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For the Win

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For the Win

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Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor, 2010
HarperCollins/Voyager, 2010

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Near-Future
Virtual Reality
Human Development
Avg Member Rating:
(30 reads / 16 ratings)


In the virtual future, you must organize to survive

At any hour of the day or night, millions of people around the globe are engrossed in multiplayer online games, questing and battling to win virtual "gold," jewels, and precious artifacts. Meanwhile, others seek to exploit this vast shadow economy, running electronic sweatshops in the world's poorest countries, where countless "gold farmers," bound to their work by abusive contracts and physical threats, harvest virtual treasure for their employers to sell to First World gamers who are willing to spend real money to skip straight to higher-level gameplay.

Mala is a brilliant 15-year-old from rural India whose leadership skills in virtual combat have earned her the title of "General Robotwalla." In Shenzen, heart of China's industrial boom, Matthew is defying his former bosses to build his own successful gold-farming team. Leonard, who calls himself Wei-Dong, lives in Southern California, but spends his nights fighting virtual battles alongside his buddies in Asia, a world away. All of these young people, and more, will become entangled with the mysterious young woman called Big Sister Nor, who will use her experience, her knowledge of history, and her connections with real-world organizers to build them into a movement that can challenge the status quo.

The ruthless forces arrayed against them are willing to use any means to protect their power-including blackmail, extortion, infiltration, violence, and even murder. To survive, Big Sister's people must out-think the system. This will lead them to devise a plan to crash the economy of every virtual world at once-a Ponzi scheme combined with a brilliant hack that ends up being the biggest, funnest game of all.

Imbued with the same lively, subversive spirit and thrilling storytelling that made LITTLE BROTHER an international sensation, FOR THE WIN is a prophetic and inspiring call-to-arms for a new generation.

Download this book for free from the author's website.


Part I: The gamers and their games, the workers at their work

In the game, Matthew's characters killed monsters, as they did every single night. But tonight, as Matthew thoughtfully chopsticked a dumpling out of the styrofoam clamshell, dipped it in the red hot sauce and popped it into his mouth, his little squadron did something extraordinary: they began to win.

There were eight monitors on his desk, arranged in two ranks of four, the top row supported on a shelf he'd bought from an old lady scrap dealer in front of the Dongmen market. She'd also sold him the monitors, shaking her head at his idiocy: at a time when everyone wanted giant, 30" screens, why did he want this collection of dinky little 9" displays?

So they'd all fit on his desk.

Not many people could play eight simultaneous games of Svartalfaheim Warriors. For one thing, Coca Cola (who owned the game), had devoted a lot of programmer time to preventing you from playing more than one game on a single PC, so you had to somehow get eight PCs onto one desk, with eight keyboards and eight mice on the desk, too, and room enough for your dumplings and an ashtray and a stack of Indian comic books and that stupid war-axe that Ping gave him and his notebooks and his sketchbook and his laptop and--

It was a crowded desk.

And it was noisy. He'd set up eight pairs of cheap speakers, each glued to the appropriate monitor, turned down low to the normal hum of Svartalfaheim--the clash of axes, the roar of ice-giants, the eldritch music of black elves (which sounded a lot like the demo programs on the electric keyboards his mother had spent half her life manufacturing). Now they were all making casino noise, pay off noises, as his raiding party began to clean up. The gold rolled into their accounts. He was playing trolls--it was trolls versus elves in Svartalfaheim, though there was an expansion module with light elves and some kind of walking tree--and he'd come through an instanced dungeon that was the underground lair of a minor dark elvish princeling. The lair was only medium hard, with a lot of crappy little monsters early on, then a bunch of dark elf cannon-fodder to be mown down, some traps, and then the level-boss, a wizard who had to be taken out by the spell-casters in Matthew's party while the healers healed them and the tanks killed anything that tried to attack them.

So far, so good. Matthew had run and mapped the dungeon on his second night in-world, a quick reccy that showed that he could expect to do about 400 gold's worth of business there in about 20 minutes, which made it a pretty poor way to earn a living. But Matthew kept very good notes, and among his notes was the fact that the very last set of guards had dropped some mareridtbane, which was part of the powerful Living Nightmare spell in the new expansion module. There were players all over Germany, Switzerland and Denmark who were buying mareridtbane for 800 gold per plant. His initial reccy had netted him five plants. That brought the total expected take from the dungeon up to 4,400 gold for 20 minutes, or 13,200 gold per hour--which, at the day's exchange, was worth about $30, or 285 Renminbi.

Which was--he thought for a second--more than 71 bowls of dumplings.


His hands flew over the mice, taking direct control over the squad. He'd work out the optimal path through the dungeon now, then head out to the Huoda internet cafe and see who he could find to do runs with him at this. With any luck, they could take--his eyes rolled up as he thought again--a million gold out of the dungeon if they could get the whole cafe working on it. They'd dump the gold as they went, and by the time Coca Cola's systems administrators figured out anything was wrong, they'd have pulled almost $3000 out of the game. That was a year's rent, for one night's work. His hands trembled as he flipped open a notebook to a new page and began to take notes with his left hand while his right hand worked the game.

He was just about to close his notebook and head for the cafe--he needed more dumplings on the way, could he stop for them? Could he afford to? But he needed to eat. And coffee. Lots of coffee--when the door splintered and smashed against the wall bouncing back before it was kicked open again, admitting the cold fluorescent light from outside into his tiny cave of a room. Three men entered his room and closed the door behind them, restoring the dark. One of them found the lightswitch and clicked it a few times without effect, then cursed in Mandarin and punched Matthew in the ear so hard his head spun around on his neck, contriving to bounce off the desk. The pain was blinding, searing, sudden.

"Light," one of the men commanded, his voice reaching Matthew through the high-pitched whine of his ringing ear. Clumsily, he fumbled for the desk-lamp behind the Indian comics, knocked it over, and then one of the men seized it roughly and turned it on, shining it full on Matthew's face, making him squint his watering eyes.

"You have been warned," the man who'd hit him said. Matthew couldn't see him, but he didn't need to. He knew the voice, the unmistakable Wenjhou accent, almost impossible to understand. "Now, another warning." There was a snick of a telescoping baton being unfurled and Matthew flinched and tried to bring his arms up to shield his head before the weapon swung. But the other two had him by the arms now, and the baton whistled past his ear.

But it didn't smash his cheekbone, nor his collarbone. Rather, it was the screen before him that smashed, sending tiny, sharp fragments of glass out in a cloud that seemed to expand in slow motion, peppering his face and hands. Then another screen went. And another. And another. One by one, the man dispassionately smashed all eight screens, letting out little smoker's grunts as he worked. Then, with a much bigger, guttier grunt, he took hold of one end of the shelf and tipped it on its edge, sending the smashed monitors on it sliding onto the floor, taking the comics, the clamshell, the ashtray, all of it sliding to the narrow bed that was jammed up against the desk, then onto the floor in a crash as loud as a basketball match in a glass factory.

Matthew felt the hands on his shoulders tighten and he was lifted out of his chair and turned to face the man with the accent, the man who had worked as the supervisor in Mr Wing's factory, almost always silent. But when he spoke, they all jumped in their seat, never sure of whether his barely contained rage would break, whether someone would be taken off the factory floor and then returned to the dorm that night, bruised, cut, sometimes crying in the night for parents left behind back in the provinces.

The man's face was calm now, as though the violence against the machines had scratched his the unscratchable itch that made him clench and unclench his fists at all times. "Matthew, Mr Wing wants you to know that he thinks of you as a wayward son, and bears you no ill will. You are always welcome in his home. All you need to do is ask for his forgiveness, and it will be given." It was the longest speech Matthew had ever heard the man give, and it was delivered with surprising tenderness, so it was quite a surprise when the man brought his knee up into Matthew's balls, hard enough that he saw stars.

The hands released him and he slumped to the floor, a strange sound in his ears that he realized after a moment must have been his voice. He was barely aware of the men moving around his tiny room as he gasped like fish, trying to get air into his lungs, air enough to scream at the incredible, radiant pain in his groin.

But he did hear the horrible electrical noise as they tasered the box that held his computers, eight PCs on eight individual boards, stuck in a dented sheet-metal case he'd bought from the same old lady. The ozone smell afterwards sent him whirling back to his grandfather's little flat, the smell of the dust crisping on the heating coil that the old man only turned on when he came to visit. He did hear them gather up his notebooks and tread heavily on the PC case, and pull the shattered door shut behind them. The light from the desklamp painted a crazy oval on the ceiling that he stared at for a long time before he got to his feet, whimpering at the pain in his balls.

The night guard was standing at the end of the corridor when he limped out into the night. He was only a boy, even younger than Matthew--sixteen, in a uniform that was two sizes too big for his skinny chest, a hat that was always slipping down over his eyes, so he had to look up from under the brim like a boy wearing his father's hat.

"You OK?" the boy said. His eyes were wide, his face pale.

Matthew patted himself down, wincing at the pain in his ear, the shooting stabbing feeling in his neck.

"I think so," he said.

"You'll have to pay for the door," the guard said.

"Thanks," Matthew said. "Thanks so much."

"It's OK," the boy said. "It's my job."

Matthew clenched and unclenched his fists and headed out into the Shenzhen night, limping down the stairs and into the neon glow. It was nearly midnight, but Jiabin Road was still throbbing with music, food and hawkers and touts, old ladies chasing foreigners down the street, tugging at their sleeves and offering them "beautiful young girls" in English. He didn't know where he was going, so he just walked, fast, fast as he could, trying to walk off the pain and the enormity of his loss. The computers in his room hadn't cost much to build, but he hadn't had much to begin with. They'd been nearly everything he owned, save for his comics, a few clothes--and the war-axe. Oh, the war-axe. That was an entertaining vision, picking it up and swinging it over his head like a dark elf, the whistle of its blade slicing the air, the meaty thunk as it hit the men.

He knew it was ridiculous. He hadn't been in a fight since he was ten years old. He'd been a vegetarian until last year! He wasn't going to hit anyone with a war axe. It was as useless as his smashed computers.

Gradually, he slowed his pace. He was out of the central area around the train station now, in the outer ring of the town center, where it was dark and as quiet as it ever got. He leaned against the steel shutters over a grocery market and put his hands on his thighs and let his sore head droop.

Matthew's father had been unusual among their friends--a Cantonese who succeeded in the new Shenzhen. When Premier Deng changed the rules so that the Pearl River Delta became the world's factory, his family's ancestral province had filled overnight with people from the provinces. They'd "jumped into the sea"--left safe government factory jobs to seek their fortune here on the south Chinese coast--and everything had changed for Matthew's family. His grandfather, a Christian minister who'd been sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution--had never made the adjustment, a problem that struck many of the native Cantonese, who seemed to stand still as the outsiders raced past them to become rich and powerful.

But not Matthew's father. The old man had started off as a driver for a shoe-factory boss--learning to drive on the job, nearly cracking up the car more than once, though the owner didn't seem to mind. After all, he'd never ridden in a car before he'd made it big in Shenzhen. But he got his break one day when the pattern-maker was too sick to work and all production ceased while the girls who worked on the line argued about the best way to cut the leather for a new order that had come in.

Matthew's father loved to tell this story. He'd heard the argument go back and forth for a day as the line jerked along slowly, and he'd sat on his chair and thought, and thought, and then he'd stood up and closed his eyes and pictured the calm ocean until the thunder of his heartbeat slowed to a normal beat. Then he'd walked into the owner's office and said, "Boss, I can show you how to cut those hides."

It was no easy task. The hides were all slightly different shapes--cows weren't identical, after all--and parts of them were higher grade than others. The shoe itself, an Italian men's loafer, needed six different pieces for each side, and only some of them were visible. The parts that were inside the shoe didn't need to come from the finest leather, but the parts outside did. All this Matthew's father had absorbed while sitting in his chair and listening to the arguments. He'd always loved to draw, always had a good head for space and design.

And before his boss could throw him out of the office, he'd plucked up his courage and seized a pen off the desk and rooted a crumpled cigarette package out of the trash--expensive foreign cigarettes, affected by all the factory owners as a show of wealth--torn it open and drawn a neat cowhide, and quickly shown how the shoes could be fit to the hide with a minimum of wastage, a design that would get ten pairs of shoes per hide.

"Ten?" the boss said.

"Ten," Matthew's father said, proudly. He knew that the most that Master Yu, the regular cutter, ever got out of a hide was nine. "Eleven, if you use a big hide, or if you're making small shoes."

"You can cut this?"

Now, before that day, Matthew's father had never cut a hide in his life, had no idea how to slice the supple leather that came back from the tanner. But that morning he'd risen two hours early, before anyone else was awake, and he'd taken his leather jacket, a graduation present from his own father that he'd owned and treasured for ten years, and he'd taken the sharpest knife in the kitchen, and he'd sliced the jacket to ribbons, practicing until he could make the knife slice the leather in the same reliable, efficient arcs that his eyes and mind could trace over them.

"I can try," he said, with modesty. He was nervous about his boldness. His boss wasn't a nice man, and he'd fired many employees for insubordination. If he fired Matthew's father, he would be out a job and a jacket. And the rent was due, and the family had no savings.

The boss looked at him, looked at the sketch. "OK, you try."

And that was the day that Matthew's father stopped being Driver Fong and became Master Fong, the junior cutter at the Infinite Quality Shoe Factory. Less than a year later, he was the head cutter, and the family thrived.

Matthew had heard this story so many times growing up that he could recite it word-for-word with his father. It was more than a story: it was the family legend, more important than any of the history he'd learned in school. As stories went, it was a good one, but Matthew was determined that his own life would have an even better story still. Matthew would not be the second Master Fong. He would be Boss Fong, the first--a man with his own factory, his own fortune.

And like his father, Matthew had a gift.

Like his father, Matthew could look at a certain kind of problem and see the solution. And the problems Matthew could solve involved killing monsters and harvesting their gold and prestige items, better and more efficiently than anyone else he'd ever met or heard of.

Matthew was a gold farmer, but not just one of those guys who found themselves being approached by an Internet cafe owner and offered seven or eight RMB to keep right on playing, turning over all the gold they won to the boss, who'd sell it on by some mysterious process. Matthew was Master Fong, the gold farmer who could run a dungeon once and tell you exactly the right way to run it again to get the maximum gold in the minimum time. Where a normal farmer might make 50 gold in an hour, Matthew could make 500. And if you watched Matthew play, you could do it too.

Mr Wing had quickly noticed Matthew's talent. Mr Wing didn't like games, didn't care about the legends of Iceland or England or India or Japan. But Mr Wing understood how to make boys work. He displayed their day's take on big boards at both ends of his factory, treated the top performers to lavish meals and baijiu parties in private rooms at his karaoke club where there were beautiful girls. Matthew remembered these evenings through a bleary haze: a girl on either side of him on a sofa, pressed against him, their perfume in his nose, refilling his glass as Mr Wing toasted him for a hero, extolling his achievements. The girls oohed and aahed and pressed harder against him. Mr Wing always laughed at him the next day, because he'd pass out before he could go with one of the girls into an even more private room.

Mr Wing made sure all the other boys knew about this failing, made sure that they teased "Master Fong" about his inability to hold his liquor, his shyness around girls. And Matthew saw exactly what Boss Wing was doing: setting Matthew up as a hero, above his friends, then making sure that his friends knew that he wasn't that much of a hero, that he could be toppled. And so they all farmed gold harder, for longer hours, eating dumplings at their computers and shouting at each other over their screens late into the night and the cigarette haze.

The hours had stretched into days, the days had stretched into months, and one day Matthew woke up in the dorm room filled with farts and snores and the smell of 20 young men in a too-small room, and realized that he'd had enough of working for Boss Wing. That was when he decided that he would become his own man. That was when he set out to be Boss Fong.

Wei-Dong Goldberg woke one minute before his alarm rang, the glowing numbers showing 12:59. 1AM in Los Angeles, 6PM in China, and it was time to go raiding.

He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and climbed out of his narrow bed--his mom still put his goddamned Spongebob sheets on it, so he'd drawn beards and horns and cigarettes on all the faces in permanent marker--and crossed silently to his school-bag and retrieved his laptop, then felt around on his desk for the little Bluetooth earwig, screwing it into his ear.

He made a pile of pillows against the headboard and sat cross-legged against them, lifting the lid and firing up his gamespy, looking for his buds, all the way over there in Shenzhen. As the screen filled with names and the games they could be found in, he smiled to himself. It was time to play.

Three clicks later and he was in Savage Wonderland, spawning on his clockwork horse with his sword in his hand, amid the garden of talking, hissing flowers, ready to do battle. And there were his boys, riding up alongside of him, their clockwork mounts snorting and champing for battle.

"Ni hao!" he said into his headset, in as loud a whisper as he dared. His father had a bladder problem and he got up all night long and never slept very deeply. Wei-Dong couldn't afford that. If his parents caught him at it one more time, they'd take away his computer. They'd ground him. They'd send him to a military academy where they shaved your head and you got beaten up in the shower because it built character. He'd been treated to all these threats and more, and they'd made an impression on him.

Not enough of an impression to get him to stop playing games in the middle of the night, of course.

"Ni hao!" he said again. There was laughter, distant and flanged by network churn.

"Hello, Leonard," Ping said. "You are learning your Chinese well, I see." Ping still called him Leonard, but at least he was talking in Mandarin to him now, which was a big improvement. The guys normally liked to practice their English on him, which meant he couldn't practice his Chinese on them.

"I practice," he said.

They laughed again and he knew that he'd gotten something wrong. The intonation. He was always getting it wrong. He'd say, "I'll go aggro those demons and you buff the cleric," and it would come out, "I am a bowl of noodles, I have beautiful eyelashes." But he was getting better. By the time he got to China, he'd have it nailed.

"Are we raiding?" he said.

"Yes!" Ping said, and the others agreed. "We just need to wait for the gweilo." Wei-Dong loved that he wasn't the gweilo anymore. Gweilo meant "foreign devil," and technically, he qualified. But he was one of the raiders now, and the gweilos were the paying customers who shelled out good dollars or euros or rupees or pounds to play alongside of them.

Here was the gweilo now. You could tell because he frequently steered his horse off the path and into the writhing grasp of the living plants, having to stop over and over to hack away their grasping vines. After watching this show for a minute or two, he rode out and cast a protection spell around them both, and the vines sizzled on the glowing red bubble that surrounded them both.

"Thanks," the gweilo said.

"No problem," he said.

"Woah, you speak English?" The gweilo had a strong New Jersey accent.

"A little," Wei-Dong said, with a smile. Better than you, dummy, he thought.

"OK, let's do this thing," the gweilo said, and the rest of the party caught up with them.

The gweilo had paid them to raid an instance of The Walrus's Garden, a pretty hard underwater dungeon that had some really good drops in it--ingredients for potions, some pretty good weapons, and, of course, lots of gold. There were a couple prestige items that dropped there, albeit rarely--you could get a vorpal blade and helmet if you were very lucky. The deal was, the gweilo paid them to run the instance with him, and he could just hang back and let the raiders do all the heavy lifting, but he'd come forward to deal the coup de grace to any big bosses they beat down, so he'd get the experience points. He got to keep the gold, the weapons, the prestige items, all of it--and all for the low, low cost of $75. The raiders got the cash, the gweilo got to level up fast and pick up a ton of treasure.

Wei-Dong often wondered what kind of person would pay strangers to help them get ahead in a game? The usual reason that gweilos gave for hiring raiders was that they wanted to play with their friends, and their friends were all more advanced than them. But Wei-Dong had joined games after his friends and being the noob in his little group, he'd just asked his buds to take him raiding with them, twinking him until his character was up to their level. So if this gweilo had so many pals in this game that he wanted to level up to meet them, why couldn't he get them to power-level his character up with them? Why was he paying the raiders?

Wei-Dong suspected that it was because the guy had no friends.

"Goddamn would you look at that?" It was at least the tenth time the guy had said it in ten minutes as they rode to the seashore. This time it was the tea-party, a perpetual melee that was a blur of cutlery whistling through the air, savage chairs roaming in packs, chasing luckless players who happened to aggro them, and a crazy-hard puzzle in which you had to collect and arrange the crockery just so, stunning each piece so that it wouldn't crawl away before you were done with it. It was pretty cool, Wei-Dong had to admit (he'd solved the puzzle in two days of hard play, and gotten the teapot for his trouble, which he could use to summon genies in moments of dire need). But the gweilo was acting like he'd never seen computer graphics, ever.

They rode on, chattering in Chinese on a private channel. Mostly, it was too fast for Wei-Dong to follow, but he caught the gist of it. They were talking about work--the raids they had set up for the rest of the night, the boss and his stupid rules, the money and what they'd do with it. Girls. They were always talking about girls.

At last they were at the seaside, and Wei-Dong cast the Red Queen's Air Pocket, using up the last of his oyster shells to do so. They all dismounted, flapping their gills comically as they sloshed into the water ("Goddamn," breathed the gweilo).

The Walrus's Garden was a tricky raid, because it was different every time you ran it, the terrain regenerating for each party. As the spellcaster, Wei-Dong's job was to keep the lights on and the air flowing so that no matter what came, they'd see it in time to prepare and vanquish it. First came the octopuses, rising from the bottom with a puff of sand, sailing through the water toward them. Lu, the tank, positioned himself between the party and the octopuses, and, after thrashing around and firing a couple of missiles at them to aggro them, went totally still as, one after another, they wrapped themselves around him, crushing him with their long tentacles, their faces crazed masks of pure malevolence.

Once they were all engrossed in the tank, the rest of the party swarmed them, the four of them drawing their edged weapons with a watery clang and going to work in a writhing knot. Wei-Dong kept a close eye on the tank's health and cast his healing spells as needed. As each octopus was reduced to near death, the raiders pulled away and Wei-Dong hissed into his mic, "Finish him!" The gweilo fumbled around for the first two beasts, but by the end, he was moving efficiently to dispatch them.

"That was sick," the gweilo said. "Totally badass! How'd that guy absorb all that damage, anyway?"

"He's a tank," Wei-Dong said. "Fighter class, heavy armor. Lots of buffs. And I was keeping up the healing spells the whole time."

"I'm fighter class, aren't I?"

You don't know? This guy had a lot more money than brains, that was for sure.

"I just started playing. I'm not much of a gamer. But you know, all my friends--"

I know, Wei-Dong thought. All the cool kids you knew were doing it, so you decided you had to keep up with them. You don't have any friends--yet. But you think you will, if you play. "Sure," he said. "Just stick close, you're doing fine. You'll be leveled up by breakfast time." That was another mark against the gweilo: he had the money to pay for a power-levelling session with their raiding guild, but he wasn't willing to pay the premium to do it in a decent American timezone. That was good news for the rest of the guild, sure--it saved them having to find somewhere to do the run during daylight hours in China, when the Internet cafes were filled with straights--but it meant that Wei-Dong had to be up in the middle of the night and then drag his butt around school all the next day.

Not that it wasn't worth it.

Now they were into the crags and caves of the garden, dodging the eels and giant lobsters that surged out of their holes as they passed. Wei-Dong found some more oyster shells and surreptitiously picked them up. Technically, they were the gweilo's to have first refusal over, but they were needed if he was going to keep on casting the Air Pocket, which he might have to do if they kept up at this slow pace. And the gweilo didn't notice, anyway.

"You're not in China, are you?" the gweilo asked.

"Not exactly," he said, looking out the window at the sky over Orange County, the most boring ZIP code in California.

"Where are you guys?"

"They're in China. Where I live, you can see the Disneyland fireworks show every night."

"Goddamn," the gweilo said. "Ain't you got better things to do than help some idiot level up in the middle of the night?"

"I guess I don't," he said. Mixed in behind were the guys laughing and catcalling in Chinese on their channel. He grinned to hear them.

"I mean, hell, I can see why someone in China'd do a crappy job for a rotten 75 bucks, but if you're in America, dude, you should have some pride, get some real work!"

"And why would someone in China want to do a crappy job?" The guys were listening in now. They didn't have great English, but they spoke enough to get by.

"You know, it's China. There's billions of 'em. Poor as dirt and ignorant. I don't blame 'em. You can't blame 'em. It's not their fault. But hell, once you get out of China and get to America, you should act like an American. We don't do that kind of work."

"What makes you think I 'got out of China'?"

"Didn't you?"

"I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. Their parents came here from Russia."

"I didn't know they had Chinese in Russia."

Wei-Dong laughed. "I'm not Chinese, dude."

"You aren't? Well, goddamn then, I'm sorry. I figured you were. What are you, then, the boss or something?"

Wei-Dong closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, the carpenters had swum out of the wrecked galleon before them, their T-squares and saws at the ready. They moved by building wooden boxes and gates around themselves, which acted as barricades, and they worked fast. On the land, you could burn their timbers, but that didn't work under the sea. Once they had you boxed in, they drove long nails through boards around you. It was a grisly, slow way to die.

Of course, they had the gweilo surrounded in a flash, and they all had to pile on to fight them free. Xiang summoned his familiar, a boar, and Wei-Dong spelled it its own air bubble and it set to work, tearing up the planks with its tusks. When at last the carpenters managed to kill it, it turned into a baby and floated, lifeless, to the ocean's surface, accompanied by a ghostly weeping. Savage Wonderland looked like it was all laughs, but it was really grim when you got down to it, and the puzzles were hard and the big bosses were really hard.

Speaking of bosses: they put down the last of the carpenters and as they did, a swirling current disturbed the sea-bottom, kicking up sand that settled slowly, revealing the vorpal blade and armor, encrusted in barnacles. And the gweilo gave a whoop and a holler and dove for it clumsily, as they all shouted at once for him to stop, to wait, and then--

And then he triggered the trap that they all knew was there.

And then there was trouble.

The Jabberwock did indeed have eyes of flame, and it did make a "burbling" sound, just like it said in the poem. But the Jabberwock did a lot more than give you dirty looks and belch. The Jabberwock was mean, it soaked up a lot of damage, and it gave as good as it got. It was fast, too, faster than the carpenters, so one minute you could be behind it and then it would do a barrel roll--its tail like a whip, cracking and knocking back anything that got in its way--and it would be facing you, rearing up with its spindly claws splayed, its narrow chest heaving. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch--and once they'd caught you, the Jabberwock would beat you against the hardest surface in reach, doing insane damage while you squirmed to get free. And the burbling? Not so much like burping, really: more like the sound of meat going through a grinder, a nasty sound. A bloody sound.

The first time Wei-Dong had managed to kill a Jabberwock--after a weekend's continuous play--he'd crashed hard and had nightmares about that sound.

"Nice going, jackass," Wei-Dong said as he hammered on his keyboard, trying to get all his spells up and running without getting disemboweled by the nightmare beast before them. It had Lu and was beating the everloving piss out of him, but that was OK, it was just Lu, his job was to get beaten up. Wei-Dong cast his healing spells at Lu while he swam back as fast as he could.

"Now, that's not nice," the gweilo said. "How the hell was I supposed to know--"

"You weren't. You didn't know. You don't know. That's the point. That's why you hired us. Now we're going to use up all our spells and potions fighting this thing--" he broke off for a second and hit some more keys "--and it's going to take days to get it all back, just because you couldn't wait at the back like you were supposed to."

"I don't have to take this," the gweilo said. "I'm a customer, dammit."

"You want to be a dead customer, buddy?" Wei-Dong said. He'd barely had any time to talk with his guildies on the whole raid, he'd been stuck talking to this dumb English speaker. Now the guy was mouthing off to him. It made him want to throw his computer against the wall. See what being nice gets you?

If the gweilo replied, Wei-Dong didn't hear it, because the Jabberwock was really pouring on the heat. He was out of potions and healing spells and Lu wasn't going to last much longer. Oh, crap. It had Ping in its other claw now, and it was worrying at his armor with a long fang, trying to peel him like a grape. He tabbed over to his voice-chat controller and dialled up the Chinese channel to full, tuning out the gweilo.

It was a chaos of fast, profane dialect, slangy Chinese that mixed in curse-words from Japanese comics and Indian movies. The boys were all hollering, too fast for him to get more than the sense of things.

There was Ping, though, calling for him. "Leonard! Healing!"

"I'm out!" he said, hating how this was all going. "I'm totally empty. Used it all up on Lu!"

"That's it, then," Ping said. "We're dead." They all howled with disappointment. In spite of himself, Wei-Dong grinned. "You think he'll reschedule, or are we going to have to give him his money back?"

Wei-Dong didn't know, but he had a feeling that this goober wasn't going to be very cooperative if they told him that he'd gotten up in the middle of the night for nothing. Even if it was his fault.

He sucked in some whistling breaths through his nose and tried to calm down. It was almost 2AM now. In the house around him, all was silent. A car revved its engine somewhere far away, but the night was so quiet the sound carried into his bedroom.

"OK," he said. "OK, let me do something about this."

Every game had a couple of BFGs, Big Friendly Guns (or at least some kind of Big Gun), that were nearly impossible to get and nearly impossible to resist. In Savage Wonderland, they were also nearly impossible to re-load: the rare monster blunderbuss that you had to spend months gathering parts for fired huge loads of sharpened cutlery from the Tea Party, and just collecting enough for a single load took eight or nine hours of gameplay. Impossible to get--impossible to load. Practically no one had one.

But Wei-Dong did. Ignoring the shouting in his headset, he backed off to the edge of the blunderbuss's range and began to arm it, a laborious process of dumping all that cutlery into the muzzle. "Get in front of it," he said. "In front of it, now!"

His guildies could see what he was doing now and they were whooping triumphantly, arraying their toons around its front, occupying its attention, clearing his line of fire. All he needed was one...more...second.

He pulled the trigger. There was a snap and a hiss as the powder in the pan began to burn. The sound made the Jabberwock turn its head on its long, serpentine neck. It regarded him with its burning eyes and it dropped Ping and Lu to the oceanbed. The powder in the pan flared--and died.


Ohcrapohcrapohcrap, he muttered, hammering, hammering on the re-arm sequence, his fingers a blur on the mouse-buttons. "Crapcrapcrapcrap."

The Jabberwock smiled, and made that wet meaty sound again. Burble burble, little boy, I'm coming for you. It was the sound from his nightmare, the sound of his dream of heroism dying. The sound of a waste of a day's worth of ammo and a night's worth of play. He was a dead man.

The Jabberwock did one of those whipping, rippling barrel-rolls that were its trademark. The currents buffeted him, sending him rocking from side to side. He corrected, overcorrected, corrected again, hit the re-arm button, the fire button, the re-arm button, the fire button--

The Jabberwock was facing him now. It reared back, flexing its claws, clicking its jaws together. In a second it would be on him, it would open him from crotch to throat and eat his guts, any second now--

Crash! The sound of the blunderbuss was like an explosion in a pots-and-pans drawer, a million metallic clangs and bangs as the sea was sliced by a rapidly expanding cone of lethal, screaming metal tableware.

The Jabberwock dissolved, ripped into a slowly rising mushroom of meat and claws and leathery scales, The left side of its head ripped toward him and bounced off him, settling in the sand. The water turned pink, then red, and the death-screech of the Jabberwock seemed to carom off the water and lap back over him again and again. It was a fantastic sound.

His guildies were going nuts, seven thousand miles away, screaming his name, and not Leonard, but Wei-Dong, chanting it in their Internet Cafe off Jiabin Road in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong was grinning ferociously in his bedroom, basking in it.

And when the water cleared, there again were the vorpal blade and helmet in their crust of barnacles, sitting innocently on the ocean floor. The gweilo--the gweilo, he'd forgotten all about the gweilo!--moved clumsily toward it.

"I don't think so," said Ping, in pretty good English. His toon moved so fast that the gweilo probably didn't even see him coming. Ping's sword went snicker-snack, and the gweilo's head fell to the sand, a dumb, betrayed expression on its face.

"What the--"

Wei-Dong dropped him from the chat.

"That's your treasure, brother," Ping said. "You earned it."

"But the money--"

"We can make the money tomorrow night. That was killer, dude!" It was one of Ping's favorite English phrases, and it was the highest praise in their guild. And now he had a vorpal blade and helmet. It was a good night.

They surfaced and paddled to shore and conjured up their mounts again and rode back to the guild-hall, chatting all the way, dispatching the occasional minor beast without much fuss. The guys weren't too put out at being 75 bucks' poorer than they'd expected. They were players first, business people second. And that had been fun.

And now it was 2:30 and he'd have to be up for school in four hours, and at this rate, he was going to be lying awake for a long time. "OK, I'm going to go guys," he said, in his best Chinese. They bade him farewell, and the chat channel went dead. In the sudden silence of his room, he could hear his pulse pounding in his ears. And another sound--a tread on the floor outside his door. A hand on the doorknob--


He manged to get the lid of the laptop down and his covers pulled up before the door opened, but he was still holding the machine under the sheets, and his father's glare from the doorway told him that he wasn't fooling anyone. Wordlessly, still glaring, his father crossed the room and delicately removed the earwig from Wei-Dong's ear. It glowed telltale blue, blinking, looking for the laptop that was now sleeping under Wei-Dong's artistically redecorate Spongebob sheets.

"Dad--" he began.

"Leonard, it's 2:30 in the morning. I'm not going to discuss this with you right now. But we're going to talk about it in the morning. And you're going to have a long, long time to think about it afterward." He yanked back the sheet and took the laptop out of Wei-Dong's now-limp hand.

"Dad!" he said, as his father turned and left the room, but his father gave no indication he'd heard before he pulled the bedroom door firmly and authoritatively shut.

Mala missed the birdcalls. When they'd lived in the village, there'd been birdsong every morning, breaking the perfect peace of the night to let them know that the sun was rising and the day was beginning. That was when she'd been a little girl. Here in Mumbai, there were some sickly rooster calls at dawn, but they were nearly drowned out by the neverending trafficsong: the horns, the engines revving, the calls late in the night.

In the village, there'd been the birdcalls, the silence, and peace, times when everyone wasn't always watching. In Mumbai, there was nothing but the people, the people everywhere, so that every breath you breathed tasted of the mouth that had exhaled it before you got it.

She and her mother and her brother slept together in a tiny room over Mr Kunal's plastic-recycling factory in Dharavi, the huge squatter's slum at the north end of the city. During the day, the room was used to sort plastic into a dozen tubs--the plastic coming from an endless procession of huge rice-sacks that were filled at the shipyards. The ships went to America and Europe and Asia filled with goods made in India and came back filled with garbage, plastic that the pickers of Dharavi sorted, cleaned, melted and reformed into pellets and shipped to the factories so that they could be turned into manufactured goods and shipped back to America, Europe and Asia.

When they'd arrived at Dharavi, Mala had found it terrifying: the narrow shacks growing up to blot out the sky, the dirt lanes between them with gutters running in iridescent blue and red from the dye-shops, the choking always-smell of burning plastic, the roar of motorbikes racing between the buildings. And the eyes, eyes from every window and roof, all watching them as mamaji led her and her little brother to the factory of Mr Kunal, where they were to live now and forevermore.

But barely a year had gone by and the smell had disappeared. The eyes had become friendly. She could hop from one lane to another with perfect confidence, never getting lost on her way to do the marketing or to attend the afternoon classes at the little school-room over the restaurant. The sorting work had been boring, but never hard, and there was always food, and there were other girls to play with, and mamaji had made friends who helped them out. Piece by piece, she'd become a Dharavi girl, and now she looked on the newcomers with a mixture of generosity and pity.

And the work--well, the work had gotten a lot better, just lately.

It started when she was in the games-cafe with Yasmin, stealing an hour after lessons to spend a few Rupees of the money she'd saved from her pay-packet (almost all of it went to the family, of course, but mamaji sometimes let her keep some back and advised her to spend it on a treat at the cornershop). Yasmin had never played Zombie Mecha, but of course they'd both seen the movies at the little filmi house on the road that separated the Muslim and the Hindu sections of Dharavi. Mala loved Zombie Mecha, and she was good at it, too. She preferred the PvP servers where players could hunt other players, trying to topple their giant mecha-suits so that the zombies around them could swarm over it, crack open its cockpit cowl and feast on the av within.

Most of the girls at the game cafe came in and played little games with cute animals and trading for hearts and jewels. But for Mala, the action was in the awesome carnage of the multiplayer war games. It only took a few minutes to get Yasmin through the basics of piloting her little squadron and then she could get down to tactics.

That was it, that was what none of the other players seemed to understand: tactics were everything. They treated the game like it was a random chaos of screeching rockets and explosions, a confusion to be waded into and survived, as best as you could.

But for Mala, the confusion was something that happened to other people. For Mala, the explosions and camera-shake and the screech of the zombies were just minor details, to be noted among the Big Picture, the armies arrayed on the battlefield in her mind. On that battlefield, the massed forces took on a density and a color that showed where their strengths and weaknesses were, how they were joined to each other and how pushing one this one, over here, would topple that one over there. You could face down your enemies head on, rockets against rockets, guns against guns, and then the winner would be the luckier one, or the one with the most ammo, or the one with the best shields.

But if you were smart, you didn't have to be lucky, or tougher. Mala liked to lob rockets and grenades over the opposing armies, to their left and right, creating box-canyons of rubble and debris that blocked their escape. Meanwhile, a few of her harriers would be off in the weeds aggroing huge herds of zombies, getting them really mad, gathering them up until they were like locusts, blotting out the ground in all directions, leading them ever closer to that box canyon.

Just before they'd come into view, her frontal force would peel off, running away in a seeming act of cowardice. Her enemies would be buoyed up by false confidence and give chase--until they saw the harriers coming straight for them, with an unstoppable, torrential pestilence of zombies hot on their heels. Most times, they were too shocked to do anything, not even fire at the harriers as they ran straight for their lines and through them, into the one escape left behind in the box-canyon, blowing the crack shut as they left. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the zombies to overwhelm and devour your opponents, while you snickered and ate a sweet and drank a little tea from the urn by the cashier's counter. The sounds of the zombies rending the armies of her enemies and gnawing their bones was particularly satisfying.

Yasmin had been distracted by the zombies, the disgusting entrails, the shining rockets. But she'd seen, oh yes, she'd seen how Mala's strategies were able to demolish much larger opposing armies and she got over her squeamishness.

And so on they played, drawing an audience: first the hooting derisive boys (who fell silent when they watched the armies fall before her, and who started to call her "General Robotwalla" without even a hint of mockery), and then the girls, shy at first, peeking over the boys' shoulders, then shoving forward and cheering and beating their fists on the walls and stamping their feet for each dramatic victory.

It wasn't cheap, though. Mala's carefully hoarded store of Rupees shrank, buffered somewhat by a few coins from other players who paid her a little here and there to teach them how to really play. She knew she could have borrowed the money, or let some boy spend it on her--there was already fierce competition for the right to go over the road to the drinkswalla and buy her a masala Coke, a fizzing, foaming spicy explosion of Coke and masala spice and crushed ice that soothed the rawness at the back of her throat that had been her constant companion since they'd come to Dharavi.

But nice girls from the village didn't let boys buy them things. Boys wanted something in return. She knew that, knew it from the movies and from the life around her. She knew what happened to girls who let boys take care of their needs. There was always a reckoning.

When the strange man first approached her, she thought about nice girls and boys and what they expected, and she wouldn't talk to him or meet his eye. She didn't know what he wanted, but he wasn't going to get it from her. So when he got up from his chair by the cashier as she came into the cafe, rose and crossed to intercept her with his smart linen suit and good shoes and short, neatly oiled hair, and small moustache, she'd stepped around him, stepped past him, pretended she didn't hear him say, "Excuse me, miss," and "Miss? Miss? Please, just a moment of your time."

But Mrs Dibyendu, the owner of the cafe, shouted at her, "Mala, you listen to this man, you listen to what he has to say to you. You don't be rude in my shop, no you don't!" And because Mrs Dibyendu was also from a village, and because her mother had said that Mala could play games but only in Mrs Dibyendu's cafe, Mrs Dibyendu being the sort of person you could trust not to allow improper doings, or drugs, or violence, or criminality, Mala stopped and turned to the man, silent, expecting.

"Ah," he said. "Thank you." He nodded to Mrs Dibyendu. "Thank you." He turned back to her, and to the army of boys and girls who'd gathered around her, her army, the ones who called her General Robotwallah and meant it.

"I hear that you are a very good player," he said. Mala waggled her chin back and forth, half-closing her eyes, letting her chin say, Yes, I'm a good player, and I'm good enough that I don't need to boast about it.

"Is she a good player?"

Mala turned to her army,

who had the discipline to remain silent until she gave them the nod. She waggled her chin at them: go on.

And they erupted in an enthused babble, extolling the virtues of their General Robotwallah, the epic battles they'd fought and won against impossible odds.

"I have some work for good players."

Mala had heard rumors of this. "You represent a league?"

The man smiled a little smile and shook his head. He smelled of citrusy cologne and betel, a sweet combination of smells she'd never smelled before. "No, not a league. You know that in the game, there are players who don't play for fun? Players who play to make money?"

"The kind of money you're offering to us?"

His chin waggled and he chuckled. "No, not exactly. There are players who play to build up game-money, which they sell on to other players who are too lazy to do the playing for themselves."

Mala thought about this for a moment. The containers went out of India filled with goods and came back filled with garbage for Dharavi. Somewhere out there, in the America of the filmi shows, there was a world of people with unimaginable wealth. "We'll do it," she said. "I've already got more credits than I can spend. How much do they pay for them?"

Again, the chuckle. "Actually," he said, then stopped. Her army was absolutely silent now, hanging on his every word. From the machines came the soft crashing of the wars, taking place in the world inside the network, all day and all night long. "Actually, that's not exactly it. We want you and your friends to destroy them, kill their avs, take their fortunes."

Mala thought for another instant, puzzled. Who would want to kill these other players? "You're a rival?"

The man waggled his chin. Maybe yes, maybe no.

She thought some more. "You work for the game!" she said. "You work for the game and you don't want--"

"Who I work for isn't important," the man said, holding up his fingers. He wore a wedding ring on one hand, and two gold rings on the other. He was missing the top joints on three of his fingers, she saw. That was common in the village, where farmers were always getting caught in the machines. Here was a man from a village, a man who'd come to Mumbai and become a man in a neat suit with a neat mustache and gold rings glinting on what remained of his fingers. Here was the reason her mother had brought them to Dharavi, the reason for the sore throat and the burning eyes and the endless work over the plastic-sorting tubs.

"What's important is that we would pay you and your friends--"

"My army," she said, interrupting him without thinking. For a moment his eyes flashed dangerously and she sensed that he was about to slap her, but she stood her ground. She'd been slapped plenty before. He snorted once through his nose, then went on.

"Yes, Mala, your army. We would pay you to destroy these players. You'd be told what sort of mecha they were piloting, what their player-names were, and you'd have to root them out and destroy them. You'd keep all their wealth, and you'd get Rupees, too."

"How much?"

He made a pained expression, like he had a little gas. "Perhaps we should discuss that in private, later? With your mother present?"

Mala noticed that he didn't say, "Your parents," but rather, "Your mother." Mrs Dibyendu and he had been talking, then. He knew about Mala, and she didn't know about him. She was just a girl from the village, after all, and this was the world, where she was still trying to understand it all. She was a general, but she was also a girl from the village. General Girl From the Village.

So he'd come that night to Mr Kunal's factory, and Mala's mother had fed him thali and papadams from the women's papadam collective, and they'd boiled chai in the electric kettle and the man had pretended that his fine clothes and gold belonged here, and had squatted back on his heels like a man in the village, his hairy ankles peeking out over his socks. No one Mala knew wore socks.

"Mr Banerjee," mamaji said, "I don't understand this, but I know Mrs Dibyendu. If she says you can be trusted..." She trailed off, because really, she didn't know Mrs Dibyendu. In Dharavi, there were many hazards for a young girl. Mamaji would fret over them endlessly while she brushed out Mala's hair at night, all the ways a girl could find herself ruined or hurt here. But the money.

"A lakh of rupees every month," he said. "Plus a bonus. Of course, she'll have to pay her 'army'--" he'd given Mala a little chin waggle at that, see, I remember "-- out of that. But how much would be up to her."

"These children wouldn't have any money if it wasn't for my Mala!" mamaji said, affronted at their imaginary grasping hands. "They're only playing a game! They should be glad just to play with her!" Mamaji had been furious when she discovered that Mala had been playing at the cafe all these afternoons. She thought that Mala only played once in a while, not with every rupee and moment she had spare. But when the man--Mr Banerjee--had mentioned her talent and the money it could earn for the family, suddenly mamaji had become her daughter's business manager.

Mala saw that Mr Banerjee had known this would happen and wondered what else Mrs Dibyendu had told him about their family.

"Mamaji," she said, quietly, keeping her eyes down in the way they did in the village. "They're my army, and they need paying if they play well. Otherwise they won't be my army for long."

Mamaji looked hard at her. Beside them, Mala's little brother Gopal took advantage of their distraction to sneak the last bit of eggplant off Mala's plate. Mala noticed, but pretended she hadn't, and concentrated on keeping her eyes down.

Mamaji said, "Now, Mala, I know you want to be good to your friends, but you have to think of your family first. We will find a fair way to compensate them--maybe we could prepare a weekly feast for them here, using some of the money. I'm sure they could all use a good meal."

Mala didn't like to disagree with her mother, and she'd never done so in front of strangers, but--

But this was her army, and she was their general. She knew what made them tick, and they'd heard Mr Banerjee announce that she would be paid in cash for their services. They believed in fairness. They wouldn't work for food while she worked for a lakh (a lakh--100,000 rupees! The whole family lived on 200 rupees a day!) of cash.

"Mamaji," she said, "it wouldn't be right or fair." It occurred to Mala that Mr Banerjee had mentioned the money in front of the army. He could have been more discreet. Perhaps it was deliberate. "And they'd know it. I can't earn this money for the family on my own, Mamaji."

Her mother closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, a sign that she was trying to keep hold of her temper. If Mr Banerjee hadn't been present, Mala was sure she would have gotten a proper beating, the kind she'd gotten from her father before he left them, when she was a naughty little girl in the village. But if Mr Banerjee wasn't here, she wouldn't have to talk back to her mother, either.

"I'm sorry for this, Mr Banerjee," Mamaji said, not looking at Mala. "Girls of this age, they become rebellious--impossible."

Mala thought about a future in which instead of being General Robotwallah, she had to devote her life to begging and bullying her army into playing with her so that she could keep all the money they made for her family, while their families went hungry and their mothers demanded that they come home straight from school. When Mr Banerjee mentioned his gigantic sum, it had conjured up a vision of untold wealth, a real house, lovely clothes for all of them, Mamaji free to spend her afternoons cooking for the family and resting out of the heat, a life away from Dharavi and the smoke and the stinging eyes and sore throats.

"I think your little girl is right," Mr Banerjee said, with quiet authority, and Mala's entire family stared at him, speechless. An adult, taking Mala's side over her mother? "She is a very good leader, from what I can see. If she says her people need paying, I believe that she is correct." He wiped at his mouth with a handkerchief. "With all due respect, of course. I wouldn't dream of telling you how to raise your children, of course."

"Of course..." Mamaji said, as if in a dream. Her eyes were downcast, her shoulders slumped. To be spoken to this way, in her own home, by a stranger, in front of her children! Mala felt terrible. Her poor mother. And it was all Mr Banerjee's fault: he'd mentioned the money in front of her army, and then he'd brought her mother to this point--

"I will find a way to get them to fight without payment, Mamaji--" But she was cut short by her mother's hand, coming up, palm out to her.

"Quiet, daughter," she said. "If this man, this gentleman, says you know what you're doing, well, then I can't contradict him, can I? I'm just a simple woman from the village. I don't understand these things. You must do what this gentleman says, of course."

Mr Banerjee stood and smoothed his suit back into place with the palms of his hands. Mala saw that he'd gotten some chana on his shirt and lapel, and that made her feel better somehow, like he was a mortal and not some terrible force of nature who'd come to destroy their little lives.

He made a little namaste at Mamaji, hands pressed together at his chest, a small hint of a bow. "Good night, Mrs Vajpayee. That was a lovely supper. Thank you." he said. "Good night, General Robotwallah. I will come to the cafe tomorrow at three o'clock to talk more about your missions. Good night, Gopal," he said, and her brother looked up at him, guiltily, eggplant still poking out of the corner of his mouth.

Mala thought that Mamaji might slap her once the man had left, but they all went to bed together without another word, and Mala snuggled up to her mother the same as she did every night, stroking her long hair. It had been shining and black when they left the village, but a year later, it was shot through with grey and it felt wiry. Mamaji's hand caught hers and stilled it, the callouses on her fingers rough.

"Sleep, daughter," she murmured. "You have an important job, now. You need your sleep."

The next morning, they avoided one another's eyes, and things were hard for a week, until she brought home her first pay-packet, folded carefully in the sole of her shoe. Her army had carved through the enemy forces like the butcher's cleaver parting heads from chickens. There had been a large bonus in their pay-packet, and even after she'd paid Mrs Dibyendu and bought everyone masala Coke at the Hotel Hajj next door, and paid the army their wages, there was almost 2,000 rupees left, and she took Mamaji into the smallest sorting room in the loft of the factory, up the ladder. Mamaji's eyes lit up when she saw the money, and she'd kissed Mala on the forehead and taken her in the longest, fiercest hug of their lives together.

And now it was all wonderful between them. Mamaji had begun to look for a place for them further towards the middle of Dharavi, the old part where the tin and scrap buildings had been gradually replaced with brick ones, where the potters' kilns smoked a clean woodsmoke instead of the dirty, scratchy plastic smoke near Mr Kunal's factory. Mala had new school-clothes, new shoes, and so did Gopal, and Mamaji had new brushes for her hair and a new sari that she wore after her work-day was through, looking pretty and young, the way Mala remembered her from the village.

And the battles were glorious.

She entered the cafe out of the melting, dusty sun of late day and stood in the doorway. Her army was already assembled, practicing on their machines, passing gupshup in the shadows of the dark, noisy room, or making wet eyes at one another through the dim. She barely had time to grin and then hide the grin before they noticed her and climbed to their feet, standing straight and proud, saluting her.

She didn't know which one of them had begun the saluting business. It had started as a joke, but now it was serious. They vibrated at attention, all eyes on her. They had on better clothes, they looked well-fed. General Robotwallah was leading her army to victory and prosperity.

"Let's play," she said. In her pocket, her handphone had the latest message from Mr Banerjee with the location of the day's target. Yasmin was at her usual place, at Mala's right hand, and at her left sat Fulmala, who had a bad limp from a leg that she'd broken and that hadn't healed right. But Fulmala was smart and fast, and she grasped the tactics better than anyone in the cafe except Mala herself. And Yasmin, well, Yasmin could make the boys behave, which was a major accomplishment, since left to their own they liked to squabble and one-up each other, in a reckless spiral that always ended badly. But Yasmin could talk to them in a way that was stern like an older sister, and they'd fall into line.

Mala had her army, her lieutenants, and her mission. She had her machine, the fastest one in the cafe, with a bigger monitor than any of the others, and she was ready to go to war.

She touched up her displays, rolled her head from side to side, and led her army to battle again.

Copyright © 2010 by Cory Doctorow


For the Win

- Thomcat


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