us? It won’t make any difference where he stands.”
Others begin to attend the man’s complaint. Complain as well. “Line up! Pai dui! Pai dui!” The disturbance increases and police start down the line, casually swinging their batons. They aren’t white shirts, but they have no love for hungry yellow cards.
Tranh makes placating motions to the crowd and Lao Xia. “Of course. Of course. I’ll line up. It’s of no consequence.” He makes his farewells and plods his way down the winding yellow card snake, seeking its distant tail.
Everyone is dismissed long before he reaches it.
A scavenging night. A starving night. Tranh hunts through dark alleys avoiding the vertical prison heat of the towers. Devil cats seethe and scatter ahead of him in rippling waves. The lights of the methane lamps flicker, burn low and snuff themselves, blackening the city. Hot velvet darkness fetid with rotting fruit swaddles him. The heavy humid air sags. Still swelter darkness. Empty market stalls. On a street corner, theater men turn in stylized cadences to stories of Ravana. On a thoroughfare, swingshift megodonts shuffle homeward like gray mountains, their massed shadows led by the gold trim glitter of union handlers.
In the alleys, children with bright silver knives hunt unwary yellow cards and drunken Thais, but Tranh is wise to their feral ways. A year ago, he would not have seen them, but he has the paranoid’s gift of survival, now. Creatures like them are no worse than sharks: easy to predict, easy to avoid. It is not these obviously feral hunters who churn Tranh’s guts with fear, it is the chameleons, the everyday people who work and shop and smile and wai so pleasantly—and riot without warning—who terrify Tranh.
He picks through the trash heaps, fighting devil cats for signs of food, wishing he was fast enough to catch and kill one of those nearly invisible felines. Picking up discarded mangos, studying them carefully with his old man’s eyes, holding them close and then far away, sniffing at them, feeling their blister rusted exteriors and then tossing them aside when they show red mottle in their guts. Some of them still smell good, but even crows won’t accept such a taint. They would eagerly peck apart a bloated corpse but they will not feed on blister rust.
Down the street, the Dung Lord’s lackeys shovel the day’s animal leavings into sacks and throw them into tricycle carriers: the night harvest. They watch him suspiciously. Tranh keeps his eyes averted, avoiding challenge, and scuffles on. He has nothing to cook on an illegally stolen shit fire anyway, and nowhere to sell manure on the black market. The Dung Lord’s monopoly is too strong. Tranh wonders how it might be to find a place in the dung shovelers’ union, to know that his survival was guaranteed feeding the composters of Bangkok’s methane reclamation plants. But it is an opium dream; no yellow card can slither into that closed club.
Tranh lifts another mango and freezes. He bends low, squinting. Pushes aside broadsheet complaints against the Ministry of Trade and handbills calling for a new gold-sheathed River Wat. He pushes aside black slime banana peels and burrows into the garbage. Below it all, stained and torn but still legible, he finds a portion of what was once a great advertising board that perhaps stood over this marketplace: —ogistics. Shipping. Tradin— and behind the words, the glorious silhouette of Dawn Star: one part of Three Prosperities’ tri-clipper logo, running before the wind as fast and sleek as a shark: a high-tech image of palm-oil spun polymers and sails as sharp and white as a gull’s.
Tranh turns his face away, overcome. It’s like unearthing a grave and finding himself within. His pride. His blindness. Fom a time when he thought he might compete with the foreign devils and become a shipping magnate. A Li Ka Shing or a reborn Richard Kuok for the New Expansion. Rebuild the pride of Nanyang Chinese shipping and trading. And here, like a slap in the face, a portion of his ego, buried in rot and blister rust and devil-cat urine.
He searches around, pawing for more portions of the sign, wondering if anyone treadles a phone call to that old phone number, if the secretary whose wages he once paid is still at his desk, working for a new master, a native Malay perhaps, with impeccable pedigree and religion. Wondering if the few clippers he failed to scuttle still ply the seas and islands of the archipelago. He forces himself to stop his search. Even if he had the money he would not treadle that number. Would not waste the calories. Could not stand the loss again.
He straightens, scattering devil cats who have slunk close. There is nothing here in this market except rinds and unshoveled dung. He has wasted his calories once again. Even the cockroaches and the blood beetles have been eaten. If he searches for a dozen hours, he will still find nothing. Too many people have come before, picking at these bones.
Three times he hides from white shirts as he makes his way home, three times ducking into shadows as they strut past. Cringing as they wander close, cursing his white linen suit that shows so clearly in darkness. By the third time, superstitious fear runs hot in his veins. His rich man’s clothes seem to attract the patrols of the Environment Ministry, seem to hunger for the wearer’s death. Black batons twirl from casual hands no more than inches away from his face. Spring guns glitter silver in the darkness. His hunters stand so close that he can count the wicked bladed disk cartridges in their jute bandoliers. A white shirt pauses and pisses in the alley where Tranh crouches, and only fails to see him because his partner stands on the street and wants to check the permits of the dung gatherers.
Each time, Tranh stifles his panicked urge to tear off his too-rich clothes and sink into safe anonymity. It is only a matter of time before the white shirts catch him. Before they swing their black clubs and make his Chinese skull a mash of blood and bone. Better to run naked through the hot night than strut like a peacock and die. And yet he cannot quite abandon the cursed suit. Is it pride? Is it stupidity? He keeps it though, even as its arrogant cut turns his bowels watery with fear.
By the time he reaches home, even the gas lights on the main thor-oughfares of Sukhumvit Road and Rama IV are blackened. Outside the Dung Lord’s tower, street stalls still burn woks for the few laborers lucky enough to have night work and curfew dispensations. Pork tallow candles flicker on the tables. Noodles splash into hot woks with a sizzle. White shirts stroll past, their eyes on the seated yellow cards, ensuring that none of the foreigners brazenly sleep in the open air and sully the sidewalks with their snoring presence.
Tranh joins the protective loom of the towers, entering the nearly extra-territorial safety of the Dung Lord’s influence. He stumbles toward the doorways and the swelter of the highrise, wondering how high he will be forced to climb before he can shove a niche for himself on the stairwells.
“You didn’t get the job, did you?”
Tranh cringes at the voice. It’s Ma Ping again, sitting at a sidewalk table, a bottle of Mekong whiskey beside his hand. His face is flushed with alcohol, as bright as a red paper lantern. Half-eaten plates of food lie strewn around his table. Enough to feed five others, easily.
Images of Ma war in Tranh’s head: the young clerk he once sent packing for being too clever with an abacus, the man whose son is fat, the man who got out early, the man who begged to be rehired at Three Prosperities, the man who now struts around Bangkok with Tranh’s last precious possession on his wrist—the one item that even the snakeheads didn’t steal. Tranh thinks that truly fate is cruel, placing him in such proximity to one he once considered so far beneath him.
Despite his intention to show bravado, Tranh’s words come out as a mousy whisper. “What do you care?”
Ma shrugs, pours whiskey for himself. “I wouldn’t have noticed you in the line, without that suit.” He nods at Tranh’s sweat-damp clothing. “Good idea to dress up. Too far back in line, though.”
Tranh wants to walk away, to ignore the arrogant whelp, but Ma’s leavings of steamed bass and laap and U-Tex rice noodles lie tantalizingly close. He thinks he smells pork and can’t help salivating. His gums ache for the idea that he could chew meat again and he wonders if his teeth would accept the awful luxury…
Abruptly, Tranh realizes that he has been staring. That he has stood for some time, ogling the scraps of Ma’s meal. And Ma is watching him. Tranh flushes and starts to turn away.
Ma says, “I didn’t buy your watch to spite you, you know.”
Tranh stops short. “Why then?”
Ma’s fingers stray to the gold and diamond bauble, then seem to catch themselves. He reaches for his whiskey glass instead. “I wanted a reminder.” He takes a swallow of liquor and sets the glass back amongst his piled plates with the deliberate care of a drunk. He grins sheepishly. His fingers are again stroking the watch, a guilty furtive movement. “I wanted a reminder. Against ego.”
Tranh spits. “Fang pi.”
Ma shakes his head vigorously. “No! It’s true.” He pauses. “Anyone can fall. If the Three Prosperities can fall, then I can. I wanted to remember that.” He takes another pull on his whiskey. “You were right to fire me.”
Tranh snorts. “You didn’t think so then.”
“I was angry. I didn’t know that you’d saved my life, then.” He shrugs. “I would never have left Malaya if you hadn’t fired me. I would never have seen the Incident coming. I would have had too much invested in staying.” Abruptly, he pulls himself upright and motions for Tranh to join him. “Come. Have a drink. Have some food. I owe you that much. You saved my life. I’ve repaid you poorly. Sit.”
Tranh turns away. “I don’t despise myself so much.”
“Do you love face so much that you can’t take a man’s food? Don’t be stuck in your bones. I don’t care if you hate me. Just take my food. Curse me later, when your belly is full.”
Tranh tries to control his hunger, to force himself to walk away, but he can’t. He knows men who might have enough face to starve before accepting Ma’s scraps, but he isn’t one of them. A lifetime ago, he might have been. But the humiliations of his new life have taught him much about who he really is. He has no sweet illusions, now. He sits. Ma beams and pushes his half-eaten dishes across the table.
Tranh thinks he must have done something grave in a former life to merit this humiliation, but still he has to fight the urge to bury his hands in the oily food and eat with bare fingers. Finally, the owner of the sidewalk stall brings a pair of chopsticks for the noodles, and fork and spoon for the rest. Noodles and ground pork slide down his throat. He tries to chew but as soon as the food touches his tongue he gulps it down. More food follows. He lifts a plate to his lips, shoveling down the last of Ma’s leavings. Fish and lank coriander and hot thick oil slip down like blessings.
“Good. Good.” Ma waves at the night stall man and a whiskey glass is quickly rinsed and handed to him.
The sharp scent of liquor floats around Ma like an aura as he pours. Tranh’s chest tightens at the scent. Oil coats his chin where he has made a mess in his haste. He wipes his mouth against his arm, watching the amber liquid splash into the glass.
Tranh once drank cognac: XO. Imported by his own clippers. Fabulously expensive stuff with its shipping costs. A flavor of the foreign devils from before the Contraction. A ghost from utopian history, reinvigorated by the new Expansion and his own realization that the world was once again growing smaller. With new hull designs and polymer advances, his clipper ships navigated the globe and returned with the stuff of legends. And his Malay buyers were happy to purchase it, whatever their religion. What a profit that had been. He forces down the thought as Ma shoves the glass across to Tranh and then raises his own in toast. It is in the past. It is all in the past.
They drink. The whiskey burns warm in Tranh’s belly, joining the chilies and fish and pork and the hot oil of the fried noodles.
“It really is too bad you didn’t get that job.”
Tranh grimaces. “Don’t gloat. Fate has a way of balancing itself. I’ve learned that.”
Ma waves a hand. “I don’t gloat. There are too many of us, that’s the truth. You were ten-thousand-times qualified for that job. For any job.” He takes a sip of his whiskey, peers over its rim at Tranh. “Do you remember when you called me a lazy cockroach?”
Tranh shrugs, he can’t take his eyes off the whiskey bottle. “I called you worse than that.” He waits to see if Ma will refill his cup again. Wondering how rich he is, and how far this largesse will go. Hating that he plays beggar to a boy he once refused to keep as a clerk, and who now lords over him… and who now, in a show of face, pours Tranh’s whiskey to the top, letting it spill over in an amber cascade under the flickering light of the candles.
Ma finishes pouring, stares at the puddle he has created. “Truly the world is turned upside down. The young lord over the old. The Malays pinch out the Chinese. And the foreign devils return to our shores like bloated fish after a ku-shui epidemic.” Ma smiles. “You need to keep your ears up, and be aware of opportunities. Not like all those old men out on the sidewalk, waiting for hard labor. Find a new niche. That’s what I did. That’s why I’ve got my job.”
Tranh grimaces. “You came at a more fortuitous time.” He rallies, emboldened by a full belly and the liquor warming his face and limbs. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be too proud. You still stink of mother’s milk as far as I’m concerned, living in the Dung Lord’s tower. You’re only the Lord of Yellow Cards. And what is that, really? You haven’t climbed as high as my ankles, yet, Mr. Big Name.”
Ma’s eyes widen. He laughs. “No. Of course not. Someday, maybe. But I am trying to learn from you.” He smiles slightly and nods at Tranh’s decrepit state. “Everything except this postscript.”
“Is it true there are crank fans on the top floors? That it’s cool up there?”
Ma glances up at the looming highrise. “Yes. Of course. And men with the calories to wind them as well. And they haul water up for us, and men act as ballast on the elevator—up and down all day—doing favors for the Dung Lord.” He laughs and pours more whiskey, motions Tranh to drink. “You’re right though. It’s nothing, really. A poor palace, truly.
“But it doesn’t matter now. My family moves tomorrow. We have our residence permits. Tomorrow when I get paid again, we’re moving out. No more yellow card for us. No more payoffs to the Dung Lord’s lackeys. No more problems with the white shirts. It’s all set with the Environment Ministry. We turn in our yellow cards and become Thai. We’re going to be immigrants. Not just some invasive species, anymore.” He raises his glass. “It’s why I’m celebrating.”
Tranh scowls. “You must be pleased.” He finishes his drink, sets the tumbler down with a thud. “Just don’t forget that the nail that stands up also gets pounded down.”
Ma shakes his head and grins, his eyes whiskey bright. “Bangkok isn’t Malacca.”
“And Malacca wasn’t Bali. And then they came with their machetes and their spring guns and they stacked our heads in the gutters and sent our bodies and blood down the river to Singapore.”
Ma shrugs. “It’s in the past.” He waves to the man at the wok, calling for more food. “We have to make a home here, now.”
“You think you can? You think some white shirt won’t nail your hide to his door? You can’t make them like us. Our luck’s against us, here.”
“Luck? When did Mr. Three Prosperities get so superstitious?”
Ma’s dish arrives, tiny crabs crisp-fried, salted and hot with oil for Ma and Tranh to pick at with chopsticks and crunch between their teeth, each one no bigger than the tip of Tranh’s pinkie. Ma plucks one out and crunches it down. “When did Mr. Three Prosperities get so weak? When you fired me, you said I made my own luck. And now you tell me you don’t have any?” He spits on sidewalk. “I’ve seen windups with more will to survive than you.”
“No! It’s true! There’s a Japanese windup girl in the bars where my boss goes.” Ma leans forward. “She looks like a real woman. And she does disgusting things.” He grins. “Makes your cock hard. But you don’t hear her complaining about luck. Every white shirt in the city would pay to dump her in the methane composters and she’s still up in her highrise, dancing every night, in front of everyone. Her whole soulless body on display.”
“It’s not possible.”
Ma shrugs. “Say so if you like. But I’ve seen her. And she isn’t starving. She takes whatever spit and money come her way, and she survives. It doesn’t matter about the white shirts or the Kingdom edicts or the Japan-haters or the religious fanatics; she’s been dancing for months.”
“How can she survive?”
“Bribes? Maybe some ugly farang who wallows in her filth? Who knows? No real girl would do what she does. It makes your heart stop. You forget she’s a windup, when she does those things.” He laughs, then glances at Tranh. “Don’t talk to me about luck. There’s not enough luck in the entire Kingdom to keep her alive this long. And we know it’s not karma that keeps her alive. She has none.”
Tranh shrugs noncommittally and shovels more crabs into his mouth.
Ma grins. “You know I’m right.” He drains his whiskey glass and slams it down on the table. “We make our own luck! Our own fate. There’s a windup in a public bar and I have a job with a rich farang who can’t find his ass without my help! Of course I’m right!” He pours more whiskey. “Get over your self-pity, and climb out of your hole. The foreign devils don’t worry about luck or fate, and look how they return to us, like a newly engineered virus! Even the Contraction didn’t stop them. They’re like another invasion of devil cats. But they make their own luck. I’m not even sure if karma exists for them. And if fools like these farang can succeed, than we Chinese can’t be kept down for long. Men make their own luck, that’s what you told me when you fired me. You said I’d made my own bad luck and only had myself to blame.”
Tranh looks up at Ma. “Maybe I could work at your company.” He grins, trying not to look desperate. “I could make money for your lazy boss.”
Ma’s eyes become hooded. “Ah. That’s difficult. Difficult to say.”
Tranh knows that he should take the polite rejection, that he should shut up. But even as a part of him cringes, his mouth opens again, pressing, pleading. “Maybe you need an assistant? To keep the books? I speak their devil language. I taught it to myself when I traded with them. I could be useful.”
“There is little enough work for me.”
“But if he is as stupid as you say—,”
“Stupid, yes. But not such a stupid melon that he wouldn’t notice another body in his office. Our desks are just so far apart.” He makes a motion with his hands. “You think he would not notice some stick coolie man squatting beside his computer treadle?”
“In his factory, then?”
But Ma is already shaking his head. “I would help you if I could. But the megodont unions control the power, and the line inspector unions are closed to farang, no offense, and no one will accept that you are a materials scientist.” He shakes his head. “No. There is no way.”
“Any job. As a dung shoveler, even.”
But Ma is shaking his head more vigorously now, and Tranh finally manages to control his tongue, to plug this diarrhea of begging. “Never mind. Never mind.” He forces a grin. “I’m sure some work will turn up. I’m not worried.” He takes the bottle of Mekong whiskey and refills Ma’s glass, upending the bottle and finishing the whiskey despite Ma’s protests.
Tranh raises his half-empty glass and toasts the young man who has bested him in all ways, before throwing back the last of the alcohol in one swift swallow. Under the table, nearly invisible devil cats brush against his bony legs, waiting for him to leave, hoping that he will be foolish enough to leave scraps.
Morning dawns. Tranh wanders the streets, hunting for a breakfast he cannot afford. He threads through market alleys redolent with fish and lank green coriander and bright flares of lemongrass. Durians lie in reeking piles, their spiky skins covered with red blister rust boils. He wonders if he can steal one. Their yellow surfaces are blotched and stained, but their guts are nutritious. He wonders how much blister rust a man can consume before falling into a coma.
“You want? Special deal. Five for five baht. Good, yes?”
The woman who screeches at him has no teeth, she smiles with her gums and repeats herself. “Five for five baht.” She speaks Mandarin to him, recognizing him for their common heritage though she had the luck to be born in the Kingdom and he had the misfortune to be set down in Malaya. Chiu Chow Chinese, blessedly protected by her clan and King. Tranh suppresses envy.
“More like four for four.” He makes a pun of the homonyms. Sz for sz. Four for death. “They’ve got blister rust.”
She waves a hand sourly. “Five for five. They’re still good. Better than good. Picked just before.” She wields a gleaming machete and chops the durian in half, revealing the clean yellow slime of its interior with its fat gleaming pits. The sickly sweet scent of fresh durian boils up and envelopes them. “See! Inside good. Picked just in time. Still safe.”
“I might buy one.” He can’t afford any. But he can’t help replying. It feels too good to be seen as a buyer. It is his suit, he realizes. The Hwang Brothers have raised him in this woman’s eyes. She wouldn’t have spoken if not for the suit. Wouldn’t have even started the conversation.
“Buy more! The more you buy, the more you save.”
He forces a grin, wondering how to get away from the bargaining he should never have started. “I’m only one old man. I don’t need so much.”
“One skinny old man. Eat more. Get fat!”
She says this and they both laugh. He searches for a response, something to keep their comradely interaction alive, but his tongue fails him. She sees the helplessness in his eyes. She shakes her head. “Ah, grandfather. It is hard times for everyone. Too many of you all at once. No one thought it would get so bad down there.”
Tranh ducks his head, embarrassed. “I’ve troubled you. I should go.”
“Wait. Here.” She offers him the durian half. “Take it.”
“I can’t afford it.”
She makes an impatient gesture. “Take it. It’s lucky for me to help someone from the old country.” She grins. “And the blister rust looks too bad to sell to anyone else.”
“You’re kind. Buddha smile on you.” But as he takes her gift he again notices the great durian pile behind her. All neatly stacked with their blotches and their bloody weals of blister rust. Just like stacked Chinese heads in Malacca: his wife and daughter mouths staring out at him, accusatory. He drops the durian and kicks it away, frantically scraping his hands on his jacket, trying to get the blood off his palms.
“Ai! You’ll waste it!”
Tranh barely hears the woman’s cry. He staggers back from the fallen durian, staring at its ragged surface. Its gut-spilled interior. He looks around wildly. He has to get out of the crowds. Has to get away from the jostling bodies and the durian reek that’s all around, thick in his throat, gagging him. He puts a hand to his mouth and runs, clawing at the other shoppers, fighting through their press.
“Where you go? Come back! Huilai!” But the woman’s words are quickly drowned. Tranh shoves through the throng, pushing aside women with shopping baskets full of white lotus root and purple eggplants, dodging farmers and their clattering bamboo hand carts, twisting past tubs of squid and serpent head fish. He pelts down the market alley like a thief identified, scrambling and dodging, running without thought or knowledge of where he is going, but running anyway, desperate to escape the stacked heads of his family and countrymen.
He runs and runs.
And bursts into the open thoroughfare of Charoen Krung Road. Powdered dung dust and hot sunlight wash over him. Cycle rickshaws clatter past. Palms and squat banana trees shimmer green in the bright open air.
As quickly as it seized him, Tranh’s panic fades. He stops short, hands on his knees, catching his breath and cursing himself. Fool. Fool. If you don’t eat, you die. He straightens and tries to turn back but the stacked durians flash in his mind and he stumbles away from the alley, gagging again. He can’t go back. Can’t face those bloody piles. He doubles over and his stomach heaves but his empty guts bring up nothing but strings of drool.
Finally he wipes his mouth on a Hwang Brothers sleeve and forces himself to straighten and confront the foreign faces all around. The sea of foreigners that he must learn to swim amongst, and who all call him farang. It repels him to think of it. And to think that in Malacca, with twenty generations of family and clan well-rooted in that city, he was just as much an interloper. That his clan’s esteemed history is nothing but a footnote for a Chinese expansion that has proven as transient as nighttime cool. That his people were nothing but an accidental spillage of rice on a map, now wiped up much more carefully than they were scattered down.
Tranh unloads U-Tex Brand RedSilks deep into the night, offerings to Potato God. A lucky job. A lucky moment, even if his knees have become loose and wobbly and feel as if they must soon give way. A lucky job, even if his arms are shaking from catching the heavy sacks as they come down off the megodonts. Tonight, he reaps not just pay but also the opportunity to steal from the harvest. Even if the RedSilk potatoes are small and harvested early to avoid a new sweep of scabis mold—the fourth genetic variation this year—they are still good. And their small size means their enhanced nutrition falls easily into his pockets.
Hu crouches above him, lowering down the potatoes. As the massive elephantine megodonts shuffle and grunt, waiting for their great wagons to be unloaded, Tranh catches Hu’s offerings with his hand hooks and lowers the sacks the last step to the ground. Hook, catch, swing, and lower. Again and again and again.
He is not alone in his work. Women from the tower slums crowd around his ladder. They reach up and caress each sack as he lowers it to the ground. Their fingers quest along hemp and burlap, testing for holes, for slight tears, for lucky gifts. A thousand times they stroke his burdens, reverently following the seams, only drawing away when coolie men shove between them to heft the sacks and haul them to Potato God.
After the first hour of his work, Tranh’s arms are shaking. After three, he can barely stand. He teeters on his creaking ladder as he lowers each new sack, and gasps and shakes his head to clear sweat from his eyes as he waits for the next one to come down.
Hu peers down from above. “Are you all right?”
Tranh glances warily over his shoulder. Potato God is watching, counting the sacks as they are carried into the warehouse. His eyes occasionally flick up to the wagons and trace across Tranh. Beyond him, fifty unlucky men watch silently from the shadows, any one of them far more observant than Potato God can ever be. Tranh straightens and reaches up to accept the next sack, trying not to think about the watching eyes. How politely they wait. How silent. How hungry. “I’m fine. Just fine.”
Hu shrugs and pushes the next burlap load over the wagon’s lip. Hu has the better place, but Tranh cannot resent it. One or the other must suffer. And Hu found the job. Hu has the right to the best place. To rest a moment before the next sack moves. After all, Hu collected Tranh for the job when he should have starved tonight. It is fair.
Tranh takes the sack and lowers it into the forest of waiting women’s hands, releases his hooks with a twist, and drops the bag to the ground. His joints feel loose and rubbery, as if femur and tibia will skid apart at any moment. He is dizzy with heat, but he dares not ask to slow the pace.
Another potato sack comes down. Women’s hands rise up like tangling strands of seaweed, touching, prodding, hungering. He cannot force them back. Even if he shouts at them they return. They are like devil cats; they cannot help themselves. He drops the sack the last few feet to the ground and reaches up for another as it comes over the wagon’s lip.
As he hooks the sack, his ladder creaks and suddenly slides. It chatters down the side of the wagon, then catches abruptly. Tranh sways, juggling the potato sack, trying to regain his center of gravity. Hands are all around him, tugging at the bag, pulling, prodding. “Watch out—”
The ladder skids again. He drops like a stone. Women scatter as he plunges. He hits the ground and pain explodes in his knee. The potato sack bursts. For a moment he worries what Potato God will say but then he hears screams all around him. He rolls onto his back. Above him, the wagon is swaying, shuddering. People are shouting and fleeing. The megodont lunges forward and the wagon heaves. Bamboo ladders fall like rain, slapping the pavement with bright firecracker retorts. The beast reverses itself and the wagon skids past Tranh, grinding the ladders to splinters. It is impossibly fast, even with wagon’s weight still hampering it. The megodont’s great maw opens and suddenly it is screaming, a sound as high and panicked as a human’s.
All around them, other megodonts respond in a chorus. Their cacophony swamps the street. The megodont surges onto its hind legs, an explosion of muscle and velocity that breaks the wagon’s traces and flips it like a toy. Men cartwheel from it, blossoms shaken from a cherry tree. Maddened, the beast rears again and kicks the wagon. Sends it skidding sidewise. It slams past Tranh, missing him by inches.
Tranh tries to rise but his leg won’t work. The wagon smashes into a wall. Bamboo and teak crackle and explode, the wagon disintegrating as the megodont drags and kicks it, trying to win free completely. Tranh drags himself away from the flying wagon, hand over hand, hauling his useless leg behind him. All around, men are shouting instructions, trying to control the beast, but he doesn’t look back. He focuses on the cobbles ahead, on getting out of reach. His leg won’t work. It refuses him. It seems to hate him.
Finally he makes it into the shelter of a protective wall. He hauls himself upright. “I’m fine,” he tells himself. “Fine.” Gingerly he tests his leg, setting weight on it. It’s wobbly, but he feels no real pain, not now. “Mei wenti. Mei wenti,” he whispers. “Not a problem. Just cracked it. Not a problem.”
The men are still shouting and the megodont is still screaming, but all he can see is his brittle old knee. He lets go of the wall. Takes a step, testing his weight, and collapses like a shadow puppet with strings gone slack.
Gritting his teeth, he again hauls himself up off the cobbles. He props himself against the wall, massaging his knee and watching the bedlam. Men are throwing ropes over the back of the struggling megodont, pulling it down, immobilizing it, finally. More than a score of men are working to hobble it.
The wagon’s frame has shattered completely and potatoes are spilled everywhere. A thick mash coats the ground. Women scramble on their knees, clawing through the mess, fighting with one another to hoard pulped tubers. They scrape it up from the street. Some of their scavenge is stained red, but no one seems to care. Their squabbling continues. The red bloom spreads. At the blossom’s center, a man’s trousers protrude from the muck
Tranh frowns. He drags himself upright again and hops on his one good leg toward the broken wagon. He catches up against its shattered frame, staring. Hu’s body is a savage ruin, awash in megodont dung and potato mash. And now that Tranh is close, he can see that the struggling megodont’s great gray feet are gory with his friend. Someone is calling for a doctor but it is half-hearted, a habit from a time when they were not yellow cards.
Tranh tests his weight again but his knee provides the same queer jointless failure. He catches up against the wagon’s splintered planking and hauls himself back upright. He works the leg, trying to understand why it collapses. The knee bends, it doesn’t even hurt particularly, but it will not support his weight. He tests it again, with the same result.
With the megodont restrained, order in the unloading area is restored. Hu’s body is dragged aside. Devil cats gather near his blood pool, feline shimmers under methane glow. Their tracks pock the potato grime in growing numbers. More paw impressions appear in the muck, closing from all directions on Hu’s discarded body.
Tranh sighs. So we all go, he thinks. We all die. Even those of us who took our aging treatments and our tiger penis and kept ourselves strong are subject to the Hell journey. He promises to burn money for Hu, to ease his way in the afterlife, then catches himself and remembers that he is not the man he was. That even paper Hell Money is out of reach.
Potato God, disheveled and angry, comes and studies him. He frowns suspiciously. “Can you still work?”
“I can.” Tranh tries to walk but stumbles once again and catches up against the wagon’s shattered frame.
Potato God shakes his head. “I will pay you for the hours you worked.” He waves to a young man, fresh and grinning from binding the megodont. “You! You’re a quick one. Haul the rest of these sacks into the warehouse.”
Already, other workers are lining up and grabbing loads from within the broken wagon. As the new man comes out with his first sack, his eyes dart to Tranh and then flick away, hiding his relief at Tranh’s incapacity.
Potato God watches with satisfaction and heads back to the warehouse.
“Double pay,” Tranh calls after Potato God’s retreating back. “Give me double pay. I lost my leg for you.”
The manager looks back at Tranh with pity, then glances at Hu’s body and shrugs. It is an easy acquiescence. Hu will demand no reparation.
It is better to die insensate than to feel every starving inch of collapse; Tranh pours his leg-wreck money into a bottle of Mekong whiskey. He is old. He is broken. He is the last of his line. His sons are dead. His daughter mouths are long gone. His ancestors will live uncared for in the underworld with no one to burn incense or offer sweet rice to them.
How they must curse him.
He limps and stumbles and crawls through the sweltering night streets, one hand clutching the open bottle, the other scrabbling at doorways and walls and methane lamp posts to keep himself upright. Sometimes his knee works; sometimes it fails him completely. He has kissed the streets a dozen times.
He tells himself that he is scavenging, hunting for the chance of sustenance. But Bangkok is a city of scavengers, and the crows and devil cats and children have all come before him. If he is truly lucky, he will encounter the white shirts and they will knock him into bloody oblivion, perhaps send him to meet the previous owner of this fine Hwang Brothers suit that now flaps ragged around his shins. The thought appeals to him.
An ocean of whiskey rolls in his empty belly and he is warm and happy and carefree for the first time since the Incident. He laughs and drinks and shouts for the white shirts, calling them paper tigers, calling them dog fuckers. He calls them to him. Casts baiting words so that any within earshot will find him irresistable. But the Environment Ministry’s patrols must have other yellow cards to abuse, for Tranh wanders the green-tinged streets of Bangkok alone.
Never mind. It doesn’t matter. If he cannot find white shirts to do the job, he will drown himself. He will go to the river and dump himself in its offal. Floating on river currents to the sea appeals to him. He will end in the ocean like his scuttled clipper ships and the last of his heirs. He takes a swig of whiskey, loses his balance, and winds up on the ground once again, sobbing and cursing white shirts and green headbands, and wet machetes.
Finally he drags himself into a doorway to rest, holding his miraculously unbroken whiskey bottle with one feeble hand. He cradles it to himself like a last bit of precious jade, smiling and laughing that it is not broken. He wouldn’t want to waste his life savings on the cobblestones.
He takes another swig. Stares at the methane lamps flickering overhead. Despair is the color of approved-burn methane flickering green and gaseous, vinous in the dark. Green used to mean things like coriander and silk and jade and now all it means to him is bloodthirsty men with patriotic headbands and hungry scavenging nights. The lamps flicker. An entire green city. An entire city of despair.
Across the street, a shape scuttles, keeping to the shadows. Tranh leans forward, eyes narrowed. At first he takes it for a white shirt. But no. It is too furtive. It’s a woman. A girl. A pretty creature, all made up. An enticement that moves with the stuttery jerky motion of…
A windup girl.
Tranh grins, a surprised skeleton rictus of delight at the sight of this unnatural creature stealing through the night. A windup girl. Ma Ping’s windup girl. The impossible made flesh.
She slips from shadow to shadow, a creature even more terrified of white shirts than a yellow card geriatric. A waifish ghost-child ripped from her natural habitat and set down in a city which despises everything she represents: her genetic inheritance, her manufacturers, her unnatural competition—her ghostly lack of a soul. She has been here every night as he has pillaged through discarded melon spines. She has been here, tottering through the sweat heat darkness as he dodged white shirt patrols. And despite everything, she has been surviving.
Tranh forces himself upright. He sways, drunken and unsteady, then follows, one hand clutching his whiskey bottle, the other touching walls, catching himself when his bad knee falters. It’s a foolish thing, a whimsy, but the windup girl has seized his inebriated imagination. He wants to stalk this unlikely Japanese creature, this interloper on foreign soil even more despised than himself. He wants to follow her. Perhaps steal kisses from her. Perhaps protect her from the hazards of the night. To pretend at least that he is not this drunken ribcage caricature of a man, but is in fact a tiger still.
The windup girl travels through the blackest of back alleys, safe in darkness, hidden from the white shirts who would seize her and mulch her before she could protest. Devil cats yowl as she passes, scenting something as cynically engineered as themselves. The Kingdom is infested with plagues and beasts, besieged by so many bio-engineered monsters that it cannot keep up. As small as gray fa’ gan fringe and as large as megodonts, they come. And as the Kingdom struggles to adapt, Tranh slinks after a windup girl, both of them as invasive as blister rust on a durian and just as welcome.
For all her irregular motion, the windup girl travels well enough. Tranh has difficulty keeping up with her. His knees creak and grind and he clenches his teeth against the pain. Sometimes he falls with a muffled grunt, but still he follows. Ahead of him, the windup girl ducks into new shadows, a wisp of tottering motion. Her herky-jerky gait announces her as a creature not human, no matter how beautiful she may be. No matter how intelligent, no matter how strong, no matter how supple her skin, she is a windup and meant to serve—and marked as such by a genetic specification that betrays her with every unnatural step.
Finally, when Tranh thinks that his legs will give out for a final time and that he can continue no longer, the windup girl pauses. She stands in the black mouth of a crumbling highrise, a tower as tall and wretched as his own, another carcass of the old Expansion. From high above, music and laughter filter down. Shapes float in the tower’s upper-story windows, limned in red light, the silhouettes of women dancing. Calls of men and the throb of drums. The windup girl disappears inside.
What would it be like to enter such a place? To spend baht like water while women danced and sang songs of lust? Tranh suddenly regrets spending his last baht on whiskey. This is where he should have died. Surrounded by fleshly pleasures that he has not known since he lost his country and his life. He purses his lips, considering. Perhaps he can bluff his way in. He still wears the raiment of the Hwang Brothers. He still appears a gentleman, perhaps. Yes. He will attempt it, and if he gathers the shame of ejection on his head, if he loses face one more time, what of it? He will be dead in a river soon anyway, floating to the sea to join his sons.
He starts to cross the street but his knee gives out and he falls flat instead. He saves his whiskey bottle more by luck than by dexterity. The last of its amber liquid glints in the methane light. He grimaces and pulls himself into a sitting position, then drags himself back into a doorway. He will rest, first. And finish the bottle. The windup girl will be there for a long time, likely. He has time to recover himself. And if he falls again, at least he won’t have wasted his liquor. He tilts the bottle to his lips then lets his tired head rest against the building. He’ll just catch his breath.
Laughter issues from the highrise. Tranh jerks awake. A man stumbles from its shadow portal: drunk, laughing. More men spill out after him. They laugh and shove one another. Drag tittering women out with them. Motion to cycle rickshaws that wait in the alleys for easy drunken patrons. Slowly, they disperse. Tranh tilts his whiskey bottle. Finds it empty.
Another pair of men emerges from the highrise’s maw. One of them is Ma Ping. The other a farang who can only be Ma’s boss. The farang waves for a cycle rickshaw. He climbs in and waves his farewells. Ma raises his own hand in return and his gold and diamond wristwatch glints in the methane light. Tranh’s wristwatch. Tranh’s history. Tranh’s heirloom flashing bright in the darkness. Tranh scowls. Wishes he could rip it off young Ma’s wrist.
The farang’s rickshaw starts forward with a screech of unoiled bicycle chains and drunken laughter, leaving Ma Ping standing alone in the middle of the street. Ma laughs to himself, seems to consider returning to the bars, then laughs again and turns away, heading across the street, toward Tranh.
Tranh shies into the shadows, unwilling to let Ma catch him in such a state. Unwilling to endure more humiliation. He crouches deeper in his doorway as Ma stumbles about the street in search of rickshaws. But all the rickshaws have been taken for the moment. No more lurk below the bars.
Ma’s gold wristwatch glints again in the methane light.
Pale forms glazed green materialize on the street, three men walking, their mahogany skin almost black in the darkness, contrasting sharply against the creased whites of their uniforms. Their black batons twirl casually at their wrists. Ma doesn’t seem to notice them at first. The white shirts converge, casual. Their voices carry easily in the quiet night.
“You’re out late.”
Ma shrugs, grins queasily. “Not really. Not so late.”
The three white shirts gather close. “Late for a yellow card. You should be home by now. Bad luck to be out after yellow card curfew. Especially with all that yellow gold on your wrist.”
Ma holds up his hands, defensive. “I’m not a yellow card.”
“Your accent says differently.”
Ma reaches for his pockets, fumbles in them. “Really. You’ll see. Look.”
A white shirt steps close. “Did I say you could move?”
“My papers. Look—”
“Get your hands out!”
“Look at my stamps!”
“Out!” A black baton flashes. Ma yelps, clutches his elbow. More blows rain down. Ma crouches, trying to shield himself. He curses, “Nimade bi!”
The white shirts laugh. “That’s yellow card talk.” One of them swings his baton, low and fast, and Ma collapses, crying out, curling around a damaged leg. The white shirts gather close. One of them jabs Ma in the face, making him uncurl, then runs the baton down Ma’s chest, dragging blood.
“He’s got nicer clothes than you, Thongchai.”
“Probably snuck across the border with an assful of jade.”
One of them squats, studies Ma’s face. “Is it true? Do you shit jade?”
Ma shakes his head frantically. He rolls over and starts to crawl away. A black runnel of blood spills from his mouth. One leg drags behind him, useless. A white shirt follows, pushes him over with his shoe and puts his foot on Ma’s face. The other two suck in their breath and step back, shocked. To beat a man is one thing… “Suttipong, no.”
The man called Suttipong glances back at his peers. “It’s nothing. These yellow cards are as bad as blister rust. This is nothing. They all come begging, taking food when we’ve got little enough for our own, and look.” He kicks Ma’s wrist. “Gold.”
Ma gasps, tries to strip the watch from his wrist. “Take it. Here. Please. Take it.”
“It’s not yours to give, yellow card.”
“Not… yellow card,” Ma gasps. “Please. Not your Ministry.” His hands fumble for his pockets, frantic under the white shirt’s gaze. He pulls out his papers and waves them in the hot night air.
Suttipong takes the papers, glances at them. Leans close. “You think our countrymen don’t fear us, too?”
He throws the papers on the ground, then quick as a cobra he strikes. One, two, three, the blows rain down. He is very fast. Very methodical. Ma curls into a ball, trying to ward off the blows. Suttipong steps back, breathing heavily. He waves at the other two. “Teach him respect.” The other two glance at each other doubtfully, but under Suttipong’s urging, they are soon beating Ma, shouting encouragement to one another.
A few men come down from the pleasure bars and stumble into the streets, but when they see white uniforms they flee back inside. The white shirts are alone. And if there are other watching eyes, they do not show themselves. Finally, Suttipong seems satisfied. He kneels and strips the antique Rolex from Ma’s wrist, spits on Ma’s face, and motions his peers to join him. They turn away, striding close past Tranh’s hiding place.
The one called Thongchai looks back. “He might complain.”
Suttipong shakes his head, his attention on the Rolex in his hand. “He’s learned his lesson.”
Their footsteps fade into the darkness. Music filters down from the highrise clubs. The street itself is silent. Tranh watches for a long time, looking for other hunters. Nothing moves. It is as if the entire city has turned its back on the broken Malay-Chinese lying in the street. Finally, Tranh limps out of the shadows and approaches Ma Ping.
Ma catches sight of him and holds up a weak hand. “Help.” He tries the words in Thai, again in farang English, finally in Malay, as though he has returned to his childhood. Then he seems to recognize Tranh. His eyes widen. He smiles weakly, through split bloody lips. Speaks Mandarin, their trade language of brotherhood. “Lao pengyou. What are you doing here?”
Tranh squats beside him, studying his cracked face. “I saw your windup girl.”
Ma closes his eyes, tries to smile. “You believe me, then?” His eyes are nearly swollen shut, blood runs down from a cut in his brow, trickling freely.
“I think they broke my leg.” He tries to pull himself upright, gasps and collapses. He probes his ribs, runs his hand down to his shin. “I can’t walk.” He sucks air as he prods another broken bone. “You were right about the white shirts.”
“A nail that stands up gets pounded down.”
Something in Tranh’s tone makes Ma look up. He studies Tranh’s face. “Please. I gave you food. Find me a rickshaw.” One hand strays to his wrist, fumbling for the timepiece that is no longer his, trying to offer it. Trying to bargain.
Is this fate? Tranh wonders. Or luck? Tranh purses his lips, considering. Was it fate that his own shiny wristwatch drew the white shirts and their wicked black batons? Was it luck that he arrived to see Ma fall? Do he and Ma Ping still have some larger karmic business?
Tranh watches Ma beg and remembers firing a young clerk so many lifetimes ago, sending him packing with a thrashing and a warning never to return. But that was when he was a great man. And now he is such a small one. As small as the clerk he thrashed so long ago. Perhaps smaller. He slides his hands under Ma’s back, lifts.
“Thank you,” Ma gasps. “Thank you.”
Tranh runs his fingers into Ma’s pockets, working through them methodically, checking for baht the white shirts have left. Ma groans, forces out a curse as Tranh jostles him. Tranh counts his scavenge, the dregs of Ma’s pockets that still look like wealth to him. He stuffs the coins into his own pocket.
Ma’s breathing comes in short panting gasps. “Please. A rickshaw. That’s all.” He barely manages to exhale the words.
Tranh cocks his head, considering, his instincts warring with themselves. He sighs and shakes his head. “A man makes his own luck, isn’t that what you told me?” He smiles tightly. “My own arrogant words, coming from a brash young mouth.” He shakes his head again, astounded at his previously fat ego, and smashes his whiskey bottle on the cobbles. Glass sprays. Shards glint green in the methane light.
“If I were still a great man…” Tranh grimaces. “But then, I suppose we’re both past such illusions. I’m very sorry about this.” With one last glance around the darkened street, he drives the broken bottle into Ma’s throat. Ma jerks and blood spills out around Tranh’s hand. Tranh scuttles back, keeping this new welling of blood off his Hwang Brothers fabrics. Ma’s lungs bubble and his hands reach up for the bottle lodged in his neck, then fall away. His wet breathing stops.
Tranh is trembling. His hands shake with an electric palsy. He has seen so much death, and dealt so little. And now Ma lies before him, another Malay-Chinese dead, with only himself to blame. Again. He stifles an urge to be sick.
He turns and crawls into the protective shadows of the alley and pulls himself upright. He tests his weak leg. It seems to hold him. Beyond the shadows, the street is silent. Ma’s body lies like a heap of garbage in its center. Nothing moves.
Tranh turns and limps down the street, keeping to the walls, bracing himself when his knee threatens to give way. After a few blocks, the methane lamps start to go out. One by one, as though a great hand is moving down the street snuffing them, they gutter into silence as the Public Works Ministry cuts off the gas. The street settles into complete darkness.
When Tranh finally arrives at Surawong Road, its wide black thoroughfare is nearly empty of traffic. A pair of ancient water buffalo placidly haul a rubber-wheeled wagon under starlight. A shadow farmer rides behind them, muttering softly. The yowls of mating devil cats scrape the hot night air, but that is all.
And then, from behind, the creak of bicycle chains. The rattle of wheels on cobbles. Tranh turns, half-expecting avenging white shirts, but it is only a cycle rickshaw, chattering down the darkened street. Tranh raises a hand, flashing newfound baht. The rickshaw slows. A man’s ropey limbs gleam with moonlit sweat. Twin earrings decorate his lobes, gobs of silver in the night. “Where you going?”
Tranh scans the rickshaw man’s broad face for hints of betrayal, for hints that he is a hunter, but the man is only looking at the baht in Tranh’s hand. Tranh forces down his paranoia and climbs into the rickshaw’s seat. “The farang factories. By the river.”
The rickshaw man glances over his shoulder, surprised. “All the factories will be closed. Too much energy to run at night. It’s all black night down there.”
“It doesn’t matter. There’s a job opening. There will be interviews.”
The man stands on his pedals. “At night?”
“Tomorrow.” Tranh settles deeper into his seat. “I don’t want to be late.”
Paolo Bacigalupi’s short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and the environmental journal High Country News. His fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best sf short story of the year. His non-fiction essays have appeared in Salon.com and High Country News, and have been syndicated in numerous western newspapers including the Idaho Statesman, the Albuquerque Journal, and the Salt Lake Tribune. He lives in Western Colorado with his wife and son, where he is working on his next novel.
More fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi can be found online at his website: http://windupstories.com